Deadwater Fell star Cush Jumbo on representation, fearlessness and meeting the Queen

After writing and performing her own play, the roles fell thick and fast for Cush Jumbo.  The London-born actress talks to Stylist about creating roles for herself and carving out her own path.

Cush Jumbo is  proof that if you can see it, then you can be it. Tired of being typecast as the pimp’s girlfriend or trainee nurse in television roles, Jumbo decided to write herself a part. On the verge of quitting acting, she wrote an entire play about her hero Josephine Baker, the first African American star in major Hollywood films in the 1930s. The play, called Josephine And I, changed everything for the London-born actor.

“After I wrote the play, I got a new agent, did Julius Caesar with Phyllida Lloyd [Mamma Mia!] who then directed me in Josephine And I in New York,” says Jumbo, down the line from her home there. “And that’s what got me cast in The Good Wife.” Talk about taking charge of your own narrative.

Best known for playing the high-flying lawyer Lucca Quinn in the US legal show and its spin-off, The Good Fight, this month she’s back on the small screen in Deadwater Fell, a gripping thriller about a doctor, Tom (David Tennant), who becomes the prime suspect in the death of his wife, Kate, and three children in a fire.

The Broadchurch-style drama unfolds through the eyes of family friend Jess, played by Jumbo, who, like Kate, finds herself under Tom’s coercive control. It’s Jumbo’s first British part since ITV’s Vera in 2016. She, her husband Sean, one-year old baby Maximillian and miniature poodle Henry, split their time between New York and London. And after being awarded an OBE for her services to drama last June, she’s back home this summer to take on her biggest role to date: Hamlet at the Young Vic, a part she pitched herself for. Because if Cush Jumbo can see it…

What attracted you to Deadwater Fell?

It was a page-turner. And the exploration of friendship between two women [Jess and Kate] was interesting. About how adult friends can seem close but are they really?

One theme is coercive control. What did you learn about that? 

With what happens between Tom and Jess, we begin to see that he’s done it before and become an expert. It’s scary to see how putting yourself in a situation with someone you trust can mean your defences are down and they can abuse that.

Did you always want to act?

I loved old musicals and movies. I wanted to live in the 1930s. At 12, I saw a piece about The Brit School on Blue Peter and that it was free. I was a poor kid, so paying for drama school wasn’t an option. After The Brit School, I went to drama school, got an agent, started working. That sounds straightforward but there were waitressing jobs, no money, so I considered giving up. When you’re 23, working a 13-hour day and learning lines for a Shakespeare audition, that’s exhausting.

Is that why you nearly quit?

I wasn’t getting satisfying work. It was stressful to be so poor all the time. I started to think I was just not very good and maybe I was wasting my time. So I applied to be a teacher. While I was applying, my mother told me to write the show I’d always wanted to. She said I had to finish on a positive note, otherwise I’d regret it. When I started writing Josephine And I it just came out of me so fast, like I’d been waiting for it for years. I put it on in a pub in Camden. It went completely mad after that.

What was the fascination with Josephine Baker?

I used to watch the matinees on C4 when I was six. I always wanted to be Judy [Garland] or Doris [Day], the star. I was aware these women didn’t look like me. One afternoon I saw Zouzou, a musical Josephine did in the 30s. There she was on the screen – a black woman, who looked like me, and she wasn’t the maid or nanny. She was wearing fur and diamonds with 50 white guys in top hats dancing around her. I was like, “Mum! You have to see this!”

And she stayed with you?

When I got older, I researched her life. She adopted 12 children, was a spy in the French resistance, the highest paid chorus girl on Broadway at the age of 19. She bravely resisted being told what to do. I found that inspiring because I don’t fit in anybody’s box. I’m just an artist.

What did you learn from writing your own play?

How resilient you have to be. I’m always thinking about the next idea because I don’t expect anybody to give anything to me. I had a clear idea that I wanted to tell stories and I’m not waiting for someone to create them for me. It means you don’t feel out of control; otherwise it can get overwhelming.

How was The Good Wife?

None of it has been disappointing. We call Christine “Queen Baranski”. She and Julianna [Marguiles] are both silly people and good leaders. Being the biggest stars on a show comes with a lot of responsibility about setting the tone.

Do you feel a responsibility to be a good leader?

I don’t think it’s possible to become successful without realising you have a responsibility, because you’re visible. I don’t speak for every working-class or black person. But it’s important girls like me see girls like me and what I’m doing so they think it’s possible.

Was receiving an OBE important in that light?

I was so excited for myself and my family and because I’m really proud of being British. I knew it was important for people from my background to see that possibility.

How was the Queen?

She is quite the lady. Every part of her is as clear as a bell. I couldn’t believe that she’s the age she is. I told her I was doing Hamlet next and she said the Hamlet?

Do you see similar power in you playing Hamlet?

I’m not playing Hamlet to throw a bomb in the room. But I’m very aware that looking at a poster of me playing Hamlet is powerful.

Why did you want to do it?

After I had my son, I realised that once you push something out of your vagina you’re not scared of anything any more. I thought what the bloody hell am I going do now? The only thing you can do is Hamlet.

Deadwater Fell continues on Channel 4 and All4, Fridays at 9pm

Images: Channel 4

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