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“They used greasepaint on me as a foundation”: In conversation with British actress Llewella Gideon

Llewella Gideon is a British actress, comedian and writer best known for Absolutely Fabulous, a TV series from 1992 to 2012, and The Little Big Woman, a radio show from 2001 to 2003. She has made appearances in movies such as Paddington (2014) and Rye Lane (2023). 

Cherwell has obtained an interview with the British actress where she discusses her background as an actress and the changes she’s seen in the Black British media scene.

To begin with, Gideon takes us into what a typical day working as an actress looks like. She says “That would be a typical working day would depend on the production. And also whether it’s for television or theatre. If it’s for theatre, then it’s much easier because you’ll have rehearsals during the day, like ten to six, then you might have that six days a week. And then once the day is up and running, then you just go in half an hour before the play starts. So if the plays at seven o’clock, you’ll go in at sort of like half-past six, or 20 past six, and then you do the show, and you go home, so it’s much easier once the play is up and running. It’s just the rehearsal period…that can take a long, long time. But once the show’s up and running, it’s fine. And then if you have a matinee, then you’ll stay in the theatre all day. If your matinee’s at two o’clock we’ll be there from one o’clock right through to maybe 10 o’clock in the evening. If your production and your part in it, your day can start as early as six o’clock in the morning, or they might come and collect you at five o’clock, depending on where your location is, and you have to be on set for like eight o’clock. So those days are not so great because you have to get up like three o’clock in the morning or four o’clock. But it’s not too stressful, because you have a car, pick you up and take you there, but you’re barely awake. Though by the time you get into makeup at about six or seven o’clock, it’s all good. And you could work right through till, you know ten, eleven, twelve, at night, depending on what you’re shooting. So some days, it can be an incredibly long, long day and get very tired, but yeah, it’s all good.”

Despite the clearly hectic days the actress has, she tells me she still tries to make time for family, “I don’t really get much catch-up time until weekends, I tend to see if I’m doing if I’m filming, it is really hectic in terms of learning lines, going to bed, getting up to go on set, spending a whole day there. So I don’t tend to see family so much when I’m filming. So I really make an effort at the weekends definitely to see my mum and hang out with my sister. As we’re close in that regard. So but filming extras is just like being on the treadmill…But at weekends we tend to get everybody together and have Sunday dinner.”

With a hectic filming schedule like that Gideon is sure to have some projects she’s worked on that make it all worth it. According to Gideon, she has “quite a few” of her favourite projects as she jokes that she’s “been around for a while”. She tells me “I’m very proud of recently doing The Long Song by Andrea Levy at the Chichester theatre, very proud of playing Old July. And for film, I think would be ‘Small Axe’ by Steve McQueen. But it’s ever-changing, I’m doing more stuff and I’ve got more stuff coming up and might be really proud of but in terms of story and impact on the community, Small Axe and The Long Song, those were very powerful pieces I’m quite proud to have been involved in.” Many of us can relate to this sentiment. Wanting to do work that you feel makes a difference, or at the least, you can look back on and say that you’re proud to have done at least one thing impactful. I ask Gideon if this is a sentiment that she expresses in her work. She answers “Absolutely. I mean, there are not many jobs that I say I’ll just do it for the money. I always believe what Sidney Poitier used to say, that he does work that his grandchildren can watch for years to come. So I don’t want to do anything that I would be ashamed of years later…If I have grandchildren years later, so I try and do something that I actually believe in on some level, or that I feel is gonna get people thinking or is based in truth, whether or not I agree with that truth, but it is something that’s powerful because there is some truth in that story that will impact people.” She explains that “There’s always got to be some kind of connection unless they have specifically asked for me for a role. And then I look at the role and see if there’s something that I can do bring something to.”

