“I Want Women to be Uplifted, Especially Black Women”: Frankie Clarence on the Challenges of the Film Industry
Actor, writer and producer Frankie Clarence shares his journey so far, how his aunt inspired both his acting and stage name and his unexpected encounter with Idris Elba. From stand-up comedian to writing, producing and starring in his own short film, KuVina, Clarence talks with True Cadence about his experience both behind and in front of the camera.
The actor asserts the importance of championing women, uplifting Black women especially is key to the art he creates. He calls for more representation of dark skin women in a variety of different roles.
Clarence’s strong religious and moral beliefs have kept him grounded and focused in the face of adversity. Clarence advocates for the need to bring others with you as you succeed and the importance of breaking out of your comfort zone. We discuss the challenges he has faced as a result of the narrow minded nature of the industry and the need for change.
When did you first know you wanted to become an actor?
Being a practiced Christian, I feel that God put me in this world to bring a sense of happiness to people. Whether that be in a play, a 30 minute sitcom, a movie. I always felt that I had the ability to literally make anyone smile and laugh. And I always wanted to embed that in some capacity. When I got the adrenaline rush and euphoria of performing in school plays, even before I moved to the UK, I said “yeah this is something I genuinely love to do.” And I felt that I can do this as a profession. As a dream I’ll probably say from the age of six, but as a reality I’d say 19.
Being born in South Africa, during apartheid, did that impact your school and home life?
At the time, no because we need to remember I was between three, four years old. I didn’t really understand what was happening or what was going on. However, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, I remember that distinct moment where it felt like something much bigger than sports was happening. It was like New Year’s times ten kind of vibes in the streets. So I don’t necessarily think I was aware of what was going on. But looking back now I can kind of understand why my parents acted a certain way. Why they didn’t allow me to go to certain friend’s birthday parties or sleepovers. Because for them it’s still quite raw.
I didn’t feel I was personally impacted but now looking back, I did see some elements where there was a bit of discrimination, a little bit of racism, things were a bit taboo during school time. But at that time I wouldn’t be able to say I could give you a justified answer. Looking back, yeah I can see how it may have interrupted or stunted many people’s growth and knowledge.
What was your experience like at the Dramatic School of Arts in New York. And how supportive was your family regarding your desire to pursue acting?
I think what made them very supportive was that I was the last one. Being the baby in the family definitely allowed me to reach for the stars kind of thing. I’ve got two older brothers, had I been the middle child or oldest one I don’t think I would have taken a career in acting. The programme I did at university had a programme where you could go to the States. It was between Chicago, LA or New York. I chose New York because it was convenient in terms of time zones. I knew some people in the East Coast as well in case worst came to worst. But the experience was really amazing.
Although I was born in South Africa, I was raised by Malawian parents. So my ethics and my first language, the food I eat is mostly Malawi, and the President that gave us independence was president Banda. He said the best education outside of education is travelling. So I’ve always embedded that to people around me, comfortability is very dangerous. I would urge everyone if you are able to try and go abroad. Have an experience that will make you grow, mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally all in one.
“I knew specifically I wanted to have a Black girl…I felt her complexion, being dark skin is never seen as someone who is a love interest or is never seen as a beauty or never seen as the main lead…we need to challenge this.”
In previous interviews you’ve talked about your aunt’s support, how important was it that she believed in you?
I wouldn’t be here career-wise if it wasn’t for her. So the name in essence is in it, Clarence is in remembrance of her. Clarence is my stage name, the world doesn’t need to know what my real name is for now. But Clarence is for her. Everything I do career-wise to make the world smile is what she used to give me and how she used to make me smile. Growing up we kind of learn what death is, we don’t actually know what it is. Dave Chappelle says, “things are always out of reach or funny until it happens to you.”
Growing up we know what death is but when it happened the first time, and she was the first person close to me that had passed on, it was something where I was like “wow, this is actually real.” And it is so ironic that her last words to me were to go and make it happen in my profession, but without knowing that was the last time. It is a motivation to keep going because it’s easy to give up. But she’s with me in spirit and in my heart.
What was your experience like starting as a stand-up comedian?
