Hero star Nickolai Salcedo: “We need to see the good in ourselves”

The star of a new film about a Trinidadian war veteran talks about why telling these stories is important, how he got started in acting, and growing up in the Caribbean

TRULY AMAZING: In a scene from Hero, Nickolai Salcedo plays Trinidadian war veteran Ulric Cross

PRODUCED AND directed by Frances-Anne Solomon, Hero tells the story of Trinidadian war veteran Ulric Cross, a role performed and executed with aplomb by Nickolai Salcedo.

A visual performing artist, Salcedo told Lifestyle that it was important that films like Hero were made as “stories like this highlight the ways in which black people have come together, set with the intention of rising above themselves and their differences to serve a common purpose”.

Hero features a host of celebrated British actors including Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), playing the role of writer CLR James; Fraser James, playing the role of George Padmore and British-Nigerian actor Jimmy Akingbola (Holby City), playing Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah.

But not a lot is known about Salcedo … until now.

Lifestyle: For those who aren’t au fait with who you are, how did you become an actor and what road led you to Hero?
Nickolai Salcedo: I started a minor in Theatre Arts while pursuing my Bachelors Degree in Visual Art at the University of the West Indies in 2000. I didn’t stick with the minor as I wanted to get into other areas of study, such as music.

This scholastic foray, however, gave me an introduction to a few key players in Trinidad’s theatre world. In the years following I became a school art teacher, occasionally dabbling with a theatre production or two. That lasted until 2010 when I left the job to focus on my music.

Then in 2012, my friend Timmia Hearn asked me to join the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW) as an in-house actor. That was when I became an actor in the professional sense, diving into the deep with the company’s productions of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Samuel Shepard’s Fool For Love.

At this point, Hero was having auditions but I didn’t qualify at the time as my hair was in long dreadlocks. One crisis of identity later and the locks were cut. Then in 2013, while I was still working for TTW, Hero was having a second round of auditions and someone told me I should go for it. My expectations weren’t high but I thought I’d give it a shot. A couple readings later I got the call. I had no idea what to expect but pretty soon I was being trained to eat, sleep, walk and talk like Ulric.

L: You are Trini to the bone – how did your early years help to define the person that is Nickolai Salcedo today?
NS: I was always very quiet and reserved. I have always been a loner. I was heavily bullied during my school years in Trinidad and I constantly struggled with thoughts of suicide and implosion.

Art was the only thing that kept me going. It was a drug to me. I couldn’t stop drawing. I lived through my work. Comic books, heavy metal music and the fantasy worlds in my head were all at that time coming out in a jumbled mess every time I drew or wrote something.

During those years I was obsessed with identity a lot. A big question from that time till now has remained: what does it mean to be a Trinidadian or even Caribbean person other than just simply belonging to a geographical group?

Even as a child, I couldn’t buy into many of the things that those around me wanted me to accept. Most of my peers were into dancehall music and trying to emulate the gangsters on television. Meanwhile I was trying to make sense of my life as a child of divorced parents and a sibling of two rather rambunctious brothers.

I never understood “bad man” culture. I’ve watched how it slowly eroded a lot of the positives in Trinidadian society. Similarly, I never really understood religion. I gave up on that at 15 and politics followed not too long after.

The world outside could think what it wanted, but as someone growing up in the economic and social rollercoaster of Trinidad in the 80s and 90s, I knew it wasn’t the paradise that people spoke of.

After a brief period of study under the mentorship of Master Artist and Orisha Chief Leroy Clarke, I found someone who validated (probably unbeknownst to him) my increasing disenchantment with sweet, sweet T&T.

My art became my response. Through it, I channelled all the hurt and confusion and disenchantment of my youth and found my voice. When I eventually started my band in 2007, I found a way to disseminate my thoughts using the stage and theatricality.

Owing to my passively turbulent youth, from a relatively early stage of my career I made the decision to be an artist who avoids frivolity in his work. Now here I stand today, still fulfilling the mandate.

L: With Hero, you really got stuck into it – what was it about the movie that made it work for you?
NS: I really fell in love with Hero’s story. As an actor and storyteller myself, that’s always the first thing I’m looking for. The story which the characters in a film are living is where I find the lessons and morals and resolutions for my own life.

“We need to see the good in ourselves. Young people need to see the value in what they choose to do”

From inception with Hero, I really appreciated the film’s bold stance of representing the Caribbean contributions to recent geopolitical history. History is written by the victors, who of course portray themselves as natural conquerors. This story, however, is the voice of those who worked to remove the shackles imposed upon them by using the very systems put in place to oppress them.

There was a clear ambition in the film that I felt had been sorely lacking for a long time; at least in the films I had been seeing. It was all too exciting. How could one say no to that?

L: From your perspective how important is it to be telling these stories?
NS: Stories like this are extremely important.

For starters, they show us that the negative stereotypes that continue to flood our screens about African people are ignorant and one-sided at best and, perhaps, dangerously intentional at their worst. After all, colonialism never really ended, did it?

The players may have changed or shifted their positions of importance on the field, but the game is still in play without any end in sight.

But even more important is the fact that stories like this highlight the ways in which black peoples have come together, set with the intention of rising above themselves and their differences to serve a common purpose.

This is something which I believe African peoples especially need now more than ever.

We need to see the good in ourselves. Our young people need to see the good in themselves. They need to see the value in what they choose to do and who they choose to become.

I mean, let’s face it, Ulric could have chosen to live a dead-end existence like so many around him and like so many around us now. But his bold decision to pursue a path of service to worthy causes took him to places he could have only dreamed of had he remained small-minded.

What he and his companions aimed for was a noble enterprise; and despite their efforts having in many ways been thwarted, they nevertheless stand as giants in my book.

L: Was it easy to deliver on the vision of director Frances-Anne Solomon?
NS:
Over the course of this film, I’d like to think that Frances-Anne Solomon and I grew to have a friendly respect for one another. I am a firm believer in listening to the director. Their very title commands adherence to vision.

Although her style was new to me at the time that I started the project, I very soon came to trust and I would even say like it. Her approach is one that allowed me to sit in the character’s skin and just channel Ulric’s life and thoughts.

In many ways, Frances-Anne encouraged a rather collaborative experience. It was as though she wanted me to just be myself in a different era, which brought me face-to-face with the infinite universality of time, if that makes any sense. All the same issues that plagued humanity then, still plague us today – and Frances-Anne was highlighting them all and in the process, re-presenting solutions to us today.

L: Lastly, there are a plethora of positive contributions from Mr Ulric Cross (his life was truly amazing) – what though, for you was the most pertinent part?
NS: Ulric’s years in Africa stand out to me. As those countries were becoming independent, the constitutional framework that he helped to provide was crucial. His years in the war was him fighting as just another “coloured pawn” in someone else’s battle. But the work he did on the constitution for the United States of Africa under the guidance of Padmore and Nkrumah is where he truly allowed himself to be swept up in the winds of change.

I think it’s also because through the Pan African Movement he was finally given the chance to practice what he loved most… law. I think being finally given that opportunity pushed him to greater heights.

It’s amazing the kind of things people can achieve when they are granted the chance to operate in their field of expertise.

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