Michael Obiora is a British superstar and a former child actor and author. Here's his advice!
British actor Michael Obiora is a former child star who is now a prolific writer as well. He published his first novel, Black Shoes: Reality Check, when he was twenty-two, and his second novel, Vivian's Couch, was published earlier this year.
As a successful, healthy, and happy former child star who is still acting, he has defied the odds. You won’t find any bad boy antics or sad stories here.
Abiola: I am so happy to discover your work. You seem like such a positive and upbeat person. You are a bonafide star in the UK but you are new to American audiences. Please let people know a little about you.
Michael: Thanks! The obvious thing to say is "yes, I'm a positive and upbeat person, yep, you're one hundred percent right!" But actually, I'm just a person who tries to have as much balance as possible.
I'm 28 years old, so of course balance is relative. But like every single other person I also have the opposites of those traits in me too. That's natural. I never want to be one way.
I've been acting on television here in the UK since I was 9 years old. American audiences may have seen me on BBC America's Hotel Babylon, and they can currently see me on the Pivot Network's epic new 11-part crime thriller, Fortitude, playing mysterious technician Max Cordero.
We spent six months in Iceland last year filming it, and it has an incredible cast including Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Ecclestone.
Abiola: You were a child actor so were your parents supportive? If someone is reading this and her child wants to be an actor how can the parent be supportive?
Michael: When I was younger, whenever I was asked this question I used to say, "yes, my parents supported me one hundred percent." This is because growing up I wanted to present the image of young boy who had non-stereotypical Nigerian parents.
African parents that broke the mold, instead of insisting that their offspring become a doctor or a lawyer.
It is true that my mother in particular encouraged the little performer in me. My dad was a very educated man, therefore he wasn't as keen. Fortunately I found success very early, by the age of 9 I was paying for my own drama lessons, and by the time I was 12 I was supporting the family financially.
So I do often wonder what would have happened had I not found success so young—it's easy to continue to encourage somebody who is successful, especially if there is a financial advantage. So, yes they supported me, but looking back I also had a lot of pressure placed upon my young shoulders.
Therefore it's difficult for me to say that I had the full support of my family when it came to my career.
Abiola: How can the aspiring child get started? What should they avoid?
Michael: We tread our own paths, and there isn't just one way of doing things. But because of what I experienced as a child actor I wouldn't want my children to be actors. Certainly not child actors.
I had to be incredibly tough at school due to jealousy from teachers and pupils. I went to a normal primary and secondary school as opposed to a stage school. Making the transition from a child to an adult actor is extremely difficult, and most don't succeed.
Fortunately for me it has worked out. But it really has taken every ounce of my strength.
You need incredibly thick skin. I really do not want my hypothetical children to ever feel the pressure I felt growing up. I'm very strong, so I could take it but a lot of the other child actors I was around could not.
Abiola: So what is one thing the parent could do?
Michael: If a parent is happy to have their child be an actor I'd say first of all think about whether you're going to enroll them into a stage or normal school. If you enroll them in a stage school they are less likely to be a victim of jealousy, and to be bullied.
But then they are more likely to face the early pressures of "competition", and will probably have a less balanced childhood because they'll most probably only be surrounded by all-singing and dancing kids.
I believe going to a normal secondary school provided me with more balance, and a lot of street wisdom. But it was a very, very rough secondary school.
Perhaps things would have been a little different had my school not been so rough, but either way as a child on television you stick out amongst any of your peers. And it is very unlikely that they will understand what you're doing, or know how to react to it if you are not in a stage school environment.
Don't get me started on the situations one can find themselves in, like drugs, etc.
Abiola: People often feel when they see people on TV or in the movies, that somehow those people are super-human. What do you do when you feel sad, depressed, or afraid?
Michael: The sooner people realize that nobody is superhuman—especially those on TV—the better. I really, really want youngsters to stop aspiring to be like people simply because they are famous. That is incredibly dangerous. And it seems things are even worse now during this age of social media.
It's never been easier to get a reminder of "how well" somebody is doing compared to yourself. And it's never been as easy to live vicariously through others as it is now.
I haven't ever really been surrounded by strong people. I would say the strongest person I know is my wife—we do have extremely different upbringings though. She was brought up by a wonderful family.
Abiola: What self-esteem messages did you receive?
Michael: But from early on I was told that being an actor doesn't make sense—first of all most actors don't work, which is true. But also as I got older the issue of race in my career became more prevalent—lack of non-stereotypical roles for a black actor in the UK, lack of roles in general.
I really am proud I've been able to navigate this and forge a career. I think one of my best traits is not always accepting what I'm told. Especially growing up.
I didn't accept that anybody was better than me because I'm black. I have never accepted anything subservient. Also, from early on I completely rejected the ideal of beauty and this is probably the best decision I have ever made.
Self-esteem is priceless. I was born and raised in North London. Therefore I am British, I don't need anybody else to accept that. Who should accept it? Another Brit? A white Brit? And going back to rejecting the ideal of beauty, I mean the western ideal of beauty.
Abiola: How did you learn to love yourself, Michael?
Michael: Being born and brought up in the UK I'm obviously going to have western influences. But growing up it was blonde-haired, and blue eyed individuals whose beauty were celebrated. That didn't make sense to me—does that mean that I'm not beautiful? My mother? My sister?
I also felt the same when it came to religion. My secondary school was Roman Catholic, and when I asked my religious studies teacher why there weren't any black people in all the stories he read to us he couldn't give me an answer. So I rejected it all.
These are things I'm very conscious of. Being an actor I'm so happy that I've got to travel with my work and have met wonderful people from all over the world. But I'm conscious of the fact that if I was to leave the television on (in the UK), apart from music videos, it often feels like black people don't exist.
So I often only watch certain types of programs, and I make sure I also read books where people who who look like me exist.
Self love is incredibly powerful, as far as I'm concerned even more for me as a black man. And if you honestly cultivate self love you will be at an advantage because I think it's rare to meet people who really do actually love themselves—regardless of race.
Abiola: Where does your boldness come from?
Michael: I became the man of the house at 16 years old. Working from a young age, paying for my dad's funeral, and supporting my family made understand the value of money early on. Also, when you are 16 years old you are considered an adult in the UK film and television industry—this was certainly the case when I was growing up.
So at 16 I found myself a year out of the educational system, with very little parental support. I remember saying to myself, "Right, I better get out there and start making some serious money. This acting stuff better work out or I'm screwed!" And I guess that attitude became natural to me.
Abiola: How do you stay clear of all of the negative things that can be in the entertainment industry?
Michael: It's not that hard for me to stay away from the negative side of my industry because from day one I've been very clear about what I want. That is to express myself through as varied a career as possible as an actor, to make good money, and to be happy.
And that's what I'm doing—the response to my 2 books makes me happy, the fact that I have worked very consistently as an actor since I was nine makes me happy. T
he fact that I've been able invest in property through my earnings as an actor makes me happy, and most of all I'm married to the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on. So that's it.
Even though I have a complicated job, and had a difficult upbringing, my desires have always been simple. I really do see anything else as a distraction.