Gideon has a son around the same age as me. I can’t imagine having a parent with the legacy of Gideon. A seasoned actress, whose been acting even when the media and film scene was not particularly kind to up-and-coming Black actors and actresses. She explains her legacy “But when I started…my first television job was at 21 and I’m 55 now, things were a lot different to what they are now, you know, racism, sexism, every -ism existed then, and was either unconscious bias, or just the way things were. So the landscape that I had to navigate at 21 in 1989, is so much different. And even in terms of makeup and what we wore…when I started, at the BBC, there wasn’t black makeup, that makeup wasn’t a thing. They had to literally go on courses, the makeup artists that worked on our show, to learn about makeup for black skin, and colours and shades that we could use. I remember one of my first acting jobs, they used grease paint on me as a foundation, and I remember a costume lady saying to me, ‘Oh no, you can’t wear black, black people don’t wear black’. They were always trying to put me in tiger stripes and leopard skin, which I hate. Up to now, if I ever see a costume designer come towards me with ‘Oh, we thought you might look good in this’ and it’s any sort of tiger print, or a leopard print shirt, I’m automatically like ‘No, I don’t. I just don’t’. And they’ll say, ‘Oh but it’s lovely and colourful’. And I’ll say, ‘No, not happening’. I’m not in the jungle. I may be black but not happening. So you know, we’ve had to change a lot of people’s attitudes to us as performers. And it’s so much better for young people today than it was then. And we didn’t have Facebook. And we didn’t have Instagram. So we didn’t have instant success. We had to earn it by how many people are watching us on television at that time. How much exposure you got through them advertised in that programme, etc. But usually, it was word of mouth. Because there were so few black people on the television if you did see one, you’d let everybody know ‘Oh, there’s this programme on and there’s black people in so you should watch it’. A completely different time. And we’ve come a long way since then.”

Though I’m not a seasoned actress, when I was about 12 I was in a Scouts and Guides gang show, a musical theatre production produced by the local Scouts and Girl Guiding groups. Rehearsals were about 4 months and I went every Sunday. I thought the people I was rehearsing with knew me well, at the very least, knew that I was Black. But when it got to the day of the performance, I was disheartened to discover not only had they not got makeup in my shade (like not even close), but they also hadn’t got the right shade of skin-coloured tights. I called my mum crying, and I never did the production again. It truly did alter my sense of self in the world of theatre, I didn’t think I would ever belong. Gideon confirms this “They do have an impact on you and on your psyche. So if you’re constantly in situations where you’re there to perform to your highest standard, and you believe that you’re equal, and people continually do these things, like not getting tights in the right shade, not putting your makeup on correctly, it can grind you down. You’re constantly, one, having to prove your creative talent. But you’re also trying to educate people who are used to doing things in a certain way. And sometimes there’s a bit of resistance to change, but I think we’re at a place where you have to be on top of your game. You know, people know how to like Black people. Now none of these excuses apply anymore. So to be on top of your game, you’ve got to be able to be inclusive in your work, in your makeup, in your costume design, in your hair design, in your lighting design, there’s no excuse not to allow us to shine as it were, literally and figuratively.”

The British media world is indeed changing, nowadays we have Black British actors and actresses like Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Letitia Wright, and Damson Idris to name a few. The media world is starting to become more inclusive and our stories are being told on the big screen. Most notably Rye Lane (2023), which is dubbed the first Black British rom-com. Gideon is featured in the movie and she praises one of the two writers, Nathan Byron, “I’ve known Nathan very well for many, many, many years, ever since he started out in his writing career. He’s such a prolific writer, he’s such a fresh young voice. He talks about people of colour outside of those stereotypes that existed in the three-dimensional, which is so refreshing. So anytime he calls me to come and do a play I definitely do it because I believe in the stories that he’s telling. So I’ve known Nathan for a while. So when he asked if I would do a little part in Rye Lane, I knew it was going to be good. I knew it was going to have integrity. And I knew it was going to be telling a story from a voice that we haven’t heard before. And that was going to be funny because it’s incredibly funny. I had every faith in him so I had no hesitation. It was such a delight, the movie was such fun to make.

“It’s a movie that makes you come out of the cinema feeling good because it shows us, it shows people of colour, as real people who have aspirations, who have disappointments, who have quirkiness. And most of all, who have the same insecurities as anybody else and, who have love. And we don’t see enough Black love in the media or Black British love. It’s fun, it’s the rom-com as you’ve never seen it before. As a structure, it has everything that a rom-com is supposed to have. As a genre, it’s excellent, you can’t fault it, where people might be cynical because they’ve never seen Black people in a structured rom-com and it’s mainstream. But the difference is you’ve got young people in this structure. More importantly, as well, you’ve got young, dark skin in this structure. This is about two young people in love. And I hate to say that they just happened to be dark because it’s not a mistake. If you’re Black, we shouldn’t have to apologise ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I just happen to be Black.’ It’s three-dimensional characters. It’s us as we live, speak, and function within a particular community. This is one aspect of it of us. That’s why there are so many different voices in so many stories that are coming through and will come through from the voices of Black British people. And this is just one of them. So I love the movie. I absolutely love it.”

The actress has solidified herself in the Black British acting world. Her passion for her craft and her dedication to impactful projects shines through when she talks about her job as an actress. I can’t wait to see what else the actress has in store, and I wish her all the very best.

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