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An Interview with Eamonn Walker

Eamonn Walker began his career as a dancer, but when a leg operation forced him to give it up, he turned to his second love: acting. In 1983 he played a punk in the working-class musical Labelled with Love. Both television and film work followed, including a stint as a regular on the BBC sitcom In Sickness and In Health (1985-'87) and the theatrical release Shopping (1994).

In 1997 Walker began working with producer Tom Fontana on the HBO prison series Oz. He was also featured in Homicide: The Movie (2000), the television return of Barry Levinson and Fontana's honored NBC series.

He recently appeared in the drug-themed film Once in the Life (2001) with Annabella Sciorra and Laurence Fishburne (who also wrote, produced, and directed).

Walker recently spoke with Helen Barrington, project manager at WGBH/Boston's Culture Desk.

What appealed to you about the role of Othello in this particular film?

What appealed to me was basically the fact that it was Othello, and Othello is such a wonderful part for any actor to play. Throughout my career, even as a very young actor, people have always said to me that they would like to see my Othello. They could see something of him in me, I suppose.

I knew from all the different shows I'd seen -- plays, films -- that there was always an element missing. That came from the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare demands. You need that control. Certain actors and directors get so caught up in getting that rhythm right, they miss out on the great love affair, the love that we all want.

On a human level, I knew I wanted to make that very different. Andrew Davies actually enhanced that. In fact, we go into the bedroom with Othello and Desdemona, which you never see in the play.

So the love story is being handled in the way that Andrew Davies did. Plus, he was dealing with a London problem: the Metropolitan Police and death within custody. This is a big issue for Britain. The fact is that [Davies] fused those two stories together so well you can't even see the seam. He took away the war of Cyprus and Turkey and added that instead.

I thought that this is the one I want to do. This is what would make my Othello very, very different.

Are you saying that you think Shakespeare's language got in the way?

No, it's not Shakespeare's language. Shakespeare was a man of the people. He was right in and of his environment at that time. That's how everybody spoke.

What has happened with theater productions is... with actors being creative and seeing themselves in a particular light, they've gotten caught up in the language thing of, "We work with words" -- that type of thing.

And so they've taken away in actual fact from what Shakespeare actually intended. When Shakespeare wrote, he wrote for the people. I know he got commissioned by kings and queens, but he also actually was writing plays for people to go and see, to take them on a journey of recognition so that they could see themselves within the characters on the stage. We as actors and theater companies and film companies have forgotten that. That's what I'm saying.

Did you have a hope that in doing this role you might in some way help advance racial understanding in Great Britain?

Well, that's how I see myself as an actor. When you look at Eamonn Walker as an actor and the work that he does, one of the key decisions is always how do I affect people with this piece? It's not only on a racial level; it's on a human level.

Now, I don't know if you can hope that something can be changed by this particular production, but what you can hope for is that you plant a seed in somebody's brain -- maybe a person of power who is able to do something about it. You can hope that they can turn around and make a difference in the society that we are living in. That's basically what we do as playwrights, as directors, as actors: We shine a mirror on to society for them to look into. If they see something they don't like, then it's up to them to change it.

So hopefully, yes, something will change or move along a little further from where it already is. I can't tell what's going to happen, but I certainly hope that it does spark something in somebody.

What were the challenges of performing this particular Othello?

Othello is a challenging role anyway, if not this particular version. The emotional journey that Othello goes on in discovering his darker side, the green-eyed monster of jealously rising up within, makes him a completely unreasonable, irrational man. He is consumed by this jealousy.

It was difficult for me to travel to the darker sides of my nature and discover and look at and then put it back into this character of Othello. That's what's great about Shakespeare: He latches on to that part of human nature and shows it in full flight. This particular version of Othello -- every version of Othello, actually -- it's like, "Beware of this story! Don't let this feeling, this thought process go too far, because this is where it can end up."

This is an extreme. Therefore this makes this story a tragedy. It's one of the greatest tragedies Shakespeare ever wrote. That's what I love about Shakespeare's writing. For me he is, as I said, a man of the people. You feel it in your gut. It's an emotional roller coaster of a ride. Hopefully everybody will get something from that.

If you love another person enough, you could actually imagine feeling that level of jealousy.

Oh, yeah, every single person walking this earth. I mean, you've only got to go to the penitentiary and ask the inmates how many of them are there for crimes of passion.... And in that moment, that awful, horrible moment, they do something terrible and end up in jail.

A lot of people don't end up in jail, but it is all around us. It's not that much of an extreme. You don't have to go very far to find it.

The issue of betrayal has played some very important roles throughout human history.

