At the age of 10, Alfred Enoch was cast as Gryffindor student Dean Thomas in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While it wasn’t the most prominent role, Thomas was one of the few black or Asian characters in the third-highest-grossing film series ever – and this, allied with his boyish good looks, has lent Enoch cult status among Potterheads. “Not to downplay it,” says Enoch, “but I wasn’t an integral character. I’ve expressed that to people and they still say, ‘Yeah, but I saw you and you looked like me.’”
Enoch was cast after catching the Potter team’s eye during a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. However, he’d earlier declined the chance to audition when producers held an open call at his school. “I didn’t go for Harry Potter in the beginning because I couldn’t think of any black characters,” he says.
Speaking via video link from a bare hotel room in London’s West End, Enoch, now 32, makes for easy company. In the decade since the last Potter film was released, he has graduated from the University of Oxford and set about an enviable career in theatre and TV, including a leading role in ABC’s hit legal thriller How to Get Away with Murder. Close shaven and with his hair recently trimmed, Enoch looks pubescent compared with Raych, the rugged future-spy he plays in the forthcoming Apple TV+ series Foundation.
Created by David S Goyer (writer of the Blade and Dark Knight film trilogies) and based on the novels by Isaac Asimov, Foundation is a big-budget sci-fi epic. The series sees a band of exiles led by genius mathematician Hari Seldon, played by Jared Harris, attempt to preserve civilisation amid the decline of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire. “David Goyer described it as a chess game played over thousands of years,” says Enoch. “And that’s one of the challenges with it, there’s so much material. He’s done immensely well to fashion it into something with narrative coherence that still has that epic scale.”
Enoch plays Seldon’s adopted son and aide-de-camp, meaning he got to do plenty of work opposite Harris who, as in Chernobyl, adeptly plays the man who knows too much. “He’s brilliant, and the stuff between Raych and Hari is very meaty,” says Enoch. “It was great to see his ability to realise a character when you’re in fantastic locations and on massive sets. He’s sort of been there and done that.”
Enoch’s actor father, William Russell, was 64 when he was born. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to be an actor too. “I would watch films he’d done,” he says – Russell had supporting roles in spy thriller The Man Who Never Was and the Steve McQueen classic The Great Escape – “and he was in the first play I remember seeing. I stood among the groundlings at the Globe, watching my dad play the King of France in Henry V with Mark Rylance as Henry.” Enoch acknowledges that growing up with a father on stage placed him in a privileged position. Being an actor, he says, “always felt possible … I felt I had the permission to have that goal. I love talking to other actors about how they got into it and I’m aware that not everyone had such a clear path.”
He has spent most of the pandemic living in London with his girlfriend, but his career frequently takes him to the US and his highest profile roles post-Potter, including Raych in Foundation, have been American-accented. “I would love it if the prominent train of thought wasn’t, ‘To get work as a black actor, you just have to learn an American accent and be in a civil rights movie.’ We have stories to tell here in Britain – and with shows like Small Axe, it seems as if they’re starting to get told.”
Being cast as Wes Gibbins in How to Get Away with Murder “changed my life”, says Enoch. “I turned up in the States with no real idea of what I was dealing with. We were all sitting around in Philadelphia shooting the pilot and I was like, ‘Goodness, what if this happens?’ And a couple of the other actors were like, ‘Viola Davis is playing the lead, it’s a Shonda Rhimes show, obviously we’re getting picked up.’”
“Going to the states removed me from a context where I had that sense of belonging,” he says. “I gained a different perspective, which informed the way I view myself coming back to the UK. I wouldn’t be comfortable persisting in that kind of blissful ignorance any more.
“That’s also slightly the product of my privilege,” he quickly adds. “If you’re comfortable, everything’s good right? But also I came out of the boom Blair years and frankly, me and a lot of my friends weren’t very political. I remember, for example, there was a tuition fee march in London. I was a student at the time and I didn’t go. I was busy playing football or whatever I was doing at uni. Now that kind of amazes me.”
Despite, or perhaps because of his Westminster and Oxbridge education, he is sympathetic to calls for acting to become more socially diverse, too. “Part of growing up is you realise: ‘My experience isn’t everyone’s, and actually I’ve had it really good. Why shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to follow a career in this industry?”
Enoch is currently playing Romeo at the Globe opposite Rebekah Murrell amid post-pandemic fears that the arts, and West End theatre especially, are regressing into an elite pastime. “Theatre is massively important to me,” says Enoch, a patron of the cultural education charity Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation, which provides resources and support to schools to put on their own Shakespeare plays in professional theatres. “Shakespeare is held up as the pinnacle of English literature but it can feel so alienating and distant to people. The hope is to give them a completely different relationship with it. If people discover they want to be actors or work in theatre, wonderful.”
• Foundation premieres on Apple TV+ on 24 September.