In September 1993, when 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist assault in south London, Sharlene Whyte was a teenager residing in Nottingham.
The killing affected her deeply. “It was horrendous because Stephen Lawrence looked like my friends. We were just a little bit younger than him. I remember being shocked and scared for my friends’ safety; we were all incredulous.”
As she grew older, she adopted the story – and Doreen Lawrence’s combat for justice – carefully. “The attack was like a worst nightmare as a black person growing up,” she says.
It was round Christmas 2019 when Whyte’s agent referred to as to say that director Alrick Riley wished to satisfy together with her to speak about taking the function of Doreen Lawrence in Stephen, a sequel to ITV’s landmark 1999 drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. Whyte had simply accomplished filming on Education, the ultimate movie in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe collection. She performed the fictional Agnes Smith, “another strong woman fighting for justice,” in a story about racial stereotyping within the British college system.
Even so, the 45-year-old felt awed. “Playing Doreen Lawrence is a huge responsibility because she is responsible for amazing changes in policing and has a huge legacy,” she says.
Written by Frank and Joe Cottrell Boyce, the three-part mini-series picks up in 2006 and particulars how two of Stephen’s attackers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, had been lastly delivered to justice almost 20 years after the homicide.
It is predicated on In Pursuit of the Truth, a guide by DCI Clive Driscoll, who’s performed by Steve Coogan.
In 2006, Driscoll took cost of the case in a last-ditch effort to safe the convictions of the lads named as Stephen’s murderers. Twice earlier than, instances towards 5 attackers had collapsed.
Many felt that a collection of blunders by police initially investigating the homicide meant that the murderers would by no means face justice. Driscoll’s efforts and new forensic proof ensured that in 2012, two of the 5 attackers had been convicted.
Whyte learn the script and watched all of the documentaries she may discover, nevertheless it all occurred so quick.
“I didn’t have time to be completely overwhelmed by the fact that I was potentially going to play Doreen. It was: who was this woman? What do I remember about the time? It was about being authentic and representing her properly. Even the audition process felt very important,” she says.
She additionally learn Lawrence’s autobiography, And Still I Rise, revealed in 2006, the 12 months that Stephen begins.
“The book goes into her childhood growing up in Jamaica, which gave me an insight into her personality. She has this whole still-waters-run-deep vibe about her. When she was a kid… people sort of felt intimidated because she didn’t say much. And when she did say something, it would resonate, and this carried on into her adult life.”
She decided not to meet with Lady Lawrence, however. “I just thought, it’s too much. I didn’t know what I could glean from meeting her, apart from all the pain and the trauma, and I didn’t want to bring that up again. There’s enough footage online.”
Whyte also felt that if she kept Lawrence at a distance, she could be more objective, authentic and truthful when portraying her. The actress also has a 17-year-old son, close to the age Stephen was when he died. “It makes you think about your own child and their safety and it pulls on the heartstrings. Things have changed, but not to the massive extent we would have liked to have seen.
“There have been more recent horrendous crimes on young black men. There are still examples of institutionalised racism. There is still work for the Met to do.”
Whyte knows that the Labour peer has now seen the show, but not what she thought of her performance, which is stunning. Her straight-talking and authoritative Doreen lends the show gravitas. When we first meet her, she and Stephen’s father, Neville (Hugh Quarshie, reprising his role from the 1999 drama), have already divorced. Thirteen years of campaigning have taken their toll, and Doreen is a different woman from the special-needs teacher whose son was murdered at a bus stop because of the colour of his skin.
To get into the mindset of Doreen at this time, Whyte listened to music. “Doreen did a Desert Island Discs interview a few years ago and shared the music she grew up listening to, so I made a playlist. It got me into her head when she was a teenager and where she was at the time.”
What Whyte discovered, she tells me, was: “She has this sort of barrier around her. She develops this shield around her. By 2006, she knows how the Met works; she knows it’s corrupt, and it’s almost like the anger has dissipated. She teaches Clive Driscoll how the Met works.
“It’s almost beyond anger; it’s a deep knowing.” The insight was useful, she says, because “personally, I would be angry and throwing stuff all the time”.
Growing up, Whyte’s mother worked at various jobs – in a factory, in Boots and on a pig farm. “I was always a creative kid, and she put me into ballet lessons when I was three. She knew, I was just that kid.”
Whyte would go to contemporary dance classes, Saturday schools for African drumming and an acting workshop in Nottingham. In 1996 Whyte moved to London and started at Rada. “I’d never met people from Oxbridge until I got there. That was an interesting experience,” she recalls.
“I sat at the back of my acting class writing pretend letters to Steven Spielberg stating: ‘If you want to take me out of here now, please do. I don’t need to be in this classroom pretending. I’m from the streets; I’m not in this life.’”
Things got better. “Once I got over the hump of knowing that I was working class, all these labels that are put on you. Knowing that I didn’t listen to jazz: so what, what’s your problem?”
Once she graduated, the world of acting didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms.
She had roles in Burnside and Spooks, but her first significant recurring role came in children’s television, playing care worker Jenny Edwards in CBBC’s The Story of Tracy Beaker.
“To be honest, when you’re a young actor doing children’s television, you just think it’s a job. I was a working actor that was sitting on a talent.
“It does come from the culture of the industry at that time,” she says. “Young people coming out now have more of a voice; you’ve got YouTube, you can create your own stuff and realise your amazing talent. Someone like me coming out of Rada, it’s a different mindset.”
Now though, she says, her dreams and aspirations have changed. “You grow as an artist. Career-wise I’ve just grown, and you find your voice again.”
Next up, Whyte will be seen in Debbie Tucker Green’s big-screen adaptation of her state-of-the-nation play, Ear for Eye.
“It’s a beautiful piece of art, like a puzzle and I love a puzzle. It’s a very powerful black story and it’s got a beautiful cast. It felt like I’d been bathed in black brilliance.”
Her career, she says, has been like a “big circle” so far. “Where you were amazing, great and talented, and then you get trodden down because of how the industry works. It’s not working out for you because you don’t look quite right and don’t sound quite right, and then you start doubting yourself.
“Then you come back up, and you go: ‘Actually no, I’m amazing, and I always have been. I’m actually a f**king genius.’ It took me a minute to remember that.”
Stephen starts on ITV on 30 August at 9pm
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