Though we've come a week or two past Memorial Day, whether you watched it or not, chances are you heard of the remake of classic television series Roots that premiered on the History Channel. And, if you were one of the many many million who saw it, in parts three and four, it's likely you saw a young and unfamiliar face playing the major role of Chicken George in the final two parts of the short series.
The young man in question? His name is Regé-Jean Page. He's a young British actor who just happens to be getting started in the industry, and who has all the tangibles and intangibles required to potentially be one of the major faces and personalities in Hollywood. But, before he becomes a common name, the first question most will be asking in the future, who is he?
Page was born in London, however, as a toddler, moved back with his family to Zimbabwe. The son of an interracial couple, Regé grew up sharing much of the same outsider experience as fellow African native and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. And though Page was not raised in apartheid South Africa, he was very much still viewed as an outsider amongst his peers. Page would end up moving back to England in his teens, a new location that offered him a breath of fresh air, a chance to fit in amongst the diversity of the people, and a place he believes helped to change his life. Though Regé-Jean was discovered during his time as a young student at the British National Youth Theatre, his life began quite far away from where he was "discovered." He reflects on having the opportunity to take his craft serious, among peers who also took it seriously, and how experience helped shape him as an artist as well as the joy his time there as a student brought him. His years of serious studying wouldn't go to waste, as the young actor was finally accepted into the acclaimed Drama Centre, a London-based school that has helped shaped fellow Brits, and international film stars, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender.
I had the chance to speak with the eloquent and hilarious young actor over coffee and avocado toast at a small cafe near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. We reflected on the role of race in casting, the limitations of art form, and whether the impact of art is tied to the size of the audience it reaches. Here's Regé-Jean Page in his own words.
Is the quality of art tied to its audience size?
To what end? It’s not always about reaching the widest audience. It’s about how you reach people, and in that sense, there’s no difference between a little room in a back basement with ten people if you hit them hard enough, there’s a nobility to reaching ten people. They are not irrelevant because they are less than 10,000. You know, when you paint something, only a certain number of people will see it in the room, but that doesn’t make that contribution irrelevant. Before I do any work, I ask myself why this story and why now? As long as you can hit those why’s that’s the important thing. It’s about the goal of the piece, and sometimes that can be more powerful and meaningful.
On never fitting with well-defined boundaries:
I used to be in music, in a punk band in my teens. It was very teenage of me, I wanted to find a way to be loud and angry and righteous and that seemed the most productive way to do so. I wanted to it be challenging and chaotic, something a bit less conducive to form. Ive never felt particularly comfortable in any defined boundaries, ever. Because I was never born within any well-defined boundaries. It’s both difficult and an opportunity. Because when you are something people don’t know quite how to define, it means you get more of an opportunity to define yourself to bring something new to the table, to bring a new view on things. And it allows me steer clear of clichés, and it allows me to bring a new perspective and surprise people.
Do you think a Roots remake was necessary?
Yes I do. We’ve had forty years of conversations, of scholarships, of research and much of that was started by the first Roots and so in terms of updating a part of history that is so important to our sense of identity and that changed so much about our sense of identity it is absolutely appropriate that thirty/forty years later you update your history textbooks. It offers us a new perspective, to be created by new people, with current technologies. There's no reason it shouldn't be remade to add lessons we've learned as a society since it first aired so many years ago.
How will we see a minority show with a minority cast that is not labeled a minority show with a minority cast?
"Simple. By continuously creating them until they are normal."
Which actor’s career would you most like to emulate?
I’m very wary of heroes. I try not to make them in the first place, but there was a phrase Idris Elba spoke a few years back, where he said 'It’s not about being the next Denzel, it’s about being the first you,' and I really took that to heart, but there are a great many actors and actresses whom I respect, and so I believe I have a collage of influences than focusing on any one career path in particular.
Now, it's far from the most astute observation in the world that young Rege-Jean Page has the qualities of a superstar. Be it the charisma of his personality, the eloquence and nuances of his opinions, or maybe, the most prominent feature, his million-watt bulb smile. Though it's all new to him for now, Rege tells me that to put it as simple as possible, he's having fun and feels blessed, in his words, to "have the opportunity to create and contribute meaningfully to the creation of culture."
Now that Rege has his early career roles under his belt, as his opportunities grow, alongside his confidence and ability, I think it's safe to say that Rege's rise to the top of Hollywood seems more a matter of when it will occur, than if it will.