From Prison To The London Stage: A 'MacBeth' Actor's Second Act

May 12, 2018
Originally published on May 13, 2018 11:27 am

Michael Balogun might say he's alive today because he's an actor.

Growing up in South London, Balogun stole, he mugged and dealt drugs to survive. He spent much of his younger years in and out of prison and was beginning to think his life would end behind bars.

"The last time I got quite a lengthy sentence, and halfway through that sentence, I was probably misbehaving — getting into a lot of fights, and then I had a moment where I realized that if I carried on living in that way, I'd either end up dead or doing a life sentence," Balogun says.

Initially inspired by Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and his own love for food, Balogun decided if he could get out of prison and save up some money, he might be able to open his own restaurant.

Balogun kept himself out of trouble long enough to get moved to another prison with a work release program and took a job at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

When Balogun arrived at the drama school, his first job was to chop vegetables to help prepare for lunch, but he says his slicing and dicing technique was not quite fast enough for the chef, so he transferred to the bar.

"What this allowed me to do was it meant that I was in contact with the students and some of the teachers, and then, my manager at the time who worked on the bar — she was like, look. 'Michael, when it's quiet, you can go and watch some of the shows these guys are doing,' " he says.

The first play he saw was Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, but it was set in New York. He says the performance really changed his perception of what Shakespeare could be.

"Normally, when I thought of Shakespeare, I just thought of people in tights running around speaking really posh, speaking like quite the Queen's English," he says.

When Balogun would go back to prison after working, he would tell the other men about what he saw and act scenes out for them. After one of those performances a friend of his approached him and said, "Michael, you know what? I think you might be an actor."

It wasn't just his prisonmates who saw his talent. Balogun says he would often run lines with students who would comment on his natural instinct for the text.

But Balogun's work at the drama school came to an end when he tried to smuggle a phone back into prison and was sent to another location with closed conditions.

"I felt like I'd messed up another opportunity that was given to me," Balogun says. "I was kind of at rock bottom, and because I'd messed up so many opportunities in my life, I decided that if I didn't figure out what I was going to do that night, I was going to hang myself."

But something stopped him from taking his life and Balogun says he knew from that moment on that he wanted to pursue acting.

When a psychiatrist came to visit him the next day, Balogun told her his plan. By chance, she was also a part-time drama teacher and believed in him.

"She started bringing me in classical plays like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, American plays — Arthur Miller, everything," he says.

Upon his release, Balogun tried to figure out how to pursue acting, but when he didn't know how to get a student loan, he went back to selling drugs to save up money for acting school.

Only once he was caught and sent to prison again did Balogun realize he had to completely leave criminal behavior behind.

Eventually, he got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He trained and then signed with an agency.

His first big break came when he got a role in People, Places And Things -- a story that revolves around drug addiction.

Now Balogun has a role in The National Theatre's production of Macbeth, as the doctor who observes Lady Macbeth sleepwalking.

As his life has changed while he pursued acting, so did Balogun's relationship to Shakespeare.

"That genius just captured the human condition in its raw essence," Balogun says. "In Macbeth, this guy is so ambitious, and he wants it all, but he goes around the wrong means about getting it. These were all things that I could directly connect to because of my criminality and because of my circumstances."

The film of the Macbeth production in which Balogun performed Thursday will be screened in select U.S. theaters May 17.

NPR's Marc Rivers and Martha Wexler edited and produced this story for broadcast. Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Michael Balogun might say he's alive today because he's an actor. Growing up in south London, Balogun stole, he mugged and dealt drugs to survive. He spent much of his younger years in and out of prison and was beginning to think his life would end behind bars. Well, things turned around when he picked up work in a kitchen at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was eventually accepted to study there. Now, Michael Balogun is performing in a production of "Macbeth," which was broadcast live from The National Theatre in London this week. And Michael Balogun joins us now from the BBC in London.

Welcome to the program, Michael.

MICHAEL BALOGUN: Hi, it's a pleasure to be here. Hi, everyone.

SINGH: It's a pleasure to have you. Your own life story sounds like the stuff of stage drama. Take us back to your childhood in London. What was it like growing up?

BALOGUN: I come from South London. I'm from a borough called Lambeth. My mom used to go on holiday a lot. I didn't know what she was doing, but I think there was a sense inside of me that knew that things weren't right. And obviously, now, in hindsight, I know she was - she was selling drugs.

