June 1, 2016
Until Regé-Jean Page discovered the British National Youth Theatre as a university student, acting was just one of his creative hobbies. At the time, the Page was studying sound engineering. “It was already a compromise,” he says during a brief trip to New York. “It was halfway between a science for my mum and an art for me.” The second youngest of four siblings, Page was also in a band with his little brother. “We were writing loud, angry, righteous guitar music and screaming at people with various colors in our hair,” he recalls.
For Page, who was born in London, the National Youth Theatre changed his trajectory. “It was the first time I’d ever been in a room with a group of kids who took acting as seriously as I did and went as deep as I wanted to go,” the 26-year-old says. “I pretty much immediately ran away from university to be an actor.” After two years of auditioning, Page was accepted into the Drama Centre, the London-based university that has shaped the likes of Paul Bettany, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Anne-Marie Duff, and Gwendoline Christie.
Tonight, Page makes his American television debut as Chicken George in the History Channel’s revival of Roots. George is the grandson Kunta Kinte (played by Malachi Kirby, another British newcomer), a man kidnapped from the Gambia and sold into slavery in the United States. George never meets Kinte, but his mother Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) tells her young son all about her father and the spirit and traditions of their ancestors. Though Kizzy tries to shield her son from his real father, George knows he is also the son of the poor white farmer on whose land he lives, Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
Based on the 1976 book by Alex Haley, Roots was adapted into an iconic miniseries a year after it was published, and Page is well aware of the cultural weight Haley’s story carries. “If you’re going to contribute something worthwhile and build upon something that big that’s owned by your audience to that extent, you’ve really got to bring it,” explains Page. “Before we started, Roots was owned by millions of people,” he continues. “A lot of the time on set it feels like the actors and the director are in the story and everyone else is at work…that was absolutely not the case. The groundsman, the spark, the lighting guys—every single person on set had a personal investment in making these shots work.”
CURRENT LOCATION: I’m nominally based in London. That’s where all the bills go. I haven’t been back for longer than about two weeks since Roots happened..
HOME IS WHERE… We were in Zimbabwe [until I was 14]. But throughout that period my family was rather spread out—I have family in South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Grenada, Florida—so you make pit stops and you grow your perspective. Home is a relative concept. Home is very much wherever it is that your people are and where you fit in. I spent my whole life figuring out how to be different people. Zimbabwe’s one of the youngest countries in the world, it became independent from British colonialism in the 1980s. In America you can still feel the echoes of slavery, and Zimbabwe is very much feeling the echoes of British colonial rule. It’s very hard to craft an identity in that environment as a young, mixed raced man. I learned from the age of three that I was a walking political statement. Just by walking around with my face, I was saying, “My parents did a fairly revolutionary thing that pisses off some of you.” You learn that how you act associates you with certain groups. I remember there was a really nice nursery school fairly close to us; my mum took me along and there wasn’t enough room, and then my dad took me along and there was enough room.
THE OUTSIDER, THE ARTIST: There’s something very useful to not growing up in the center of the world. The people who grew up in L.A., London, or New York, there’s something of this solipsism where they think they’re the center of the universe, and they kind of are. Growing up outside of that, growing up in Sub-Saharan Africa, you watch these important people making important decisions. They send ripples out to the rest of the world and you ride the ripples. Then you come into it, and you have a bit of an expanded view because you know what it looks like from the outside and the inside now. It’s about, basically, how you position yourself, which is super useful as an artist. Because you have to observe, you have to steal. You don’t have an identity thrust upon you by the world; therefore you get to build one. That’s what artists, writers, composers, actors do—you build stories, you build identities. Having a perspective from the outside is very useful to being able to build that picture accurately. It’s the difference between me painting a portrait of you, and you painting a self-portrait. The natural position is from out here I have a really good view of you.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTING: I’d been acting as a hobby since I got to the U.K. I went to a Saturday school where you would do an hour of dancing, an hour of acting, and an hour of singing. It’s basically childcare—”Get my loud, attention-seeking child out of my hair for three hours.” I was loud and attention-seeking enough that they put me on their agency on the side. That was my hobby; that was my paper route. Once every two years I’d get a job, I’d make a little money, and that would pay for my Gameboy. One of those was Casualty at Holby City, where I stole an ambulance. It’s really strange, you take it differently when you’re a kid and it’s a hobby. It kind of passed me by. I wasn’t really paying much attention to it.
