Interview: Rising star Jade Anouka on her new TV drama ‘Cleaning Up’

Jane Anouka on her new TV drama 'Cleaning Up'. Picture: Michael Shelford
Jane Anouka on her new TV drama 'Cleaning Up'. Picture: Michael Shelford
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After a decade, Jade Anouka is finally making her living through acting alone, with breakthrough roles on stage, TV and film, including new drama Cleaning Up.

Numbers, numbers, numbers, I’m not a numbers person,” says the actor and poet Jade Anouka and laughs. “It’s funny because everyone else in my family is about numbers – my mum’s a maths teacher, and my dad was a financial adviser. They’re all numbers, my lot. I’m a complete anomaly. I’m a words person.”

Shakespeare, poetry, Ted Talks, and over the phone too she’s a wizard wordsmith, but ask her about insider trading, stocks and shares and hedge funds and she’s stymied. No matter because what she CAN do is act, and it all adds up in her latest role in ITV’s Cleaning Up, in which she stars opposite Sheridan Smith as a pair of down-on-their-luck cleaners who find an ingenious, if illegal, way of playing the system.

The result is a darkly amusing tale of have-nots at the bottom of the social pile fighting back, using the same methods as the have-it-alls they clean up after in Canary Wharf, a tale about modern Britain with zero hours contracts and with strong female leads.

Cleaning Up, written by newcomer Mark Marlow, and directed by Lewis Arnold (Humans, Broadchurch, Misfits, Banana) centres on the friendship between Anouka’s character Jess and Sam, played by Sheridan Smith. The actors hit it off at the audition, lending an ease and authenticity to their performances.

“Sam and Jess have grown up together and Jess is the voice of reason, someone who thinks before she does, which Sam doesn’t, so they’re a good match. Jess tries to keep her out of trouble.”

It’s not easy to stay out of trouble when you’re hard up and the pair are tempted to take a gamble, much like the financiers in the shiny offices the invisible army cleans overnight.

“It’s about who deserves to get away with stuff,” says Anouka. “Being the underdog you feel you’ve got to look out for yourself and if you’re living hand to mouth, one mistake has massive repercussions. Seeing people get away with it, you’d feel like, ‘why shouldn’t I?’”

“It puts the spotlight on the everyday people, the ones working hard to pay their bills, not living the high life, which is most of the country. It’s good to see people like that fighting back.”

“I think a lot of people will just love Cleaning Up. When I watched it I was thinking about all the people I know and thinking ‘my dad will love this’ and that it really is one of those shows you will sit down and watch with your family, it’s brilliant.”

Anouka is no stranger to cleaning up from when she worked in pubs and cafes to supplement her acting income, starting out. Last year was the first she’s made a living through acting alone.

“When I was starting out there were times when I had three jobs. If I wasn’t auditioning or learning lines I was always working. I would wake up and go shoe shining, then in the afternoon work in a pub or cafe, then in the evening in a call centre, so it’s quite full on. There’s no chill time. That’s what you see in Cleaning Up, that these characters are always working and never get to relax.”

Surprisingly, the bar work or call centre jobs are not the ones that come to mind when Anouka recalls her worst ever job.

“Oh God, I was a children’s entertainer when I was at drama school,” she says, still scarred. “I did parties and face painting and that was fine, but it was before I had satnav on my phone and I’d get completely lost trying to find the houses so I’d be late. And I’d look ridiculous, in a yellow car carrying a red suitcase wearing green dungarees or a tutu and having to run into petrol stations to ask directions. Then turning up in tears because I was late and ruining their day.”

The children’s?

“No, the parents, oh my god. The children don’t care, they don’t know you’re late. They were all fine. But the parents were so stressed, and I just wanted to burst into tears but you can’t come in dressed as a clown and cry. It was so stressful I had to stop.”

Anouka has been making a name for herself on stage and screen, with the airing of last year’s psychological thriller Trauma, for ITV, with John Simm and Adrian Lester and The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy in 2016, as well as cult hit Chewing Gum in 2015.

