Samantha Pearl interviewed by Mayowa Olowoselu for Black History Month

I had a great conversation with actress Samantha Pearl, on a grey afternoon over the phone. The conversation flowed easily and was a wonderful chance to hear about the perspective of a black woman in the film and tv industry. I learned so much from her and I hope you enjoy our conversation. Thank you so much to Samantha for speaking to me, make sure you check out her latest appearance on Ghosts by BBC. 

Are you reading a book at the moment? 

I am currently reading Natives by Akala and I am really enjoying it. It’s really interesting to see the research he has been doing and really dig into a book that I am not just reading to my children! 

Now that Covid restrictions have been relaxed is there anything you are looking forward to this Black History Month? 

I actually live far from a city now, so I will need to search for things. I live in […] and really there is nothing going on locally. Usually, I come into London for Black History Month although I know there are things at the Winchester Science Centre so I will take my children to see what is going on. When you are out of London it feels things can be less accessible. For example, Winchester Science Centre says they are proud to support Black History Month but all they have on offer is a late screening of Black Panther which I can’t take my young children to! 

It’s quite interesting because people seem to want to show their support of Black History Month but they do not know what to do. 

I will definitely come into London more now that covid restrictions have been lifted as I lived in London for a decade. My Black History Month this year will be coming into London and seeing what is going on there. Since the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, people were really up on it when the marches were going on and said yeah, we support black businesses. My child is starting school soon so I will definitely see what I can be involved in and ask the school how they will support Black History Month even if it is just a poster board. 

How do you feel about black history month? Is it something you look forward to? 

Black History Month is so exciting because the point of it is to make black history universally celebrated; it is supposed to be everyone together celebrating black people and their impact and contribution to Modern Britain. People think Black History Month is about excluding and badmouthing white people when that is not the objective! You can’t ignore the history of people who suffered from racism and are still in the county. Why are we preaching to the choir! It should be universally celebrated as a chance to learn about different people. 

Did you hear about the Channel 4 Black To Front programming at the end of September? 

Having small children has made it hard for me to keep up with what is happening on terrestrial tv, although I do try. It was really interesting seeing what CBeebies has done to try and fill in the gap. There has definitely been more effort to try and make children’s tv more inclusive 

I think it was cool because I personally do not watch a lot of terrestrial tv, so the entertainment I watch is more diverse than the mainstream, I wonder how it must have felt to switch on tv and see everything from a different perspective. 

There has been a rise of black British actors who have gained recognition after taking on ground- breaking roles in the USA. Have you ever felt the need to break the US market to gain some recognition in the arts? 

I didn’t go to the States, I have been quite lucky in my career as I predominantly work in theatre. Within theatre I have been able to play a massively diverse range of roles. The issue has always been film and television because of the stereotypes placed on black people and actors. I worked off Broadway and I was so close to going to the USA because the roles available to me were so much more diverse in the USA. I was so tired of the ways in which roles in the UK were written; it was always only one black side kick, there could never be two mixed race women for example. 

I am a middle-class black woman, so I do not fit a lot of the parts that are cast because these roles are often stereotypes of black people. It’s not that I couldn’t play them, but they offer the roles to people who are closer to those perspectives – which makes sense! It makes me wonder about roles for young black people who do not exist within certain stereotypes because we as people obviously experience the full gamut of human life and experiences, but we do not get to portray that. 

The issue is within casting. Covid ironically opened up my casting experiences as I film auditions from home and send them in. Before the pandemic it was always the same very talented black actresses getting roles which is fine – of course I am happy for their success! But it was frustrating because there are so many black actresses and actors, but the industry is only open to accepting very few of us at a time. 

It is interesting you mention stereotypes of black people in British film and tv. There was always space for films like Kidulthood but rarely for anything out of this genre. Of course, this film is important because it reflects a reality for some people – but not everything with black people needs to be gritty, urban and hard-hitting; we have interests, passions, loves. 

Yes! It and it has been lovely to see the roles open to black people opening up over the last few years. The issue with stereotypes is that people will meet you with preconceived notions. Like in my time people expect me to be super cool, but I am not! I am from a small town outside Oxford, not Kidulthood. I would say we are misrepresented, not underrepresented, there are multiple ways to view us. 

I really enjoyed seeing Belle. The director, Amma Asante conducted all the research for the film and showed that we have a long rich history in the UK and even in the aristocracy. Black people the UK also have existed throughout all aspects, classes and cultures within the UK. We have a lot of period dramas in the UK, so it was similarly great to see Bridgerton earlier this year. It is beautiful to seeing black people portrayed in aristocratic roles. 

We are seeing more and more stories of black people in period dramas but it is also nice to see fulfilling roles as everyday people. 

