Amongst the turbulence that is Hollywood stands 24-year-old Archie Madekwe, an island of calm firmly planted amid the rushing rivers of life. For some, being cast in a leading role by Apple opposite the likes of Alfre Woodard and Jason Mamoa may be the golden opportunity to cut ties with your less shiny, former, self in place of the promise and glamour of a new identity. Yet first impressions of the 6’4” South Londoner reveal true gratitude for all that has shaped him into the person he is now becoming.
Since landing his West End debut whilst still at drama school, Archie has been developing an impressive resume that includes folk horror Midsommar, BBC’s Les Mis and indie feature Teen Spirit opposite Elle Fanning to name a few. AppleTV+’s sci-fi drama See is arguably the culmination of this; his biggest project to date and certainly the most high profile, considering it is the premiere of perhaps the most anticipated and prestigious streaming service of 2019.
We meet to talk about the shifts in his universe that no one could have predicted, and how easily such experiences can shake your sense of self. Yet it is friends, family and a commitment to not taking himself too seriously that keep Archie’s roots deep. According to the young actor, it is all very much still a work in progress. Here, however, photographer Lauren Maccabee captures the strength of an artist that commands total ownership of himself and his projects. Stylist Sophie Casha offers textures and patterns to contrast and compliment that inner stillness: a strength that reveals itself as a flash of colour, and one that seems - on the outside, anyway - far from easily shaken.
We love to jump in at the deep end with an existential one: who is Archie?
Archie tries his best to be open and empathetic. He is trying to move around this crazy thing called life that nobody really understands whilst having fun. I'm just doing my thing! It's difficult when you lay it out like that. Getting really existential but... I think labels can sometimes be too boxing. I feel that maybe the point of life is to never really stick to any one boxed avenue, so I'm just coming through life as an open book and seeing where it goes.
Who or what inspires you?
Human beings in general. In terms of my work, Steve McQueen as a filmmaker, Olivia Coleman as an actor and Marion Cotillard's performance in La Vie en Rose. Then there are people in my personal life: my mum. She is a huge inspiration and a main driving force for me.
In what ways has your childhood shaped the person you are today?
I didn't necessarily have a conventional childhood. My parents split up pretty early. It wasn't always the nicest of surroundings but, throughout all of those experiences, I felt so loved. I felt very supported, and I guess maybe that gave me the freedom to pursue the job I'm now doing in a way that not everybody has access to. It also made me fiercely independent. Dealing with your parents splitting up and everything that surrounds that at a young age, you have to mature quite early and kind of take on the role of guardian before your years. So, I became more aware of my emotions earlier on. I'm very grateful for that.
Our recent print issue was centred on happiness and ways to achieve it. What makes you happy?
Simple things. Being with my friends, my family and my nephew, Ezra. I think one of the biggest lessons in the madness that has been this recent influx of work is that - even though these jobs have been everything I would have anticipated - you think it’s going to bring you total happiness. But sometimes when you put all your energy into one thing and forget about all the other small things, you realise very early on: ‘shit, I'm not actually that happy when I'm neglecting my friendships, or neglecting the smaller things that I actually value'.
It definitely changed my perception of what I thought would make me happy and I had to kind of realign those. Work and my job still bring me so much happiness, but I couldn't just rely on that because it's kind of empty when you just rely on one thing. The unexpected joys of life sometimes bring you so much happiness - like the random encounters you have with strangers or friends on a night out, or stumbling across a song on Spotify. Those things are what life is about - if you neglect those it becomes a bit dull.
So you trained at BRIT and then LAMDA. Have you had any doubts along the way that this is maybe not the career you wanted to go into? Have you ever thought about changing paths?
Good question in the way that you phrased that because BRIT set me up and taught me that I could do anything. But it was actually going to drama school that boxed that for me a tiny bit and made me think, 'oh maybe I can't'. With a lot of drama schools - elite British drama schools, not just LAMDA - it's a particular experience when you're a person of colour. It was just a sort of navigation through the arts that I'd never experienced before - and this is a world issue - that people often see the colour of your skin before they see anything else.
So, there were labels attached to me that I hadn't put on myself. Hearing something like, 'you can never do a period drama because you're too urban', that all of a sudden stuns you and makes you think 'what does that mean? Does everyone view me like that?'. 'Urban' or 'street' or 'hood’… I'm not physically hood at all, it's just a connotation attached to the fact that I was mixed race, but then you're forced to hold up this mirror to yourself and constantly think about the ways other people view you. It's not healthy. There are not many careers that force you to do that, and when you start getting into your head about it, it comes with so much self-doubt. There are so many times when you're on set where imposter syndrome sets in and you’re like, 'God, this is going to be the one where everyone realises that I can't actually do this and I've been faking it'.