Yeah, it’s really difficult to make a room of people laugh and I’m a funny person. I know I can make anyone laugh, but to make a whole group of people laugh is different because we all have different types of senses of humour. And I think getting into comedy nowadays is more difficult because we are in this cancel culture where literally you can’t say anything. It’s weird. I’ve never had a bad set because obviously, I’m an amazingly funny guy, I mean goes without saying [laughs]. But the only hurdle that I have faced in my comedy set was when I was in the States. Because one of my jokes, it was just a terminology thing, was a reference to a lift. But obviously, when I said the joke it was silent and I was like, “what? People should be laughing.” Fortunately, my mind clicked and I thought, “they say elevator” so I kind of freestyled and then used the terminology which they used.
So it’s about understanding your audience. There’s an African proverb which I keep repeating, “we are created with two ears and one mouth, so we need to listen more and talk less.” Many of us need to listen more to what is happening around us.
You have starred in comedy sitcom All About The McKenzies and comedy films like The Weekend Movie where you actually play the villain. Is comedy your favourite genre or do you prefer playing more serious characters?
In my life, I’m coming to another crossroad. I love comedy and comedy always will be a part of me but I’ve not been type casted yet. As you’ve mentioned, The Weekend is a comedy movie I’m not funny in that, vice versa I’ve been in a horror movie called Hallows Eve where I’m the comedic relief in that. It’s always about keeping people guessing and not giving them the same image.
There’s something exciting about the unknown. And although I’ve done stand-up comedy, although I love comedy, right now I’m kind of shying away from comedy. Not because I dislike it, but I’m just trying to not put myself in that pigeonhole. I want to show, I’m not Frankie the funny guy I’m Frankie the professionally trained actor, who so happens to be funny. So the last work I did was a drama, which I normally would not be associated with as a lead role. But I’m just showing people that actually, you think I’m just a one trick pony, but I have more to my sleeve.
What has been the most surreal moment in your career so far, has there been a point where you were completely starstruck?
When I performed in front of Idris Elba. This was in the first lockdown, he did an Instagram live, everyone can find it on my Instagram page now. He was basically getting actors to perform on his live stream in front of everyone. I don’t actually remember sending a request to join the chat, it just said Idris Elba accepted when I was lying in bed and it had the five second, four, three and I was like, “what?” I had my hair cap on and had to remove it and pretend to be prepared. Then he said perform a monologue for me. And I was looking and I saw it said 8000 people watching. I did my thing and he said he loved it. He said he could feel the passion between my eyes, I don’t know if that was just tired eyes [laughs]. But I’ll take the compliment but it was very was very spontaneous, it was very much a blur. I look back I’m like, “was that me?”
What is the biggest challenge you have faced during your career?
So I’m short in stature, I’m 5 foot 1 and I’ve got a disability on my left hip. So I feel many don’t see me of capability simply because I don’t fit the ‘norm’ of whatever an image of a specific actor could be. I know there’s a lot of roles where I completely smashed the audition, but it’s not the look of what their going for and it’s quite infuriating being rejected for a physicality that you can’t change.
It’s very old fashioned thinking because many lives and forms are out there. I mean there’s more than two genders now, there’s multiple hairstyles, many different accents but the people who are higher making these decisions, they’re still in the old mentality. I’m having to jump through more hurdles than the average person not because I’m not as talented but pure discrimination. That’s why I started creating my own stuff to show people that I can do it.
I really enjoyed the trailer for 2020: The Movie, it comedically reflects how the pandemic felt like a horror film or Black Mirror episode. How did lockdown affect your creativity?
It’s a weird but I found out I’m able to write because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I had no idea that I had the capability of writing. I had ideas but getting ideas into an actual structured format, on paper, on script, I didn’t know I could do that. During the pandemic when everyone was just at home I was like “let me just swing here, let me try.” I found it refreshing even though I may not be physically acting. I can prepare when things go back to normal, I have something hardcopy. So I’ve written three scripts already. Ironically because I’ve been able to write now I’ve got one of the top 10 best agents in the country.
When writing scripts do you take inspiration from your own life?
