In 'Long Song,' 'Small Axe,' British actor makes her mark

·4 min read

LOS ANGELES — British actor Tamara Lawrance got on the phone from a movie shoot in Poland to discuss “The Long Song,” a miniseries she filmed in the Dominican Republic as stand-in for Jamaica.

Both Lawrance and her career are on the move. In her first few years as an actor, she's played Viola in a stage version of “Twelfth Night” that screened internationally in theatres ; portrayed a fictional girlfriend to Prince Harry in the 2017 TV movie “King Charles III," and was in an episode of filmmaker Steve McQueen's 2020 “Small Axe” anthology.

Glowing reviews met those and other performances, including in the three-part “The Long Song,” which aired in Britain in 2018 and makes its U.S. debut Sunday on PBS' “Masterpiece” (check local listings for time). It's based on the acclaimed 2010 Andrea Levy novel of the same name.

The drama is set in the final days of slavery in 19th-century Jamaica and stars Lawrance as July, from her early years working in a plantation owner’s house to liberation (with Doña Croll as the elder July). Lawrance has Jamaican roots — her mother was born there — but it was the chance to play the vibrant July as a fully realized character, not a downtrodden slave, that drew her to the project.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lawrance discussed the meeting she was able to have with Levy a year before the writer’s 2019 death; the value of being a triple-threat artist, and the fact-based movie she was working on in Europe with Letitia Wright ("Black Panther"). Remarks were edited for clarity and length.

AP: How did you prepare for the role of July?

Lawrance: This is a TV rendition of a book, so the first port of call is reading the novel. And I emailed Andrea Levy's agent to say, “Please pass on my thanks to Andrea, and if at any point I could speak to her that would be amazing.” She invited me to her house and we had lunch, and she was gracious enough to talk about her process in writing a book and the research she did. I definitely remember her saying that July is not a victim. I took that to heart, that a slave is not a character. I’m not playing a slave. I’m playing July, and July is not a victim, she’s a victor. She’s a very formidable person. She’s funny, she’s attractive.

AP: The U.S. and British entertainment industries have faced sharp criticism for a lack of inclusivity, ethnic and otherwise. When you thought about becoming an actor, what opportunities did you expect and what have you found?

Lawrance: I wanted to be an actor from an age before you think about such things. I wanted to be an actor out of a pure need for joy and for a very innocent fascination with the capacity to become someone else. It was only when I entered into my late teens that I came across teachers and extracurricular drama clubs where people would talk more about the vocational aspect to being an actor. And yes, I was told plenty of times, “Black people don’t work, you’re not going to get a job, blah, blah, blah.” And I just would not talk to them. I had tunnel vision, because if this is all I want to do with my life, then what what else is there to do?

AP: Is the British entertainment industry starting to change, become more inclusive?

Lawrance: I definitely think it is. There’s an amazing energy among the actors of colour that I know, an amazing focus and determination and excitement and also a proliferation of our own projects, which is equally exciting. People are seeing gaps in the market and saying, ”OK, let’s make this, let’s do this.” People are taking much more agency and not waiting around. Back in the day, they thought maybe actor-singer-dancer was the triple threat, but now I think it’s actor-writer-director, or producer. People are very much multidisciplinary artists. If I’m not working on screen, I’m going to do something else with my time. I can use my skills in other areas to create work for myself and my peers.

AP: What project brought you to Poland?

Lawrance: It's called “Silent Twins,” based on a book. The twins are notorious in British culture for having selective mutism. There was a sort of folklore around them, that one twin controlled the other. But actually, their decision to only talk to each other and not to anyone else was a product of the context they were born into: Black women in the 1970s in Wales, with immigrant parents and a speech impediment. They struggle to fit in and to belong, withdraw into their own world and then very scandalously end up in Broadmoor (an English high security psychiatric hospital) at the age of 19.

Lynn Elber, The Associated Press