But then it's lovely every time when you work with a good batch of people or it feels artistically fulfilling and you are reminded as to why you love doing it. There have definitely been people along the way that have kind of nice blind-sided me for a sec, but there's been so much strength in learning that those opinions actually don't matter. I've learned so much from knowing that those people exist, and not just in the arts.
A lot of people would call Kofun and See your ‘breakout role’. Do you believe in the idea of a ‘big break’?
Sure, but I think no one can predict what job is going to be the 'big break'. You know, no one knew that Stranger Things was going to pick up the way it did. It doesn't matter the kind of budget - I've been lucky enough to have had some quite high-profile jobs that haven't taken off in that same way. See has definitely been my biggest job so far and the one I've had the most control over creatively. Whether or not it becomes a ‘big break’ is another thing. Even then, I think a big break is just whether or not you have the power to get things greenlit, and then you have the privilege of a pool of jobs at your dispense - which would be lovely.
There are certainly challenges that come with opening up a new streaming service. You have to wait for audiences to get on board and I think with Apple TV+, it's going to be a slow burn because people are still discovering it, and Apple is very aware of that. Once people around the world start to slowly pick up on a show, who knows what the outcome will be. I'm just lucky to be a part of it.
Of course. It's one thing having such a high-profile production with an amazing cast, but being the premiere of a new streaming service in itself is a challenge.
One hundred per cent. It comes with so many obstacles and it's a learning process. But it's been so much fun being able to say that we were there from the start. Apple has given us so much creative freedom and control: we had almost two months of rehearsal period, where we were able to really build this world from the ground up. You know, how does music play a part in society now? What does school look like? What games do people play? All of those things we really got to invent ourselves which is so rare for the screen. It’s just been a privilege and I also think, most importantly, whilst having the space to do that, making sure we accurately represent the blindness community. Joe Strechay was our producer and main blindness consultant, and everything went through him: he would be on every set before we stepped on. He is a man who’s blind himself and we just learned so much from him. I can't speak on behalf of the community, but just from what I've heard, I think people are feeling happy with the way that the show has represented them. They feel like it has spoken accurately to that truth, and that's what it should be about.
Where do you sit in relation to your character, Kofun?
We have a bunch of similarities and a bunch of differences. With most characters, you usually pull from things you know. Kofun is very empathetic and in touch with his emotions which I think I can relate to and I really love that about him.
But sometimes he's a little less upfront: he takes a step back more often than I probably would have. There are times I wished he would have made the leap or had the guts to do something. He progresses as the story progresses. His strength, his courage, his sense of self - it comes from a fear within which is a result of his circumstances and the way he's been brought up. I personally haven't felt that kind of threat; I don't know what it's like to be constantly on the run and in hiding. Some people do which is why the show is so brilliant: it still speaks to things that people can understand now. I think that you have to create those differences between yourself and your character. If you continue to play everything you know then the tone always feels the same. I had to make sure I fleshed out different lines: that I had a different set of rules that he holds true to himself.
See has just been renewed by AppleTV+ for a second season. What would you like to see happen to Kofun and Haniwa in season 2?
I would like the audience to really recognise that growth in Kofun. I'd like to see him maturing. I think there's a beautiful innocence to Haniwa and Kofun because of the way they have been protected and sheltered from the world. As they grow up and are exposed to the outside world, they have to mature very quickly. I think Haniwa will deal with that better than Kofun. Kofun and Haniwa are yin and yang and really need each other in a lot of ways, but I love the moments where Kofun is able to stand on his own and it would be nice to see some more of that.
What has been the greatest lesson learnt whilst filming See?
Maybe a reinforced lesson of the importance of community of the cast, and that's partly why I love doing this job. You really have to be there for each other. We were out in the wilderness during winter in British Columbia for eight months, shooting outdoors the entire time. It was difficult and emotions ran high - we were shut down for fire, wind, rain, snow, bears; everything. But throughout that, we really held each other's hands. This has been a new experience for a lot of us, for Nesta (Haniwa) and I especially, and we really leaned on each other. It felt like we were siblings in real life and I'm so grateful for that because without her throughout that experience, I think I would have been lost.
