David Harewood: ‘I did my first interviews as Lawrence on my knees’

Westworld star David Harewood, 52, chats about trying to carve out a career in New York and his new film Le Week-End.

What did it feel like to be considered the go-to guy for drama in a cast that included Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Huston?

Even as far back as 1999, before I ever had a big TV show, I was the ‘go-to guy’ for drama. That’s how hard it was – when you’re the go-to guy for drama, you have to deliver. I still got the same question for years: ‘Are you a drama guy?’ We’re known for A-list drama – for every season of Mad Men, House of Cards or Homeland, there’s 10 new shows coming out. This year alone, there are over 20 drama series being watched by 150 million people in the US. The volume of drama making it to air has just exploded. I was at New York’s premiere for Le Week-End, which my character, Roger, stars in. And the festival was growing by leaps and bounds, growing every year; in 2015 it had one or two dramatic series. And here, we’re about to have two or three critically acclaimed dramas on UK screens. So much has changed in 14 years!

Was it hard to cast Le Week-End?

People are aware of me, but I wasn’t their first choice. My friend John Turturro, who’s my co-star in Le Week-End, got to that same point. His show, Big Time Adolescence, got picked up – we’re on the same side of town – but he wasn’t famous enough, and the networks and the studios weren’t interested. In America, people don’t think of African-Americans as dramatic actors. And that’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with. And it continues today: they don’t think of British actors as dramatic actors. I go to casting sessions for Westworld, and I am the only British actor in a room that’s got 16 or 17 actors. It’s like: ‘Can we get something to me?’ Or it’s: ‘There’s no room for you in this one.’ But it’s incredibly liberating because then you do some really amazing work. People don’t tell me about something until I come to the door. They tell me a lot about their characters when I’m trying to work on them in the books. But in TV, they think: ‘All we want is someone that looks like [my character] Lawrence, can speak like [my character] Arnold, and has an accent like [my character].’ It’s hard to break through.

Did your own character struggle with identity – has anyone asked you for a picture?

Yeah! I was driving into Toronto one time, and a cop pulled me over and asked for a picture. It’s nice to know there’s someone else with the same issues, but it’s hard not to be hyper-aware about it.

Your wife is American – so was it tough when she went through a breakdown in America?

Very tough. The whole thing was her life. I’d be at home, working out and doing a couple of hours of press and people would say: ‘Is he still going through that?’ Then it starts to spiral downwards. People would start to make assumptions about the person, but she’s done amazing things to help other people deal with mental health issues. In The Hunger Games, I had a first-time role in a film – I was playing a mentor for Jennifer Lawrence, and we decided to have a special training session. We played a charity game of basketball, and it was the first time I saw her in person. We’re talking about games that she’d played as a child. And people were like: ‘She must be comfortable in that space,’ and I was like: ‘What do you mean?’ Because she was so nervous. Then she saw me as a mentor and I became her friend. The worst thing that could happen is that somebody will cut her off from her family. And that’s when she actually dies. They’ll never give her her life back.

Le Week-End is in cinemas now.

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