Thomas Olajide: A Q&A

Q&A By Lucky Smith

Where are you from originally and how did you grow up? 
I’m from East Vancouver, British Columbia. My mother’s side immigrated to Canada from Liverpool, England in the 1970’s and my father’s side is American. It was my mother’s mother though who would raise me. I stayed with her until I moved to Montreal to further my acting training upon graduating from High School. If I am anyone’s child, I am my grandmother’s. She, along with a cohort of incredible individuals would become my central community. 

My grandmother is a woman of principal. She taught me to “never give anyone my power”. She provided the prerequisite knowledge needed to be a black man in this world, what things to avoid and what things to hone were always on repeat for survival’s sake. Work ethic was also a central tenet in the household. The pursuit of excellence was not only seen as a human endeavour, it was also a black man’s only chance at social safety. This is how I grew up. 

What inspired you to act and how did your career begin? 
That’s an interesting question. Nothing in particular inspired me to act. It’s hard to describe. Finding acting was less a moment of inspiration and more something I just accidentally fell into. That’s a common story for many actors, I think. I started as an extra in Vancouver in big American productions that would come up north. I then slowly began booking small acting roles. I soon realized though that I was too green to play any significant parts and needed more training. That’s when I decided to go to theatre school. 

Growing up, a lot of people who are interested in acting come across William Shakespeare’s work at some point. What was your experience like working on “King Lear”? 
It’s true. Shakespeare is this giant landmark that most actors in the English speaking world eventually have to decide how they want to navigate. He’s no doubt an extraordinary playwright. I will say however, that I think the western acting community can sometimes over-fixate on Shakespeare at the expense of acknowledging other great playwrights (many of whom come from non-eurocentric traditions). That said, I have done a lot of Shakespeare and have learned a lot about technique as a result. 

Working on King Lear was very demanding in many ways. It is one of Shakespeare’s later plays and so possesses some of his most intricate poetry. I played the role of Oswald who serves under Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril. On a craft level, I learned more than I ever had before. The depth of the writing pushes all involved into a specificity of listening and speech rarely required in contemporary texts. On a personal level, it was a complex journey for me as a black actor to stomach the indignities Oswald suffered in front of a primarily white audience each night. So again, I learned a lot but the lessons did come at a price. 

Are you a fan of Shakespeare’s other works? If so, what are your “Top 3”? 
I am more a fan of his tragedy and history plays. My top three would be: Richard II, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus. I particularly admire Richard II. I feel it is one of the few times Shakespeare unearths queer themes without throwing them up into a joke. Richard rides the thin line between the feminine and masculine self. To me, it is Shakespeare’s bravest work.

What type of genre are you most comfortable working in and also, are there any that you have yet to tackle that you would like to? 
If the piece is well written, there will always be drama in the comedy and comedy in the drama. I personally don’t make the distinction between the two but objectively speaking I have been cast in more dramas than comedies. I would love to explore the horror and action genres more. I’ve never really done those. 

Break down, “Learn To Swim” and your role as Dezi. 
Learn to Swim is a poetic, sensual feature film directed/co-written by Thyrone Tommy. Dezi Williams is a Toronto-based jazz musician who is haunted by his past. The more he attempts to avoid his past, the more it seeps into his present life and forces him to face his inadequacies. It is a film with deep musical roots that delve into themes of grief, romance, heartbreak and healing. Learn to Swim is one of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival’s Official Selections. 

In what ways did you have to prepare for this role? Did it require anything different from what you’re used to? 
I did my best to memorize the lines and understand the scenario of the scene as much as I could. Other than that, I didn’t do much else in the way of character preparation. I did work with a saxophone coach by the name of Yves Charuest who re-taught me the fundamentals of the instrument. I hadn’t touched the saxophone since high school so I was pretty rusty. He helped me brush up on the basics and gave me more insight into the life of a musician. 

I played alto sax in elementary and tenor sax in high school. I also played the Djembe drum throughout my childhood. I had the opportunity to pursue Djembe drumming more seriously but never felt like I had enough of an affinity. Like acting, it seems that one cannot “go” into music. You gotta fall into music. It takes you. You don’t take it. My problem with music was that I just never fell. 

What has been your most challenging role to date and why? 
There hasn’t been a particular role that has been the most challenging. It is less a question of the role as a whole and more a question of specific moments in a scene. There have definitely been moments in a scene that I have found challenging to play. Sometimes I can’t play the moment because I don’t yet have the technique. Other times I can’t play it because I don’t have the life experience. Sometimes I can’t play it because of external factors in the production that are out of my control. That’s the nature of the beast. This happens at least a few times in every project for me without fail. 

How do you approach working on TV series vs feature films? 
I approach TV series the same way I approach feature films. To me they are the same fundamental job. 

Lastly, when you aren’t acting, what do you like to do?
I love to dance…. And… Yea that’s kind of a question I’ve honestly been asking myself lately. What else do I like doing? I’m a little obsessed with my work to be honest…. 

Follow Thomas Olajide on Instagram @olajideta.


Photo: Alejandro Santiago

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