I think sometimes film and tv portray black people as a spectacle, there are so many facets to us but only the most fantastical elements of our experience are given voice and representation. 

There is a misconception that black people in the UK only live in the cities but that is no longer true, black people live all over the country and so have multiple versions of Britishness. We need to see all aspects. 

If you had the funding for any project, what would you do? 

I am actually writing which is such an actor thing to say! It is a sitcom based around a small town but some of the lead characters are black. I would love it if someone could throw some money my way, even if it takes 20 years to get it done. The point is I deliberately made the main characters black. We wanted to centre a black women’s friendship without them being related. The two black female characters have very different life experiences and they are brought together through a baby group. 

I wanted the story to not be London centric because there are more and more black people living outside of the main cities in the UK 

It’s great to hear different perspectives about what black people can and want to do. We just need the platform! 

As I was coming up, I was part of several acting groups and looked to network with other black actors. I was inspired by people who came from nothing but really pushed to get their recognition and pushed to get their films and projects made. Some people are ready to fight, their tenacity and the fact they have had to fight for so long is inspirational. 

How have you found navigating your identity in film and tv? 

It can get at you, people are unsure of what to make of me, they have issue with my complexion based on stereotypes of mixed-race women or make comments on my hair, ‘Your hair is quite afro, isn’t it?’ I have had people be shocked that I am mixed race and say that, ‘You’re too dark!’ Things like that don’t really get said now but it is something that has happened. I have had to take time to step back and think about how I feel about myself. Even if people say I’m too dark, I have to remind myself that I am still black and I love myself and proudly. 

The casting process can be a challenging aspect as an actor. Casting directors also have the issue of getting a lot of black people into auditions, but it is just for a quota. They know they are not interested in us. Which is why I am so inspired by people who fight for their films to be made or fight to get their recognition. There are so many stories about us that need to be told 

Have you seen Small Axe by Alexander McQueen? 

No, unfortunately. It’s on my list. 

It was great, really nice to see black British history on tv. Small Axe portrayed the life and struggles of British black people over the last 60 years and was really inspirational. However, it made me a bit sad because I thought; do black creatives in the UK have to get to the heights of someone like Steve McQueen for our stories to be heard? 

Wow that does sound great, my parents and siblings said it was great. I think my black History Month will be filled with catching up on black tv shows and films that I have missed. I also want to read Afropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts. That’s on my list for when I finish Natives

What has been one of your favourite roles in your career so far? 

I really enjoyed the role I performed in St Joan for Pascal Theatre in 2015. I loved that role, it was amazing. I also performed a role of a sex-trafficked Nigerian Child named Tunde, in Dream Pill with Clean Break. Most recently I enjoyed my role in Ghosts. It was really fun. 

What was so great about Ghosts is that the main characters are a couple who inherit a crumbling country mansion. The wife can see Ghosts, but her husband cannot. I was brought in to play the husband’s sister, so his parents and siblings came over for Christmas. It was brilliant because we were just cast as a black family coming in for Christmas. Our race and ethnicity were not central to the role, and it was not mentioned at all. The actors who portrayed my parents have been in the industry for a long time and noted how great it was that our race was not important in the role. Working on Ghosts was a great experience. It was a super important role because it was on BBC at prime time at Christmas, just a black family on tv with no further comments. 

How was the pandemic affected your work? 

My career has changed a lot anyway over the last 4-5 years because I had to pause and have children. As I was already auditioning much less before the pandemic, I was actually able to audition a bit more at home. The pandemic actually opened more doors for me. That’s the beauty of self- taping. I can stay in my house, have time to send in the performance I want to. Being in the room with the casting director is important and some of my auditions would have been better in person. However, now casting directors can see more tapes than before and will be exposed to more talent. 

The pandemic has changed family life, people are able to work more flexibly and it has disrupted our work life balance. However, on the other hand, with pandemic the closing of production affected some of the work my husband could do. If I was still doing as much theatre as I did before I had my children, I would not have been able to have any work as it has been so sad to see so many theatre companies close down. 

The industry definitely needed a change. It’s unfortunate that it took a sickness that killed millions of people around the world. Some have had more time to spend with their families and spend less time travelling. 

Do you have any roles coming up soon we should look forward to? 

Not at the moment, I have been auditioning a lot so hopefully something comes up. But I have a family which can be a bit difficult to balance with a career in the arts. My writing is really important to me at the moment. 

Writing as an actor is quite interesting too, I used to hate it when people will say if you can’t see the roles you want, you should write them because I’m an actor, not a writer! But it has been a fun reflective moment for me.

Samantha Pearl interviewed by Mayowa Olowoselu for Black History Month