SINGH: So you have this experience and you turned to crime as your mother had turned to crime. What led you to continue that? And tell us about your first arrest.

BALOGUN: So the first time I got arrested, what happened was me and my little sister - we used to go and steal donuts from a shopping center called Sainsbury's, and then one day, the security guard basically arrested us, so that was my first, first ever experience of being arrested. The first time I went to prison I would have been about - I think I was 17 - 18.

SINGH: So when did you decide that acting might actually be a way out of that lifestyle? How did you map your path?

BALOGUN: So that's a crazy story - so OK. So I've been in prison a few more times from that first time, and the last time I got quite a lengthy sentence, and halfway through that sentence, I was probably misbehaving - getting into a lot of fights, and then I had a moment where I realized that if I carried on living in that way, I'd either end up dead or doing a life sentence. So initial - like, I don't know if you guys know about in - well, you do know about in the States. There's a program called Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares." That used to come on, like, every Friday night, and I'd watch them religiously. I've always been a big fan of food. So I thought that's quite a simple thing. If I can get out and make some money and save up some money, maybe I can open my own restaurant. So anyway, they move me to another prison because I kept myself out of trouble for a period of time. They moved me to another prison where you are allowed to go out and come back.

SINGH: Yeah. That's what we would call work release.

BALOGUN: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly that. So they said to me, you know, we found you a job, and it's at a place called the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But if I'm honest with you, I didn't really know what that was. I was like, what is that? And he said, it's a drama school, and I was like, great, you know? I mean, I'd been in prison for a while, so I was probably thinking there's going to be some attractive ladies floating around, you know? That's what came into my head initially.

Anyway, they sent me there. So the first feeler chef asked me to do - he said Michael, I need you to chop up the vegetables because we start serving the students at 12 o'clock. So I started doing what I could do, and he was like, whoa (ph). Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. That's way too slow. Because, you know, chefs have a way of chopping up veg where they kind of, like, glide through it. Like, vrrrrrh (ph). I couldn't do that. So he was like, we can't work like that, so unfortunately, we're going to have to move you onto the bar.

What this allowed me to do was it meant that I was in contact with the students and some of the teachers, and then, my manager at the time who worked on the bar - she was like, look. Michael, when it's quiet, you can go and watch some of the shows these guys are doing. So the first thing I saw was Shakespeare "Measure For Measure," and normally, when I thought of Shakespeare, I just thought of people in tights running around speaking really posh, speaking like quite the Queen's English. Yeah.

SINGH: I think most people do.

BALOGUN: Yeah, exactly. For - this production, funny enough, was set in New York, and I was fascinated by that. I was like, wow, like, Shakespeare set in New York in contemporary clothing. And whenever I go back to the prison at night, there were some guys in there that weren't coming out of prison, so I'd come back with all these stories about the plays I'd seen or these people I'd met or these situations that I was privy to, and I'd be acting things out from what I'd seen in place. And then I saw another play called "Mercury Fur" by a writer called Philip Ridley, an English writer. And a lot of stuff in this play are about drugs or about crime or about broken families. And I can't explain the feeling, but you - I came out of that theater - my body was shaking. I couldn't explain it. It was like a real catharsis.

And I went back to prison that night, and I was acting scenes out from it, and I had the room full of prisoners, and I was telling them this - the whole story of this play - kind of acting it out for them. And you know when you could just look at - I looked at everyone in the room, and they were entranced. And then my friend Marvin, who was there at the time - he was like, Michael, you know what? I think you might be an actor, you know? Even when I was working at RADA in the bar, every now and again, some of the students would ask me to run some lines with them for a class they had. And I'd run lines with people, and people would always say, but Michael, man, you've got a natural instinct for text.

Then what happened was I tried to sneak a phone back into the prison with me, and I got caught. So what they did is they stopped me from going to RADA and sent me back to a normal prison in closed conditions. I felt like I'd messed up another opportunity that was given to me. I was kind of at rock bottom, and because I'd messed up so many opportunities in my life, I decided that if I didn't figure out what I was going to do that night, I was going to hang myself.

I made a noose to hang myself.

It was about 7 o'clock, so I gave myself till 7 o'clock in the morning. So I - so I gave myself 12 hours to think, and I wasn't about to go to sleep. I was wide awake. And I can't explain this, man. Like, I can't call it a spiritual thing - call it God, but something spoke to me, and I just heard this thing in my head just say, acting.

