Cush Jumbo: ‘He’s doing less screen time but being paid three times more? Er, no!’

·18 min read

Even virtually, Cush Jumbo’s energy enters the room before she does, which is at a run, with the force of someone just ejected from a cannon. “I don’t like being late, ugh, can you hear me?!” the actor and writer says, peering at the screen, smiling gamely and settling down in a chair. “As usual, my day has been scheduled back to back, no room for manoeuvre, so if anything goes wrong … I’ve literally just begged the doorman for his bottle of water out of his lunchbox.” Jumbo, who is filming in Manchester for a Netflix show called Stay Close, which she summarises as “glossy, very fast-moving, sometimes doesn’t make sense but you don’t care”, has ducked into a conference room straight from rehearsals, still in loose-fitting leisurewear and manic from work. “Hello!” she says, and exhales.

It is hard to think of a British actor who comes close in range, depth and sheer vitality to Jumbo who, at 35, is at the height of her powers. After training in classical theatre, she moved to the US to work on a series of juggernaut TV shows, before returning to Britain last year on the brink of superstardom. She has played DC Whelan, Brenda Blethyn’s detective sidekick in ITV’s Vera; Lucca Quinn, the whip-smart lawyer in the CBS legal drama The Good Wife and its follow-up, The Good Fight; and on stage, Mark Anthony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar, a role for which she earned an Olivier nomination. Her latest role, as a grieving mother in the BritBox original drama The Beast Must Die, puts her front and centre of an ensemble cast that includes Jared Harris and The Serpent’s Billy Howle. The six-part series is an entertaining and slightly cartoony whodunnit to which she brings a leavening intensity. “This was the first script I have ever been offered that had me in tears when I was reading it,” she says. “Knocked me off my feet. Things like this don’t land on my doorstep every day.”

It is surprising to hear Jumbo say this, given her recent successes. Starring in five seasons of the five-time Emmy-winning The Good Fight alongside Christine Baranski has made her well-known in the US, but even before that, she had received the kind of critical acclaim in the US that most British actors would die for. In 2015, Josephine And I, her one-woman show about Josephine Baker, opened off-Broadway. The theatre critic Ben Brantley wrote a love letter to Jumbo in the New York Times, culminating in the line, “This British actress radiates that unquantifiable force of hunger, drive and talent usually called star power.” Jumbo, who had written the show about the entertainer and activist several years earlier, partly in response to a dearth of acting roles coming her way, remembers reading it the night it came out. “I was literally like, I can die. If I die, I’m OK, and people will think I was a proper actor and I meant something. It was incredible.” When Baranski saw Josephine And I, and mentioned Jumbo to The Good Fight’s creators, she was promptly cast in the show and catapulted into the big time in the US, where she stayed for the next five years. Jumbo left the UK as a well-respected but somewhat struggling actor. When she returned, last year, it was to first refusal on the best roles in the land, including the title in Hamlet at the Young Vic.

What is so curious about this trajectory is that it is entirely self-authored. Jumbo wrote Josephine And I at her mother’s suggestion, at a time when she was feeling so burnt out and demoralised as an actor that she had considered leaving the profession. A few years later, she would write a short play, The Accordion Shop, inspired by the London riots of 2011 and performed as part of a National Theatre youth programme, by which time Josephine And I was heading for New York, and Jumbo’s acting career was rebooting. It was a turnaround in fortunes that even five years ago couldn’t, in all likelihood, have happened in England. “I didn’t shoot right out of drama school into success,” as she puts it, and for most of her 20s, job offers were thin enough on the ground that she had little choice over the roles she took. “The reality is that actors wish they could choose jobs,” she says. “Most of the time you just get what’s available and hope at some point in the future you’ll be able to choose.”