This last year has been busy for the 2017 Screen International Star of Tomorrow, working on three productions, two theatre and one film. She took the lead as Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, a composite of Shakespeare’s lines for Margaret of Anjou, a character he gave more words than any other, including Cleopatra and Rosalind, across four history plays. This production saw Anouka reassert Margaret as warrior queen, cutting a swathe through patriarchal power struggles in a re-telling of the Wars of the Roses, and at the same time waging a contemporary war on the historic gender imbalance in Shakespeare performance.

Earlier last year she went forward in time to a dystopian world where blood quality can decide your credit rating in The Phlebotomist, and as well as Cleaning Up, she made the film, Fisherman’s Friends. Starring Tuppence Middleton and James Purefoy, it’s a feelgood tale of Cornish fisherman who land a record deal singing sea shanties, due out in March.

She’s a familiar face north of the Border too, having won a Fringe First for her one-woman show Chef at the Traverse in 2014 and the film of Donmar Warehouse’s Julius Caesar was up for best feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. “Incredible,” says Anouka, “considering it’s a live theatre recording. But Phyllida [Lloyd, the director], is also a film director so she knows what she’s doing. It’s quite special.”

Born and raised in Greater London, Anouka is the middle of three children to a Jamaican father and Trinidadian mother. An athlete, she ran for Kent but got the acting bug at school and won a scholarship to the National Youth Theatre while at sixth form college in Lewisham.

“Everyone there was going ‘yeah, I’m gonna be an actor, I’m going to drama school’ and I was ‘going to drama school? What’s going on ‘ere?’ Then after that I was like, “Oh, OK, I’m going to do this, it isn’t just a hobby, this is what I want to do.’”

Guildford School of Acting followed and from there to the RSC, making her debut in 2007 in Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. More theatre followed then TV with parts in Lucky Man and Doctor Who, before she landed the role in Trauma, ITV’S follow up to Doctor Foster, requiring her to learn how to rock climb.

On stage, the Donmar Warehouse set her star rising too. Set in a women’s prison, the Trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, prompted Lloyd to hire an all-female ensemble cast of all ethnicities and ages to re-invigorate the Bard. Within a decade from first working in theatre Anouka was playing traditional male leads; Hotspur, Ariel and Marc Anthony delivering the “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech.

“It’s funny because I never liked Shakespeare when I was younger,” she says. ”But when I left drama school I got an interview with the RSC, ended up being there for two years and fell in love with it. And Shakespeare was where people started doing colour-blind casting. Everyone does Shakespeare at some point in this country and we need to look at why those plays should still be done, why they are relevant. So many seem quite modern in their themes – in a scary way I guess it’s history repeating itself.”

She might be a words woman but Anouka likes a piece of the action too, and she played Hotspur as a kickboxer, preparing for the part by studying videos of Olympic boxing champion Nicola Adams, and training hard.

“I grew up watching boxing with my dad, but they were big heavyweight guys, so I watched Nicola Adams, hours and hours of videos, how she trained. She even copied the Muhammad Ali shuffle. It was great fun, a great way to keep fit and I’d like to do it again. But I never sparred, not that, no-one’s coming near my face!” She laughs.

Anouka writes and performs her own poetry, some of it published in her collection Eggs on Toast, and admits to sometimes finding it easier to express herself through poetry than through acting. She would love to combine theatre and poetry, her two loves, into a lyrical theatre piece, at the same time as popularising poetry by making it ‘less stuffy’.

“With acting I find it often much harder to express what you want to say because you have less control over what’s going on. I started writing poetry a long time ago because I could use it to have my own voice, whereas in acting, obviously you try to take work that you think is good and represents you, but you don’t always have that luxury. So poetry is a way of being creative and having an outlet when you are not working in something that’s creatively interesting or fulfilling. And between jobs, I always have to do something that’s creative.”

It was to her poetry she turned when she was invited to do a Ted Talk last year, reciting a poem she wrote that was inspired by Maya Angelou.

“I’ve always thought of Ted Talks as being very intellectual, where you have to have a great invention or know about a particular topic so I wasn’t sure whether I deserved to be doing it or what I should do, but I thought what an honour! And I decided to speak from my experience, so it was ‘Being Black, being a Woman, being ‘Other’ and hopefully that strikes a chord with others, everyone who has felt Other.” And it felt natural to put poetry in there.”

