How I travel... as an actor
Through an actor’s lens, Mangrove star Shaun Parkes shares his travel tales from around the world with High Life
I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor, but my mum must have done. She started me on acting classes at four years old, but it wasn’t until I was 26, after studying drama at school, college and then Rada, that I finally admitted I was one. It feels strange acknowledging that now.
At 16 I didn’t know there was such a thing as a drama college. I was a kid growing up in southeast London. “What do you mean ‘drama college’? I can go and learn this acting thing?” The idea of performing as a career – and travelling the world as a result – couldn’t register in my teenage mind. But I did what I’d always done and followed my nose, carrying on down the path I’d been set on.
At Rada, I was suddenly surrounded by different sorts of people, from Oxbridge and all over the world. I was being asked to play roles from various societies and cultures and to understand things I had no experience of. I realised I didn’t know as much as I needed to about this life and about the people in it. So what would get me to a place where I understood more? The answer, I thought, was to see the world. I knew there must be more to it than just ‘this’ – my experience – but, at 21, I couldn’t imagine it. To travel around the world takes money, effort and time.
Then three years out of Rada, I secured a play in the West End. It was The Duchess of Malfi for a company called Cheek by Jowl, which decided to take the production on tour. So, at 22 years old, after starting off somewhere like Bury St Edmunds in the UK, I travelled with the group to Australia, New York, Mexico, Colombia, Hong Kong, Russia, Prague, Warsaw, Romania and Ljubljana in former Yugoslavia, all within a ten-month period.
At the beginning, it didn’t feel like work – I was seeing the world! But by the time I was six months in, jumping between Hong Kong, London and wherever was next, the jet lag was starting to get to me. Friends were saying, “Look at you! How dare you be upset that you have to go to Hong Kong!”
But it was beautiful. I loved it because in a short space of time I saw human beings all over the planet doing exactly the same thing, but differently. It was the first time I thought, “We’re all the same aren’t we? We just have our own little ways of doing things.” So I found myself in Ljubljana where their phones weren’t working because there was a war not long ago, then Croatia where locals were telling me what it was like to live in Dubrovnik after the fighting, and I was learning so much from these experiences at just 22.
I loved it because in a short space of time I saw human beings all over the planet doing exactly the same thing, but differently. It was the first time I thought, “We’re all the same aren’t we? We just have our own little ways of doing things.”
Later, work took me to South Africa. I got to visit Johannesburg and Cape Town. I had a car and driver and we went to see the surrounding townships and hear stories from the locals, from 80-year-olds in some cases. I like talking to older people – they let you know the realness of life. I went to the Mandela museum and sat in it for seven hours. I surprised myself by being there that long, since I’m not someone who goes to museums all that much. While I was inside, the driver went away to get a haircut and came back looking fresh. “Are you ready?” he said. “No, I’m only halfway through. Come back later,” I replied, and continued to sit. Moments like these remind me how privileged I am to have seen these things, but also how important it is to have your own understanding of a place through experience rather than somebody telling you. I found it very liberating.
Being able to explore a new place as a result of work is great. I’d ask myself, “Am I ever going to come back here? Maybe not, so I should make the most of it.” But sometimes you feel a connection with a place. It’s hard to explain why you like it there, you just do and after a while you don’t study it, you just get on with it.
Egypt is one of those places for me. I love it. It’s the only place I go and they say, “Brother man, come!” I used to have dreads, so they’d call me Bob Marley. I felt welcome. I went back to Egypt three or four times in the year after my first visit because I met some people there who took me under their wing. We went out to the desert and we did a load of crazy stuff. It was beautiful. It’s also the only place other than Johannesburg where a museum captured me. I went to see Tutankhamun and stayed there for ages taking it in. I didn’t want to leave.
I was fortunate enough to find another place that, when I visit it even to this day, really nourishes me: Hawaii. After filming The River there in 2011, I’ve been visiting on and off ever since. As soon as I got off the plane I felt it. There’s this special feel to it. The people are very pleasant and very appreciative of their home and their land and treat it with such respect. It was one of the first times around the world where I’d seen that: people respecting the land. It also made me realise that I’m a bit of an island boy – there’s some of that heritage DNA.
I remember the first time my world view was challenged through travel. When I first went to Greece I was 17 or 18 and I got talking to a man who had never left the island. I said, “You’ve not left the island? Have you not been to England?” At the time I couldn’t believe it. He looked at me and said, “My friend, look.” And I looked. There was a mountain in the shape of the Loch Ness monster, a sea so clear you could see right to the bottom of it, like it was your bath, and glorious sunshine. It had this heavenly feel and everyone had a smile on their face. “Why would I want to leave that?” he said. That’s when I started thinking differently about the world. Seeing people really love their own country was intriguing to me at that age.
I love travelling, and I love being an actor, but my passion for one doesn’t dictate the other. I’ll never take a role because of where it’s being filmed – even if I really want to go there. The work comes first. And it has to be that way. My career opened my eyes to a world I couldn’t have conceived of as a teenager – I should thank my mum again for that – and continues to build on my experiences and understanding of life to this day. I’m headed to Vancouver next. It’s a place I’ve been to many times, but I’m looking forward to going back because, even if I’ve been there before, there’s always something new to discover.
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