It depends on what I’m writing. Most of the things I work on, are embedded yes, on life experiences. I’m laughing because the next script I’ve written is a comedy, I can tell you, it’s called Protection. It follows the story of one guy who brings home the most beautiful girl in the club but he realises he doesn’t have protection. So he goes around town trying to find one condom. So one thing that seems so simple to get becomes a dramatically crazy journey and that’s comedy. It is based on true stories from me and my friends at university.
It’s very important because it’s a culture thing like most of these Oscar winning, Emmy, Baftas, the directors are culturally aware of what they’re directing, same with the writers. For example, Steven Spielberg could have probably done a good job with Black Panther but he’s not culturally aware of it. It’s not really necessarily to do with the colour of the skin, that matters, but it’s understanding the culture.
It makes sense to be inspired by your own life, do you write from varying perspectives?
Exactly, I can’t write a story about the day in the life of a woman. I can probably direct something that can incorporate it, but I don’t necessarily understand, so it’s not my place to do that. There are certain men who think they have the answer to everything. Most of the time if not all the time women know what’s going on.
A lot of my work is to be uplifting of women. For example KuVina, I specifically chose Jocelyn Manu not only because she is a great actress, but her look. When I was casting it I knew specifically I wanted to have a Black girl. And when I say Black girl, I don’t mean mixed race. Because that has been the thing where mixed race has kind of been seen as the “okay” look for Black people which is incorrect. I felt her complexion, being dark skin is never seen as someone who is a love interest or is never seen as a beauty or never seen as the main lead. If she is, she’s always being abused, domestic abuse, rape. You look at Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave, that was the first role but she was seen as the lust of the slave owner. But most of the time we need to challenge this. Kind of like myself, despite my short stature I’m showing that I can play a lead and same with a Black lead or a dark skin complexion. She needs to know she is beautiful. It’s all about understanding the woman and understanding her journey. I may not completely understand but I want women to be uplifted, especially Black women.
“I want to do something that is going to educate people because knowledge is power. The mind is a terrible thing to waste. So I want to keep people’s minds intact.”
What is your biggest career goal?
The dream role, I would want to do something that will create a positive movement. I don’t want people to feel once they have watched something in a movie, cinema or TV show, that once the credits run that’s it. I want something that’s going to uplift people. Look at the new Malcolm X movie that is coming out on Netflix. That’s going to give a sense of knowledge to people, that’s important. So I want to do something that is going to educate people because knowledge is power.
The mind is a terrible thing to waste. So I want to keep people’s minds intact. It’s still legal to think. I say that as humorous but actually it might be a thing maybe in the future where it will become illegal to think as it was previously, centuries ago. So I want to do a role that’s going to get people to think outside the box.
You make sure to give back, such as your work for Malawi I Help (M.I.H). Why is helping others so important to you?
That’s so ironic you say that that because I meditate and today’s meditation was about doing kind gestures without expecting anything in return. Many individuals, not just Africa, everywhere, they don’t get a chance to have a second opportunity. They have the capability, there’s a lot of intelligent people out there but they never have the sense of opportunity. 100% I can find someone deep in the villages of Africa who can run faster than Usain Bolt. I can find someone in the Amazon Islands who has better IQ than Einstein. But they don’t have a chance to be able to get the access to take the next level. So success means nothing without the foundation of the people that were there for you prior to it.
I cannot smile if my own people haven’t. So credit to my parents they didn’t let me forget where I came from. Now that I’m in a position to help people why should I not? Simply because I’m Frankie Clarence, it don’t matter because it’s only right to look after your own.
What would you say to a young person trying to make it in the industry?
The industry is an art and you cannot rush art. If you look at the 10 best actors in the world, most of them are pushing 50. Think of it as a regular job, let’s say a retail store, you’re not going to be manager of a supermarket by the time you turn 21. You’ve got to go through being the cashier, you’ve got to go to the stocks behind the scene, all that because it’s a journey. I would say don’t rush your art and develop your craft. Your USP, that’s a very key thing which stands for unique selling point. What is your unique selling point that differs you from other talents? Once you know that start working on that craft and the art will come, but don’t expect it overnight.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Peace, love and happiness, simple. That’s my motto right now. Just peace, love and happiness.