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”.