Danny Lee Wynter is an actor, writer, and activist, best known for playing the lead role of Joe in Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘Joe’s Palace’ and ‘Capturing Mary’, alongside Sir Michael Gambon and Dame Maggie Smith. He is also recognised for his stage work. He is represented by UNITED AGENTS.
Jonathan Harden sat down with him to discuss. This one is a brilliant read so get a winter warmer on and enjoy!
You’re the founder of Act for Change, a campaign for greater diversity in the live and recorded arts, and more recently have been vocally championing the #YesorNo campaign for casting directors to let us know, either way, if we’ve got a job. What’s the thing you’re most proud of having achieved with these?
I hope galvanising more people from my generation and the generation coming up behind it with the confidence they don’t need to be subservient or capitulating as a default mode. They can have integrity and use their voice to push for change in both an open and constructive way rather than bemoaning it behind closed doors. There’s great agency in getting shit done! Its something we should all have tattooed on to our foreheads. “Get shit done!”. It’s too early to say whether #YesOrNo has been successful, even with big names coming forward. Only time will tell. On a personal level with Act For Change there’s still far to go when you look at the full time staff within arts organisations, yet I feel an incredible sense of change when I see younger actors afforded opportunities which even five years ago wouldn’t have happened. When my first agent took me on, I remember wanting to be seen for certain classical plays. I had a spectacular start in TV, but theatre was all I ever wanted and I would’ve happily just done that for the rest of my life if the opportunities were there. Each time my agent, one of the most powerful in London, would go away and find out if the casting director would see me, then a young graduate with the same kind of big leading TV role under his belt as my white counterparts of the time – Andrew Garfield, Matt Smith, the Treadaway twins or whoever else was making waves in that moment – he’d usually come back to me with the same answer ‘They’re going in a different direction.’ What that often meant was ‘They’re going in the white direction.’ Now whenever I step inside a theatre as an audience member and see the opportunity being given to actors coming up behind me, there’s a mixed emotion of triumph and out and out envy. It’s that achievement I’m most proud of. That they are the beneficiaries of this change.
While many actors are afraid to speak out against the industry, you’ve recently been taking Casting Directors to task. Some might say that’s a bit of a ballsy move! Have you experienced any negative reaction to the #YesorNo campaign, or felt it having any direct impact – for good or bad – on your own career?
People who know or like my work still bring me in or cast me in things and those who don’t never did anyway, so I sure as hell won’t hold back. Don’t worry about me. They like it when you’re fearful, silent and compliant. And some who feel I’m audacious and arrogant for always using my voice will want me to fail. Do you think all these campaigns like Act For Change, Era:5050, the Diversity School, PIPA, Actor Awareness or the hugely supported #MeToo and #TimesUp movements would have happened if pleasing people was the sum total of what individuals were concerned by? They were born out of saying “Fuck it! I’m through with trying to please. Now, lets talk the truth!”. If I didn’t use my voice I just couldn’t live with myself. Be afraid of a casting director? Are you kidding? For what? I was brought up watching my old man hit my mum. There’s loads of things I’m frightened of in life, but a casting director thinking I’m a pain in the arse isn’t one of them. Some might say it’s ballsy, or brave or self serving or whatever else good or bad, and that’s nothing to do with me. That’s to do with them. Not everyone’s going to like me. I’ve know that since I was four years old. All I care about are the people I love, music, art and Gemma Collins memays. Fuck everything else
You’re very much an industry activist. Do you think actors, in general, are doing enough to help improve things?
As I said change, real change isn’t about pleasing people. Real change is often ugly, deeply uncomfortable and costs you or someone else something. I’m not sure that many actors I know are genuinely willing to lose their inoffensive affable equilibrium in order to speak out and say something that actually truly matters. The training from P.R agencies actors of profile receive in order to appear ‘nice,’ the primary concern with ‘niceness’ and to not upset the balance. To the contrary, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements while being totally imperative have also, to some degree, become fashionable causes for the usual suspects of E.S magazine and elite millionaires. For example, I find it a brutal truth to swallow that it took those actresses who first spoke out against Weinstein who had pretty much all but lost their reputation and careers for all those other Oscar nominated globally lauded ones to then step forward and add their voice. Nobody wants to be the first to say and nobody wants to be the last, either. If these conversations being had in our shiny well heeled industry spill out into other industries and make some kid out in the sticks suddenly aware of such a thing as systemic abuse making them understand they don’t have to put up with it, then that’s powerful.
