This year, Okorie Chukwu took over the role of Koji in Series 2 of the Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin comedy series Kate & Koji, working alongside a cast including Brenda Blethyn (as Kate), Blake Harrison (as Medium Dan) and Barbara Flynn (as Councillor Bone), with Koji marking Okorie’s first regular lead role in a TV series. Last year, Okorie appeared in short film Joy as Michael, and played Harry in an episode of War of the Worlds, and in 2020, he played Parker Caplani in The Complex and The Complex: Lockdown. On stage, Okorie toured with Barber Shop Chronicles, including performances in London, New York and at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and his other projects have included being part of the all-black cast of Othello at the Unicorn Theatre (in which he played Othello), Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic, IMOGEN at Shakespeare’s Globe and Running Wild at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Talking with Okorie, he told us about playing Koji in Kate & Koji, touring with Barber Shop Chronicles and performing as Othello in the all-black cast of Othello.
You joined the cast of Kate & Koji in this year’s Series 2, what was it like taking over the role of Koji?
I had a great time performing this role. You come into a show, to play a character that in someways is already set, it’s not a standard way to onboard a show, however, I had many ideas and came in wanting to explore who Koji is. Director Ben Kellett and writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, they were very excited to see what I brought to the role.
It was also nice to have met Brenda Blethyn and Blake Harrison before we got the the first table read but when we started rehearsals we all got off to a flying start. Andy and Guy’s writing has so many layers and through lines throughout and we really had fun exploring them.
How much did you know about the series before booking your role and was there anything that drew you to the character?
I watched Series 1 and read drafts of Series 2 of the show in prep for auditioning for Koji. I instantly felt an affinity to Koji. Some closeness to imagining the experiences he has had but may not share and how they may affect his everyday interactions with his friends in the café. I felt there was a lot to who Koji was and I felt I was going to enjoy revealing who he was.
He has a versatility, as someone who has to fit in to a new environment and as a doctor dealing with people, he is funny, unassuming, stubborn, opinionated and has some heartfelt moments. He is someone who can engage fully with people despite his circumstances and always finds a way to push through.
What is Koji like to play and how was it having him as your first regular lead role in a TV series?
Yeah, I really had a lot of fun playing him. Koji had such a range of emotion available to explore and it was a good challenge trying to strike a balance. We know Koji’s asylum situation is very real for many people and we had to find a way to create real moments but also bring joy and laughter surrounding it. He is versatile, he is a doctor who has been uprooted from his home and works to settle into his new surroundings, facing the challenges it brings making friends, clashing with friends and going through the asylum process. Bringing all that to the relationships with Kate, Medium and the other café customers really made for great fun in rehearsing and filming the show.
How is it working with the rest of the cast, which includes Brenda Blethyn as Kate?
Brenda is a legend, of course. So much fun to work with. So giving to the work. We were all grateful for having a lovely bunch of highly skilled actors on set. Barbara Flynn is larger than life and heartwarming. Watching her and Brenda work together was something to behold. I and Blake got on like a house on fire and our scenes just flowed. We actually shot outdoor locating before the rest of the series and we just flowed from day one. Everyone is a pro and very welcoming and as a newcomer it’s great when you slot in so seamlessly.
What are some of your stand-out highlights from filming Series 2 of Kate & Koji?
In the first episode, my first appearance, I come in the café, hang up my jacket, turn and give my line. Rehearsed it 100s of times ‘Get my first entrance right, you know?!’.
Okay, live audience is in and we start shooting the first episode. Ready to make my appearance, I enter, hang up my jacket, turn and… my jacket falls off the peg. Huge audience laughter over my first line, raucous! Had to reset and do it again but at that point I knew that we had a great audience in and, just like us actors, they were ready to have a good laugh.
Can you tell us about the short film Joy, in which you play Michael?
Joy is a dark drama with a twist, taking place in a children’s secure home centring around newcomer Jacob who begins a friendship with long-term resident, Joy, who wields power over her peers. I play Michael who works closely with the residents and helps Jacob settle in. There is an exploration to a degree of what it means for children trapped in these homes and the complex dynamics that play out with regards to power and dependancy. I loved working on this project and we had such a talented cast, especially the two young actors Olivia Booth-Ford and Badger Skelton. Director Alex Brodsky has great vision, the film is captivating, and her approach to filmmaking and working with actors is what created that. The film is currently doing the festival circuit and picking up awards, which is fantastic.
How was it playing Harry in an episode of War of the Worlds last year?
I’m a huge fan of the show and had watched Series 1. The part for a rebel civilian fighter ready to go against the invaders came up and I jumped at the opportunity. It was a short appearance in Episode 1 where I come across Jonathan, Sacha and Chloe and help them make contact with our commander. We shot in the middle of Vauxhall near the American Embassy, I thought this doesn’t bode well but it was a great shoot. I love sci-fi as a genre and this take on War of the Worlds.
