Originally written for IdeasTap.
Actress Cush Jumbo has appeared in a wide range of stage and television roles, including Lois Habiba in Torchwood. Her latest project, Josephine and I, is a one-woman show that tells the extraordinary life story of Josephine Baker. She shares her tips on training, research and how to cope with pressure…
How important do you think it is to train as an actor?
I really loved my training experience. I think it probably depends on the kind of person you are and what your plan is; what kind of career you’d like to have. I was very interested in learning the technical aspects of my job; the craft of it, the voice, the movement and how to actually do this job day to day. That’s the bit that I think you can be taught. The other bit is the raw talent part, which you can’t be taught. I personally found my training really useful and I’ve continued to find it useful since graduating.
Was there a point at which you felt your career really took off?
I didn’t have a rocket launch of a start. For the first couple of years I really was a jobbing actor and I had to deal with all the strain and the pressure of having absolutely no stability. I think after I did Torchwood things changed a lot, but for me it’s been a gradual process. It’s only really in the last two years that I have been booked up with work.
There’s something positive to be said for both ways. It’s nice to be constantly in work, but it also has an impact upon your life because you can’t fit anything else in – you can’t take a holiday, you can’t go to a friend’s wedding, you can’t make plans. Sometimes when you have those gaps you can do those things.
Did you feel any pressure when you were cast in Torchwood?
I don’t recall thinking that at the time, I recall being ecstatically happy that I could pay my rent for the next three months! In a way, actors thrive on pressure. Part of our job is about being able to take on stress and pressure, deal with it and turn it into another kind of energy. Things can change every day, nothing stays the same, lines get cut, lines get added, jobs get taken, you get rejected. You have to thrive on pressure and on the ability to change. If you sat there and thought about pressure then you’d never get any jobs done.
What advice would you give for coping with the pressure and instability of acting?
At drama school, nobody really talks about how to deal with the mental anxiety of being out of work. It can put you in a very lonely, very low, very blue, very depressed state. One way of dealing with that is to remember that there is always going to be somebody else who’s going through that same stage and that you should talk to people about it. Don’t let it get to the stage where you’re feeling so low that you feel completely alone. Otherwise, when that audition comes up, you’re not on top of your game. You need to be ready to go.
It’s a brilliant idea to give yourself your own routine. So you’re doing your boring day job, but you’re still trying to go to classes, you’re still trying to learn accents. Get together with a group of other actors and run lines from a play, or do a bit of writing, or go to a gig – try to take in as much artistic stuff as you can, because working in a job you hate is going to kill your soul. You need to find ways of keeping the creativity running so that when that phone call comes for that audition you’re at your peak.
In Focus: Researching Josephine and I
I’ve always been interested in Josephine Baker since I was a kid. She has an unbelievably fascinating life; it’s so mythic. I read a lot of books and biographies, I watched a lot of movies. I had a really good idea in my head by this point of who this woman was – although the fabulous thing about her is that she can be played a million different ways because she was always changing herself, she was always changing her identity. It’s great to do her in a one-person show because you can be all those different people and all the other characters, but somebody else could do this show and play her in a completely different way.