Meet the characters and cast
of Small Island
Click on any of the major characters in Small Island to learn how they fit into the story, and also about the careers of the actors who portray them.
Born out of a liaison between her Jamaican father and a farm laborer, Hortense is raised by her father's cousin and becomes close to his son Michael. As she grows up, Hortense realizes that her feelings for Michael extend beyond friendship. A well-mannered and proud woman, Hortense is determined to leave her native Jamaica to live in England and work as a teacher. But when she arrives in London to meet up with her husband Gilbert, she is hardly prepared for what to expect.
Raised by her single mother, a television writer, Naomie Harris followed her mother's footsteps into the entertainment business early — landing her first professional acting job at age 10. Trained at England's Bristol Old Vic Theatre School after studying at Cambridge University, Harris first gained wide recognition in 2002 for her role in Masterpiece's White Teeth. She made her big screen breakthrough that same year in 28 Days Later and is probably most well known to American audiences for her roles in two Pirates of the Caribbean films and the film version of Miami Vice.
Filming Small Island prompted Harris to contemplate her own family history. "Hortense and Gilberts' story is very similar to that of my grandparents and while playing the part I couldn't help but empathize with what they went through — all the hopes and dreams they had, and when they got to this country they experienced such ignorance and hostility," Harris said.
Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican volunteer in the Royal Air Force, signs up to fight in the war in England. Returning back home, he discovers there are no opportunities, and takes Hortense up on her offer of paying for his travel back to England in exchange for the two being married.
David Oyelowo, the son of Nigerian parents, was born in England, returned to Nigeria as a boy, and moved back to London as a teenager. Oyelowo went on to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was the first black actor to play a Shakespearean monarch there. He played Henry VI to critical acclaim, subsequently writing and publishing a book about his experiences. This led to his break-through role in the popular British television series Spooks. Oyelowo's film credits include The Last King of Scotland and Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It. Oyelowo appears in George Lucas's Red Tails, which tells the story of the first black American fighter pilots in World War II. He was recently cast as Martin Luther King in Selma, directed by Precious director Lee Daniels.
Queenie has moved to London from her family's pig farm in search of a more exciting life. She marries banker Bernard despite the fact that the two aren't entirely well suited. Soon after their marriage, Bernard is called to serve in the war. Left in an empty house, the big-hearted Queenie takes on lodgers, including Jamaicans who would experience prejudice elsewhere.
Ruth Wilson's inspiration to turn to acting came when she watched her brothers participating in an after school theater club (they didn't go into acting). She trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and just a year after graduating, leapt to fame for her work in the title role of Masterpiece's Jane Eyre. Her performance earned her British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and Golden Globe nominations for best actress. Also an acclaimed actress on the London stage, Wilson has appeared in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Capturing Mary and Philistines among others. Wilson's interests extend beyond being on camera; she has recently been involved in a film festival bringing together a collection of short films written and directed by women.
Bernard lives with his father, a veteran of the Great War, who because of shellshock does not talk. Bernard's routine life is disrupted by the energetic Queenie, who stirs emotions in him he didn't know he had. The two are married, and shortly thereafter Bernard is sent to war.
The son of actors, Benedict Cumberbatch's parents were not initially thrilled that their son wanted to follow in their footsteps. Cumberbatch acted a lot in school and went on to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. On Masterpiece, Cumberbatch has been seen in Miss Marple, The Last Enemy, and To the Ends of the Earth. On film, he has appeared in Amazing Grace, Atonement, and The Other Boleyn Girl among others. In 2010, Cumberbatch will appear as Sherlock Holmes in Masterpiece's Sherlock.
In Small Island, Cumberbatch tried to get behind Bernard's exterior. "My character's story is very much about the love of a single woman and the redeeming force of that love."
A well-educated man from a well-to-do family, Michael and Hortense are brought up together. But while Michael views Hortense with familial affection, Hortense harbors deeper feelings for Michael.
English musician and actor Ashley Walters was raised by his mother in a dangerous and drug infested area. Determined to steer him away from trouble, his mother sent him to a weekend theater school program to study acting and ballet. Walters was given a lead role in a television film at age 16, but left acting within a year to pursue a career in music. Walters's ensuing musical success came to a sudden stop when he was sentenced to jail for possession of a firearm. After serving his sentence, Walters was cast in the film Bullet Boy about gangs in London. He has been acting ever since, having appeared in the film Sugarhouse and the British television dramas Five Days and Hustle.