FIRST JOB AS A TRAINED ACTOR: The History Boys at The Crucible in Sheffield. I was Crowther, the brown one. That was my last term at school—they pulled me out. It feels like the first one. That was a lot of fun. A huge theater, but it felt very intimate. It was a perfect first job. There were some great senior cast members for us to look up to and learn from, but enough young cast members that we were always messing about with each other. We had a great young director, Michael Longhurst. I owe him a huge amount for giving me that first break. You don’t forget that.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING: I’ve watched a lot of Trevor Noah‘s stuff for obvious reasons. We share a lot of parallels in our story. We laugh because it’s too painful to do anything else. But you also examine it and you tell stories, and do everything you can do to surround the thing so we can start having discussions about it. Because if you go straight to the heart of it and say, “I was born a crime,” everyone wants to cry, make the sign of the cross, or run the fuck away. You have to come at it through culture. I think that’s what shows like Roots do. That’s why you tell your stories.
THE REPUTATION OF ROOTS: My mum will come along and support whatever I’m doing in a very willing way, if nothing else. If I do a Greek tragedy, I’ll be like, “How was it mum?” And she’ll say, “It was fine. It was weird when he killed his son, what was that about?” There are very few things that go straight to her heart. I was going in for the Roots audition—the audition scene was with Kizzy, Anika Noni Rose’s character. I’m walking out the door going, “Mum, come over here, read this paper.” Two lines in she stops and says, “Are you Chicken George?” I told her nothing about it. I didn’t even tell her it was a script. But she knows this character and this world so well and so intrinsically—it’s so important to her—that two lines in to it she recognizes it, asks if I’m Chicken George, and is appalled that I am, because something this important can’t be trusted to her idiot son. [laughs] That set a bar very early for how important this show was going to be. It carries that much resonance with people.
Roots is not huge in London, but it depends on who you talk to. In the States it’s a little more ubiquitous. In the U.K., if I talk to any of my friends with a bit of melanin, they’ll know what I’m talking about. If I’m talking to my white friends, they won’t. You get more of a straight down divide in the U.K. I expect that it’s because we’re a little better at the whole PR exercise around that particular part of history in the U.K. We’re quite happy to go, “That’s an American story. We came in at the end and saved everyone because we abolished slavery in the U.K. so we’re the heroes,” which is actually complete bullshit. We’re very happy not to associate ourselves.
A CONNECTED CAST: Everyone got very close and very intimate. It wasn’t just another job for pretty much anyone in the cast. You felt that so quickly. There’s something that happens when someone walks on set and they’re carrying something personal to them, you feel it as another actor and you become very careful and caring with them. The thing that you’re throwing back and forth at each other in the scene is electric, and also incredibly precious. [It’s] just a whole other thing to when you turn up and you deliver your five sitcom lines in an audition. It creates a very intimate bond between the actors, and that happened very, very quickly.
GIVING YOUR ALL: It’s hugely invigorating; it’s everything you’ve ever searched for when you’re doing this job. Unfortunately, everything you’ve ever searched for when you’re doing this job is massively draining. The very best stuff costs on a personal level. When you tell stories, you want to literally give the audience something that they receive. It’s like the feeling when you read a good book, you feel like you know the world a little better, you feel a little less alone. As someone who’s telling a story you want to get that out, and when you’re doing it really well it comes from somewhere. So you walk off set at the end of the day feeling absolutely empty, not knowing where that thing you need to get tomorrow is going to come from. It generates anew every single day, [but] it’s hugely draining.
UP NEXT: I just finished a pilot for ABC called Spark. That was a lot of fun, it was about as far away from the plantation as I could get. It was a sci-fi, steampunk, high-fantasy, high-drama jaunt. I’m playing this dashing biker; he gets to whip around the place on this cool sci-fi motorbike, generally doing all kinds of exciting, adventurous things. My life tends to run about three days in advance at this point. I turn up where the emails seem to think I should turn up; I wait to see what pops up from what I did today, and that may change what city I’m in in three days time. I mostly just brace myself. It’s like surfing. You don’t plan for what wave is coming, but you know there’s a wave.
EPISODE THREE OF ROOTS AIRS TONIGHT, JUNE 1, ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL.