The BAFTA-winning actor Rakie Ayola speaks to Tribune on the need for cultural workers to unite against studio bosses destroying their industry – and why actors must stand with striking workers everywhere.

Rakie Ayola and Brian Cox at a rally in solidarity with striking actors and writers. (Credit: Equity)

BAFTA-winning actor Rakie Ayola has had a long and distinguished career on screen with roles in Black Mirror, Doctor Who and Eastenders, to name a few. The Welsh actress of Nigerian descent has never been afraid to speak her mind, challenging racism both in and outside the entertainment industry. Last week, she addressed a rally organised by Equity, the British performing arts and entertainment trade union, in solidarity with striking writers and actors in the US.

Speaking to Tribune, Ayola makes clear that British actors face the same challenges as their US counterparts—and that her solidarity with workers striking for better pay and conditions extends beyond the world of entertainment.

Taj Ali

What brings you to the rally today?

Rakie Ayola

I was invited to speak by Paul Fleming [General Secretary of Equity]. I wanted to show my support and solidarity with the SAG-AFTRA actors’ and Writers Guild strikes.

Taj Ali

There’s been a lot said about unregulated artificial intelligence and its impact on the acting profession. What are your thoughts on the challenges facing actors?

Rakie Ayola

It’s very simple. Like a lot of professions, we don’t want to be replaced by artificial intelligence. It’s as simple as that. The idea that someone can take your image, take your voice, take your physical shape and then go off and use it whenever and wherever they want is ridiculous.

Taj Ali

And streaming revenue is a big part of the dispute, too, isn’t it?

Rakie Ayola

Streaming revenue is a massive part. In my speech, I was talking about someone who said, what’s the point of actors and writers striking because nobody cares? It doesn’t affect your health, your ability to travel, or your kid’s education, so who cares? And what I said to that person was, how much do you spend every month on Netflix, Amazon or Sky? Unless all you’re doing is watching sports or factual television, you’re wasting your money if you think there’s no value in drama and movies. How many people are watching The Crown or Succession? And yet people will say what we do doesn’t contribute to the economy.

Taj Ali

Indeed. And we saw a significant increase in streaming during the height of the pandemic. How did the pandemic impact the industry?

Rakie Ayola

We were doing more and more self-audition tapes from our homes. I had my husband and my daughters reading lines for me. I had my 14-year-old play like a detective for me. All that saves the industry a lot of money. They’re not having to book the studio space. And then they complain that the quality isn’t very good. No, because this is my house, and the person next door is drilling, and you tell me at 3 o’clock in the afternoon that you want this in by 10 o’clock tomorrow. So what do you want me to do?

Taj Ali

What is the work-life balance like as an actor?

Rakie Ayola

People don’t really take into account the amount of homework that we do. You might have one day’s filming when you’re doing three things. You have to learn those things. You have to factor in the time to study those things. You’ve got to get to that stage where it’s stuck in your head, and that’s not factored in, particularly when it comes to self-tapes. If you tell me on a Friday that you want a self-tape on Monday, you think you’ve given me two days. You haven’t. Because on Saturday, I’m running around looking after my kids, there’s a party in the evening that’s been in the diary for months, and I’ve got relatives coming over on Sunday. So I’m doing that self-tape at midnight on Sunday.

Taj Ali

It seems the acting profession has a high union density in the United States and the UK. Why do you think that might be? I ask because, in many other industries, particularly in the private sector, it’s very low.

Rakie Ayola

SAG-AFTRA were pushed to the limit. A lot of the time, actors will go, okay, I’ll do whatever you want for no money. I’ll use my time to get the work done. I think they’ve been pushed too far. The financial aspect was bad enough. On top of that, we’re being told to come in for one day so they can recreate our image and put us in every other version of this thing but not pay us. They should be employing me across all the episodes I appear in. You can’t just stick me in a scene that I didn’t shoot. You can’t put my voice into something I didn’t contribute to. I think that’s when the union said, if we don’t do something, they genuinely will roll all over us. You know that version of him from two years ago? Let’s use that.

Taj Ali

They did it with Paul Walker in Fast and Furious, didn’t they?

Rakie Ayola

Yes, and they know it can work. And when you’ve got something wonderful to watch—you’ve got people paying a fortune to see ABBA on stage even though ABBA are nowhere near that stage—the producers go, oh, they paid for this, they like it, they don’t care that ABBA aren’t even in the country. And also you have to think, do you actually want all the movies you go to to be full of people who were never there? Do you want all the television shows you watch to be full of people who were never there? Because that’s where we’re headed.

Taj Ali

We’re currently in the midst of the largest wave of strikes in decades. What’s your view on the strikes by railway workers, doctors and other workers?

Rakie Ayola

I am 100 percent behind those people who felt strike action was the only way to resolve their dispute. 100 percent. The government apparently have no more money to pay people. And you know what? I believe them… because they’ve given it to their mates. I’m exhausted by them. I 100 percent stand with striking workers. All of them. To be honest, I think we should all down tools. All of us.

Taj Ali

Your very vocal support of striking workers stands in strong contrast to what we’ve been hearing from the Labour Party leadership in the past year or so.

Rakie Ayola

I have no idea who I’m voting for right now. Because I listen to what comes out of Labour Party headquarters, and I think, somebody make it stop. Make it stop. Who are you pandering to? Who are the people you think need to hear you say this? Because I don’t know any of these people. I don’t mean I expect everyone to vote the way I vote. I mean, who are you supporting? The politics of infamy. The politics of negativity. I’m so exhausted.

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