Yes, definitely. I don't know if everybody gets this when they watch it. For me, one of the strongest things about the film is the very first line of the film: "It was about love."

People feel, "Oh, we know the Othello story; it's the love between this Othello guy and this Dessie woman." But in actual fact it's also the love of these two men for each other, their love and respect for each other. It goes awry and takes a bad turn. We give you Iago's -- or Jago's -- thinking in a much clearer fashion. We've cut away some of the prose and poetics in Shakespeare's play and given you a reason of why Iago is on this path.

It's a lot more complicated when you're looking at the play. When you have the language you really do have to think. We give you the story. We don't give you the play, and we don't give you the theatrics. We make it as real as we possibly can so that you can understand the main thread that's going through these people and that they love each other dearly.

As they always say, there's a really thin line between love and hate. Jago and Othello, they love each other that much. It's a strictly platonic relationship, but it goes deep. They've been on battlefields together, they've worked other riots together and policed London, and all of a sudden here they are.

Somebody has a deep desire for something else that his friend doesn't know about. That is a tragedy. Love disappears and enables this man to ruin this other man's life by taking away the thing that he loves most. It's a great tragedy, isn't it?

How does this production of Othello reflect what's going on in Britain today?

It's talking about our society. It's talking about Britain and how we view people within it; how hard it is to be a policeman in this country; how hard it is and how it's unexpected for a young black man in his prime to be offered the most powerful position in the country, as the first black commissioner of police. It's a reality that has not happened yet.

Our police force in Britain is very different from the police force in the States. Very few black people join. They have their reasons, but there's definitely a lack of trust in how things go -- not that you don't have that problem in the States, too; it just manifests itself in a slightly different way.

I'm sure this Othello is going to make a lot of people think about how the political system is run, how the police is run, about people living on the street, about mixed relationships that they see around them.... It's going to hit them on many, many levels. If they've got any kind of heart inside of them, they're going to have to turn around and go, "Oh, my God. These two people loved each other. They didn't see each other's color, they just saw each other, and they were the best for each other and were helping each other move forward, and then along came this man with a horrible nasty idea and ruined it."

Do you think the British public will experience some sort of nervous self-reflection in watching this, as in "Is this who we really are?"

I definitely hope so, because that's my job. Whether they actually get there and see it is another thing, because that's the work. Once you take them on a journey and you pull out the seed, you have to wait, watch, and see if it grows.

I'm sure some of the seeds will fall on stony ground, but hopefully some of them will fall into very nice, soft, fertilized earth and grow, and then those people will have a decision to make about how they live the rest of their lives... whether they just turn around and accept the status quo because that's the way it is. These are dilemmas people face every day.

Is a television play a more palatable way to raise the issues of race in modern-day London?

Yes, this is definitely an easier way in. But because it's a television drama, people will also, hopefully, just get caught up with the love story, and the other messages within the piece will subliminally sneak into their brains. I really do hope that people reflect and think about how they live their lives and the effect that they have on the society they live in. Yes, definitely yes. We can only hope.

Does this kind of role make you cynical or distrustful of relationships, or does it give you a different perspective on your own life?

It doesn't give me a different perspective. I have my perspective. I have done a lot of work internally to find out who I am, what voice Eamonn Walker has and how he wants to put it out there. It doesn't make me more cynical; actually, it makes me very optimistic.

I've started to get reactions from people who have seen the film, and I've found that people are changing or at least taken onboard how it actually ends up. What they do with their everyday decisions about how they walk this world is down to them. You leave it with them to show courage as they breathe each breath.

It's a fine line. Each individual has to deal with that as they move forward. It's like that saying, when you get wise you can't go back, but your life is definitely harder. I know that through working this way, I get an immense amount of satisfaction when I see people's lives change. My life was changed by Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. That's how powerful the medium is; I know it works. So I'm largely optimistic.

Did you work with Shakespeare's text at all in creating this film?

Yes. There's no way you couldn't, really. Although it's a modern version, we had to know. We've made nips and cuts all over the place in this particular film, but we're still telling the main part of the story. Plus we added this whole new element. I had to know the Shakespeare Othello like the back of my hand, and the emotional journey within it. I studied it, I read it, I listened to it, I went and saw a production of it, and then I divorced myself from it to try to make the film that we were making. That was all part of the research and part of the work.

It's very powerful.

Thank you. I take that as a large compliment. For me, the real praise goes to Andrew Davies for having the courage to put pen to paper and put these thoughts down and look at people in the society that he lives in. There is a clear, honest voice that is hard to script, that is unmistakable, and I thank him for thinking of me. The real praise is to Andrew Davies for writing the script, because it's a great adaptation.

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