An interview with actor, director and writer Daniel York

Best known for his appearances in The Beach, Doom and Rogue Trader, the actor and writer Daniel York talks to Mandy News about how his career within the industry, the differences between writing and acting plus shows he has lined up.

20th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Daniel York Scarborough IMDB

Please introduce yourself to the Mandy News audience and tell us about how you got involved with acting?
Where shall I start! I’m Daniel York and I’ve worked as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Royal Court. I’ve been quite lucky in that respect. Mainly theatre, a bit of film and TV. As a writer, I was on various Film 4 and BBC Writers room screenwriting things, then I got on a Royal Court Writers’ group and the On Shoot Writer’s Collective and went from there, really. This is my second full-length play called The Fun Manchu Complex.

How did I get involved in acting? Well, I was living in Weston-super-Mare. I met this girl and she said, ‘I’m doing drama at college, come and see my play.’ The play was by John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation. It was one of his early plays. I’ve never seen or read it since, so I’ve no idea if it was any good. But at that time, not having seen any theatre before, it blew my head off. It was amazing, basically, and the teacher there helped me a lot. I got on a drama course and it all went from there, really.

Fantastic! So there was nothing when you were younger? You didn’t know if you wanted to be an actor when you were a child? Was this literally something that came to you later in life?
Yeah, I didn’t think about acting, but I did play guitar in groups and that was my performance thing. The schools I went to, there wasn’t really any drama. I was talking to Justin Audibert last year and we worked out that my route into acting probably doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, I joined that drama course – it was the GCSE drama course – and I was able to claim benefits while I was doing it, because I was only down to do five or six hours a week. I came in under my own steam and built sets and stuff. Then I got a grant to go to Drama School. All those things are just not there for kids from working-class backgrounds anymore. I definitely don’t come from an acting dynasty!

I think I’d maybe been to the theatre once or maybe twice. I’d seen a cub scout gang show when I was a kid. I’d seen some pretty awful Shakespeare when I was at school. One production where we all just hated being there – The Bristol Old Vic, I think. Obviously not what the Bristol Old Vic is now! I didn’t know anything about theatre and I’d never thought about being an actor.

Amazing! So fast-forward to now and the play Forgotten which ran from the 23rd October to the 17th November at the Arcola. How did you get involved with this production?
I started writing it four years ago. Rikki Beadle-Blair and John R Gordon run this company called Angelic Tales and they were doing this five-minute play festival at the Bush, Boomplace. Rikki was like, ‘You should write a play! Something you feel really passionately about!’ At that point I got an email. And open in another window on my screen was a Guardian article about the WW1 Chinese Labour Corps. I mean, I’d signed petitions to get them recognised and to get the Imperial War Museum to do some more about them, get a memorial. This was around 2014, the centenary of the beginning of WW1, so I wrote this five-minute scene with three characters in it about Chinese labourers literally dying in the trenches. There’s one line from that scene that’s still in the finished play, now.

People said, ‘You’ve really got to write that play!’ so I went away and read a load of books for research, about WW1, the Chinese Labour Corps, about China at the tine, its history. I started writing back in 2014. It was 200 pages long! It was huge with a cast of 25 characters. I started honing and honing it and I’ve been working on it since then, really. We did an R and D workshop at Stratford East. Eventually Arcola said, ‘You can put it on here.’ So that’s how it happened really.

So tell us about your role in it and how you differentiate between acting in the play to being the writer? Can you keep the line distinct or does that blur for you?
I’m not actually in this, though there was a point where we thought we might have to, because there’s a thing about East Asian actors - a kind of myth that becomes an accepted fact that isn’t a fact in the industry; that it’s hard to cast East Asian characters. This is totally not true. 

However in certain age groups, because of an historic lack of opportunity, it’s tricky, so I thought, at one point, I might have to act in it but we found two or three fantastic actors and we put one of them in it.

Amazing, please tell us about the actors you got involved?
There’s a girl called Rebecca Boey, she plays the part of Second Moon and two other characters. I wrote this with her in mind. I’ve known her for a long time, we’ve collaborated before… she’s a brilliant writer as well. She wrote a series called Jade Dragon that I was in. She’s an amazing actor, an amazing artist really. She’s worked at the Park and the Arcola before.

The slightly older actor is John Cheu. He’s just finished in The King And I and he’s from Malaysia originally, but he’s been to drama school and lives here now.

We also have a amazing young non-gender-conforming actor called Zachary Hing playing a character called Eunuch Lin. He’s done a lot of work as a mentor and in outreach, a very physical dancer and an brilliant actor. We’ve got a lot of really good working-class East Asian talent in this.

We have Michael Phong Le and Camille Mallet de Chaunay. Camille’s just left Guildhall. This is her first professional engagement in the theatre, it’s really exciting. Michael has been knocking around a little bit; he’s a great writer, he’s written his own one-man show called Con about a young Vietnamese man, which is what Michael is. And an actor called Leo Wan is it as well. He was in The Great Wave earlier this year at the National Theatre. He’s very gifted. His text work is fantastic, he’s very accomplished technically.

Sounds like a fantastic cast!
Yes! And all British East Asian.

Talking about the casting of East Asian actors in Hollywood and film in general, what’s your opinion on the misrepresentation of East Asian actors, and the current resurgence (or surgence) of films like Crazy Rich Asians, which are doing so well at the box office?
Crazy Rich Asians has completely decimated the argument that people have had for years… There was a whole slew of them leading up to this… Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone have been playing characters who are supposed to be Asian originally. You always have this thing where people say – and the industry is riddled with this – that you need recognisable names or people won’t pay to see strangers they don’t know of different ethnicities to them. They need someone they can relate to on a superficial level. I’ve said this a lot really – in the creative industries you should really be ahead of your audience. If the audience gets ahead of you, you’re in all sorts of trouble. Cinema is in danger of that, letting the audience get ahead of them, saying that they don’t really want that anymore.