It wasn’t a simple case of there being more opportunities in the US. In Britain, Jumbo says, she faced very particular casting hurdles. She was born and raised in south London, the second of six children of a British mother and Nigerian father, and, after graduating from first the Brit school and then the Central School of Speech and Drama, worked mainly in theatre. She appeared, in short succession, in Liquid Gold at the Almeida, Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Globe and As You Like It at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Good reviews always followed – this newspaper called her appearance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House “magnificent” and tipped her as “set to become one of the best actresses of her generation”. But although she logged plenty of TV appearances in her 20s – the inevitable Casualty and Torchwood, as well as a recurring role in the excellent BBC comedy Getting On – her career moved in fits and starts, and never quite seemed to take flight.

On one level, this suited Jumbo just fine. She had gone into acting with modest expectations and as long as she could make ends meet, she was happy. “I’ve been poor, I grew up poor, and although in my early years I never made any money, I never went into acting to make money. All I ever wanted was to not have to work as a waitress; to be able to act full-time and not owe anybody money.” Still, as the years went by, the frustrations piled up. This is – or at least was – the difference, she says, between being an actor in Britain and in the US. In America, it used to be the case that she would go to audition for something and shock people, so unaccustomed were Americans to encountering black Britons. “I used to enjoy walking into rooms and people being very confused about this voice coming out of this face,” she says in her strong south London accent. Once the confusion died down, however, her Englishness tended to play in her favour, due to the absolute deafness of American ears to English class distinctions. “In the UK, you go to an audition, you’re just out of drama school, and you open your mouth and people judge you because they know what kind of school you went to. Whereas in the US, you go to an audition, you open your mouth, and all they hear is the Queen. Or Mary Poppins. That’s all they hear! You’re already doing a great job, because they’re like, ‘You’re so posh!’ I’m literally from Lewisham and they have no idea.” Appearing alongside Game Of Thrones star Rose Leslie, a genuine posh person who grew up in a castle in Scotland, Jumbo says, “It was hilarious because I’d be going wah-wah-wah and she’d be going da-da-da and you could just see everyone was fucking confused; hold on, now they both sound like queens, but different ones!”

In the last few years, things have improved somewhat for black and working-class actors in both countries, Jumbo says. “The more black [British] actors who work in the US, the more they realise a) black people live in the UK, and not just that one person in Downton, and b) there are loads of us.” Daniel Kaluuya’s recent Oscar win for his role in Judas And The Black Messiah has done a lot to foreground black British actors in the US, and if Americans marvel at the discovery that Lucca Quinn is British, “I’m really flattered because it means I’m not fucking up the accent.” In the UK, meanwhile, though “racially sometimes I think we’re a bit ahead [of the US], class-wise, we still struggle. There was always a snobbery towards working-class actors, which has caused a lot of them to change their accent. But things have changed.”

Other aspects of life in the US were strange to Jumbo, particularly after she had her son, Maximilian. She and her husband, Sean Griffin, a tech developer, had been friends for years before they started dating – “I never thought he fancied me,” she has joked – and when Jumbo’s star started rising in the US, he dropped everything to follow her out there. The couple married in New York in 2014 and four years later their son was born. In one famous episode in The Good Fight, Lucca is mistaken for her baby’s nanny by a white woman who calls the police, an experience that, Jumbo told The Advocate in 2019, happened to her in milder form in New York. Realising her error, the woman was mortified, but the point is, Jumbo said at the time, the racial dynamics of New York – where nannies are almost exclusively women of colour – are completely different from those of her home town. “If I was in London in a park, there’s just no way in hell anybody would mistake me for the nanny.”

Jumbo’s own parents raised her in an unconventional household in which her mother, Angela, a nurse who recently came out of retirement to help administer Covid-19 vaccines, was the breadwinner, and her father, Marx, a stay-at-home dad. Even now, she says, when she has a parenting question, she’s straight on the phone to her dad. “My dad is very much an alpha male Nigerian man, but he just had a way with babies,” she says. “If my son’s teeth are bothering him, or if he’s not sleeping or I can’t potty train him, the first thing I do is call my dad.”

