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By Samantha Rea

“I’ve been doing this since I was four years old. I was the type of child who had a lot of energy and my mum started sending me to classes – I think she just wanted to get me out of the house!” says Shaun Parkes. Over four decades on, his love of acting hasn’t wavered and now Parkes is tipped for an Oscar for his role as Frank Crichlow in Mangrove.

Opening the 64th BFI London Film Festival, Mangrove is part of Small Axe, an anthology of films written and directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen CBE, best known for the award-winning 12 Years a Slave.

Based on McQueen’s track record, it seems an Oscar might not be such a long shot. For Parkes, “that would be an honour. But would I hold that up as the best thing about this role, and this whole experience, considering the backdrop of 2020? No. It would just be a nice bonus.”

Like many actors, Parkes’ early career pretty much consisted of popping up on one-off episodes of Casualty, Heartbeat, and The Bill. It was five years before Parkes landed the role of Koop, acting alongside Danny Dyer and John Simm in the 1999 cult classic Human Traffic. While this film has been credited with launching Parkes’ career, the reality is that he continued to work as a jobbing actor, taking on roles such as “Mental Patient 2” in the 2005 film Color Me Kubrick, and “Reporter Outside Hospital 2” a year later, in Penelope.

“I didn’t have that “I’m gonna be a star! One day I’m gonna be an ACTOR!” I always had my feet on the ground,” says Parkes, who did a two-year drama course at Lewisham College before training at RADA. “This industry can be rewarding, but it can also be cruel – it’s feast to famine. It’s great when you’re getting roles and money’s coming in, but it’s those times when no one wants to talk to you that, as actors, we know are a challenge.”

Parkes’ passion has kept him resilient through the tough times. “When challenges come along – when you get rejected or you don’t get a role for a year – if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re going to struggle. But if you’re doing something you love, the trials and tribulations are worth it. I look at the bigger picture and I’ve never taken my eye off that prize.”

Despite quiet spells, Parkes has supported himself via acting from the off. “My last real job was in Pizza Hut, when I was 16, 17 years old. Since then it’s been TV, theatre or film, with a bunch of voiceovers,” says Parkes, explaining: “I didn’t want to do anything that would get in the way of my passion for acting. I love the idea of the agent ringing up saying: “Shaun, you’re going to Australia on Wednesday!” So I’ve tried not to put myself in positions that take me away from being able to do anything that’s asked of me at a moment’s notice.”

There are probably many jobbing actors who would rather not take bar work or call centre shifts, so what’s Parkes’ secret for staying afloat financially? “Well, I dunno, all I can say about that is, I’m from South East London and there’s a lot of natural-born hustlers around!” But if he could give a word of advice? “Manage your money well. Don’t get excited by the first big job you get, or the second or the third! To have longevity, you have to play the long game.”

Starting out, Parkes was lucky enough not to suffer from audition angst. “I wasn’t really that nervous when I was younger – maybe to a fault – because I was getting roles, and I’ve been doing this since I was four, so it was no biggy for me.”

This changed when Parkes tried his luck in the States. “The only time I really got nervous was when I started auditioning in America because people don’t know you from Adam! That’s when you’re like Whew!” Parkes motions as if he’s wiping sweat from his brow. “It’s like, you don’t know me and I’ve got prove myself! Then you’re trying to get on their best side. For a few years in America, it was about as back to square one as I’d ever been.”

So how did Parkes overcome his audition nerves? “I’m not going to tell you what I used to do!” Go on! Please? “HAHAHA!” Parkes laughs and from the mischievous expression on his face, one imagines that picturing everyone naked was the tip of the iceberg.

Asked how he picks himself up if auditions don’t go his way, Parkes is philosophical. “I stopped auditioning for things a couple of years ago because I just needed some time, and people got worried. I’ve had to say to those same people recently, “Can you imagine if I auditioned for these things, got the jobs, and then wasn’t able to do Mangrove as a result of working?” Pointing out that the universe works in mysterious ways, Parkes adds: “I didn’t get those jobs, but I did get Mangrove, and here we are.”

Now 47, Parkes has found that acting’s got better with age. “You don’t know anything at 18, but you get older and wiser, and life happens, and the more experience you have of everything life has to offer, the easier it is to portray that on film, because you understand what it is that you’re trying to get to.”

Speaking to the Evening Standard in 1999, after the release of Human Traffic, Parkes said he’d always be thankful to filmmaker Justin Kerrigan for the role of Koop, because “there aren’t many good roles for young black actors, playing normal people, rather than gun-toting drug dealers.”

Two decades on, this issue has not abated. A BFI study found that 59% of UK films don’t feature a single black actor in any named character role, while black actors had lead roles in only 157 out of the 1,172 films (13%).

What impact does Parkes think this has had on his career? “I think everybody in their right mind can look and see that there haven’t been many roles like this,” says Parkes, referring to playing Frank Crichlow in Mangrove. “The TV over here can be mint – it’s just smaller than America. The BBC have done some fantastic shows, but they can’t have eight dramas on from Monday to Sunday because there’s only so much time in the schedule. So you end up, like every actor on the planet, doing what you can. Doing what there is to do,” says Parkes.

Stoical as he looks over his career to date, Parkes concludes: “I had to muck in as much as any other black actor, as much as any other female actor, as much as any other actor, where essentially these great roles aren’t there every week. I’ve had to do what everybody else has had to do, which is mucking in.”

Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist. Prior to COVID, she interviewed celebrities in tapas bars, avocado cafes, and Ben Fogle’s back garden (not even a euphemism). She now operates from her kitchen, with a backdrop of a broken cooker.

Photo Credit: Osarugue Igbinoba / Unsplash