Passionate Artisite  

Alexia Khadime is a talented actress of stage and screen, taking time to support others during the enforced closure of theatres. Susan Elkin caught up with her for a chat.

Alexia has clearly become very used to interviews and meetings by Zoom. She has worked out strategies. For instance, she appears against a pale citrus coloured wall which reveals absolutely nothing – but it sets off her colourful headwear and thoughtful, cheerful, chuckling personality magnificently. Goodness knows what she thinks of my homely glass-fronted bookcase, green office walls and the untidy detritus of my working life which are all clearly on view.

At the time of our interview Alexia ought to be appearing in The Prince of Egypt at The Dominion Theatre. Tottenham Court Road but the show went down on 13 March with the rest of Theatreland. “Well, The Mousetrap is scheduled to reopen in October” she says bravely, “And our show will be back as soon as it possibly can be. It’s now booking until September 2021. We all – those of us working on the show – keep bonded by meeting and chatting regularly on Zoom.” 

Alexia took to drama when she was very young, although she never saw it as a career. “I used to create shows and make the family sit and watch me,” she recalls, telling me that she grew up in NW London where she attended an ordinary comprehensive school. “Our parents were never pushy, but they encouraged my brother and me in any activities we wanted to do. That meant drama classes for me and later ballet and singing lessons in opera as well as activities at school. And of course, there were competitions and so on.”

She adds: “My older brother is now Head Chef in a fine restaurant. When we were young, he was always in the kitchen creating recipes and my mum just let him get on with it. They never imposed anything on us because all they wanted was for us to be happy.”

The professional work started to come in once Alexia became part of the agency run by the drama classes she was by then attending. “I started in television. I did Grange Hill, for example and The Queen’s Nose.” 

When she was 17, Alexia auditioned for Cinderella in the pantomime at Hackney Empire. “It was written and directed by the wonderful Susie McKenna. She decided that I was too young to play Cinderella but she wanted me in the cast, so I got an ensemble part”. It wasn’t to be the last time at Hackney Empire. She was there again in 2016 in Sleeping Beauty – also directed by McKenna.

So, back in 2000, she’d already made it from being in front of the camera to the boards? “Yes, although I still didn’t necessarily see it as a career. It hadn’t really occurred to me that it could be. It was just a hobby that I was passionate about. I was doing English Literature, Maths and Psychology A levels at school – not drama.”

But events overtook her. “The jobs started to come in. I was in The Lion King, for example, first in the ensemble and later as Nala. I also worked on The Book of Mormon and various other shows” She laughs: “Actually my career chose me rather than me choosing it. That might sound cheesy but it’s true.”

Interestingly all this was achieved without going to drama school or any other form of higher education vocational training. “Yes – although I did a great deal of training through all the classes I attended as I was growing up.” She adds carefully: “Let me make it clear though, I’m not in any way belittling training. It’s very important and it needs to be there. It’s just that different things work for different people.”

By 2014 Alexia was playing green-faced Elphaba in Wicked. “It’s a ground-breaking show because the cast is led by two women and when Wicked arrived in the West End – usually dominated by leading men – that was almost unheard of.” Alexia, moreover, was the first black woman to play Elphaba. Just as later, when she took over the role of Eponine in Les Miserables she was the first non-white in the role.

“And that led to racism” she says soberly. “Some people said horrible things about the decision to cast a black woman in parts previously only played by white women. It was very nasty and unpleasant.”

Experiences like that are part of the reason that proceeds from the Lockdown concerts that Alexia has done via Zoom have gone to awareness-raising charities such as Black Lives Matter. “There has to be much more diversity in the industry so that people see a reflection in art of real life around them”, she says adding that when she auditions she knows that the panel will be all white. “If there’s, say, an Asian person there I go ‘Wow!’ and am impressed. But it shouldn’t be a wow thing. It should be normal.”

She is also critical of the stereotypical assumptions of some directors. “They say things like ‘Could you be more – black woman?’ because my voice is too close to Received Pronunciation for them. Of course, I can do it – I’m an actor.  But do they not realise that there’s no such thing as a typical black woman? We’re all individuals and all different whatever our background.”

She is realistic about casting, though. “Sometimes you have to cast specific races in order to tell a historical story. Take Hairspray for example – you’ve simply got to have the right colour skins in the right roles or it doesn’t make sense. And you couldn’t do a biopic about, say, Tina Turner with anyone but a black woman in the lead. It would be nonsense. But for most things it simply doesn’t matter. Why is a show like Mama Mia all white for instance?”

Alexia argues that the industry needs black role models too to encourage talented school age students to believe in themselves and their potential. “I’ve had letters from young people saying that when they saw what I was doing they suddenly realised for the first time that they could do it too.”

So what would Alexia like to do more of in the future? “I’d love to do more TV, film and straight acting” she says. “It’s relatively easy to come from stage acting and go into TV, but if you’re in musical theatre it’s harder.” Alexia believes there’s less of this pigeon-holing in the USA where they seem to value talent across the board and are very good at spring boarding good young performers across all media. “It’s odd because I started in TV” she smiles, adding that none of this means that she wants to give up musical theatre. “I’m greedy. I want it all” she says.

I observe one of the reasons it’s difficult to move across may be  that TV casting directors working on dramas seem to work from a very small pool. “Yes!” she says. “I’d like to see regular cast changes in TV dramas like we have in theatre because it means you get a variety of interpretations and that’s so much more interesting.”

During lockdown Alexia has tried to help others in the industry who are struggling financially with benefit concerts and the like. “People just don’t realise how many people work backstage – lighting, costumes, design, stage management and so on and on. Even concerts have a backstage team. Many of these people are now in a very difficult position and the industry depends on them.”

She is also passionate – unsurprisingly – about the value of the arts in general. “They are the heart of Britain as well as a crucial strand in the economy” she says. “Things like Netflix, concerts and lots more are what has brought people through the pandemic. Arts bring hope and they are essential to mental health.” 

She adds very clearly: “To underplay the arts is almost criminal”.

And so – in the 2020 way we now have to do interviews – Alexia and I end our conversation by waving and pressing buttons rather than taking leave of each other in a coffee shop. And she’s free to return to her baking, cake decoration and knitting – all skills which she learned from her mother and loves to exercise. “I do it all – more at the moment than ever. Very therapeutic! ” she says chirpily. 

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