Joseph Marcell: ‘The whole Hollywood thing was never part of my plan’

Joseph Marcell
Joseph Marcell
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SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Let’s Do It by David Dunford

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With an acting career that spans more than four decades, some actors might get sniffy about being so closely identified with one role.

But not Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey the butler in all six seasons of the hugely successful Will Smith vehicle The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, seen by hundreds of millions around the world.

However Joseph is also a distinguished classical actor and is coming to Portsmouth next week to appear in the Globe Theatre’s production of King Lear as the titular monarch in Shakespeare’s portrayal of love, betrayal and madness.

He says of being recognised for his role in The Fresh Prince: ‘I’m flattered all the time, it’s when they forget you that you’ve got to worry.

‘I think if anything, the attention gets more intense nowadays and I can’t go anywhere without somewhere telling me about who I am and what I’ve done.

‘It’s incredible, it’s amazing, it’s another one of those things where you think “I got lucky”. And I shall enjoy my luck, because there was no judgment involved there at all.’

Although the show ran from 1990 to 1996, it is still repeated often and Joseph’s role as the family butler alongside Smith’s street-smart teenager remains popular. Joseph, who came to the UK from St Lucia with his family as a youngster, adds: ‘The whole Hollywood thing was never part of my plan – I’m not tall dark and handsome, I’m short, chubby and not too handsome, so to be asked to be in that was wonderful.

‘And for it to become what it has, it’s a phenomenon, people love it, and have grown up with it – it’s lovely.’

His acting career began long before The Fresh Prince ‘flipped his life and turned it upside down, though.

He got an early break when he worked with the massively-acclaimed director Sir Trevor Nunn.

He says: ‘My second job as an actor was at the Royal Shakespeare Society when Trevor Nunn took over in his Roman season – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra. That’s really how I started, and that was in 1972.’

It was when he was playing Othello at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in 1984 that he met Sam Wanamaker, the American actor who was instrumental in recreating Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank, (pictured right).

It was from here that Joseph also became involved in the Globe project. He recalls: ‘I met Sam and he invited me to join the Globe’s council, as it is now – the artistic directorate as it was called at the time, and I was flattered and honoured, and I thought: “Why not?”’

Since last spring, Joseph has been touring the UK as King Lear, performing outdoors on an Elizabethan-style stage – the picture above shows Joseph with Rawiri Paratene as the Duke of Gloucester at the Brighton Festival last summer.

‘The whole point of the tour is to give people outside London, who don’t get the opportunity to come to The Globe to see how the plays are presented,’ he explains. ‘And if it rains, the audiences get wet, the actors get wet and it doesn’t seem to mar their enjoyment in an way.

‘The audiences love it, they love the whole Globe experience, and that’s the most marvellous thing, because we do represent the Globe Theatre from London, which is a national treasure.

‘It’s really quite humbling in a sense. You arrive and there’s an excitement from the people who’ve come to see the play, and we have to do our best – we can’t shirk, we have to be on our mettle.’

But he enjoys performing the play as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day.

‘It’s perfect – the challenges are similar to being in the theatre – your audience is the most important thing, and the point is to keep the play going, to concentrate, to be as honest as you can in the wind... and the rain... and the snow... and the gales. Well, we haven’t had snow yet, but give it time.’

He recalls one particularly memorable performance in Cambridge last July: ‘We were at Corpus Christi College and during our final performance the sky opened – we had thunder and lightning and rain, but the most wonderful thing about it was that it came at the most apposite time, when Lear was on the heath.

‘It was perfection itself, pure magic. We all got soaked of course, but it was magical.’

Even though he has now been playing the role for more than a year, the actor still relishes getting on stage and working at his craft.

‘It is quite a challenge,’ he says of trying to nail Lear’s character. ‘It’s a work in progress, it’s ongoing, the discoveries are extraordinary. You continue to try and make it as real as you can – it’s growing, it’s organic, I don’t think you can ever get to the definitive version.

‘These plays have lasted longer than us, and they will last even longer. We just do our best with them.’

Over the years Joseph has also racked up appearances in an impressive number of UK TV staples – from Dr Who, to EastEnders, Death in Paradise, Holby City, The Bill and many more.

But when asked if he prefers stage or screen, he says: ‘That’s a very difficult question. It’s about what you’re doing. If I’m lucky enough to be in a film, that requires a whole different concentration, a whole different attitude, and a whole different way of being. If I’m doing television. that’s different again, and for theatre.

‘As an actor, you adapt and you hope you can adapt to whatever medium you’re working in.’