IF YOU’RE not familiar with the name Emmanuel Imani just yet, it’s only a matter of time because he’s one of the hottest emerging young black actors to come out of the UK.
And with the release of his new movie, Criminal, he’s well on his way to becoming a Hollywood mainstay.
Starring alongside Kevin Costner, Ryan Reynolds and Gary Oldman in upcoming box office hit about a dangerous convict who has the memories and skills of a deceased CIA agent implanted into his brain, Emmanuel plays the character of Agent Butler.
But it’s not only the big budget movies that litter the 26-year-old’s IMDb page. He has an extensive list of independent movies and television shows under his belt, despite only graduating from drama school four years ago.
Speaking with The Young Empire about what’s to come in his future, the humble actor announced that his next project will take him back to the Motherland, with the musical Oliver Tweest, inspired by Afrobeats singer D’banj.
“I’m working with Yinka Ayinde on an Afrobeats musical, we’re putting it on at festivals and we will be performing it at the Barbican this summer,” the south Londoner explained.
“We’d really like to get it performed at theatre houses across the UK,” he said. “And we’d like to have something in Africa, as it’s an African piece and we’re so connected to the Motherland.”
Despite his constant string of successes when it comes to his work, Emmanuel jokingly admitted he is apprehensive about taking his talent to Africa for one reason – his accent.
“It’ll be scary performing around Africa, because I don’t speak in an African accent everyday and they might be super critical,” he said. “When I went to Nigeria I only spoke Yoruba, I tried not to speak English because I felt I’d been seen as an outsider.”
He went on: “When I was working on Invisible Men, where I played Abe, sometimes the director would have to cut and say to me ‘Emmanuel, you’re sounding too British.’ That was really weird, as I had never heard that before.”
Not surprisingly, he admitted that accents are one the hardest parts of being an actor.
“You have to focus a lot more when doing an accent that isn’t your own. If you do get emotional the accent can slip, so you do have to work twice as hard.”
However, Emmanuel explained that when it comes to the majority of roles for black actors in the UK, they require an African or American accent and not, as you may expect, a British one, which is what he would most like to do.
“I’m not being asked to do as much Received Pronunciation as I’d like. It’s very crisp English and it was struggle to learn while at drama school. I have to use it everyday or I would lose it, it’s something actors of colour work hard to achieve, but it’s not called upon often.”
A self-proclaimed Christian Afro-brit actor, Emmanuel is keen to show his pride in his heritage and religious beliefs, even if it means his proclamation limits his job choices.
“I like to throw in that I’m a Christian when describing myself. It’s not that I want to bash people over the head with it, it’s just that informs a lot of the choices I make.
“I have to say it as it informs a lot of the characters I pick, so I’m not comfortable doing sex scenes and I don’t want to be shooting up the place. I prefer to have a character that changes me, and gives a positive message, I know it sounds clichéd,” the actor said.”
He added: “It’s not always possible, but it’s necessary and it’s about what you can live with at the end of the day.”
On the subject of British actors living the UK to purse their dreams Stateside, Emmanuel said it’s not a path he wants to follow.
“If you’d ask me this time last year I would have said yes I want to live in America. In fact this time last year I was in America., but I feel as though there’s work to be done here and if we, as actors of colour, keep running off to States, nothing’s going to change here.
“And to be fair even running off to the US isn’t as easy as it sounds. It can take a long time to qualify to get the papers needed to do that. It can take 10 years.”
Instead, Emmanuel is determined to stay in the UK and help change an industry, which he says, still does not recognise the talents of its black actors.
“I do think our work isn’t recognised as much as it could be. And when I say ‘our work’ I mean actors colour. I remember someone saying that we only ever recognised when we play extraordinary people, so you’d have to play Nelson Mandela to get an Oscar nomination, which is quite sad.”
“When it’s an amazing role, we’re never really considered, and that’s the issue that Hollywood has and the film industry and TV industry here has it too. They are afraid to hire people how aren’t widely recognised and they are afraid to hire some people of colour because they don’t think it’s bankable.
“So they stick to their list of safe people, whereas you get characters like Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, in How to Get Away With Murder, which proves that given the opportunity people of colour can kill these parts, but they just have to be given the opportunity.”
Thankfully, opportunities haven’t been lacking for him, although, Emmanuel admitted, he has dry spells too.
“I have some friends who work consistently. I have dry spells and very busy periods, and busy periods will come when I’ve made other plans.
“In terms of time, I’ve done OK, if I look and reflect, I think ‘wow, I graduated 2012, it’s 2016 and only four years since I graduated, but it’s felt like quite a long time,” explained the actor.”
He added: “Just because of the pace of auditions sometimes, or the projects you get, they are always talking about diversity and how things are changing but until we actually see that, until we see scripts that are more general than you playing a stereotype, then it will feel like things have changed.”
EMMANUEL’S TOP TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Always try to be nice to everyone: I don’t think it can harm anyone to be nice. Help people out whenever you can as it comes back to you.
Talent isn’t enough: You have to work harder than the talent you have. If talent were enough, everybody would be successful. You must work hard. Working hard could involve looking for other talents that you possess.
It’s important to have a good support system: You need people you can moan to. You need people who are going to listen and sympathise with you as much as they can, give you words of affirmation and keep you going. It’s too hard to make it on your own, it’s virtually impossible.
You’ve got to have something you believe in: For me it’s Christ, but I guess everybody will find what it is for themselves. You have to have more than just this, because if it was just this, that would be sad. And when things aren’t going your way, you’ll want to smash windows and stuff because of how distraught you feel. But when you’re holding onto something that’s bigger than you it puts things into perspective. It helps you to remember it’s a tiny moment in your life and this is just a day.
Try and get educated in your field: For me, that was going to drama school and that opened my eyes so much. Sometimes you can feel stupid, but it will teach you things you never knew and expose you to new things.
WORDS: Hazelann Williams