In 2020, you played Parker Caplani in The Complex and The Complex: Lockdown, how did you find the experience working on these projects and can you say more about them?
The Complex was a full-motion video game (FMV) with the option for multiple outcomes based on the choice players make. I played top lab designer Parker Caplani, whose lab has Clare, who has been infected by a hazardous virus, in quarantine. The lab has been breeched by people who want access to that virus. It could be said that Parker may have ulterior motives. It was different to any project I have worked on where your character’s motive may change or be called into question based on the choice a player makes. As actors, you are used to doing multiple takes, but this was like doing multiple takes for different takes. I love that director Paul Raschid was able to create a futuristic set and atmosphere that we could all get really immersed in.
On stage, you performed in Barber Shop Chronicles, what are some of your favourite memories from being in the cast?
There were too many moments on this job. We spent so much time together in and out of rehearsals, on and off stage. What I can say is that doing Barber Shop Chronicles is a memory that sets the bar for companionship among a working cast, the coming together of cast and audience through a show, the liveliness created through the stories and the way it is told, the feeling of sharing a voice you know and the genuine enjoyment of doing such a show.
What was the show like to tour with and was there anything that drew you to the show?
This wasn’t a show. It was an event. We performed at the Roundhouse, and London came out to Chalk Farm and showed love. The show got love everywhere we went. We also played in New York and performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and they showed up!
The show visits barber shops in England, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda. Exploring the voices of countries with a rich culture. Hearing the kinds of conversations people hundreds of miles away are having. Writer Inua Ellams made a great voyage to visit each country and to capture their voices and experience and brought it to the stage. These stories and depictions brought up so much for people from the UK to Australia to the United States. Things they thought they would never hear being spoken in theatre. There were so many great characters in the show, but it was the show itself why I wanted to be a part of it. They each represented a voice of people, a perspective, an experience, but in all of it was a joy that resonated everywhere we went.
You played Othello in the all-black cast of Othello at the Unicorn Theatre in 2018, how was this?
I was excited to be offered to play Othello in a modern adaptation by Ignace Cornelissen. I had early talks with director Ian Nicholson about how we will approach it and what we strived to stay true to the themes and not water it down while knowing the show is aimed at a young audience. We had two weeks to make this show, it was full on, a lot of work and it was an absolute blast.
The cast included actors of Nigerian, Jamaican, Ugandan and of mixed descent including English-Caribbean and Irish-Nigerian. It definitely changed the way the audience considered why Othello was a bit of an outcast. We had talks about this and discussed how not only race but nationality, culture and customs could also play a factor. We found both young and old were captivated by the comedy that transitions into a dark tragedy and hated Othello for what he did to Desdemona, despised Iago and felt compassion for Desdemona, Cassio and Brabantio.
Can you say about some of the other theatre shows you’ve appeared in over the years, which has included Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic, IMOGEN at Shakespeare’s Globe and Running Wild at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre?
Once in a Lifetime was a comedy set in America in the 1930s period when movies started to have sound and actors needed voices. I played a film executive and a few different characters on this show. Under the direction of Richard Jones, this comedy was visually epic.
IMOGEN was a total hit at the Globe, a reimagining of Cymbeline, it was Shakespeare with accents spanning modern day London landscape, grime music, Adidas tracksuits, hiphop dance and fights on wires. It blew the roof off. I played Carvillius, a role that was written for this imagining of the play, he is Cymbeline’s right-hand man and keeps him in line when he needs it.
Running Wild was a magical show. Set in the Indonesian jungle, when a tsunami hits mainland, Will gets lost in the jungle where he befriends an elephant named Oona and they go on an adventure. I played both Mahout, who was Oona’s keeper, and Red Bandana, the villain of the piece. With all the puppeteer animals in the glorious outdoor theatre that is Regent’s Park, it was truly an immense event.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
I just remember being captivated by the feeling of actually acting. While films gave me the impetus, I guess, when I took part in my secondary school Christmas play, I just remember having so much fun in rehearsals, in theatre games, in creating shows and in speaking words on stage. This led me to doing after school and summer shows with the London Bubble Theatre and the more I did it, the more I loved it. I started to find that I really enjoyed getting a bit lost in the world of the character and living their circumstances.
Do you have any favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
There are so many but off the top of my head…
Films: The Godfather, The Terminator, The Breakfast Club, Boomerang.
TV: Succession, The Wire, Game of Thrones, My Wife and Kids.
Theatre: Currently – Jitney, People, Places & Things, Blue Orange.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I like to stay active and I got a lot of energy I need to manage so I practice Tai Chi and love to ride my bike, but only in the summer, the cold and rain is a no no.
Meeting up with friends and heading to the theatre.
I also love reading up and researching Igbo cosmology. My heritage is Nigerian, Igbo and I am currently fascinated with researching their beliefs, ideas, traditions and how they relate and reveal so much. And I spend quite a bit of time with family as they are the foundation of everything for me.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Not just yet but I am very much looking forward to the next adventure.
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