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ényí Okoronkwo

Ényì Okoronkwo on Renegade Nell: ‘I am amazing at riding horses’

Culture

Ényì Okoronkwo is an actor with serious talent. First up is the enormously fun Renegade Nell, but superstardom surely lies ahead

Renegade Nell is something of a miracle – an 18th Century highwayman fantasy-comedy-kung-fu-satirical-drama really shouldn’t work. And yet it does. Written by Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright, it comes with pedigree behind it – and a good deal of Disney+ cash if the lavish sets are anything to go by – yet this is kind of historical setting with contemporary attitudes and dialogue has resulted in a few misfires lately (no names mentioned, but that other highwayman show) bar the outstanding The Great.

Happily though, Renegade Nell is a delight, with fun action, plenty of laughs and an ease in twisting gender conventions and plot expectations. The big thing that carries it is the performances from its young cast, led by Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland as Nell – you have the sense that every one of them is going to go onto big things.

One of the standouts is Ényì Okoronkwo, who plays footman Rasselas. The character works for the dastardly Blancheford family but is something of a moral centre of the show and becomes part of the highwayman crew. Ényì brings heart and genuine charisma to Rasselas, and a winning playfulness – his first dialogue scene is with a horse, where he takes both parts.

This rising star from London has already made a mark on stage after graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama, but as we discover, he’s far from your usual luvvie actor, a man given to quote legendary social theorist Mark Fisher and unashamedly looking at himself as an artist, including being an accomplished poet. He’s also very funny.

Ényì first wanted to become an actor after seeing Adrian Lester on film – amazingly, Lester is actually in Renegade Nell too, leading to perhaps the ultimate fan boy experience for Ényì. Enjoy our chat with a young man with a future of awards, fame, fortune, social change, Nobel Prizes, the works…

Hi Ényì, before we get to the show, can you tell us about your poetry?

A friend of mine did a poetry slam and she encouraged me to do it one year. You have to do a lot of hurdles and heats but I ended up on the main stage. One of the judges was Caleb Femi, who is an incredible artist and filmmaker, and he said to me, “you should keep doing this.” He said it casually but I really love his work so it meant a lot to me. That was 9 years ago.

It must be a good thing to do to keep yourself sane in the acting game?

That’s one of the things being an actor, there’ a creative power imbalance: you only get to do your work when someone lets you. If you have something else that is creative that is completely in your power, then you hold onto your voice as an artist and you don’t lose touch with that.

It’s really good when things are dry. And lot of the time you’re dancing for your dinner – so when people say do jumping jacks, it’s like, OK how rigorously do I need to do that. It’s a part of the industry, it’s part of capitalism, but you also need to be nurturing your voice. Or I need to be doing that. It’s really important for me.

How did you find working on Renegade Nell?

It’s the most I’ve ever worked on a job. It was nine months of filming, and the fun you see on the screen is the fun we had. It is a gift to work with people who are that fun for that long. It was best job.

I had lots of fun with Rasselas. I had lots of space with him, thanks to the directors and Sally’s writing and the other writers as well.

We meet him as a footman for the Blanchefords. He was enslaved as a youngster by Lord Blancheford, and he’s a daring guy, he’s loyal, he has a very strong sense of justice due to what he’s been through and just through connecting and loving people. He’s got a lot of love. He’s very energetic and it suits me down to the ground.

It does feel like a show that’s going to be a snapshot of a crop of young actors who go onto big things…

You can never tell. It’s funny now its coming out, I really did do the thing where I was focused on my own job so it feels surreal that the show is real and will be out this week. Beyond that, I have no idea, I hope you’re right.

Was it all shot on location?

All over England. And Ealing studios. The effort the crew went to, the recreations of the 18th century villages and towns, it’s incredible. To do that in Oxfordshire was hard but it was hard for everyone else, not for me! I’d turn up, be like ‘this is cool’ and they’d say ‘I’ve been here for 24 hours’.

You also get to work with animals. How were the horses?

I can’t lie, I had never been close to a horse. And I refuse to be humble about how good I am at riding horses. I did not know it was a skill I have. I was going around the set saying, ‘I’m amazing at riding horses’. I was so shocked.

These horses were the same ones that did Napoleon. They were doing war scenes the week before, and are able to fall over and get back up again. It really puts your talent into perspective.

They defecate when they want, I’ll say that. They don’t care if you’re in the middle of the most emotional scene. And I respect that.

Ényì Okoronkwo

How was it working with the cast, like Louisa?

I was fully obsessed with Derry Girls so when I first met with Louisa for a chemistry test with Bo Bragason, who plays’s Nell’s sister Roxy, I was fully starstruck. Which is embarrassing when you’re with your peers. I was like, ‘I love you, you’re amazing.’

She was so hard working. I was working sporadically over nine months, she was in every single day. Fighting riding horses, acting as well as you see. It is a gargantuan effort she put into the show.

To be honest I was most looking forward to working with Adrian Lester who was the reason that I became an actor. Because I watched him in Hustle and was like, ‘Oh, there’s a black lead in a show.’ That did something for me. My parents are perplexed because they remember me pointing to Adrian Lester and going ‘I want to do that’, and they were like, ‘Er, do you want to be an accountant, a lawyer…’ I said, ‘No I want to do what this Adrian Lester is doing.’ And now I’m in a thing with him, they’re absolutely baffled. And so am I.

What was it like meeting him?

It’s quite funny, because I told people all this and specifically Ben Taylor, the director of the first block. And I think he arranged deliberately to have a day where our scenes kind of merged. And it was the most nerve wracking day of my life. I had to play it cool because you can’t be bringing that energy when you’re about to shoot with someone.

We spoke about a lot of things. He taught me how to shave without getting razor bumps, because I have to shave all the time, and shaving constantly affects black hair differently. And I was there listening to him talk about shaving going, ‘this is so surreal’. I had a great time meeting him.

