‘People are going to come to the show thinking ‘Does Richard think he’s going to pull this off? OK, let’s see.’” Richard Blackwood is taking his best guess at the motivations of the audience at London’s Soho theatre. When I meet him at the start of a run of Typical – the one-man show he starred in at the Edinburgh fringe and which has now transferred – his mood is pugilistic.
The show is a retelling of the real-life story of British-Nigerian Christopher Alder, a commended and decorated paratrooper from Hull, who died on the floor of a Humberside police station while officers stood around, with some accused of making monkey noises. It’s a shocking story that playwright Ryan Calais Cameron decided to retell with the permission of Alder’s family.
You might think the challenging, staccato text is beyond an actor whose last major role was on EastEnders. That’s exactly what Blackwood is banking on. “You’re going to think I can only be funny, you’re going to think that I can’t do an accent,” he says. “And then I’m going to blow you out the park.”
Blackwood, who remembers the Alder case at the time, admits he struggled with the complexities of the play at first but now sees the casting as fate. “I believe that the role was written for me to play,” he says. “I don’t think it was a fluke. I don’t think it was accident. I think that it’s very much my calling to do this.”
More muscly than in his late-90s pomp, when Blackwood tells a painful story his face contorts and the specks of grey in his hair and his wrinkles give the narrative added weight. It’s not hard to see him play a middle-aged black British man who has been chewed up and spat out by life, because something similar happened to him.
At the turn of the millennium, Blackwood – the stepbrother of Naomi Campbell – was one of the UK’s biggest entertainment stars. He had his own chatshow, he co-hosted on Top of the Pops and he’d just signed a £1m record contract. Dubbed the “British Will Smith”, Blackwood had every reason to believe that a lucrative career on the other side of the Atlantic was awaiting him. “I was just in this bubble thinking I had the Midas touch,” he says. “Hollywood felt like a given. When I got signed in America I thought, ‘OK, I’m now ready for the next stage.’”
Blackwood says Hollywood was always the dream; as a schoolboy he had memorised Eddie Murphy’s hit standup special, Delirious, in its entirety. Blackwood was signed by veteran agent Jeff Berg, who arranged meetings between him and major directors and producers, but there was just one problem: Blackwood couldn’t act.
Hosting TV shows, he could rely on his improvisational skills, but when he went for a meeting with Terminator: Salvation director McG, who had just had a hit with Charlie’s Angels, it dawned on him that his big chance had come too early and he couldn’t ad-lib his way out of it. “I came in to his house in the Hollywood hills and he was watching a video of me on the big screen,” says Blackwood, who was preparing to appear in Fastlane, a cop show set in New York. “So McG says: ‘You can do a New York accent, right?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He just looked at me. I was out of my comfort zone.”
McG was telling Blackwood how he had him in mind for a remake of Walter Hill’s The Warriors, but without the acting chops, he knew the dream was about to turn sour. “I wanted to shout, ‘Stop!’ Because it was like, ‘I can’t do all these things, that’s not me.’ When I came back home, that’s when I realised you look at America, and want to be out there so bad. But you need to be ready for America.”
Out in LA, Blackwood’s life started to unravel. He was staying in the expensive Beverly Wilshire hotel because, he was told, a future star needed to look the part. But no money was coming in and when auditions failed to generate roles, his costs on both sides of the Atlantic began to mount. In 2003, a combination of debt and the implosion of his personal life drove him to try to take his own life.
“Bankruptcy happened, my son’s mother left me, and my grandmother – who is essentially like my mother – went into hospital before she died, on the same day,” says Blackwood. “I was broken. One of those things was enough to kill you but all three happening on one day was too much.” An ex-girlfriend stopped Blackwood from going through with it. “It could have gone that way and if it wasn’t for her I would not be here.”
Blackwood has a tattoo of an angel to remind him of that moment, and the fact he came out the other side. He earnestly believes that he was meant to play the role of Alder in Typical, and that this will be the launchpad for a second successful stab at America (he’s got a role in sci-fi show Pandora on the CW network). “Ultimately when America goes ‘We love Richard’, the Brits will go, ‘That’s our guy.’ They did it with Idris [Elba], and he was never run of the mill, he was a star. People over here started saying ‘Hey, that’s our boy.’ So was he your boy when he was in The Bill?”
But for all the talk of America, it’s the UK where Blackwood feels he still has a point to prove. “I don’t want to be overlooked over here any more,” he says. “I’m not just average. I never have been.”