Kadiff Kirwan: strangers and friends

Wrested from Montserrat after a volcano devastated the island, Kadiff Kirwan relied on the warmth of Preston’s Caribbean community as his family made a new home and he discovered his love of acting

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Coming out to your strict Christian parents is hard enough but Kadiff Kirwan had to do it three times.

“Telling my parents I was going to do what they thought was just prancing about dancing was hard.”

“Never mind my coming out. Telling my parents I wanted to be an actor was hard enough! And then telling them I’m vegan – that was even bloody harder,” laughs Kirwan, who’s taking a break from proofreading his script for a comedy TV pilot to talk to Big Issue North. He’s fitting that in between performances of Guys and Dolls at Sheffield Crucible and screen acting jobs. This week he will grace living rooms across the country as one of the leading characters in Netflix original series The Stranger.

The pilot he’s been commissioned to write is a coming of age LGBTQ story, based on Kirwan’s life growing up in Preston, which he also plans to star in.

“It’s a story that’s not been seen on screen and it should give you an insight into the balance of sexuality and religion and family values,” he says.

Kirwan was born in the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat – a British overseas territory of around 39 square miles. Today it has a population of just over 5,000, a five-fold recovery from its lowest point, but prior to 1995 it had 11,000 inhabitants. Kirwan was one of 8,000 people who fled following a series of volcanic eruptions that destroyed his hometown of Plymouth, the country’s capital, and killed two of his aunts. Kirwan was nine when his family settled in Bamber Bridge in south Preston.

“Plonking a family from a tiny Caribbean island in the middle of Preston was terrifying. We adapted a lot quicker because we were kids but for my mum and dad – moving here with four children after everything you’ve worked for has been destroyed – it was really hard, and really tragic, which is why I’m really excited to try and tell their stories through what I’m writing.”

Kirwan credits the “huge, very warm, very loving and brilliant” African Caribbean community in Preston with making this strange place feel like home. “I don’t know what we’d have done without that,” he says, adding that witnessing the plight of members of that community victimised in the Windrush scandal has been “utterly heart-breaking”.

“If that were to happen to my parents or to me I don’t know what we’d do. I was brought here as a child, like so many people, and the thought of working here, paying taxes here, raising your family here and then getting a letter through the post saying you’ve got no right to be here and you have to go back to where you come from, is absolutely atrocious.
I hope justice prevails.”

Part of that community was the Seventh Day Adventists church, which Kirwan’s family attended. On top of the pressure of the “very strong belief system” he was raised with was the pressure of being first generation immigrants trying to rebuild their lives after devastating loss.

“They wanted what was best for us,” he says. “They wanted me and my siblings to go into professions that they knew about and thought we would have access to. My dad’s an electrician, my mum works with food, my brother works with computers, my other brother is a butcher – it’s very working class.”

He was good at maths so they thought he would be an accountant. “Telling my parents I was going to give up a vocation to do what they thought was just prancing about and dancing and being the centre of attention was incredibly hard.”

Kirwan discovered his passion for acting in a school production of Bugsy Malone. A teacher – Miss Pamela Hayworth Connor, who still teaches at Walton le Dale high school, he says – spotted his potential, urging him to go to drama class after school and to take it as GCSE. “Eventually I realised that this is absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Kirwan went on to do a BTEC in performing arts at Runshaw College.

“I told my dad I was doing maths,” he says, howling laughing – his dad is supportive today. “My mum was the only person who knew but even she was difficult at one point. I kept a lot of my college life to myself because ultimately I knew they wouldn’t understand. If I was feeling up or feeling down they wouldn’t understand because they hadn’t had access to it. The first time my parents went to the theatre was to come and see me in a show.

“But when she came and saw me do Summer Holiday at college she said ‘Yes, this is what you were made to do and it makes you so happy’, and she was very supportive.”

Kirwan headed to London with £120 in his pocket and his suitcase.

“I just left. I knew I wanted to be an actor and I didn’t know how I would do it but I knew I needed to be in London, and not be around my family. Had I stayed at home I would have been an accountant.”

He found work as a high-end waiter, scrupulously saving money so he could put himself through drama school and afford the clothes he needed without calling his parents. “There are only so many shades of black but you’ve got to have every one,” he quips.

Training at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama equipped him for 15 months in the West End in Sister Act, The Musical alongside Cynthia Erivo. After that he landed work at the National Theatre and the Old Vic.

“I just adored theatre but then whilst at the National doing a play called Home, I got cast alongside Michaela Coel. We got on like a house on fire. She started writing Chewing Gum at the National and then I got cast in it and the screen work snowballed from there.”

Kirwan in The Stranger with Siobhan Finneran
Kirwan in The Stranger with Siobhan Finneran

Kirwan has popped up in shows including Black Mirror and Fleabag, and in films Detective Pikachu and Mary Queen of Scots. Last year he had a five-episode role in This Way Up alongside Sharon Horgan and Aisling Bea, but The Stranger – an eight-part series based on the eponymous Harlan Coben novel – is the big one, he says. It follows family man Adam Price who becomes entangled in a mystery when a stranger approaches him and reveals a secret about his wife. He plays DC Wesley Ross, partner of DS Johanna Griffin, played by Siobhan Finneran from Happy Valley, Downton Abbey and Benidorm.