Cush Jumbo in October 2019, with parents Marx and Angela, and husband Sean Griffin, receiving an OBE for her services to drama
In 2019, with parents Marx and Angela, and husband Sean Griffin, receiving an OBE for her services to drama. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

If those early years of Jumbo’s career were frustrating, they weren’t entirely without good TV roles, chiefly that of DC Bethany Whelan, whom Jumbo played alongside Brenda Blethyn in Vera. She has, she says, been extremely lucky with her “leading ladies” – Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Baranski in The Good Fight, Blethyn in Vera and Harriet Walter in the stage production of Julius Caesar. Blethyn, she says, taught her all about how to act for camera, and also not to take any of it too seriously. “She was always the one telling dirty jokes. If you put on a pair of plastic gloves, she’d want us to be a pair of detectives called the Spunk Squad, off to explore how much spunk was on a certain car. We’d be about to do a scene and she’d be like, wait, no, I’ve got another idea for Spunk Squad!”

Is Christine Baranski as fabulous as one imagines? “Great-aunt Baranski?!” hoots Jumbo. “She’s amazing. When I call her a grande dame, I don’t mean as in diva, I mean as in always looking after everyone. Christine would order in a truck that served everybody home-cooked Polish food, filling us up with pierogi to make sure we were eating right.”

Who’s the grandest out of Baranski, Blethyn and Walter? “I don’t know. Wouldn’t you like to see something with all three of them in it?!” I would. It would be like a reboot of Nothing Like A Dame, that Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright documentary that was almost too much to bear. “Right? All three are so different, and so lovely. It makes me want to be a grande dame one day.”

Lisa Hammond [as Helen], Kenny Doughty [as Ds Aiden] Healy, Brenda Blethyn [as Vera], Jon Morrison [as Dc Kenny Lockhart] and Cush Jumbo [as Dc Bethany Whelan]. Episode 1 ‘Vera’ TV Series, Series 6 - 2016
As DC Bethany Whelan in Vera. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

On the evidence of her current performances, there is a good chance that Jumbo’s wish will come true. Part of her skill as an actor lies in her ability to create an inner life for even relatively flatly written characters, something she puts down to her obsessive need to research. If she hadn’t been an actor, she says, “I think I’d be a historical archivist or something. I enjoy the detective work of putting together the arc of the character, working out where their emotional peaks are, figuring out if they’re acting on a level that’s for other people or for themselves.” Before taking on a role, she does an enormous amount of multimedia research. “I have a collage cupboard; I work a lot from pictures and music and things I cut out. I find stuff on walks, I make playlists. And I keep it all, physically, so that when I’m in rehearsal and I think, oh, I remember seeing somebody stand like that, it’s there. I have mood boards and bits and pieces like a crazy art teacher.”

For The Good Fight, she dropped in on a group of second-year students at Brooklyn Law school to ask them what it was like to be litigators, although in that particular instance, she says, a background in classical theatre was the more helpful influence. While other cast members grumbled about long court scenes and the memorisation of legal language, Jumbo loved precisely these aspects of the show, which she felt echoed Shakespeare. “That’s all Shakespeare does: he’s always turning an argument. Even in a soliloquy, when you’re not talking to anybody, you’re having to argue a law to yourself and make peace with something or find a resolution.” In The Good Fight, Lucca Quinn appears in every kind of courtroom, each requiring its own choreography. “So we had criminal, federal, family and bond court. And you have to behave differently, physically and legally, in each, which is what we have our advisers for. In some, you’re supposed to address the jury not the judge; in others, you address the judge. Some don’t have a jury. Some you can’t turn your back on, some you can. Combine that with the language and you’re basically in a scene that’s fit for Shakespeare, except you’re in a pencil skirt and fabulous Gucci jacket.”

After shooting four seasons of The Good Fight, with a brief appearance in the fifth to explain her character’s exit, Jumbo decided to move back to the UK. This was partly for personal reasons. “I wanted my son to grow up in the UK and culturally have that experience – my family’s all here, [Sean’s] family’s all here.” Becoming a mother, she says, has made her more ambitious – “And straight-talking. I really love my kid and I’m really glad I had him. But everything costs something, and it’s not possible to do it all at the same time. So if I’m going to give [everything] to a job, which I try to, then it really has to be worth it.”