SINGH: So you spent the rest of the time that you served out your time in prison. How did you then make the transition to becoming a student of acting?

BALOGUN: OK so - so anyway, the next day, a lady came to my cell who was a psychiatrist because the office was worried about my mental health because I was getting in a lot fights. And she was like, Michael, the offices are really worried about you and we're thinking about, you know, getting you sorted out, in whatever way they meant that. And I was like, no. No. No. No. No. No. I'm fine now. I'm great. I know what I want to do with my life.

She was like, what's that? So I want to be an actor. And she was like, well - well, Michael, you now see. This is the stuff they're talking about. You need to calm - I was like, no. No. No. No. No. No. No I'm dead serious. This is what I want to do. And she knew I was serious, and coincidentally, she happened to be a part-time drama teacher.

So she started bringing me in classical plays like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, American plays - Arthur Miller, everything - she started bringing me in plays. So anyway, long story short, I got released from prison, and I didn't know you could get a student loan, so I thought to myself, you know what? I'm going to sell drugs again so that I could save up money. So I start selling drugs again, and I managed to save up a substantial amount of money, and then I got arrested and went back to prison again. And I realized that if I was actually going to pursue this dream, I had to literally sever any ties I had with criminality.

SINGH: When did your first big break in acting - professional acting happen for you?

BALOGUN: So I got in (unintelligible) - obviously, eventually, I got into RADA, and I did my training, and then I managed to sign with an agency. But what happened was there was a play on called "People, Places And Things," and it's about drug addiction, and it's set inside a therapeutic community. So when I saw this play in the West End, I was like, oh, my God. I have to be in this. Anyway, long story short, one of my friends was cast in this play, and she said, Michael, I think you should try and get an audition for this because I think you'll be perfect for it. So I did the audition with her.

SINGH: So when did you find out that you got it?

BALOGUN: I got a phone call, randomly, from my agent. I was - I was just walking down the road, and she phoned me and said, Michael, you've got a part in "People, Places And Things."

SINGH: Must have been at that moment that you began pinching yourself 'cause I know...

BALOGUN: Yeah. As - yeah...

SINGH: That you've been pinching yourself...

BALOGUN: That's when...

SINGH: ...Ever since.

BALOGUN: ...The pinching started. Yeah, exactly. So I've got a few scars. Well, no. I'm joking.

SINGH: And now - and now, you've got a role in The National Theatre's production of "Macbeth," the doctor who observes Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. Did anything from your extremely difficult early life prepare you to act in this great Shakespearean work?

BALOGUN: One thing about Shakespeare is it's so relatable for so many people from so many backgrounds because that guy - that genius just captured the human condition in its raw essence. So even when I was reading plays like King Lear, I was like, hold on a minute. This is a man who's gone a bit crazy, and he's falling out with his family - with his daughters, and he's just gone on a runner. I was like, I've done that. I've ran away from home so many times. I know it's not the same thing, but I've run away so many times because I wasn't getting on with people - 'cause I wasn't getting on with my aunt and her family. And in "Macbeth," like, this guy is so ambitious, and he wants it all, but he goes around the wrong means about getting it. These were all things that I could directly connect to because of my criminality and because of my circumstances.

SINGH: Can you think of a passage that actually resonated with you?

BALOGUN: OK. So Banquo, in "Macbeth," has a line. He's speaking to the witches, and he says something along the lines of, if you can look into the seeds of time and say which grains will grow and which will not, speak then to me who neither beg nor fear your favors nor your hate. And I remember, when I was younger, I remember this headmaster that I had in secondary school. His name was Mr. Deveaux (ph). Sorry if he's listening. He was really angry with me because I had stolen something, and he said, Michael, you will end up in prison one day. And a beautiful actor called Giles Terera who's in "Hamilton" over here - black actor. He'd heard this story, and he'd heard that story about Mr. Deveaux, and he sent me this message with that quote from Macbeth saying, I wonder what Mr. Deveaux would think about this quote. Because he kind of predicted my future, and he was right, but then I turned it around and got into acting. So that little speech that Banquo has in "Macbeth" always kind of resonates with me, you know?

SINGH: That's actor Michael Balogun. The film of the "Macbeth" production in which he performed Thursday will be screened in select U.S. theaters May 17.

Michael Balogun, thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations.

BALOGUN: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.