“We’re charged with solving what appears at the outset to be a very strange set of crimes. It’s a pretty incredible story and I got to work with Siobhan very closely, as well as Jennifer Saunders, who had us cracking up on set, and the wonderful Richard Armitage from The Hobbit, who’s bloody brilliant.”

But his career hasn’t all been plain sailing and his return to the theatre, after a four-year hiatus, to take the lead role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls – made famous by Marlon Brando – is no mean feat for a black, working-class actor.

“When this came up I thought I have to do it for that 20-year-old kid at drama school who didn’t think he’d ever get this opportunity,” says Kirwan. “Guys and Dolls was my third year production at drama school and I played another role because I’d had the feedback from a tutor that I wasn’t leading man material. That stuck with me. Even though it’s quite good to experience rejection early on – that comment made me just go, hmmm, OK.

“Just yesterday I missed out on a role to someone who is already in the media spotlight and is from a dynasty of actors. It is the way it is. At drama school there were 18 of us and only six of us hadn’t been to boarding school or private school, but that pushed me and spurred me on
so much.”

The biggest barrier, Kirwan says, is typecasting. He wants young black men to see him playing aspirational characters like lawyers, doctors and detectives rather than gangsters or drug dealers.

“Despite being working class, on the estate I grew up on there was no drama. With my friends at school there was no drama. I don’t know anyone who went to jail or was into drugs and that’s why I’ve started writing. If my story means that a boy from a council estate in Preston or Manchester gets a role then that’s something that I’ve done to help the
next generation.”

Now 30 Kirwan has lived in the capital longer than he lived in either Preston or Montserrat but still has a strong connection to the north.

“Walking down the street is like walking with a big warm hug around you. Everyone is friendly, people say hello, the pace is a bit slower and I always look forward to coming back,” he says, adding that he’s had lots of opportunity between Guys and Dolls in Sheffield and six months filming The Stranger in Manchester last year.

“A lot of the interiors we shot in Bolton and the 125 bus that I used to take to school was going past all the time and it was so weird – it was bringing back all these memories.”

The titular character in The Stranger is played by another northerner – Hull-born Hannah John-Kamen.

“She’s a wonderful actress who was in the Marvel universe and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One who, it also turns out, is my best friend from drama school,” laughs Kirwan. “We trained together at Central. She’s my little sister.

“I got cast first so when she called and told me we just cackled like naughty schoolchildren. On set we played pranks on each other and I just spent my days laughing. It’s a serious drama and I shouldn’t have been, but up until they shouted action I was just properly laughing.”

But Kirwan wants to be a bit more serious now. The role marks the beginning of a transition into more grown-up roles, having played what he calls “a lot of humorous kind of man-boys”.

“This is the big thing for me. It’s lovely to be playing a lead role in something like this, with such great actors and alongside my best friend – it’s the stuff of dreams.”

When Gary Rhodes tipped well

Kadiff Kirwan never thought it would be a tweet paying respect to Gary Rhodes that would put him in the media spotlight but last November, following the sad death of the celebrity chef, it did. His tweet, sharing a sweet story from his time working for Rhodes at the W1 Brasserie in London during Kirwan’s gap year, went viral.

“Someone poached me from a rival hotel across the road for that job,” says Kirwan, adding that “it’s something about being an actor, or just being personable” that made him so in demand as a waiter. “I just love people. I like making people laugh. No matter whether I’m pulling you a pint or serving you tacos, I’m going to try and make you smile.

“So someone came and offered me a better job with more money and when I got there I realised it was Gary Rhodes’s restaurant and I remembered him because he had that spikey hair. Ready Steady Cook!”

Finding out that Kirwan wanted to go to drama school, Rhodes accepted he wouldn’t work with him for long.

“I’d been there six or seven months and I was trying to save as much money as I could to get myself into a position where I didn’t have to depend on anyone else during drama school. Then a few days before I left Gary came over and handed me one of his books and said: ‘I hear you’re leaving. Here’s a book. I’ve signed it for you. Hopefully I’ll come and see you in something one day’.

“I popped it in my bag and maybe two days later I opened it and there was £200 inside and a little note that said put this towards your tuition.

“It was really, really sweet. He didn’t have to do that. Outside of being a wonderful chef and a TV personality, he was a really nice person. And I’ve still got his book somewhere, although I don’t think it’s very vegan friendly,” he laughs.

“The tweet blew up – my agents and publicists came to me with all these news outlets wanting to speak to me and I just thought, you know what? I didn’t know Gary that well. All I knew was a bunch of lovely interactions we had when I worked at his restaurant and the tweet said it all so I’m going to let that lie.”

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Interact: Responses to Kadiff Kirwan: strangers and friends

  • c'estmoi
    10 Feb 2020 05:41
    Congrats young man! You've done Montserrat proud! Keep up the good work!

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