Lester, Adrian 1968–
Adrian Lester 1968–
Critics have been nearly unanimous in their enthusiastic praise for British stage and screen actor Adrian Lester. American audiences remember him as the earnest young narrator of the 1998 political comedy Primary Colors, and he also appeared in the 2004 blockbuster global-warming film, The Day After Tomorrow. Yet it has been his Shakespeare roles that have garnered Lester the most enthusiastic of critical plaudits. In 2001, he starred in what was termed an electrifying new version of Hamlet in New York City. “A slim, angular, dreadlocked figure in black,” noted New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, “his Hamlet slices the air like a razor with every limber movement.” Across the Atlantic, London’s Sunday Times journalist Michael Wright delivered similar praise, declaring that Lester’s “acting is like an open window, drawing fresh, clear air into stuffy corners.”
Lester was born on August 14, 1968, in Birmingham, England; his parents were of Jamaican heritage and his father owned a cleaning company. He has one older brother, and his parents also took in three cousins who needed a home. An admittedly lackluster student, he showed early promise on the stage, and his parents encouraged his talents. He began singing in a cathedral choir at the age of nine, which led to membership in a children’s opera company. At age 16, with his parents’ permission, he left school and landed a walk-on role in a long-running though famously inept British television drama series called Crossroads. It was set in a Birmingham motel, and Lester had occasional roles like bellhop or car thief. “I remember, you did have to be very careful when opening and shutting doors, because the scenery really would shake,” he recalled in an interview with James Rampton for London’s Independent.
Lester won a spot at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and made his stage debut in the August Wilson play Fences in 1990. He appeared in the lead in the acclaimed John Guare drama, Six Degrees of Separation, at the Royal Court Theatre in 1992, and the following year was nominated for an Olivier Award, the British equivalent of a Tony, for his role in a revival
At a Glance…
Born Adrian Anthony Lester on August 14, 1968, in Birmingham, England; son of a cleaning-company owner; married Lolita Chakrabarti (an actress and screenwriter), August, 1997; children: Lila. Education: Studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London, England.
Career: Television actor, 1984-; stage actor, 1990-; film actor, 1991-.
Awards: Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical, Society of London Theatre, 1996, for Company.
of Sweeney Todd. He made a memorable American stage debut in an all-male production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall of 1994. “Lester, a willowy black Rosalind, has the gift of breathless apprehension, ever ready to burst into tears at the folly and wonder of men,” declared Time’s Richard Corliss.
In 1996, Lester won a plum role as the lead, Bobby, in the Donmar Warehouse revival of the Stephen Sond-heim musical Company. The production was directed by Sam Mendes, who went on to win an Academy Award for the film American Beauty a few years later. Bobby is a perennial bachelor who learns about relationships—of the both solid and shaky sort—from a quintet of couples. Lester made history as the first black actor to be cast in the lead in a Sondheim work, and won the Olivier Award that year for best actor in a musical.
Lester took his first film roles in the early 1990s, beginning with a little-seen Martin Sheen drama, Touch and Die, set in Italy. He auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in The Birdcage, a 1996 Mike Nichols film, but the famed director offered him a starring role in his next work. That film was Primary Colors, the screen adaptation of the bestselling 1996 novel of the same name that caused a stir for its thinly veiled behind-the-scenes look at what appeared to be Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the White House. In it, John Travolta was cast as the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state who is running for president, with Lester as Henry Burton, the grandson of an American civil-rights legend whom the candidate hires as his deputy campaign manager.
In Primary Colors, Lester’s narration as Burton reveals his mixed feelings about helping elect a man who appears to be a dedicated public servant, but who also has a penchant for extramarital liaisons that threatens to derail his political career. The film was released in 1998 during Clinton’s second term, when revelations of his affair with a White House intern made front-page headlines for months and nearly resulted in impeachment. “The beauty of Primary Colors,” noted News-week’s David Ansen, “is that it forces us to grapple with the same questions of political faith that haunt its narrator.” Before the film’s premiere, Lester was stunned to learn that the promotional poster featured just him, Travolta, and Emma Thompson, who played the candidate’s wife. As he recalled in an interview with San Francisco Chronicle journalist Ruthe Stein, when he first saw it, “I went, ‘Oh, my God.’ I had to sit down and have a cup of tea.”
Pegged as a rising young name in Hollywood, Lester found instead that his career stalled. “I came home and did no paid work for a year,” he told Rampton in the Independent interview. In 2000, he appeared in the ill-fated Kenneth Branagh film, Love’s Labour’s Lost, an all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of Shakespeare that was generally loathed by critics. He appeared in three other films that same year, but also returned to the stage as a dreadlock-sporting Hamlet in Paris. Directed by Peter Brook, the new production, retitled The Tragedy of Hamlet, was a revised, reenergized version that was enthusiastically received by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. It went on to successful runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and London’s Young Vic Theater. “Like its leading man,” asserted Brantley’s New York Times review, “this Hamlet has wit, charm, and elegance.” Brantley noted further that “if Mr. Brook has reconceived Hamlet as a timeless fable, then Mr. Lester is the classic cleverboots, arrogantly assured and intelligent and needing to be brought down a peg.”
