Marianne Jean-Baptiste: ‘The arts are something you have to do’
In Fabric star has carved out a varied career in media but has not forgotten her roots
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: ‘I remember dressing up to go to Oxford Street because we were going to a big department store’
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a laugh.
I don’t suppose that will come as a huge surprise. In the 23 years since her Oscar-nominated turn in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, she’s carved out a busy career in a variety of media. She was memorable as the mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in a harrowing ITV film. She did eight years on the US series Without a Trace. Now she turns up at the centre of In Fabric, the latest retro-horrific provocation from Peter Strickland. Jean-Baptiste hasn’t exactly become a household name. But she’s become an ornament of her nation.
“I originally wanted to be a barrister,” she explains as we settle down in a cosy corner of Soho.
She got to play such a beast in eight episodes of the TV show Broadchurch.
“That was a dream come true – literally,” she says with a chuckle. “I grew up watching Crown Court. I also loved that American series The Paper Chase. I now realise after years of acting that it was the performance that attracted me. It wasn’t about justice so much. It was about the closing soliloquies.”
The saving grace about England is that there is more theatre. Even if you don’t get into drama school, theatre is there for you
Marianne goes on to explain that she also thought of a career in music. Didn’t she do some composing?
“I did. I did. For Mike Leigh’s Career Girls,” she confirms.
Raised in an unglamorous corner of Peckham, Jean-Baptiste is the very model of an actor in the international age. She has lived in LA since the turn of the century, but flits across the world as the work demands. I last met her outside Harrod’s as she filmed scenes for the unexpected smash Peter Rabbit.
I wonder what she misses most about the old country. She’s not allowed to say “family”.
“Yeah, it is family. Ha ha! But, aside from that, I think it’s the proximity to Europe. ”
That continent is about to get a little further away.
Everything is about Brexit these days. Pop is Brexit. Beer is Brexit. Reading Brexit themes into Strickland’s In Fabric may, however, be challenge too far. The director of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy folds the aesthetic of vintage anthology horror films in with Tales of the Unexpected to create a diptych concerning a haunted dress, decaying department stores and the erotic charge of mail-order catalogues.
Born in 1967, Marianne is just old enough to remember the deep-pile version of the 1970s that the film so savours.
“I remember dressing up to go to Oxford Street because we were going to a big department store,” she says. “I remember in Peckham there was a department store called Jones and Higgins. They were seen as being quite posh. Quite special. One of my first Saturday jobs was in John Lewis – in tracks and trimmings. It was great to revisit all that. Yeah, we had the catalogues.”
Jean-Baptiste showed talent as a youngster. Born to a mum from Antigua and a dad from Saint Lucia, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after school and went on to act at the National Theatre. There is a lot of talk now about privileged young people taking over British theatre. I wonder if, as a black girl from South London, she felt out of place in Rada of the late 1980s.
“There was a mixture then. And that’s what you want,” she says cautiously. “We still had grants, so you could afford to go. There was some social stuff that I wasn’t interested in because of where I came from. But it was a great opportunity to read a lot. To learn about different styles of acting. That set me up for a career. I think it’s a shame if it becomes more exclusive.”
It’s unfair to name names – cough, Cumber-Mayne! – but there are more public school-educated actors around in England than there were in the 1950s. How did that happen?
“The industry itself has changed,” she sighs. “The saving grace about England is that there is more theatre. Even if you don’t get into drama school, theatre is there for you. If you are on stage before a live audience you are going to learn.”
An articulate woman with a rich vocal timbre, Jean-Baptiste secured a healthy amount of stage work after college. She toured extensively with the innovative company Cheek by Jowl. It was, however, the role in Secrets & Lies that really changed things. I wonder how an actor gets a role in a Mike Leigh film. As everybody now knows, performers in his pieces improvise all their own lines. That requires a very particular talent. Jean-Baptiste first auditioned for Leigh when he was casting Naked in 1993.
“I got a hand written letter saying it was a great pleasure meeting you and I’d love to work with you in the future. I thought: yeaaaaahh . . .”
To clarify, that last “yeah” is delivered in a tone that translates as “nice of him, but some chance”. But Mike meant what he said. He later cast her in his play A Great Big Shame and that experience confirmed she was suited to the Leigh Method. Secrets & Lies proved to be the most awards-friendly film of the director’s much-garlanded career. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and secured five Oscar nominations.
“I met Lauren Bacall and she was lovely,” she says. “Yes, it was a good year. It was the end of that independent film boom. You had Breaking the Waves. You had Secrets and Lies. You had The English Patient. Companies like Miramax and Shooting Gallery were in the running.”
It was also just before the notion of the “Oscar campaign” went into overdrive. This hardly seems possible now, but the team were astonished when they heard the nominations. Nowadays, Jean-Baptiste would have been marked as a contender six months previously.
“Yeah, the nominations were a complete and utter shock. I was on a treadmill in a gym in New York. It was unbelievable. I hit the button and said: ‘What the . . .?’”
Did she have a speech ready? Did she work at her “good loser” face? You never know in these situations.
“God help me if I’d won it,” she says. “I don’t know what would have come out. It was a very odd experience and I am glad that I experienced it at that point. I am much more cynical now. As I was doing all the press tours – wearing the same suit to every interview – there was an innocence to it. We just loved this film. This will help it sell. Now that tour is called ‘an Oscar promotion.’”
You worry if you are dealing with a non-character. ‘Oh, we can make this a woman’ or ‘this one has no ethnicity.’ But those are not likely to be the roles that drive you
Not every Oscar nominee secures a healthy career. But Jean-Baptiste seems to have handled the aftermath with great competence. She did a lot of British telly and relocated to Los Angeles for CBS procedural show Without a Trace. Inevitably there was some chatter about Britain not offering enough opportunities for black actors such as herself. She now addresses the issue cautiously.
“I think that probably was the case then. But again there was just more of an industry in LA.”
She worries a little about producers just switching the gender or ethnicities of roles.
“I have had roles where you have a character that could be a man or a woman. Is it good if you can just rename “Stephen’ as ‘Meredith?’ You worry if you are dealing with a non-character. There was a lot of that then. ‘Oh, we can make this a woman’ or ‘this one has no ethnicity.’ But those are not likely to be the roles that drive you.”
Los Angeles looks to have treated her well. She can be seen shortly in Netflix’s upcoming musical series Mixtape. She had a strong supporting role opposite Julia Roberts in Amazon’s Homecoming. Yet her South London accent remains unaltered. I wonder if her two children count as Americans.
“They are both British citizens as they were born here,” she says. “So, they have the best of both worlds. But they have that American confidence. They don’t shy away from what they are good at. They don’t have that British thing where you can’t say certain things because you will seem boastful.”
And she somehow makes the global life work?
“I have always seen the arts as something you have to do, not that you just want to do. So, you find a way.”
In Fabric is released on Friday, June 28th