When you first heard he was in it too were you freaked out?

Yeah. Really embarrassingly, my old Facebook name was my name but in the middle I had Adrian Lester. So it was Ényì Adrian Lester Okoronkwo. It didn’t really make sense, just to have another person’s name in there.

There’s people who have known me since then who are like, ‘Wait, you’re doing something with Adrian? That’s bizarre.’ And then they’d say, ‘Did you tell him that your name used to be Adrian Lester on Facebook’ and I say, ‘No. No, because I quite like his respect’.

I was very young in my defence. 28.

What were you early acting days like? Was there any lineage of acting in your family?

No absolutely not. My dad came here for university. It took a village to get my dad here and when he was at uni he worked three jobs and listened to the recordings of lectures – my mum joined him later. I’m first generation, there’s no Western lineage here at all, and the lineage before… my dad was born just as Nigeria was becoming independent, so it all starts with the Biafran war.

But it’s the classic loving immigrant family that want to support you – and they have supported me so deeply  and generously – but also have that fear of you choosing a precarious path that you can do all your studying for and it doesn’t mean anything.

I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama, and I was living at home and my mum would ask, ‘when are your exams?’ And I’d be like, ‘no exams!’ and her face – she’s always so supportive but there would be that loving fear.

So it was a gamble that my whole family supported me through. And theyre very rpoud of me and I love them for it.

Was there a moment when they saw you in something and it made them ok with it?

It’s funny, I remember the moment. I did a school play and I had a really lovely drama teacher called Danny Swanson. I told him quite secretly that I wanted to go to drama school. He went to RADA with Clive Owen. And afterwards he made the point of taking me to my parents and being like, ‘This kid should go to drama school.’ And my dad, who I thought was going to be like, ‘Who are you?’ said: ‘I know. I saw, here today.’ It was really touching.

Ényì Okoronkwo

How are you looking at your career? Do you know what you want to do and how you want to handle it?

I’m a part of the union and I feel like the majority of actors face a lot of insecure work in the industry and outside of the industry to support themselves. I have experience that and it’s hard to shake. You don’t know what will happen – I’m happy you said this seems like a jumping off point for everyone in the show because you do not know. I’m sure every actor in the show will speak to that feeling.

Purely artistically, I’m really lucky that I have some exciting things coming up and I’m lucky that they are happening at the same time as this, so I’m able to not just be one thing. You feel weird, am I allowed to have this reference of how I appear in this industry, or should I just be grateful to be in it?

I think gratefulness really is built into our industry in a very negative way, but I have been able to circumvent that and I have other things in the pipeline that are very different to this and that’s what I’m excited about. That excites me as an artist: I don’t want to be one thing, I want to explore different parts of myself.

So rather than waiting for the phone to ring, it’s about creating things how you want them to be?

100%. It’s where the poetry came from, and I’m sure a lot of other zany ideas will come.

But I had a good education in that. I did an MA at Central but before that I went to Queen Mary University in East London and they were like: ‘Sometimes we accidentally get actors on this course’ – it was the drama course – ‘but this is not a drama course, it is a course for practitioners and artists. If you want to be an actor, fine, but you have to buy into that side of it. We’re not going to teach you acting, we’re going to teach you how to be a practitioner and build your own way of making things.’

And that education which was most of my education after secondary school, was fundamental to me wanting to be active in my creativity and not be a passenger in it.

Who do you want to work with going forward?

Mostly my friends, the very talented day-ones who are coming ip at the same time. Especially young Black British actors, there’s a sense sometimes that we are competing against each other rather than acting alongside each other. My dream would be something that can afford to put in all the great Black British actors that are about right now. And I’d love to show my face in that!

There’s a lot of headlines about diversity in the industry but how does it feel on the inside, are there more roles and opportunities? 

To be honest I’m new to it all, I’m not really sure about the progress. I do know that we’re still on the journey, and that’s good to be mindful of.

I think that people won’t necessarily give you space, you have to make it. And I am always in awe of Black British creatives who have made that space for themselves and others.

In terms of mental health, how do you look after yours? 

Well I’m lucky in that I’ve had a therapist I’ve worked with for about 6 years. That and also engaging with the practical material effects on our mental health. Like the socio-economic world that we live in. Not trying to make [mental health] this nebulous thing which is all about brain chemicals – I’m sure it is, but also Mark Fisher wrote a lot about depression being a symptom of the world we live in, and its actually releasing to make that connection.

I read a lot. I like reading, that helps. And I walk. I have ADHD so I find getting the bird brain out, to be the bird brain, is useful.

Just back to Renegade Nell – what was your favourite scene?

A scene which was first time I worked Frank Dillane – he’s very talented but also a very silly man. I love that energy. You want to take the work seriously but not yourself seriously and it’s hard to make that separation. This was quite a big thing for me and up until that day I was taking myself quite seriously. But this scene had my first bloopers. It was my favourite thing. We couldn’t stop laughing that day. Poor Louisa was eating an apple and she had to eat so much of this apple because we couldn’t finish the scene.

Why would you encourage people to watch Renegade Nell?

There’s the very sincere thing in the analysis about classism and the judicial system and a woman in a man’s world. And how she navigates that. And Louise plays Nell so beautifully and inspirationally. But I also think it’s important that it’s so fun and joyful. That’s as much of an important reason to watch it and a testament to the directors and writers that created the space for a show to hold both of those things.

Can you tell us about anything else you have coming up?

I can’t. Apart from I’m getting my cat spayed next week.

Renegade Nell is on Disney+ from 29th March. 

Photo credits:

Photography: Klara Waldberg

Grooming: Maarit Niemela

Follow Enyi on Instagram:

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