We don’t want Exodus, set in Eygpt, with Gerard Butler. Also, coming off the back of Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians has really blown that apart. The film’s taken so much money, it’s the highest grossing rom-com in ten years! Which says it all really. The only thing that troubles me about it is that the big wheels in the industry think that’s all the Asian actors on the planet. For every one of those actors, there’s another twenty knocking around somewhere. There’s an abundance of us! Those possibilities are there. Film and TV, in this country particularly, serves us very badly.

I can only say this after 25 years in the industry - when you get TV roles as an East Asian actor in Britain, you’re being assessed on your ethnic credentials, not your ability to interpret characters. There’s this research we’re going to be doing with Equity that’s not just monitoring, but looking at the types of roles that minority ethnic actors are playing.

Take a series that’s on at the moment on ITV called Strangers. There’s a hundred-odd speaking characters. The majority of them are East Asian, but the entire thing is set in Hong Kong and everyone in it is playing someone in Hong Kong. The main characters tend to be Caucasian. Coming out just after Crazy Rich Asians, that looks dated for a start. We are being assessed on a bogus racial ethnicity. We’re not playing British people, Everyman and Everywoman. It’s difficult to build a career off the back of that.

You look at any well-known Caucasian actor, like Benedict Cumberbatch, they’re storming through it, TV period dramas, they’ve all done them. Those period dramas are lavishly produced, brilliantly scripted and they offer fantastic opportunities: nuanced multi-layered characters. That’s what you get when you’re playing characters like that. If you’re playing Chinese Takeaway Man or you’re affecting as heavy a Hong Kong accent as you can, playing the foreign cop in a TV drama, you’re not given the opportunity to stretch as an actor. You can’t impress and you can’t build a career on that. That’s the problem we’ve historically had.

Searching, in my humble opinion, is the better film. I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians a lot. Some of it’s so funny and so slickly produced and confidently performed, you can’t help but laugh. The final speech that Constance Wu has in the Mah-jongg scene, where she talks about being a poor immigrant… a lot of us westernised East Asians do feel that way! Bur Searching is a really clever film. It was huge in the States and I just wish it had caught more heat over here, because it’s brilliantly done.

You were also in a British independent film called The Receptionist, which was released in the UK. Can you tell me about your role in that?
I don’t like to give the game away too much, if people haven’t seen it. My character reappears! Before I even saw it, somebody emailed me to say that audience audibly gasped when I came on again. So I went to see it and even I forgot I was coming back on again! It’s not a huge part, but I wanted to do it because I liked the script and the director Jenny Lu very much. She’s a fantastic filmmaker.

It’s a really, really powerful film. I would urge everybody to get it. It had a very limited release. I got my parents to go and watch it in Glasgow. They’re quite old and quite conservative but they absolutely adored it. It’s a captivating and quite a horribly compelling film. It’s a story that needs to be told and seen. It’s a really beautifully done film, I think.

I agree with you! So Daniel, part from the theatre show at the Arcola and Strangers, what else have you got coming up?
I don’t know! I’ll be honest, I turned down four or five parts this year, just because… I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody, but I didn’t think they were very good parts. I feel like I’m being asked to service actors who are of a different ethnicity to me who have more privileged opportunities. Going on stage again is something I can really get my teeth into, I suppose. I had a few offers this year but I declined all of them. I was concentrating on this play.

It felt really important, a story that needed to be told. I wasn’t going to do any other job unless I really wanted it. One thing I did film, which I hope will come out soon, is a film called Scarborough. It’s based on a play that was on at The Royal Court a few years ago. It’s by Fiona Evans and it’s about a teacher in a hotel room in Scarborough and his much younger pupil. They did the play in Edinburgh, it’s 45 minutes long. They did it at The Royal Court and they replayed the dialogue with the gender roles reversed to see how that worked.

So I play this concierge in it. I’m the only other character in it. There’s literally the two couples, Edward Hogg And Jodhi May, who I’m a huge fan of. So I hope that comes out. I’d like to see that on the big screen. The play did quite well. It’s a sad story, I think. And the melancholy of English seaside towns is something that’s really cinematic, I think.

Absolutely! I look forward to seeing that. We always ask everyone we interview for their advice. Given that the route you took no longer exists, what advice would you give to British-based East Asian actors looking to get involved in the film industry?
For all East Asian actors and minority ethnic actors, disabled actors, people with protected characteristics - I think that now is our time. There’s probably never been a better time to be a minority ethnic actor. It’s still not easy but there’s a been a critical mass over the last few years; the black act of shame with Lenny Henry. We all feel united about it now and I think that the industry has taken note.

Like I was saying earlier about Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. They’ve come out and taken a lot of money. And TV series like Black Earth Rising have black leads, which are really doing well. There is a sense now that we’re starting to exist on a level playing field, so it’s very exciting. It will feel dark at times. There’s no getting away from it, it’s a tough profession. If you want it badly enough, you’ll keep going. You should never take no for an answer.

There was a thing we did on Twitter a little while ago - my best rejection. There were some really famous people sharing their favourite rejections. Everyone gets turned down, gets told no, gets told they’re not good enough. You have to believe in yourself first and foremost, especially with acting. There’s a weird thing that goes on. There was a guy who played Locke in the TV series Lost (Terry O’Quinn) and he said that actors are like flowers; you bloom in different seasons. You can get roles that don’t work well for you, then you get one that comes along at the right point in your life, you’re ready for it. And that’s when you can really fly. 

You’ve got to keep yourself in peak condition, like a sportsman, so when the opportunity’s there you can take it.

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