This article originally appeared on The Observer Magazine on October 11th, 2020.

Across a table in the bar of a Paddington hotel, conversation turns to home. “I lived all over London,” says the actor Ariyon Bakare. “I grew up in Leytonstone, but I also kind of grew up in Hackney…” We’re sitting next to arched windows, from which we can see the afternoon traffic. Some days, Bakare sits out in the city like this and just watches people move through their days, mimicking their movements, how they pull their shoulders back, how they stroke their faces.

At 49, and after 25 years in the trade, Bakare is finally in the limelight. The back-to-back successes of his leading performances in the 2017 sci-fi blockbuster Life and the fantasy TV series His Dark Materials have pushed him into the mainstream consciousness and garnered him international recognition.

But it hasn’t always been easy. “There was a battle in my early years,” Bakare says. For a long time, he had a gnawing sense that “I shouldn’t be here.” But now, “I’m like, ‘Oh, I belong.’” His early years in east London were laced with chaos. His father, who moved to London from Nigeria, raised him to be vocal and expansive – “a lion” – and to “never be afraid”. But it led to tension between the two men. “Two lions in one household don’t always mix,” Bakare says. By the time he’d turned 15, he’d fled the family home and for a year he was going to school while homeless. Some nights he slept rough. Other nights he’d scramble his way through the East End and get a bed in a hostel, unsure where his next meal would come from, not knowing what would come next.

On winter mornings, he walked the seven-mile stretch of the Lea Bridge Road to school, the cold and wet moving through his stiff bones. When things were most bleak, a calming thought would settle his mind, a quiet voice on the lonely mornings that whispered gentle words of solace, assuring him that despite everything he was going through he would one day come out the other side, that the bad times were eventually “going to end”.

And so he kept up with his studies. He passed exams. But though he was away from home, he was unable to shake the doctrines of his father. Those early principles were stuck firmly in his mind, reminding him that “you’ve got to succeed in whatever situation you’re in. Don’t let it dictate who you are as a man.” He continues: “As much as that was hard, if I wasn’t that person, I don’t think I would be the person I am now. I never push things to one side. That’s me; that’s the heart of me.”

Six months after returning home and making peace with his father, Bakare left London for New York with dreams of making it as a dancer. When he landed in America at 17, in the late 80s, he found a city wrestling with radical creative evolution and buckling under social decay. The New York of that era was besieged by the fallouts of the crack epidemic and peaking crime rates, but a mood of liberation arose from its citizens in response. In Jamaica, Queens, where Bakare first settled, “The streets were not paved in gold.” The radical tones of Black Power hung in the air, and the texts of Malcolm X and James Baldwin passed through his fingers.

It was a period and a city that forged the man he is today, he says, and he absorbed it all. He danced in productions at the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Manhattan and he hung out in big warehouses on Broadway with writers. He spent afternoons weaving through the city on skates. “I learned so much about being myself,” he says. “I’d walk from one place to another and everyone was in the same vein and mindset as me. That place was about struggling, but also knowing that you could become something. Because I left home so early I was able to be creative with my life, I was able to not be afraid.”

From Queens he moved to Manhattan, and from Manhattan he settled in a colonial house on the outpost of Staten Island, still performing at the Alvin Ailey, still pursing his dream of dance. Until one afternoon Bakare met a dancer from the renowned Harlem Ballet who told him that he was retiring at the age of 27. Stunned, Bakare quickly realised that this wasn’t unusual, and that many of his other dancer friends had “put their bodies through so much” and were now “coming to the end of their careers early”. The next day he gave it up and tilted open throttle towards his first love: acting.

Bakare returned to Britain at 19 with long blond dreadlocks and an enthusiasm stirred by his time in New York. Encouraged by Baldwin and Basquiat and all he had seen in the States, he wrote a play “about dreams, about black people’s dreams”. Sack Full of Dreams, which centres on a personal narrative of a man battling to save his family “when every single door was closing”, played for one night in Kentish Town, north London. “I saw my dad as a man who was just trying so hard in this country,” he says of the play’s inspiration. “I grew up with him being beaten by the National Front, him locking the car and telling me, ‘Stay there,’ and me thinking my father is going to die. It forged me to write this play.”

After a stint at Wac Arts College in Camden, alongside the actors Ché Walker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and later drama school, he entered the Royal Shakespeare Company. There was a sense of optimism, a belief that despite some of his colleagues leaving to find work in the US, things would fall into place for him.