We’ve already touched on how you prepared for the role of Kofun in an artistic sense. How did you prepare for the practical reality of being cast as a principal character in such a high-profile series?
I think there’s nothing that can prepare you. I auditioned for another character initially, and then they asked me to re-tape for Kofun. But before this, I'd met with the casting director just to talk about the series, which doesn't necessarily always happen. I was in LA when they were building this show and physically I may have fit into this world. We spoke about the script, and then I was recalled for Kofun.
Sometimes with your agents, if there is interest and the casting director really likes your tape, there's possible talk of screen testing but there’s also talk of going straight to offer from the tape. My agents were going to push for an offer before my test and I said I wanted to test. The imposter syndrome is already real enough when you're on those jobs, and I needed to know that my idea of what this character was matched theirs. I was so happy I did that because the screen test itself was a once in a lifetime experience where we shot on location in the middle of the forest with a full crew. I tested with two different girls. The other girl was great but I just instantly knew that Nesta was the part - even more than I knew that I was the part. She was brilliant, and the chemistry was there immediately. I'm grateful I did that because had I not, I think there would have been a small seed of doubt constantly growing throughout the entire time. It's difficult enough on most jobs to quiet that anyway.
How is the imposture syndrome now?
I don't think that ever leaves! But now I definitely have ownership of the character and of the project. I was talking with Francis, our director, about how to make the show still feel like ours because we switch up the directors throughout each of the first three episodes and half of the last one. He said, ‘you have to own it. This is your show. You know these characters better than any director that comes on here. You need to make sure you own them’, and that kind of stayed with me. We really fought for the integrity of our characters often on set with the writing. Having the freedom to really fight for Kofun made me feel a kinship with him. So, the imposture syndrome is quiet now. I feel better.
Judging by some of your past work, the grotesque (The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Midsommar) or dystopian ‘otherness’ (Voyagers, See) seems to be a bit of a running theme. Is that something you are conscious of?
I think it's subconscious. Though, I'm definitely into things that challenge and surprise an audience in a way that they aren’t prepared for. That was my main takeaway with The Goat. I loved that so many audiences stepped into a play featuring Damian Lewis not knowing that they were going to watch a play about a man having sex with a goat. The reaction was so mixed: people would cry, laugh, slam their chairs in disgust, walk out - but there was so much joy in those reactions because whatever happened, it was going to spark some kind of debate. With Midsommar, I already knew having seen Hereditary and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, that director Ari Aster was capable of sparking a similar reaction. I don't necessarily think it's dystopian that I'm drawn to, more so the possibilities of realities that we don't always explore and those unspoken things that we hide away from. There's something subconscious drawing me towards that, but I don’t know what it is.
You are at a very exciting juncture in your career right now. How are you feeling about this next journey? How do you plan on keeping your feet on the ground during this process?
I'm trying to stay around my family and friends and just talking about it and normalising it as much as I can. Remembering it is a job and all the commotion that comes along with it is a bit mad and you're not entitled to it. My friend and I were texting about this last night - it's very easy to become wrapped up in it. Especially when there is a buzz about a show, I was worried about coming off as narcissistic. As long as I keep catching myself out in those moments where I feel like I'm slipping into it - because it's very easy to do - and be like, ‘hold on, stop talking about yourself. Get off Twitter. Try and be present.’ I've learned to have a lot of empathy for people that get into this really young because it is very easy to become engulfed in it. You just have to keep reminding yourself that this isn't fully real life - like I love doing what I do, I love the acting part of it, but all the stuff that comes alongside it is a bonus. As long as I remember to not take it too seriously then I think my feet will stay firmly on the ground. I hope!
I actually want to touch on social media because you're not very active on Instagram. I assume that is a conscious decision. Why?
For a couple of reasons. It freaks me out when people I don't know think they know me personally. It was a few years ago when I did Les Misérables for the BBC, and my nephew had just been born. There were a couple of pictures on my Instagram of my nephew and me and then I started seeing them pop up on people's Tumblrs, and it just made my family feel a bit weird. So, I decided to remove everything and start fresh.
But also, I think it's important as an actor for people not to feel that they know you personally too much. When you know an actor and their life too well, it's hard to separate the actor from the character. If you try to keep your life personal - and I think that's part of the keeping feet on the ground thing - then it still remains your life. When lines cross and all that madness and your personal life become the same thing, then it's easy to get lost in it.
You have sci-fi thriller Voyagers in post-production. What are you able to reveal about this project?
