Every African is familiar with the societal and family pressures to marry once you complete your education. Now imagine this exact moment as an actual event or time period that happens every year and it’s called the Season. This is a tradition that happened way back in England and is a key part of one of Netflix’s top shows right now called Bridgerton.
Bridgerton focuses on the aristocrats during the Season in London’s Regency era. The show includes what you would imagine that time period looked like but with a sprinkle of Shonda Rhimes. Shondaland productions took what appears to be a Season and turned it into one with diversity, scandal, heartbreak and the city’s very own Gossip Girl otherwise known as Lady Whistledown.
One of the great additions to the show was the diversity and being able to see people of colour act in roles where they are regarded as high society citizens. In fact, certain roles were inspired by people of color such as Bill Richmond, a black boxing pioneer in the 1800s. In the show, Richmond’s fictional character goes by Will Mondrich and is played by British-Nigerian, Martins Imhangbe.
Imhangbe is best known for his work in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second and Death of a Salesman. As an actor that is intentional about the role he portrays, landing the role of Mondrich for his TV debut coming from a background in theatre was a full circle moment for him. In this role, Imhangbe’s character navigates being an up and coming boxer, taking care of his family and being friends with the Duke of Hastings. In this interview, Imhangbe discusses everything from his Nigerian upbringing, how it has shaped his acting career and preparing for his role in Bridgerton.
Talk to us about your Nigerian heritage. Where in Nigeria are you from and how has this background influenced your identity? When did you first become aware of your being Nigerian?
I’m from Edo state in Nigeria. I had a Nigerian upbringing, which is very centered around church, around unity, and love. I mean, it’s hard to explain, because it’s all I knew. It was just a part of me. I was never conscious of it and we were brought up to know that we were kings and queens and that we were from royalty, so it was something that we carried. So when we went to school, we knew that we weren’t just representing ourselves, we were also representing our family and anything we did had an impact on our family so that was the sort of upbringing I had. There were high expectations growing up. If there’s anything that you wanted to do. You had to devote yourself to it. It’s like you had to make sure that it was something that you truly believed and cared about. There was no “you can be ambiguous” about what you wanted to do. You had to be quite assured. You don’t have to be assured with exactly what you want to do, but you have to be assured in your approach.
Growing up as an immigrant in the west against the backdrop of racism, xenophobia is quite the roller coaster experience. How have you found this over the years and how have you navigated this experience?
I lived in Greece for five years. From the age of two to seven, I lived in Greece. I could speak Greek fluently. So when I came here, my accent was very ambiguous. It wasn’t clear where I was coming from because at home, we would speak Pidgin English and in school, we would speak Greek. Then coming here and having to speak English, like the Queen’s English was very interesting because the kids used to make fun of me. Kids are cruel, man. So that was interesting in itself. But also, I noticed that when I came home, we had a strong sense of self, so going out into the world I never felt inferior. I never felt like it hindered me. I never felt like there was a block because of the way we saw ourselves growing up. I think it’s interesting that question, because I’m aware of it, I’m aware of what happens in society, but in terms of my relationship to it, I never saw it as a hindrance. I saw it as a challenge, as a way to also inspire. So me being in the position that I’m in, I don’t take it for granted. I see it as an opportunity to make things easier for the next generation of someone who looks up to me the same way I may have looked up to other actors who have been through the struggle. This is the same way that I want people to look up to me and also feel like they can achieve what I’ve managed to achieve. If anything, I see it as bringing it on. Hearing that I can’t do something is like fuel. It’s a drive.
Do you engage with Nigerian culture? Who/what are your favorite Nigerian artists/releases?
Food. I love pounded yam, egusi and amala. Just the food. My friends and I would meet up every now and again before the pandemic and go to Nigerian restaurants and eat our favorite food. Also, just the culture, being able to speak in Pidgin. Being able to enjoy our language, you know, is something unique. The sound effects, the way that we express things are just very beautiful and very unique to us so I really embrace that. And also in relation to Afrobeat, I mean, that’s pretty much the majority of what I listen to, even going back to listening to Fela and Victor Uwaifo at home. This is what I grew up with. I’ve been banging out Wizkid’s new album, Made in Lagos. That’s my album man. That’s a great album. I like Rema. I like Burna Boy. I love what they’re doing. I love the way that they’re really waving the flag. I love that they’re staying true to that authentic Naija sound and taking it global. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Your background is in theatre. How did your interest in Drama come about and how has it evolved over time?
I grew up in the theatre. I enjoyed going to the theatre with my secondary school, which was the first time I went to the theatre. And then I think it was the Young Vic was the first theatre I went to in London. That’s pretty much what I knew. Even going to drama classes, it was all theatre based. When I graduated from drama school, I did a play and someone came to see me in that play and then offered me a job. After that, someone saw me and offered me another theatre job.That’s how it usually goes. It’s like someone sees you do something and wants more of it. It was like a snowball effect and I ended up doing theater. It’s nice to be able to now venture into TV and film.
