Rakie Ayola: ‘I seem to be able to breathe life into all this grief and loss’

The Bafta-winning actor is returning to The Pact as a different character. It’s an unusual move, but, she says, having connected with a group of performers of colour who have her back, she’s learned to dream bigger

Thanks to the internet, Rakie Ayola can pinpoint the exact moment that she knew she wanted a career in showbusiness: 8.15pm on 19 December 1976. That was when, as confirmed by the BBC listings archive, Hello Dolly!, starring Barbra Streisand, was first broadcast in the UK, watched by a viewing audience that included an eight-year-old Ayola.

“When I saw this woman singing and dancing in a big hat, I thought: ‘I want to do what she is doing – sing and dance in the street and for it to be OK,’” Ayola says. She has loved Streisand ever since, even writing to Jim’ll Fix It asking Jimmy Savile to arrange a meeting. “I got no response, which is probably a good thing.”

After her secondary school drama teacher told Ayola’s adoptive mother “one hour a week of drama is not enough for this child”, mother and daughter would drive to Orbit youth theatre in Cardiff every Saturday. Cardiff would become the the genesis and spiritual home of Ayola’s career. At the age of 13, she set up a theatre company, the Talent Amateur Dramatic Society, with a few friends. A local reverend, Bob Morgan, allowed them to make use of his church hall for rehearsals. “His daughter, Eluned Morgan, now Baroness Ely, the Welsh health minister, reminded me when we met recently that I was never out of that church. It was my second home!”

Intense focus … Rakie Ayola and Jordan Wilks in a scene from the forthcoming series of The Pact.
Intense focus … Rakie Ayola and Jordan Wilks in a scene from the forthcoming series of The Pact. Photograph: Photographer: Simon Ridgway/BBC/Simon Ridgway

In her later years at school, when asked what she wanted to do for a living, she would say: “I want to act.” Her careers officer suggested she consider being a drama teacher instead. But by this time, she had been involved in the South Glamorgan youth theatre and other local amateur dramatic companies, and while she wasn’t blind to the fact she was the only young Black actor in these spaces, she didn’t think that she should be limited in ambition due to skin colour. It was at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama that Ayola would find what she calls her “dramatic bone”. She arrived thinking she was on the path for musicals but found that, although she could sing well, she did not have the voice of her idol, Streisand. “But I had this dramatic vein, so leaned into that.”

This dramatic vein pulses in her role in the upcoming second series of The Pact. The BBC drama sees Ayola, who has lived in London since the 1990s, return to Wales, where she was brought up on a council estate in Cardiff by her Sierra Leonean birth mother’s cousin and his Welsh wife. To her, they were her parents, despite “no paperwork to say why I was in their care”.

Shooting took place in the area between Cardiff and Port Talbot (“You’re going west along beautiful coastline that rarely gets filmed. I’m not sure why because it’s so gorgeous.”) This is Ayola’s second outing in the series, having played an entirely different character, a detective investigating the death of a brewery manager, in the first season. This time she is taking the lead role of Christine, a social worker who has recently lost a child. She pre-empts the confusion some might feel with her stepping into a different role within the same series, but explains how it happened. “I really got on with the writer of The Pact, Pete McTighe: we’d been doing video calls, talking about working together. And then he came back with The Pact series two and said we want you to play the lead and have an exec producer role. Helen and Christine have nothing in common, but what the two series have in common is a pact at the heart of them.”

Ayola is tight-lipped on the plot of the second series, not even revealing the manner of Christine’s son’s death. She says it occurred within two years of the events shown, “so we’re still very raw”, and that Christine is dealing with her adult children – one of whom is due to be married – and so there’s anticipation of festivities. She found Christine to be a “complicated” character who subverts representations of harsh matriarchal figures, praising McTighe’s restrained writing, “She’s manipulative and controlling, but it’s so quiet. He didn’t write this boss lady … There’s a quietness to her control and I found that compelling. You suddenly realise you’re doing exactly the thing they asked of you even though you didn’t plan to. She’s one of those women. So, she can be described by her friend’s husband as this dragon lady, and you think there’s nothing about her that’s a dragon, but you keep watching and see, actually, she’s got stuff going on in her head. That was really interesting to play.”

With her Bafta for best supporting actress for BBC One’s Anthony.
With her Bafta for best supporting actress for BBC One’s Anthony. Photograph: Thomas Alexander/Rex/Shutterstock for Bafta

This is not Ayola’s first time playing a mother in the aftermath of grief: her role as Gee Walker in BBC One’s Anthony won her the Bafta for best supporting actress in 2021. Ayola attributes her ability to carry these roles with such emotional high stakes, whether fictional or biographical, to the dramatic vein she found at drama school: “I don’t know why, I seem to be able to breathe life into these women who’ve got this tragic story, all this grief and loss.” She also refers to the death of her adoptive mother, Olive, when she was 14, as a moment that has perhaps allowed her to “access” those depths of grief.

This industry has never been easy for Ayola; her transition from Cardiff to London had in some ways mired her career. In the summer of 1992, having moved to Elephant and Castle, she remembers auditioning for Beeban Kidron’s drama Great Moments in Aviation, which she starred in alongside John Hurt, Jonathan Pryce and Vanessa Redgrave. “That was a six-week shoot and was gonna change my life, but it didn’t,” she explains. She remembers Harvey Weinstein staring at her on set, though “not lasciviously. I learned later that he really didn’t want me to get the job. He felt I was too dark.” The film was not released for two years, then went straight to TV in the UK and straight to DVD in the US. On a trip to New York, she found the DVD in a shop. “There were pictures of all the big stars, and you’re not even on the back, even though the blurb couldn’t tell the story without the story of the character you were playing. But because you’re the dark-skinned woman, there’s no actual picture of you. I just burst into tears.”

But in her 50s, Ayola has found a confidence that she did not have in her 20s. Having formed a support group of Black female actors over the years, she now feels able to imagine more. The actor Sharon Duncan-Brewster had brought together Ayola, Noma Dumezweni, Michelle Greenidge, Michele Austin and Martina Laird, among other Black female actors and told them: “This business is about to decide it doesn’t need us any more. We need to stay relevant and creative, so let’s take care of each other.”

And Ayola speaks of the ascendancy of each of the women present in that conversation. “What’s happened to us all, professionally and creatively, since, is not at all what was meant to happen,” she says. “If you haven’t been nominated for a Bafta before 52 you’re not meant to be nominated and take the Bafta home. Normally when you’re nominated at 52, you were nominated also at 22 and 32. If you’re like Sharon, front and centre of a film like Dune, it’s not [usually] the first time in your 50s, as a Black British woman.”

Winning her own Bafta is a moment Ayola still hasn’t quite comprehended. She remembers attending those awards, the room sparse due to Covid restrictions, and looking around to see her competitors including Helena Bonham Carter and Sophie Okonedo, expecting that they would win, being shocked when her name was called and taking a while to move from her seat. When she took the award and went offstage, she crouched on the floor and sobbed, thinking about her mother, who had died at the age she now was. “The little girl in me went: ‘You’ve actually been dreaming about this for ever.’”

The Pact airs later this month on BBC One.


Jason Okundaye

The GuardianTramp

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