Stefan Kalipha: ‘I felt acting was my destiny’

Angela Cobbinah talks to the very laid back Stefan Kalipha, an actor whose film work subsidises his return to his beloved Trinidad

Thursday, 17th March — By Angela Cobbinah

Stefan Kalipha today

Stefan Kalipha: ‘I never thought about getting an Academy Award’

FROM Shakespeare to Hollywood to TV dramas, actor Stefan Kalipha has done it all in a career that stretches back some 60 years and includes some James Bond villainy and a recent cameo appearance in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.

But readers of a certain age will probably remember him best for his role in the 1970s TV sitcom Mixed Blessings, as well as for being part of a pool of brilliant acting talent that helped put emerging black theatre in the spotlight.

“It was all a long time ago and you tend to forget the details,” he smiles. “But people often remind me of what I used to get up to and I always think to myself ‘wow, did I really do all that?’ It was such a lot of stuff.”

Now aged 82 and living in a flat overlooking Primrose Hill where the sun is streaming in, Stefan seemed to have had the knack of habitually landing on his feet from the very beginning but at the same time never allowing success to go to his head.

“I felt acting was my destiny but I was never fanatical about it,” he says almost nonchalantly. “I have had some fantastic moments but my focus has always been on my life and how to become a happy, fruitful human being,” he adds in a pointer to his Nichiren Buddhist faith.

Stefan in Playing Away

His interest in drama began as a youth in Port of Spain, Trinidad, alongside two neighbourhood boys who would go on to forge groundbreaking careers of their own, the filmmaker Horace Ové, his cousin, and the playwright Mustafa Matura, his best friend.

“The three of us used to go to the cinema all the time and when we weren’t looking at films we were talking about them, especially foreign films that most people weren’t interested in,” he recalls. “We thought we were intellectuals and wanted to get involved in the movies somehow.”

With dreams in his head about becoming an actor but no actual acting experience, Stefan arrived in London in 1959 and struck lucky, successfully auditioning for a place at E15, a new acting school influenced by Joan Littlewood’s radical ideas for theatre.

“I came at a very fortunate time when drama was just opening up and willing to take chances,” he says.

His first acting job was in Antony and Cleopatra with the Oxford Playhouse Company, as Mardian alongside Barbara Jefford, the leading classical actress of the day.

“The Guardian reviewed the play and lo and behold they mentioned me, talking about the ‘soft-voiced Mardian’. That was great. Because of that I got an agent and I started to do stage plays as well as a lot of TV work.”

A typically Trinidadian mix of Indian, German, African and Portuguese, his indeterminate looks saw him play not just black roles but assorted Middle Easterners and even a Pole.

By this time he had jettisoned his real name – Stephen Siegfried Behrendt. “That didn’t seem to sit so well at drama school so I decided to use my grandfather’s name, Kalipha, even though he went round calling himself Jones,” he laughs.

“And Stefan just sounded more dynamic than Stephen.”

His small screen break came in 1970 with the spy thriller series, Callan, and other TV appearances followed. In the meantime, he joined Foco Novo, a theatre company championing the work of new writers, among them his old pal Matura.

Stefan performed in all of Matura’s best known plays, including the lead in As Time Goes By at the Royal Court in 1971, a comedy about Caribbean migrants in England whose protagonist was based on one of Ové’s brothers.

Foco Novo brought together a dazzling cluster of actors from the Caribbean, some of whom would go on to become household names like Rudolf Walker, Norman Beaton and Carmen Monroe.

Stefan was to appear with Beaton again in the all-black version of Measure for Measure at the National Theatre in 1981, and a few years later in the Ové film, Playing Away, while he was paired with Munroe as her fictional husband in Mixed Blessings during its two-year run on ITV from 1978.

His silver screen credits include For Your Eyes Only, in which he played Cuban hitman Hector Gonzalez against Roger Moore’s Bond, and Water, a comedy caper with Michael Caine.

Another film highlight was appearing with Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck in the action drama Sum of all Fears, which was partly shot in Arizona and Canada.

“To me the great fun of being in films was the travelling and earning enough money to be able to scoot back to Trinidad and spend three or four months there whenever I finished filming.

“I never thought about getting an Academy Award,” continues the grandfather-of-five, as laid back as ever.
So have prospects for black actors improved since he started out all those years ago?

“They have to got to be better because there is more consciousness, there are more black writers and more people coming up like Michaela Coel and Steve McQueen who are in control of the production process.

“When I began there weren’t many black actors because to have black actors you need to have the stories. In that way, it was difficult.

“On the other hand, I was part of a generation of actors and writers who were very much pioneers and we helped make the change happen.”

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