One of Birmingham’s leading lights talks about growing up near the Bristol Road with low expectations and an uninspiring education, and how discovering the arts changed his world
Adrian Lester’s fondness for Birmingham is infectious. Despite a less than ideal upbringing and limited opportunities at school, Lester has a lot to thank the City for. The Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) provided him with a creative outlet that was non-existent at school, allowing him to find a voice and flourish as an actor. “It’s because of that building I do what I do,” he enthuses. Currently enjoying rave reviews for his portrayal of Othello at the National Theatre, Lester’s career has been highly versatile, ranging from conman ‘Mickey Brick’ Stone in ‘Hustle’ to his poignant portrayal of Ira Aldridge in ‘Red Velvet’. His role as Bobby in ‘Company’, directed by Sam Mendes, earned Lester an Olivier award. His performance of ‘Being Alive’ was so raw it left audiences sobbing.
Life could have been very different. Lester grew up on a council estate just off the Bristol Road with his single mother and an absent father. Add a gaggle of uninspiring school teachers into the mix and Adrian’s prospects didn’t look good. “The school wasn’t interested in what I was interested in. It was all learning by rote, so I just went through the motions. The school made no attempt to find out what I was good at or what interested me,” he says. Between the ages of 13 and 15, Lester would come home from school, grab his skateboard and head to his favourite haunt in Cannon Hill Park. “The Midlands Arts Centre is such a special place for me. It introduced me to all forms of art and allowed me to just turn up and absorb it,” he recalls.
Lester recently took his children there and explained what an important part of his life it was. As they arrived, he worried it wouldn’t live up to their expectations. “Then we came round the corner and there was a choir of children singing acapella in the courtyard and they got it straight away.”
While Adrian’s mother was pleased he had a hobby, she wasn’t sure about acting as a career. “Mum was concerned about the practicality of making it work. Once she understood it could be a career, she encouraged me. The equity card was a turning point. Mum felt the career had chosen me.”
LOVE AT THIRD SIGHT
Lester married actress and producer Lolita Chakrabati in 1997, having originally met her as a teenager in Brum. It was something of a slow burner, but a very romantic tale. Adrian joined Birmingham Youth Theatre aged 14, and was invited to be a mentor at a drama workshop at the MAC, which he jumped at. The workshop was attended by local schools and drama clubs. Adrian mentored one of the groups of which 13-year-old Lolita was part. The workshop ended and they went their separate ways. A few years later, they bumped in to one another on a street corner in London. Adrian was heading to RADA and Lolita was going to university. They chatted and went their separate ways again. In Lester’s second year at RADA, Lolita popped up in the first year. Lester recalls, “We started hanging out, things got romantic and we thought: ‘somebody’s trying to tell us something here’.” The pair actually grew up a stone’s throw from one another, on opposite sides of Bristol Road.
The couple now live in London and have two children. They regularly work together, Lolita having written the acclaimed ‘Red Velvet’ in which Lester starred. They formed production company Lesata with theatre designer and producer Rosa Maggiora in a bid to ensure creative freedom. On working and living together, Lester says: “Working together is like an extension of what we do. It’s not an issue for us, but maybe in the rehearsal room people wonder if we’ll bring a domestic in to work. We never have. We work really well together.”
Lester paints a familiar picture of domesticity – juggling the school run then switching to work mode and back again. As such a recognisable couple, they must run the gauntlet of media intrusion? Not so. “Nobody is interested in my personal life. You choose your path and I’m not the kind of person who will sell aspects of my life for fame and cash, so there really is very little interest in that part of my life,” he says.
CROSSING THE POND
With a swathe of British actors enjoying success stateside, including fellow brummie David Harewood, would Lester make the leap? “I love living here. I pop over for the odd job and, like all actors, I like to keep the door open, but I’ve never wanted to move permanently to the US. Having said that, I’m a businessman and if work dried up here I would consider moving,” he says.
Many actors say they don’t have a preference between stage and screen, and Lester is no different, although he does find theatre more challenging. “They are so different, it’s hard to have a preference. With TV it’s frozen in time, where theatre is lost forever once you’ve done it,” he says. “Theatre is harder and stretches me more. I’ve been asked to do things in theatre that have never been asked of me on screen,” he adds.
BACK IN BRUM
When he’s back in his home town, Lester catches up with his brother and cousins and heads to Broad Street for a few drinks. He loves his hometown, but he’s keen to see some changes in the area. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more live entertainment around Broad Street? Beat poets, dance, live music – plugged in and classical. There needs to be more to do than get drunk,” he says.