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Arinzé Kene: 'I'm proud of where I'm from'

COMPLEX CHARACTER: Arinzé Kene is returning to the role of Raymond, which he first played in 2009, with more maturity in the film adaptation which co-stars Michaela Coel

IN BEEN So Long, Arinzé Kene is charm personified. His chemistry with Michaela Coel is captivating and authentic, which makes sense knowing that the two have been friends for years.

Working together was a dream come true for the them both, something they had talked about as teenagers.

“It’s a dream working with Michaela. I got to go to work with my mate every day. “We always wanted to make something together. We didn’t know that it would happen this way... getting to play opposite each other but, yeah, it was cool.

“Michaela and I already have a shorthand and we just had fun on set, we had lots of jokes.”

In the film adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, Kene plays Raymond.

He’s fresh out of prison when he meets single mum Simone, played by Coel, and is instantly smitten. Although they don’t get off to the best of starts, and there are some serious bumps along the way, it’s impossible not to be compelled to want them to end up together after their meet-cute.

Kene’s portrayal of Raymond is wonderful. He comes across extremely at ease with playing this complex character.

His performance is the product of talent, life experience and a familiarity with Raymond, having first played him in 2009 at The Young Vic.

Reflecting on returning to the role, he said: “I had to play all of that stuff without having actually experienced it. For example, being damaged goods, which is what Raymond is, I had to just imagine what it felt like.

“At that time, at the age of 21, I hadn’t had my heart broken... I’d never also been in love by that point and so these were things that over the years I’ve experienced.

“I’ve had my heart broken a number of times, I’ve been in love a number of times and so I was able to come back to Raymond with a little bit more life experience to lend that to my performance.”

With two black leads who are one another’s love interests, and several other prominent black cast members, Been So Long is refreshing – but not just because of the number of black actors and the weight of their roles.

It’s that their stories are not an explanation or examination of blackness. It might be lost on some, but there’s something extraordinary in the ordinary. Kene said: “I love stories where we’re not explaining ourselves, you know what I mean? We’re not like putting other people in our shoes.

“I think we have the right to just tell a story just because and Been So Long is definitely a film that does that. It tells a story just because – a beautiful one at that.”

LONDON LOVE STORY: Arinzé Kene with Michaela Coel in Been So Long

In Britain, opportunities for black actors to sink their teeth into exciting, career-defining and lucrative roles – and ones that aren’t explicitly tied to stereotypical blackness – are still nowhere near as commonplace as they should be, so it’s no surprise that so many have flocked to Hollywood for more challenging and satisfying work. Is it on Kene’s mind?

“I love working with people here. I think, as an actor, when it comes to roles, there’s no denying that at the moment the difference is like night and day between the types of roles available for you if you are a black actor in America – really big, meaty roles just as good as any other that’s going – whereas over here there aren’t as many of those.

“I don’t blame anybody who wants to go over there to try their luck. [For] myself, it’s an open door. America isn’t going anywhere, Hollywood’s not going anywhere – but I love London.”

As much as Been So Long is a story centring on the love between two characters, it’s also a love letter to London.

The city’s identity, and that of those who live in it, is beautifully intertwined with the storyline. It’s something that Kene loves about the film and working in Britain.

“As a storyteller, as a writer, quite a lot of my stories take place in London or in England, anyway, or they’re quite London-centric. For example, Misty [Kene’s play] is, definitely.

“I couldn’t have written it about any other city in the world and although gentrification is happening the world over, in nearly all the major cities in the world, specifically I’ve spoken about London so I wanted it to come on here.

“It would be a dream for it to move around the world but to have it here it makes me very proud.

“I’m proud of where I’m from, where I grew up, anyway, and Been So Long is another great opportunity to pay homage to the streets where I’ve grown up.”

Been So Long is available to watch on Netflix now.

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