Typically, parents tend to shun the creative for the normal 9 to 5 experience. Has your family always been supportive?
Traditionally, in a Nigerian home, there are these expectations to become a banker or a lawyer. You know, proper proper jobs and drama is always seen as play- something that’s not serious and not really a career. I was very, very blessed to be able to go to youth art centers and drama clubs where my parents came to see me perform but also they received a lot of feedback. A lot of parents take pride in their children when they’re seen in a positive light. All the teachers were like, “Oh, he’s amazing. He’s so good. He’s going to be a star.” That would puff my parents up with pride, and then I just let them know that this is what I want to do. I sat them down and said, this is what I want to do and I want to take it seriously. And there were examples of people who were actually making it happen. People who are becoming internationally renowned for what they do and making a lot of money so it wasn’t just child’s play, it was more of a career. I think over the years I’ve managed to convince them that this is the path. This is what I love doing and when you do things well, it pays off.
How did the role of Will Mondrich and Bridgerton come about?
So I was doing a play at the Young Vic Theatre. I was playing Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman. The show was really well received and the casting directors came to see the show and then I had an audition. My agent asked me if I can do a self tape, so I remember calling one of my friends- Peter Bankole. He came over to my house and he helped me do the self tape and then I sent it off. A few weeks later, my agent called me and said, they want to offer you the role. I was like, “Whoa! That’s huge.” What an amazing debut! I just thought it was an amazing screen debut, but also an amazing opportunity to play such a prolific character. I don’t know how much you know about Bill Richmond. He was like a boxing superstar in the 1800s. So to be part of that narrative was huge. I like to think of myself as someone who takes pride in the work they do and the characters I portray so for this to come at me, I was just like, what a gift and I was just so grateful to God and the whole team for entrusting me with the opportunity.
What parts of Will Mondrich resonated with you?
He’s family orientated, and he’s very committed and has a fun time doing it. So he’s a boxer but he also has a family that he loves dearly. Sometimes in life people can take family for granted, and I love the fact that he doesn’t do that. Family is everything for him and he puts them at the forefront.
Do you believe he made the right decision at the end of the season for his family?
A hundred percent. It’s a shame that it had to be that way. But at the end of the day, family is everything so if you can put your family in a position where they don’t have to worry about anything or they don’t have to struggle as much then yeah. Fighting for him is a means of survival, it’s an escape, it might be something that he enjoys, but I don’t think it is by choice. I don’t know who likes getting punched in the face. I saw an interview with Anthony Joshua and they asked him about his son. They asked him if he would want his son to be a boxer and he was like no he doesn’t have to. Boxers usually do it because they have to. It’s a means to an end.
What was the transition like going from theatre to a Netflix Production?
It was cool. It wasn’t as daunting as you might think and that’s a testament to the whole team because everyone was very welcoming. I felt like I could ask questions and be myself and make mistakes. Sometimes, things feel it’s a new venture or a new world, or new territory so you just want to do a good job. However, being able to be yourself and being able to feel like you’re part of a team really helped that transition. I didn’t feel alone.
How did you prepare yourself for this role? What were the most challenging parts?
I had a personal trainer who I trained with three to four times a week and we did a lot of strength and conditioning. We did a lot of boxing and because boxing back then was different from how boxing is now, I had to unlearn everything I knew about boxing and take on this olden day style of boxing.
The most challenging part was when it came towards the end of filming and our boxing coach, Brian Nickels passed away and we still had a bit of filming to do. It was really tough coming to work knowing that someone who has helped you get to this place is no longer with you. That was really, really tough. It was challenging to finish the rest of filming knowing that Brian wouldn’t see the work.
Nollywood is one of the largest film industries in the world and it seems to be going from step to step. How much do you engage with it and what do you make of it?
My family loves Nollywood. They engage with it. I watch it every now and again. I like how far it’s come and it’s still evolving, and I’m proud of it. I just hope that it just keeps evolving, you know, and the people who are responsible for it take care of it and they value it because sometimes with productions it can just become quite repetitive or become quite comfortable, so I just hope they keep taking care of it. I hope they find new things and take more risks. I think it can go a lot further in terms of its mass appeal.
Have there been any Nollywood movies that you’ve enjoyed recently?
Recently, I watched Isoken. Isoken is my Nigerian name and it’s also my mum’s name as well. It’s usually given to the last born hence why we watched it. It means satisfied. The parents are basically saying “thank you God, we’re satisfied”. We had a good conversation afterwards about how family imposes certain things on you and you have to make decisions. It was interesting.
Just more TV and film! There’s a few things that are in discussion which I can’t disclose, but I’m very very excited.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Photo Credit: David Reiss