We’re seeing a long overdue shift towards more diverse casting, but at the same time, a reduction in the number of actors coming through from poorer backgrounds. Do you think we’re doing enough to help and encourage people from under-represented groups to enter the industry in the first place?
We’re living through a time when our government is cutting art related subjects, literally ripping out theatres from some comprehensive schools in the country. Drama is always the first thing to go. We’ve allowed the Tories to enable a culture whereby those who can afford to be exposed to art are exposed to it and those who can afford a classical training can have it. Those who aren’t and can’t have to work twice as hard to be noticed. It’s shameful and wrong. There’s exceptional work going on to help ensure young working class actors of the future don’t slip through the net. To name but one, an organisation like Open Door should be applauded. What they’re doing is both remarkable and inspiring.
There are, of course, those who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the present. What would you say to anyone who fears their own opportunities will be limited as a consequence of the growing pressure to cast diversely?
Those people are usually a product of their conditioning, fearful that the under represented suddenly want a bit of what they’ve always known. I had a big fight with a friend a couple of years ago – I’m talking screaming shouting not talking for weeks – all because they flatly refused to see the correlation between the early privilege they’d known and the casting opportunities it subsequently brought to them. Get woke. Practice empathy beyond your own backyard. If you’re not a part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
How can performers, in their day-to-day lives, take action to help be a part of securing greater diversity in the industry?
Positively question, challenge, provoke and support. Write to your favourite artists. I always did. That’s something I haven’t done of late, for which I’m ashamed. Build alliances with writers, directors and producers who also want change. Turn your heartache into art as a friend reminded me recently. Write. Find mentors who challenge and push you. When you find yourself as a freelance in the position of working within an organisation ask yourself whether you felt welcome or comfortable there. If the answer is no, try and do something about it! Look at what the young director Steven Kavuma did when he went to Central School of Speech and Drama and found his experience as a young black man not reflected within the fabric of the building. He went and set up the Diverse School. He was twenty one years old. There’s literally no excuse to rest on your laurels waiting for someone else to step in and fix things. Get some mates together and do it yourself!
As you know, the users of The Artist Hub initially sign up because they don’t have agents. Do you think this is another situation that is worse for actors from underrepresented backgrounds?
Well, firstly, they can’t give you the work if they don’t know you exist. But, of course, it can be much more brutal for those from underrepresented groups. We know that. I’m from a council estate in Essex and I’ve now been around long enough to be able to look back truthfully and say that I perhaps ruthlessly only went to drama school because I wanted a good agent at the end of it. For the kind of theatre career I wanted I was weary I wouldn’t be seen without the name of a school behind me. In retrospect it was only when I was at the school that I realised I could use the opportunity to grow as an artist. I think many of the black kids at the top drama schools get snapped up. They’re cannon fodder, just as the pretty posh ones are or those who look like a camera may love them. Agents throw them auditions and after a couple of years if they stick they’ll keep them. I was moved when I was in training by the story of a colleague who had a disability. One of the best in their year who left the training unrepresented. They fought year after year to be seen, and it is only now in this era of a light being shone on to the issue of representation in the arts that their talent is now being recognised through gainful employment at some of our most celebrated theatres. An agent can become your lifeline when you’re not working, and a good one is invaluable in negotiating a deal whenever you are. But they’re not necessarily the life raft that can propel, nurture and push you forward into each new year with a determination to override the continuous knocks, set backs, disappointments, rejections and humiliations that are part and parcel of being an actor. That stuff, all that resilience, it comes from you.
Jonathan Harden in an actor, award-winning director, and creator of Honest Actors. He can be found tweeting and instagramming at @jonatharden. Series 3 of the podcast launches later this year.