Anouka went on to talk about her crowdfunding a screening of Black Panther, the 2018 black superhero film now tipped for an Oscar, for kids in her local area of Peckham because she thought it was an important film for them to see, a film that reflected the ‘other’ and underscored the belief that everyone was entitled to fulfilment and a voice no matter their creed, sexuality, culture or gender.

“I couldn’t believe how much we raised. So much more than I expected that I’ve got a bit of money left over. We extended the screening so many more kids got to see it and I’ve given money to charities who work with young people, but I really want to do another film screening. That film was such a special thing, so it’s hard to know what the next film to do that for would be. But I’ll definitely do it again.”

As for diversity, Anouka feels inspired by the changes she sees in the acting world, citing Sophie Okonedo, who recently won an Evening Standard Best Actress Award for her performance with Ralph Fiennes in Antony and Cleopatra.

“She works in film, TV and theatre, which is a dream of mine. And she was in Undercover with Adrian Lester, who is a legend.”

It was Lester who presented Anouka with the Ian Charleston Commendation Award for Shakespeare for Under 30s and having followed his career ever since, she was delighted to play his daughter in Trauma.

“I think things are changing, definitely on stage particularly, it’s going in the right direction, but you can always do more. I think theatre is ahead of TV and film in this country, but I see it improving and more exciting stuff coming out.”

Queen Margaret was an example of that. Rather than just re-telling Shakespeare, it changed the lens we’re looking through, so it was all through Queen Margaret’s eyes.”

Having played three of Shakespeare’s great male roles Anouka would love to take on more.

“God there are so many. Loads of good ones!” she says and laughs. “I’d do LOADS of them! I’ve said before I’ve wanted to play Hamlet. Obviously it was written as a male role, but I see the character, not as a male character, but as a young adult, not quite knowing how to deal with grief and finding out about relationships, romance, all of these things coming in at once. It very much feels like showing somebody turning into an adult, and it’s something I would love to do before I get too old.”

Anouka doesn’t talk about her age in a bid not to be tied down to age specific roles, witness her convincing teenager in Trauma. Similarly, she doesn’t talk about who she shares her south-east London flat or life with, apart from rescue dog Evie, who is possibly half Yorkie half Bichon Frise, “I’ve never seen another dog like her, so we’re waiting for a DNA test, just to see,” she laughs.

As someone who has been in Doctor Who twice, Anouka has nothing but praise for Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Time Lord.

“I wasn’t the right age for it when it came back – it was my little sister that watched it, but then I was in it and I thought gosh, it’s brilliant, are they all like this? And it’s not just brilliant entertainment, but important to watch, like the Rosa Parks episode. School children should all have to watch that episode, it was a great history lesson.”

“And it’s important when you’re growing up to see things reflecting of your life, someone who maybe looks a bit like you, and more and more we need someone to do exactly this, be bold like Doctor Who and then the impact is going to be enormous. You realise how little it happens, because when it does, you see the impact. Cleaning Up’s like that, full of women leads, and you just don’t see that.”

Next up, Anouka is in the new Idris Elba comedy, Turn Up Charlie, a series of eight half hour episodes for Netflix. She plays a DJ who is an arch rival to Elba’s character, a failing DJ working as a nanny to an out of control 11-year-old.

“It’s nice to be doing comedy. Cleaning Up has humour in it but it’s lighthearted and heartwarming and sometimes dark, rather than actively trying to make you laugh. But this is more of a comedy and it’s out next year, so that’ll be good. Often people don’t think of me for comedy because I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare on stage and stuff, but I like it. I’d like to do more.”

And since she’s as much about words as action, we’ll give the final one to Anouka and the call to action with which she ended her Ted Talk and summed up her attitude to inclusivity and embracing the Other in all of us:

“When you get that chance, that opportunity, that seat at the table, get creative. And remember to pull up another seat for the next person.”

@JanetChristie2

Cleaning Up begins on Wednesday 
9 January, ITV, 9pm