An interview with actor Akiya Henry
Part one in a series of interviews by Angelique Jones.
Akiya Henry as Lady Macbeth
“For the next generation, this is history in the making.” Leading lady, Akiya Henry, on stepping into the role of Lady Macbeth and embracing her own identity in Kit Monkman’s visually stunning film Macbeth.
Akiya Henry is a seasoned Shakespearian actor in both film and the stage and playing Lady Macbeth has long been a childhood ambition of this charismatic London-based actor, “when I was little, Lady Macbeth was one of the first characters I wanted to play.” This desire would continue until it manifested, with a bold and captivating performance adorned with the comprehensive subtleties of a woman confronted with choice; “how are you supposed to exist in the world when you’ve got people…telling you that you can’t. But you’ve got this one man, Macbeth, by your side, telling you that you matter.”
It comes as no surprise that she brings a refreshing twist to this powerful and conflicted character, whose 21st Century relevance is indicative of our social preconceptions. Shakespeare “writes for the human condition and the human condition comes in all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, genders, sex, sexuality, all of it.” We discuss what it means to be a contemporary Shakespearian woman in a film fuelled by invention, passion, experimentation and the desire to connect and engage with all audiences.
Macbeth enlivens the tradition of putting Shakespeare on screen and gives us a kick of excitement with Monkman’s “wholehearted” “embrace” of technology and the diversity of modern Britain; “[this] is the type of work that I want to make” beams Akiya.
Angelique Jones: Why were you so drawn to the character of Lady Macbeth?
Akiya Henry: I’ve always connected to her vulnerability and this thing about being a woman and growing up within a society telling you that you can’t necessarily be a woman […] I was born in London but raised in Weston-Super-Mere, Somerset, and I was fostered; I was kind of like the only black in the village. So, I think there was just something for me about feeling very vulnerable and feeling kind of isolated that I connected to with Lady Macbeth […] Shakespeare writes amazingly for women.
Lady M, for me is the pinnacle of a woman that represents power, vulnerability, strength, weakness, love, fear; all of these different conflicting feelings and emotions […] she’s one of the most incredible characters Shakespeare has ever written.
Akiya alongside Macbeth (Mark Rowley)
Director Kit Monkman’s version expresses the humanity of the character and evokes empathy from viewers. Lady Macbeth feels things so strongly, perhaps even more so than Macbeth. How do you feel that Kit’s version differs from previous approaches to the character? Do you think it’s more relatable?
It’s definitely more relatable. I think everybody has this preconceived notion of Lady Macbeth; that she’s evil, she’s manipulative, she’s not a very nice woman, [they’re] expecting the darkness and wanting to hate the character […] with Kit’s version of Macbeth people have come in and said, I don’t know how to feel, here’s things that are happening here with this woman that I completely connect to and there are other things where I’m asking why you would do that? Kit has really explored the human condition in its entirety […] it’s what Shakespeare represents, especially now within the modern society, we are human, we have flaws, we have strengths, and actually we shouldn’t be afraid to be able to present them both. This is what it means to be human, and I think Kit has presented that in a very powerful way. Sometimes, I think we demonize women a lot quicker than we do men. Especially when a woman does something which we don’t characterise as being a womanly trait.
Personally […] whenever I’ve gone to watch a version of Lady Macbeth […] there’s always been something niggling for me […] what if [instead] we just present her as a woman who loves her husband. So actually, it’s not manipulative, she’s doing it because she believes and supports the man that she loves […] and then she has to deal with the consequences of that…we are witnessing the breakdown of a marriage because of two people wanting the best for each other. I just thought as a character, and as an actor, what happens if I explore that. Kit was really brilliant at enabling me and supporting me to explore […] He allowed me the freedom as an actor to be able to play and to be able to really present my exploration of a character […] I felt very lucky and honoured to be working with someone like Kit.
This adaptation has been made in a world that allowed Monkman to cast in reflection of modern Britain, with the freedom to cast representatively. It’s extremely powerful and empowering to have a black Lady Macbeth. What does this mean for you and the ways that theatre and film are interacting to promote a change?
I think the time that it really hit home was during the screening […a friend] said, “I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see someone like me on that screen, saying those words and making me feel like I had a place here.” That was really powerful. All of a sudden, I thought, of course, I’m a black woman paying Lady Macbeth, that’s huge! I think as actors […] we can be quite modest sometimes, and I don’t think we quite realise the social and moral impact that we have on society because of the types of work that we choose to do […] watching me on screen and hearing those words, was really, really empowering and made me realise that for my nieces, and nephews, for a lot of friends, for the next generation, this is history in the making. I need to be proud of that. I feel very honoured and very lucky to have been chosen to play such a powerful role, but I also feel very lucky and very honoured to know that there are amazing people that are going to see this film.
This film is going to go into schools and there are going to be young people watching this film saying, “I have a place” and that’s the thing that matters to me the most.
Kit was really brilliant at casting this film, not with any idea about ethnicity or gender […] he just cast it because he saw people that were talented and that were right for the parts. That’s what we need more of in our industry […] That’s what was wonderful with Kit, his openness to just looking at talent and raw talent, for what it was and is.