The move back to the UK was partly for artistic reasons, too. Six years after Josephine And I opened at the Bush theatre in London, she is returning not only at a different stage of her career, but to a different production landscape. “I wanted to be part of what I think is happening here, which is this massive growth in things being shot and made and written in the UK, but that are going out globally.”

There are ways to be positively assertive about what you’re worth, and I’m worth more. So if you want me, make me an offer

One of these is The Beast Must Die, produced by BritBox and going out in the US on AMC, which launched Mad Men. The production she’s filming in Manchester, an adaptation of Harlan Coben’s thriller Stay Close, is produced by Netflix with ITV. The budgets in the US are bigger, and she has noticed that “the crews are more diverse, especially in terms of women – more female producers and directors, and in technical departments, though that’s changing in the UK now, too.” Broadly, however, “I feel like I’ve moved back here and we’ve caught up,” she says.

Even so, UK money is never going to rival a US network TV deal. Jumbo smiles. “UK money is not the same. But I’d also say that I think I’ve come back with a way more Lucca Quinn frame of mind. I know what I should be paid, now let’s see how close to that we can get. And whether I feel like the project is worth me dropping down.”

She will drop her price for theatre, of course. This autumn, Jumbo is set to star in the much anticipated and Covid-delayed production of Hamlet at the Young Vic, something she is doing out of an obsessive need to challenge herself (one has, she says, to be “a nutter” to play Hamlet, and that’s without the added challenge of a woman playing a man). “Hamlet’s questioning the world, so I’m going into it looking at every different kind of man you can lay your hands on. Books and books, to see where I can find what it means to be a man these days, a spectrum from Boris Johnson, to Stormzy, to a guy who wants to walk in heels down Oxford Street, to a sports personality, to my dad. And maybe Hamlet was just born at the wrong time. He’s other, which I like.”

It’s a labour of love, one that Jumbo hopes may bring young people into the theatre. And a great screen project with no funding might tempt her in similar ways. Where she is not willing to compromise is on parity of pay with male co-stars. “Now is the time when you say, ‘What’s that? My male colleague is doing a third of the time on screen but is being paid three times more than me? Er, no.’ Or, ‘I’m helping you creatively and am writing things, I want my credit and I want to be a producer.’ You come back [from America] with that frame of mind,” she says, “rather than the British mentality of, ‘Oh, I’m just so lucky to be here! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ There are ways to be positively assertive about what you’re worth, and I’m worth more. So if you want me, you have to make me an offer.”

Related: 'There will be orgasms in the aisles!' Cush Jumbo meets Anne-Marie Duff

Have her male co-stars helped out by sharing details of their deals with her? “Yeah, my agent makes sure they do. It used to be much more like a war about who was going to win, and now we’re more like, can we find a deal that’s good for everyone and be fair? I’m lucky to have an agent who’s been behind me when I wasn’t earning any money and before it was popular to be a fan of a leading black actress. So he isn’t going to quit now we’re finally getting what we deserve. At the end of the day, if I don’t ask those questions, if I don’t make sure I’m getting parity, then how are the girls coming up behind me supposed to get it?”

One suspects Jumbo has always been in a hurry, her energy pitched above everyone else’s in the room. But at this stage, she says, she doesn’t have time to mess around. “I have to paddle real fast and keep paddling. I’m 36 this year.” It feels as if it has taken her a long time to get here – to the point where she is “privileged to be able to have options” – and she is going to seize every opportunity. “I’m obsessed,” she says. It’s an obsession not just with acting, but with the thrill of doing something new. “I’m that person who’s like, oh, I know that we have to have a stunt double, legally.” She smiles in acknowledgment of the space this takes up and the years that have gone into earning it. “But let me try.”

• The Beast Must Die is available on BritBox from 27 May.

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