Lester appeared in two more film roles, Dust (2001) and The Final Curtain (2002), before returning to the National Theatre in another acclaimed Shakespeare revival in 2003: director Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress version of Henry V. Lester was cast in the title role of the king, and was the first black actor in a major production of the wartime saga. Rampton, writing in the Independent, noted that “Lester played the monarch as a charismatic, media-friendly war leader, complete with sharp suits, smooth press-conference manner, and concerned televised addresses to the nation.” Again, critics dispensed superlatives in assessing his performance. “Rarely has an actor conveyed as strongly as Adrian Lester the damage both inflicted and suffered by this king,” noted Observer critic Susannah Clapp. Once again, Lester’s role dovetailed with current events, for Henry V opened in the spring of 2003 just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued in favor of joining a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, against tremendous public opposition. As Lester told Rampton in the Independent, “I saw Blair doing exactly what Henry did—campaigning for war in the hearts and minds of English people and saying whatever needed to be said to convince us that we had to go to war.”
Lester, who lives primarily in London, is married to a former Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts student, Lolita Chakrabarti, with whom he as a daughter. He appeared in the UPN series Girlfriends during its 2002 and 2003 seasons, and though he had numerous British television credits to his name, had never yet been cast in a lead role on the small screen. That changed when he debuted in the BBCI drama, Hustle, in early 2004 as the leader of gang of con artists. He was attracted to the role, he told Rampton, just because it had not been specifically written for a black actor. “Some characters are written as black,” he said in the Independent article, “and for the writer it seems the mere fact that they’re black gives them an interesting character—but it doesn’t! As soon as anybody ceases to see you as an individual, it’s problematic, because they stop seeing you as you.”
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Vol. 31, Gale, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, March 27, 1998, p. 44.
Essence, December 2003, p. 146.
Independent (London, England), February 23, 2004, p. 12.
Jet, April 6, 1998, p. 56.
New Republic, April 20, 1998, p. 24.
New Statesman and Society, February 3, 1995, p. 34.
Newsweek, March 23, 1998, p. 63.
New York Times, April 8, 2001, p. 7; April 27, 2001.
Observer (London, England), July 22, 2001, p. 6; May 18, 2003, p. 11.
People, March 30, 1998, p. 19.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 1998, p. E1.
Seattle Times, April 1, 2001, p. F6.
Sunday Times (London, England), April 27, 2003, p. 4. Time, December 12, 1994, p. 84; June 12, 2000, p. 82.
Variety, November 17, 1997, p. 65; March 16, 1998, p. 63; February 21, 2000, p. 36; October 9, 2000, p. 27; May 26, 2003, p. 43; July 14, 2003, p. 48.
Lester, Adrian 1968–
Lester, Adrian 1968–
Born August 14, 1968, in Birmingham, England; married Lolita Chakrabarti (an actress), August, 1997; children: Lila, Jasmine. Education: Trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Awards, Honors: Laurence Olivier Award nomination, Society of London Theatre, Time Out Award nomination, Time Out London magazine, Ian Charleson Award nomination, best actor, Sunday Times-Royal National Theatre Awards, all 1994, for As You Like It; Laurence Olivier Award, best actor in a musical, 1996, for Company; Chicago Film Critics Association Award nomination, most promising actor, 1999, for Primary Colors; London Critics Circle Award nomination, most promising newcomer, and Time Out Award, both for Six Degrees of Separation; Laurence Olivier Award nomination, best supporting actor, for Sweeny Todd; British Independent Film Award nomination, best actor, 2000, for Love's Labour's Lost.
Lute, Touch and Die, 1991.
Les soeurs soleil, NTV-PROFIT, 1997.
Scott, Up on the Roof, Carlton Film Distributors, 1997.
Henry Burton, Primary Colors (also known as Mit aller macht and Perfect Couple) Universal, 1998.
Dumaine, Love's Labour's Lost, Miramax, 2000.
Best, Optimum Releasing, 2000.
George, Maybe Baby, USA Films, 2000.
Born Romantic, 2000.
Edge, Dust, Lions Gate, 2001.
Jonathan Stitch, The Final Curtain, Universal, 2002.
Simon, The Day After Tomorrow, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2004.
Pete, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Tin Pan, 2006.
Oliver De Boys, As You Like It, Miramax, 2006.
Rosalind, As You Like It (all-male version), Brooklyn Academy of Music Theatre, Brooklyn, NY, 1994.
Bobby, Company, London production, 1996.
Also appeared in As You Like It, Albery Theatre, London; Six Degrees of Separation, Royal Court Theatre, London; Antigone; Castle; Fences; Hanging the President; Kiss of the Spider Woman; A Midsummer Night's Dream; Sweeny Todd; and A Winter's Tale.
Television Appearances; Series:
Crossroads, ITV, 1984–88.
Mickey 'Bricks' Stone, Hustle, BBC, 2004.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Ray, The Affair (also known as Black Tuesday), HBO, 1995.
Robert, Company, BBC2, 1996.
Danny, Storm Damage, 1999.
Hamlet, The Tragedy of Hamlet, BBC, 2002.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
Orpheus, Jason and the Argonauts, 2000.
Television Appearances; Specials:
The Orange British Academy Film Awards, E! Entertainment, 2002.
Presenter, Out of Africa: Heroes and Icons (documentary), BBC, 2005.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Mokete Malange, "Divided Loyalties," Soldier Soldier, ITV, 1996.
Ellis Carter (recurring), Girlfriends, UPN, 2002–2003.
Loose Lips, 2003.
The Terry and Gaby Show, Channel 5, 2004.
GMTV, ITV, 2004.
Felix George, "Lower than Bones," Afterlife, ITV, 2005.
Other Television Appearances:
Appeared in British television shows, including Ball and Chain, The Bill, In the Dark, Silent Witness, and Teaching Matthew.
The Times, March 12, 1996, pp. 41.