It's set in the not too distant future. A team of scientists discover a planet and there seems to be some sign of life but it would take almost 80 years to get there. No human could survive that journey, and so they raise 30 test babies to take part in this mission. Spanners are thrown into the works when the captain of the mission dies in unexpected circumstances and the young kids, still 18 years old at this point, are left to fend for themselves. I found it really interesting because, again, despite the ‘dystopian’ stuff, at a base level, the script is about human behaviour. These kids have never known anything but the spaceship and each other, but how do they interact with each other? At the very simplest version of a human being, what are we at our core? As the story twists and turns some of those answers become more present. It's a great group of people - the cast includes Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead, Tye Sheridan - people who make incredible choices and whose work I respect insanely.
What are you hopeful about?
I'm hopeful about the future. I'm excited by the uncertainty. I'm hopeful about the possibility of whatever comes my way. I'm so lucky to be a part of something where no day is the same, and I actually find great comfort in that. I love and am excited by the fact that this time next year, I could be somewhere I've never been before with a bunch of people I've never met. Some of those people may be in my life for the rest of my life. I'm hopeful about the younger generation. I think people are doing incredible things.
Yes. I know you are involved with Extinction Rebellion.
My work with them has been a new thing but it's really opened my eyes to the power of young people. People ranging from as young as 7-8 years old, but the voice and passion and burning desire that young people have to right the wrongs that have been done to this world is so inspiring and that gives me so much hope. Anytime I feel weak or like I'm unable to do something, I sometimes ask myself (kind of jokingly but also seriously), ‘what would Greta Thunberg do?’. Because she doesn't take no for an answer. She is this young woman who is single-handedly changing the world with her voice. That is an inspiration to everyone, whatever your politics.
You’ve perhaps answered my next question: how do you deal with negative energy?
When I was younger, I would sometimes allow negative relationships or things that maybe weren't right for me around my life or my circle. As you grow up, you realise, ‘actually, I don't need those things. I don't need a bunch of friends. I don't need to be in a place that makes me feel awkward or unwanted or bad about myself.' You just remove yourself from the situation. Realising how simple that can be sometimes was a big thing for me. You don't have to put yourself in a situation that you don't want to be in. Those situations exist: there are always going to be negative people or things that make you feel uncomfortable. But life's so short. Spend time with the people you want to spend time with, but know that those negative people are out there - wish them the best and then move in a different direction.
When was the last time you cried?
The other day watching Honey Boy. God, that made me weep! Maybe it triggered some stuff… It's Shia LaBeouf's autobiography, and there were some things with this young kid, Noah Jupe, as he was witnessing his parents’ relationship. This kid's performance was just so heart-breaking. It always feels nice when you have that 'cleanse'. It doesn't feel nice in the moment, but I was obviously holding on to something so I'm glad that it came out.
Do you think the culture of masculinity and self-expression is changing?
Definitely. It feels like it's progressing quicker, but maybe that’s because I surround myself in creative circles. I think once you start going to the outskirts of London for example or less progressive parts, you realise how toxic masculinity really is. But I definitely think there's been a huge shift in the culture. Even from when I was at school - from what I am aware of - people are less tolerant of the language and that kind of toxic behaviour which I think is great. The less tolerance we have, the more people recognise that it's wrong. Even if it doesn’t stop someone in that moment, it makes them less likely to pass those things on to other people. At the end of the day, toxic masculinity is passed on because of the environments that people grow up in.
On a ground level, how can we encourage boys to be more open with their feelings?
I think it needs to start at home. Parents should constantly remind their children that it’s okay to express emotion: to feel however you're feeling in that moment. The notion of 'boys don't cry' is a very real thing. And sometimes it's just a passive thing to try make a kid stop crying, but those things stay. I don't think we've realised the harm we are doing to children in such a simple phrase, but it's ruling a nation. It's created a culture of people which we're trying very hard to uproot now. The more parents are aware of how that kind of language and rhetoric really shape the way their kid sees and interacts with the world. The less pent up toxic anger they take to school and to their friends, the less toxic anger is taken into the world around them. I just think that is important. It’s still going to take a minute for parents to realise that - we still have a generation of parents that think, ‘oh you are being too soft’ or you know, ‘man up'. It's depressing to think we have to wait for them to die out but… Maybe we do! Haha.
What's the ultimate dream?
To continue making work that makes me proud and happy. To have experiences that I can look back on fondly with people I love in a world that I enjoy being in. That's the ultimate dream. We'll see if that happens... If not then, you know, I'll take something similar!