In the midst of the mayhem that was the Toronto International Film Festival, I had an interview scheduled with British actor Arnold Oceng, in town to promote two films on the programme; Brotherhood and A United Kingdom. Time was precious, the reviews were building up, and Spurs had a vital Champions League tie against Monaco starting shortly. Stood in the lobby of cinema, anxiously keeping an eye on the time, eventually Oceng walked through the entrance. “I’ve just come from a photo shoot and I hate that stuff,” he explained. “I don’t know how to pose, I’m not a model. I just want to act, that’s all I want to do.”
What transpired was such an engaging half an hour chat, and one that could have, and really should have, gone on a lot longer. And that’s not just because Spurs lost 2-1. For here’s an actor on the rise, ambitious and with a strong head on his shoulders, choosing international, provocative features that display his range of abilities, with his latest turn proving just that, taking on the role of Charles, the closest friend to David Oyelowo’s Seretse Khama in A United Kingdom.
“The main draw was working with Amma,” he told us. “We met about a year earlier and I just finished a film called The Good Lie and I was promoting it the same time she was promoting Belle and we just clicked. She’s another Londoner, she was in Grange Hill, and so was I. She lives in Streatham Common, and so do I. We started talking and she told me she had a part for me, to play David’s best friend in the film. Though before she did that I was already saying yes. She’d told me Rosamund Pike was in it, David Oyelowo was in it, I was definitely going to get involved.”
“Amma is a phenomenal woman. On set she is fearless, that is her domain. When she wants something done correctly, she’ll come and tell you. She’s an actor’s director, in a sense that she takes time to sort down and talk to you and hear your point of view and how you feel. She made me feel so comfortable.”
Oceng, who leant back comfortably at this bar in the famous Lightbox venue, was full of high praise for his co-star, too – as he worked very closely with Oyelowo, and thanked the actor for assistance during the shoot.
“David is such a talented actor,” he began. “I know I have to bring my A-game. There was one scene where I had this sentence I could not get right, I was stumbling on the dialect of the African accent. So David pulled me over to the side and he told me to just calm down, to think about it, and he went through it with me. I’ll never forget that. I’ve worked with a lot of actors now and most don’t have the time, nor take it upon themselves to help. I appreciated that. It will always stick with me.”
Oceng’s co-star Oyelowo is one of several successful black British actors making their mark, in good company alongside the likes of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Boyega. When the latter spoke
“The ‘Oscars So White’ thing sparked a lot of media attention and everybody started to really listen to the other actors saying they need these roles,” he said. “I think that was what shook the industry, and we’ve seen a change.”
“In America I feel they have more roles. I’m coming from the UK where I feel like there is a glass ceiling, and most roles I’ve done have been stereotypical bad boy roles, which I’m happy to have done because I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, it’s a stepping stone, but you dream, you wanna make films and play characters that are so far from you, and characters you can do research on.”
“A lot of characters I’ve played in the past required no research, you know, I grew up in Brixton. That’s the hood. Well, not anymore. I grew up in a rough area so you either know someone like that, or you kinda are that person, but roles like the one in A United Kingdom, where I play a graduate, an educated guy from Kenya who has gone to study at Oxford University. There were black educated men and women studying together, and historically afterwards they all went on to do other things. My character went on to be an Attorney General for Kenya. David’s character becomes a King.”
It seems somewhat pertinent to discuss racial politics and diversity within our encounter, for A United Kingdom deals with a love story concerning a black man and a white woman, and the many people strongly against their coming together. Though very much contextualised in 1940s Britain, Oceng believes this to be a relevant narrative, particularly as he too has experienced prejudice first hand.
“I feel like it’s very current, any films to do with race right now are, especially with what’s happening in today’s climate, and I do feel this will resonate with everybody though, not black or white people, but people. This is a film about people and what they’re going through, people who just want to be happy. At the end of the day, all they want is to be happy. That’s all we want people to take away from the film – love and peace.”
“For me growing up I’ve been on the end of some racial abuse, but it’s a part of life and sometimes people are racist because of ignorance, and lack of education, and fear. Exactly what the British Empire did – they didn’t want other minorities to have their own power. They didn’t want to let them have minerals and resources in their country, they wanted to come and take that and tax them even more.”
This led on to the topic of Brexit – somewhat hard to ignore, particularly given the Leave campaign was built upon the notion of fear, with the the refugee situation playing a big part in the nation’s decision to opt out of the EU.
“London voted to remain. It was the outskirts, people outside London. We live somewhere very multicultural, but the rest of England isn’t. Sheila who lives in Scunthorpe or whatever, she probably voted to leave. These people are scared of people coming to take their jobs, but how many people of colour live there? Who’s gonna take your job up there? I dunno man.”
“My sister works for the government, for the foreign office. She’s a diplomat. We’re refugees, we came here for refuge and we’re doing some good things that is championing the country. I’m all for refugees, they’re just seeking a better life and they want to work and make money. It’s only a small minority of people they like to say are sucking the government dry, but the majority definitely are not – they’re the ones taking low-levels jobs on low-level pay just to make a stable income.”
Oceng was just a year old when he moved to the UK with his mother, and he cites her as his best friend and influence, who still plays an active part in the decision to take on a role.
“I’m proper close to my mum, she’s my best friend,” he said. “As of recently, especially as the films are becoming more thought-provoking and have more depth to them, I show her the scripts. Mainly because it has an African theme. My mum came to the UK to run away from the civil war in Uganda so when I show her the script or when she watches the film, most of the time she gets teary-eyed because she says she remembers when it happened. She relates to these films, so I always ask her questions because she was the genuine article, she went through it. She’s a huge inspiration to me when it comes to picking roles.”
His next project must surely have required his mother’s advice and contribution, as he plays a boxer moving from Africa to Europe in Den bedste mand, a project which is emblematic of his inclination to take risks in his career.
“I did by my best so hopefully it comes out okay. But it was awesome and I’m in the best shape of my life, I’ve never been a gym man. Bruv, I’m telling you, if they pay you to get fit, you’ll do it, that’s the incentive you need. It was difficult but I enjoyed it, I really did.”
“I just want to work on good scripts, I don’t care where they come from. If it’s England or whatever, as long as it’s a good script with a good narrative, and a character I can sink my teeth in it, I’m on it, I don’t really mind. That’s all I want to do and all I’ve ever wanted to do since I started this career as a kid in Grange Hill. I want to act, to work. So if it’s successful, great, that’s a blessing, but at the end of the day it’s all about the work for me.”
With this attitude you would expect Oceng to go far, and though he’s been acting now for a number of years, he admits the present day feels like an exciting period for him.
“It’s been a good two years, it’s an exciting time. My agent calls it the ‘Year of the Oceng’. Everything has happened, and there’s more stuff to come that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. There are things happening, and I finally feel that I can make a career out of this. Even though I’ve been doing it for many years and I’ve never had an actual 9 to 5, now I feel like I can actually live off this, and that’s where the worry lies, always.”
“I felt like I was always the underdog, and nobody expected me to be attached to films of this calibre,” he finished, smiling. “I’m just so happy to be a part of it.”
A United Kingdom is released on November 25th and you can read our 4* review from TIFF here.