In his early career, through the early to mid-90s, there were parts as a transsexual god alongside Jude Law in the Greek play Ion, and a lead role in TV series A Respectful Trade, in which he played a slave. It’s a performance tinged with fondness and sorrow. He’s proud of the performance. “I loved and put a lot into that role,” he says. But it carries a sting. It resembles the standard “narrative of black actors when you start off, sadly”, he says – a reflection of how roles for black British actors could be limiting.

Bakare frequently pulled double jobs at this time, taking work in Scotland and then rushing back across the border for performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, burying deep into his craft as he went, engrossing himself in scripts and writing, learning how to sing soul and opera. He could explore a character through dance and could carry serious conversations about productions with directors, fine-tuning his skills however he could. “I didn’t care what it was,” he says. “I was quite brutal in my approach. When you’re in a brutal world you have to continually fight in the right way, and fighting in the right way is being armed in the right way. That’s what I decided to do with my life, making sure I was always armed with all the right stuff.”

After the acclaim of his role in A Respectful Trade, peers were telling him he would be a star, and he dared to dream. “I genuinely believed in Britain – this is my home,” he says. “And I believe I put in the work, I did what my dad said. I really believed everything was going to happen here. Sadly, it didn’t. Why? Because they didn’t have the tools, they didn’t have the bricks and mortar, they didn’t have the writers, the editors, the readers, the producers… They didn’t have all that.”

It’s a bittersweet reflection on how we are often tied to our own time and place in history, that regardless of skill or craft or unwavering belief, personal talent can be shackled by the racial typecasts and social barriers that define our era, that young black actors in 90s Britain may have emerged from theatre schools and acting institutions with all this enthusiasm and industry, and free-fallen into a world that had little space for their stories.

Bakare went on working. He got parts in Holby City and Law & Order: UK. There was a role in Family Affairs and a recurring part in Doctors. He wrote and directed episodes for that soap, still broadening his craft, still hopeful of a major breakthrough in Britain. Elsewhere, there were writing parts for Channel 4 and the BFI, as well as the TV movie Stealing Lives. “I was doing everything I could,” he says, “but it was hard.”

In 2015 he played Stephen Black in historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and entered the darkest moments of his life. The show received four Bafta nominations, but away from work Bakare’s life was sinking into misery. On his first day on set his sister died. On his last day, so did his stepmother, whom he considered “the only person I ever thought of as my mum”.

It was a cruel year during which he was “burying people life, right and centre”, breaking from set to attend funerals. The crew cared for him throughout shooting, but when the show wrapped and the role ended, he collapsed. “Not physically,” he says, “but emotionally and mentally. I lost everything. I lost my whole life, I lost my soul. And I had no money, I was broke. I was like: ‘I can’t cope with it all.’ I kept feeling this sense of waking up and being put back to sleep.”

But his previous experiences had etched a resilience into him. He moved to LA. When he first met his manager, he remembers saying: “I’m here because I’ve got probably 30 summers left on this earth and 20 summers left as an actor, so let’s just play the game real.” The first role they landed together was Life, a big-budget sci-fi horror about a six-man space crew that encounters extraterrestrial life from Mars. (He played an exobiologist, alongside Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal.) It ushered in a new dawn for him, signalled a turn of fortunes, symbolised a sense of triumph in both the professional and the personal.

“I thought that it was quite poignant that I landed Life,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been through all of this struggle and I’ve landed ‘life’. I’m living!’ I started to believe in the spirit of myself and the power that one has when you put your mind to something.”

After Life came His Dark Materials, in 2019. It is the first time in his career that he’s played a “baddie” – Lord Boreal, a sinister character that flows through Philip Pullman’s alternate world in which humans come paired with “daemons”, mythical animals that represent the essence of a human’s inner-character. Lord Boreal’s daemon is a snake. To prepare for the role, Bakare filled out his character by taking on the quietly threatening mannerisms of the reptile, the hypnotic wavering, the sinister stillness, how it felt to “never really express what you want”.

His role was greeted with wide acclaim. The show moves to its second season this autumn, and the last five years he says have been the happiest of his life. Work has become the place where “I can smile every single day,” he says. “You get to a point where you you’ve done the hours and it falls into place. It’s as if the pen just flows.”