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BRIXTON ACTOR ARNOLD OCENG ON AMMA ASANTE’S A UNITED KINGDOM

The Resident catches up with Arnold Oceng at home in Brixton to discuss his latest roles in Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, as well as in the finale of Noel Clarke’s gritty gangland trilogy, Brotherhood, and his upcoming Danish film, The Greatest Man…

Words: Madeleine Howell

This month will see the release of A United Kingdom, Amma Asante’s hotly awaited new film (you’ll most likely know Asante as the director of Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha Raw). This time, she’s taken on a true love story starring David Oyelowo as the first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Khama – along with Brixton’s very own acting ingénue, Arnold Oceng.

A romantic period drama that tackles the stigmas surrounding inter-racial relationships head on, with the added bonus of a stellar cast, it’s set to make waves as Botswana celebrates 50 years of independence this year.

When we meet Oceng at Pop Brixton for our exclusive photo shoot, he’s just seen it for the first time himself. ‘I went to the screening yesterday,’ he tells me. ‘To see it all come together is amazing. It’s set in the 1940’s at Oxford as well as in Botswana, so we had our hair gelled down and we were wearing all the old tweed suits.

‘It was a time when inter-racial relationships were frowned upon, and I’m the friend that’s trying to push sense into Seretse’s head and say to him, you can’t marry this woman – you’re heir to the throne, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. But he falls in love. The story is about friendship and his love for her. David’s character goes through a lot in the film and my character, Charles, is there to support him.’

Oceng himself is on a roll. Last year, his first Hollywood role in The Good Lie alongside Reese Witherspoon made his name internationally. Both The Good Lie and A United Kingdom have been selected for the Toronto Film Festival, and he is also basking in the success of the release of Brotherhood, the final part of Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood trilogy, which reached number two at the box office (unfortunately, Finding Dory pipped it to the post).

In Brotherhood, he plays Henry, ‘the comedy in the film’. Watch carefully and you’ll spot another south Londoner in his first foray into acting – grime artist Stormzy. ‘I’m proud of everything he’s done with his music,’ Oceng confides. ‘It’s his acting debut, and I think he smashed it.’

In Brotherhood, he plays ‘the comedy in the film’. Watch carefully and you’ll spot another south Londoner – grime artist Stormzy

For Oceng, A United Kingdom is a significant turning point in his career, proving that The Good Lie ‘wasn’t just a fluke.’ It’s also been a learning curve, and gave him another opportunity to work with the best. ’I’d bring my segway on set and Rosamund would be riding around on it,’ he laughs.

‘David is very intense as an actor – he comes on set with his script in a special tattered binder, that you can see has been on many films, and he just reeks of authority. It made me nervous because he’s so on point. I learnt so much from him.’

It’s been a long time coming. The 30-year-old started out at the age of just six, as King Herod in the nativity play at the Corpus Christi Roman Catholic primary school on Brixton Hill. His first big break came when he bagged a stint at Grange Hill. ’Luckily one of the parents at the nativity was an agent,’ he reveals. ‘He gave my mum her card and said “your son’s got talent”. I signed up then and there. Because I didn’t go to drama school, six years at Grange Hill taught me my craft.’

Because I didn’t go to drama school, six years at Grange Hill taught me my craft

Born in Uganda, Oceng moved to south London aged one, and was raised by his mother – who he often cites as an inspiration. ‘I’m so glad we got to do an interview here – this is my hometown,’ he says, having brought her along to show her around the vibrant street food stalls and shipping containers of Pop Brixton prior to the shoot.

‘There’s moments in my life when certain decisions that I’ve made have led me to new places,’ he reflects. What was it like growing up in Brixton? ‘It was tough. It was nothing like it is now. There’s been a lot of change and gentrification. One thing in life that’s always going to happen is change though.’

Next up, you can catch him playing a boxer in The Greatest Man, a Danish film set in the 70s. He’s played a range of roles, so would he say there’s more opportunities for black actors nowadays? ‘Definitely,’ he affirms. ‘Especially in America, there’s a lot of roles for people of colour. Give it time, but I feel like here in the UK there is a glass ceiling. Coming from shows like Casualty, Holby City and The Bill, Adulthood and Top Boy – I’m proud of them, but a lot of them are stereotypical, black gangster roles, bad boys from estates.

‘It’s a good stepping stone, but as an actor, you want to be able to show people that you can do different types of drama and comedy. You don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing. Here in the UK, there’s pigeonholing – and there’s not so many writers writing different scripts. I’d like to go for more romantic films.’

We don’t doubt that Oceng will continue to expand his range, whether he continues to take on Hollywood or opts for more indie films and television roles. ‘Even though I’m doing a few big films, I want other actors to know it’s possible to work on both sides of the Atlantic,’ he states.

‘You can still do great indie, low budget films, just as long as the script is good. I don’t care what the budget is, as long as there’s a good story and a good message, and I get to act in it.’ We can’t wait to see what’s next in store for him – but in the meantime, we’ll be queuing at the box office for tickets to see A United Kingdom at the Ritzy.

A United Kingdom is released on 25 November

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