Joseph Marcell: “I tried to convince Will Smith to do Shakespeare instead of Independence Day” | Theater
JOoseph Marcell’s life has been dominated by a lot of Shakespeare and a hit sitcom. So when we meet, I bring the lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, which an online joker translated into blank verse. “In West Philadelphia, I was born and raised / On the playground was where I spent most of my days” became “From West Philadelphia I hail, / where in my youth I played on the green âand so on. Sitting across from me in London’s Young Vic bar, the 73-year-old actor laughs softly, stroking his frosty beard as he read the print. ” Oh my God ! ” he says. “Can I keep it?” I’ll have to show Will.
It was Will Smith, of course, who played boiling goofball alive with his wealthy Californian parents, while Marcell was Geoffrey, the family’s withered English butler. When I mention one of his driest lines – “Run Geoffrey!” Go get Geoffroy! You might like me to catch a frisbee in my the teeth? “- he summons the character right there in the empty bar, showing his fangs as he savored that last word, then mocking the memory.
Fresh Prince ran for six years starting in 1990. âThere wasn’t a day that I went to work and wished I was somewhere else,â Marcell says. At its peak, the show drew nearly 20 million US viewers. Even now, strangers in the street will shout Smith’s greeting to Geoffrey, âYo, G! Is the attention constant? âPut it this way: if I walk into a room and I’m not recognized, I’m really mad! “
But it is the Danish prince, rather than the Fresh, who caused our meeting today: Marcell currently delivers a tender and funny Polonius to the Young Vic against Cush Jumbo in Hamlet and Adrian Dunbar (Ted Hastings of Line of Duty) in Claudius. “Polonius is an honest man,” says Marcell. âI try to show that family bond in him. He really cares about his children and he protects Ophelia as best he can.
Seeing a black woman like the prince is revealing, he says. âThe beauty of what Cush does is you forget that she’s a woman because of her skill at delineating the character. Personally, I celebrate having lived long enough to see this happen. It’s time. One of the hardest things, especially with King’s pieces, was that people always reminded you that it was English history, that kind of nonsense. It’s nice to see that this has changed. What is this quote from Sun Tzu? âIf you wait long enough by the river, the bodies of your enemies will float nearby. “
In 2013 at the Globe, where he is also a board member, Marcell became one of seven performers of color to have played King Lear in Britain since 1930, but he never had the chance to give the world its Hamlet despite several appearances at RSC. Were there a lot of other roles he wasn’t invited to play? âOh absolutely. They were servants, et cetera, that I was given. I tried not to pretend. I thought of RSC as a resource that I should use. I’m not Pollyanna-ish but I had a much bigger picture of what I wanted to do with my life than what they had to offer.
Other actors have spoken of a similar treatment they encountered in the company: Ben Kingsley once recalled being told he “would be very good at playing maids.” Marcell is diplomatic, if not circumspect, when discussing his own experiences. âI’m dodging your question because I don’t know how to phrase it, and a lot of it is guesswork,â he said. âBut I think we weren’t considered good enough to pronounce the verse. That had a lot to do with it. You were told that some things might not be possible. The phrase used in my case was, ‘Of course, in a fair world â¦'”
What can you do with a comment like this? “Tell them to fuck off!” he said, giving up diplomacy. âI’m lucky I don’t need the RSC. I can go to Oregon, Washington DC, California. They will let me play whatever I want. Indeed, it was only after leaving the company that he became one of the first Black Othello on the London scene, in a 1984 production at Lyric Hammersmith with SiÃ¢n Thomas as Desdemona. His friend Patrick Stewart told him at the time: “You know, I have never seen Othello played by a black person before.”
What did he bring to the Moor? âIt was the first time the world had seen a cold-blooded Othello,â says Marcell. âHe was not a victim, and the idea of ââthe ‘noble savage’ was not part of my character construction. I presented him as a man who was good at what he did. It was just that he was a little anxious. You had no mercy on my Othello – you regretted that he had this tradition which perhaps made him a little gullible.
Discrimination had been a part of Marcell’s life since he moved from Saint Lucia to London with his family in the mid-1950s, although initially the big shock was weather related. âWhen we got on our way to Bermondsey, there were no leaves on the trees,â he says. “It was terrifying.” Then his father explained to him and his siblings that there were certain areas they should avoid. âThat’s when it got really scary. He said, ‘If you go to a place and the white people start saying things, go. Do not stop. Do not talk. Just go. ‘ Little by little, your instincts take over.
He was working as an electrical engineer when he had his light bulb moment and decided to become an actor. It happened after he and his friends walked past a West End marquee advertising an American Negro Theater show. âSomeone said, ‘Let’s go inside. So we paid half a crown and sat in the gods. I don’t remember what it was, but seeing black actors on stage was amazing. It made me think, âThis is what I want to do. “
Marcell joined the RSC in the early 1970s during Trevor Nunn’s famous Roman season, and returned a decade later. His career has spanned television roles in everything from the groundbreaking drama series Black British Empire Road to EastEnders and Desmond’s. On stage in Bath, he plays the formidable Zimbabwean dictator in Breakfast with Mugabe, while in Leicester, he plays Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. His most fateful stage work, however, came during the RSC’s US tour in the late 1980s, when Patrick Stewart directed him as Angelo in Measure for Measure and as Nagg. in Beckett’s Endgame. It was here that Marcell was spotted by producers launching a new NBC sitcom: in a trash can one moment, in Bel-Air the next.
What were her first impressions of the star of the series? “I thought Will was a bloody fool,” he stammers. During Marcell’s audition, Smith began to improvise wildly. “I turned around and said, ‘Is that how he’s going to do it? âEveryone fell. Including Will, who said, ‘Yeah man, that’s how I’m going to do it.’ Years later, Smith told him, “We knew you were okay, but that’s when we knew you were absolutely right.”
Most of the surviving cast members meet every few years, which comes in handy for Marcell, who divides his time between the UK and his other home in California. He comes back from where he shot a new series for Ryan Murphy, the titan of pop culture with whom he worked on Ratched, the prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest directed by Netflix.
Marcell speaks fondly of his former sitcom colleagues, especially Smith. “What I loved about him – and still love – is that if Will says it is so, then it is.” He is an honorable man. Could he be persuaded to do Shakespeare? “Maybe. I wanted him to play Mark Antony but he was busy with Independence Day. Does he have an Othello in him?” I think he does, yes. But he needs someone who can handle it on stage. He’s almost patting his nose now. “I have plans,” he said. “Leave G.