He grew up in the East End of London and was brought up by his Nigerian father. After attending Drama Centre, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was nominated for an Ian Charlestown award for his performance in ION.
Ariyon’s past film credits include Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi film Life (2017), Rogue One; A Star Wars Story, ‘Greeghan’ in the Wachowski’s ‘Jupiter Ascending’, and Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’.
Ariyon is best known for his extensive and varied television work, including the BBC mini-series ‘A Respectable Trade’, ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, ‘Dancing on the Edge’.
He has recently wrapped filming on the second series of BBC/HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ and Amazon’s ‘Carnival Row.’
So Black History Month caught up with him.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
As long as I can remember. I was a creative child. I seemed to excel at Music, Drama and English at school. Fortunately, I had incredibly supportive drama teachers who introduced me to plays, which I lapped up. I spent my weekends either reading plays or watching films. I loved the escapism quality of it all.
What reaction did you get when you told your parents you wanted to become a performer?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a standard question in any Nigerian household. Parents, Aunts and Uncles would ask instantly, sometimes even before hello. The stock answer of Doctor or a Lawyer would then be received with a downturn smile, hum of approval accompanied with a shoulder grab and jubilant reactions, stretching out the word laaaaawyer Bakare, Dooooctor Bakare!
At one of these rituals, I remember my father and other family members, asking me and my siblings and cousins one by one the dreaded question. The hum of approval held chorally in the air until the word ‘Actor’ came out of my mouth.
A long silence was followed by “Are you mad!?.” Aunts would wipe their hands together in a syncopated fashion. Uncles would laugh at me- “what kind of foolish profession is that?” and the sterner ones would say “Go read your books!”
For many years, I defended my choice then one day I made it a secret desire. I stopped speaking about it because I thought my family members’ vehement reaction to my career path was controlling. It was not until much later that I had an epiphany – they were not trying to control my career choice but more trying to protect me and guide me into a profession where they knew that black people in the UK had succeeded in the past.
They were predicting my acting career to be filled with disappointment, failure, and prejudice. Who can blame them? It was the late seventies – in their eyes, acting was a white man’s game.
How did you get your first big break and what was it?
My big break came in two halves. The first was the “William Poel exhibition” at the National Theatre.
Ricky Fearon and I were chosen to represent our Drama school, performing a classical piece of our choice. We did a play called “BELIEVE AS YOU LIST’ by Phillip Massinger.
We were the only black men in our year and so the opportunity to perform on the national stage was mind-blowing and a career-changing experience for me.
The second big break came when I got my first professional job. I was in the second term of the third year at Drama Centre.
I auditioned for the RSC when its London residency was at the Barbican. The play was ION by Euripides starring Jude Law. I was offered it at the beginning of my third term and started three months later.
What medium do you enjoy the best…live theatre, TV, or the movies?
It is hard to choose which I enjoy the most as each medium has qualities that excite me.
Theatre is about expressing emotion through words and film is about expressing emotion through pictures. The depth of stories and characters, the immediacy and the passion in theatre draws me to it constantly- there is no feeling like it.
With screen though, every job is fascinating as the most minimal of reactions can create such huge emotional effects. The internal quality of film suits my sensibility because those moments are real, brief, and even though it is a random and rather artificial setting, you find a way to zone out the banality of it all and surrender to the character, setting and scenario. Knowing you only have a few takes to get things right, your instincts are all that is left to rely on, and the final outcome is out of your hands. To me, that uncertainty is what it is all about!!!
Then there are the people, I get inspired by the work that is produced behind the scenes- Carol Mccall (costume designer for His Dark Materials), Seamus Mcgarvey (cinematographer), Francisco Pegoretti (hair designer) and so many more actors’ directors and production runners.
Every day, I get to work with a team of talented people, and it makes it a pleasure to wake up in the morning. So, I guess film is my first love, but theatre is my mistress.
What so far have been your most satisfying role/s?
Theatre – playing Martin Luther King in Katori Hall’s Mountaintop
TV- Stephen Black in Dr. Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrel and Lord Boreal in His Dark Materials
Film- playing Hugh Derry in Life directed by Daniel Espinoza- probably best job to date.
Was there a moment when you realized you could make a living from acting?
Yes, when I realized that the creative side of acting and the business side of being an actor go hand in hand. One does not negate the other. When you find yourself hiring managers, accountants, lawyers, and publicists, you soon realize you are running a small business. It takes a whole team of people to create a successful career not just talent alone.
Do you think the move towards diversity over the past few years in the entertainment industry has had influence especially for you as a person of colour?
I never saw my color as a hinderance, even though the racial barrier was obviously there.
Maybe my naivete comes from my `Nigerian upbringing. Back in Nigeria, the word “black” was never a preface to describe anything I do. I mean could you imagine in Africa saying – The black actor, the black man, the black singer.
Back there, one’s description of a person is more specific to the individuals’ personal attributes not to their colour.
But reminded I was, even in the most subtle ways. I mean, if you ask every black actor, we all probably had some sort of success from playing the slave narrative or hood culture and I am grateful for being able to play those stereotype tropes.
But I soon became aware of the many untold stories from my culture. The time spent with my father finding myself engrossed in stories of his past, early days in the UK or back home in Nigeria; or watching my nephews navigate their way through this world as people of colour.
I find myself fascinated by the stories that present themselves to me daily.
Each one with a beginning, middle and end; each one with a person of colour guiding me through the rollercoaster-narrative. I am reminded then that we are all creators, and creating is the fabric of society, of culture, of existence. These creative pools are vast. It is time to shine a light on them.
Yes, things have dramatically moved forward but more needs to be done and this should not be left in the hands of one race.
What stories can we tell that have a universal appeal; what unusual worlds can we transport an audience to?
The true art of Storytelling is about touching hearts, causing action and being effective.
My career depends on storytellers: writers, producers, directors, costume/production designers, hair and make-up, the list goes on.
With the rise of streaming services, there is no better time for people of all ages, class, and ethnic backgrounds to choose this as a career path. There is room within the industry for all storytellers from all walks of life, the future is hopeful for these stories to come to light.
What are your future plans for the next twelve months?
I have just finished filming the second season of Carnival Row. I am about to start filming a job that was postponed earlier on in the year because lockdown in Tenerife and then I go off to do a truly exciting new piece in Edinburgh.
With NDAs all over everything, you can never really say too much.
Have you found casting directors are now more confident in offering black performers parts on stage, in movies or on TV?
The blame is not down to the casting directors, directors, or producers- the problem goes beyond that.
I am here because I have been cast by many casting directors. Where one casting director will put you forward for a project, there is another person higher up the chain who will say no.
Motives and reasons rarely trickle down. So, the blame-game happens; but I do feel people in the industry are being more confident and creative with their choices and their colour blind casting visons are being heard.
Finally, what advice can you offer to young Black people considering working in showbusiness?
Do not be a victim to the excuses -internal or external, challenge them and overcome them.
Read, read, and read some more. Draw from your life experiences and let your own personal uniqueness be the power in every room you walk into.