I have Mr Reader and Miss Woods to thank for where I am today. I'd like to give kids the confidence those teachers gave me

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Portrait by Neil Turner

I absolutely loved school. I had just four days off in five years at Washwood Heath comprehensive, in Birmingham. But I was a bit of a tearaway, always messing about, a joker, and I was often thrown out of class. I regret now that I didn't take more notice. I was the backbone of most of the sports teams and enthusiastic about life in general.

There was one teacher I really feared. In those days they were allowed to use the slipper on kids. He had this enormous trainer and he would crack you on the backside with it. I tried hard not to get sent to him often.

I have Mr Reader and Miss Woods to thank for where I am today. I was about 15 with no idea what to do for a job, and one day they called me in and asked if I'd thought of acting. They'd seen me performing in school plays, and before that I'd delivered a long comedy speech in assembly and got an encore. As they said this a light bulb went on in my head and I thought:

"That's it!"

They helped me get the prospectuses for different drama schools - which all ended up in the school library, so I'm responsible for the file A for Actor - and helped me fill in the forms. It seemed a bit crazy because I didn't know anything about acting and I'd only read three plays in my life.

I got on to a National Youth Theatre summer course and Mr Reader wrote to my parents - my dad was a long-distance lorry driver and my mum a school helper - and told them not to worry because I had talent. But my parents did worry because there were few black actors then and it didn't seem a good career choice. Now they are so proud, although that didn't really happen until I was in The Bill.

I got into Rada and on my first day I was surrounded by people talking about Moli re, Chekhov, Brecht, and when they got to me I said I had no idea who any of them were. At Rada the director Stephen Dartnell taught me to treat acting as a journey of the imagination. He advised me to smoke a joint then look at the page over and over. That way, he said, your imagination takes over and learning the words comes after.

It just seemed to be the way things were in those days; students all seemed to smoke in a casual sort of way. But I can't imagine anyone giving that advice now - I certainly wouldn't. The whole drug scene has become much more sinister and I would counsel any young person not to get drawn into drug-taking. Becoming a father has made me see things differently. These days music relaxes me better.

I didn't keep in touch with Mr Reader and Miss Woods after I left, but years later, when I was in Antony and Cleopatra at the Plymouth Playhouse, Mr Reader came backstage afterwards. We had a chat and when I told him that all I had now was down to him, I saw a tear in his eye.

I'm a successful actor now, but I'm also still a kid from Birmingham who understands how my life could have been less fortunate. I wanted to do something with young people when I met director Jeremy Weller, who runs the Grassmarket Project. He works with young people bringing them to workshops and then he helps them put on performances.

I first worked with Jeremy in New York with street gangs, and I was shocked and moved by the young black lads telling me I was the first black man who had treated them with respect; the others gave them a hard time and tried to sell them drugs. I have been doing workshops for GMP's The Foolish Young Man with marginalised young people from Camden and it will open at the refurbished Roundhouse Studios. I can't wait to see their faces when the applause comes. I'd like to feel I give these kids some of the confidence my best teachers gave me.

Actor David Harewood was talking to Angela Neustatter

The story so far

1965 Born in Birmingham

1969 St Benedict's primary, Birmingham

1976 Washwood Heath comprehensive, Birmingham

1985 Attends Rada

1990 Appears in BBC's Casualty. Also appears in The Vice, Babyfather, Kavanagh QC, Ballykissangel, Silent Witness

1993 Feature film The Hawk. Other credits include An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1997), The Merchant of Venice (2004), Separate Lies (2005)

2004 Plays Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials at National Theatre

2005 Plays Hotspur in Henry IV parts I and II at National

2006 Adviser on The Foolish Young Man (June 1-4. www.roundhouse.org.uk)

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