In terms of this film and the diversity, I think Shakespeare would be really proud […] he writes for the human condition and the human condition comes in all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, genders, sex, sexuality, all of it […] One of the things that’s brilliant about Shakespeare is that he says, go and play, you might make a mistake but just keep playing because I’m writing about people. I’m writing about you, me, I’m writing about everybody […] that’s what this film represents, the Shakespeare that we know and love, he was the people’s playwright.
I choose work based off [knowing that I…] have a moral responsibility in terms of the stories that I tell. Therefore, me playing Lady Macbeth is not just about somebody watching it and saying, “I can do that, when I didn’t think I could.” It’s also about saying “so I do have a place in society […] and I do matter because that person on the screen is making me realise that I matter. So therefore, let me go out into the world and let me matter.”
Akiya portraying the mental decline of Lady Macbeth
Do you feel empowered as a female actor in the 21st-century, especially when it comes to taking on such a key female role in a seminal piece of theatre? It’s interesting to look at Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech in light of today’s current political climate, with movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp – do you feel like you are even more of a role model for women?
I feel like I’m in two separate gardens: being a woman and also being black. One of the things that I feel empowered by, when playing this role and being in Kit’s film, is the fact that I wasn’t made to think about that. I was just being an actor and I was doing my job, and I was being allowed to play a character. And that was it. I feel like now we are in a place where we are becoming more conscious, so much more aware about race, discrimination, sexual abuse […] It’s really interesting that the character Lady M does turn around and say “unsex me here,” because in the patriarchal society she lives in, that’s the only way for her to be able to do what she has to do, as it just wouldn’t be acceptable.
It’s always interpreted as her saying, I need to become a man in order to have these evil thoughts and so on […] it’s interesting in relation to now, as I feel kind of what she is saying is the only way I can be what I want to be right now is if you take away my femininity. What we are fighting for right now is to be able to say, “I want to be who I want to be and own my femininity.”
Having lots of different conversations about that speech with women now who are saying the time is up actually. And the time is up not just because I’m not allowing the patriarchal society to oppress me anymore, but actually the time is up for people to stop stripping me of my sexuality, I’m not allowing that anymore. I can do or be whoever I want to be, I can be flawed, I can be the most perfect human being on the planet. But actually, I can still remain a woman and do that.
It was really empowering for me to […] be exploring the character […] with her owning her sexuality, owning her femininity, and […] what does that make you do when you are owning that? […] She became more woman for me in the “unsex me here” speech, rather than stripping [it] away […] what she is saying is, “I know who I am and to unsex me is not to take away me, but it’s to give me more.”
I feel now within all the things that are happening, we are saying “we need more, we want more, and we have more. You have to accept us for who we are, and you’re not allowed to take that away in any way shape or form.”
This is what’s so powerful I feel about all of these movements now is the consciousness and the awareness that you cannot take away who I am […] what Kit has done with this film, is that he has really allowed us to own who we are, and to not be afraid of it, and that is really empowering in itself.
Kit treated every single person with such a huge amount of respect, which you don’t always get in spaces […] he created a safe space for everybody. That’s what we want the world to be. We want the world to be a safe space for everyone to exist in it in the way that they want to exist and not to be told that they can’t. I feel like as an artist that’s how I have to live my life everyday: fighting for me to be able to exist in these spaces, but to be able to exist in these spaces safely. That’s what Kit did for me with this film.
Being connected to Kit and working on Macbeth, all of a sudden, I thought “this is the type of work that I want to be creating.” And the lovely blend of theatre meets film – having both of the things that I love coming to a midway point and saying: “let’s play.” That’s really beautiful, because theatre’s changing, the way stories are being told is changing so much…we’re in a technological age now which is really exciting for the creative arts. I think what Kit does brilliantly, is he embraces that wholeheartedly […] that’s the type of work that I want to make.
Psychologically isolated in Act III : Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
How did you go about making this portrayal of Lady Macbeth completely fresh? There are so many portrayals and adaptations, which might be daunting. How did you go about interpreting the character for yourself? And what is different about yours and Monkman’s version?
I remember being called up for the audition and thinking what! Are you serious? Are you sure? […] All of a sudden, I got imposter syndrome, there’s all of these amazing actresses that have played this role. Do they really want me? […] Then you realise, I’m here actually because I’m good at what I do, and I have to stop being afraid of that.
One of the things I had to do was to embrace the past, to enjoy the fact that I’m continuing a legacy with all of these amazing women, women that have played such an incredible role […] All of those women now are empowering me […] we’re taught as women to be competitive, to compare ourselves to each other. I had to slap myself and say “No Akiya,” these women are empowering you to step into this. So, step into it.
I made a conscious decision at the beginning, that I don’t ever want this character to raise her voice because her power lies in her identity, and the ownership of her sexuality. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.
As each day progressed, I just thought […] this character is easy to play. I’d been looking at it, comparing myself to all of these other people that are not me […but now] I’ll go in to embrace her because she is a woman […] As a woman, how are you supposed to exist in the world when you’ve got a group of people, men, telling you that you can’t. But you’ve got this one man, Macbeth, by your side, telling you that you matter.
It was that simple for me, explore this woman and enjoy being this woman. Even the moments where some of the choices that she makes are questionable, enjoy this woman, the same way Akiya, that you should be enjoying you […] That’s all I did. That’s my version of Lady Macbeth.