A headshot of Cush Jumbo
A headshot of Cush Jumbo

A Jumbo-Sized Talent

Mark Shenton meets the fast-rising actress Cush Jumbo as she prepares to make her Broadway debut in The River, opposite Hugh Jackman.

Cush Jumbo may be a new name on Broadway this season, but British theatergoers who have been watching the rapid progress of the 28-year-old actress already know that she’s something special — and that major stardom could be just around the corner for her.

She’s about to star in the Broadway bow of Jez Butterworth’s London hit The River at the Circle in the Square Theatre, opposite Hugh Jackman. It originally premiered in a sold-out run at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012.

She tells Broadway Direct that she didn’t see the production then, but she connected with it from the moment she read it. “I’m a big fan of magical realism in fiction. I’m half Nigerian, so I was brought up with it. A lot of the novelists I love, like Gabriel García Márquez, create a naturalistic real world where magic can happen in a moment or on a daily basis, and the reader has to go along with it. Reading Jez’s plays, like Jerusalem, you get the sense of the possibility of magic as it is connected to the cycle of life. With The River, you realize very quickly it isn’t a play about fishing, but it is put in a framework of a play about fishing. It’s a kind of a dream, and I loved that idea.”

She goes on to say, “As an actor, it throws up a whole lot of questions and investigations that excite you, about how you can bring an audience into the words and the story and the magic of it.” When she was first approached about it, she was unaware that Hugh Jackman was also attached to it. It would be enough for her to be working with Jez Butterworth (“He’s an awesome writer”) and director Ian Rickson “He’s a really fantastic, exciting director who I wanted to work with”). So, she says, “going for the audition was a no-brainer.”

After a couple of auditions, she was brought in for a reading with Jackman. “We met in a conference room of a hotel in London where he was filming, and I was quite nervous! I’d never met him before, and I was not sure what someone who is quite high-profile was going to be in real life! But he was just so welcoming and generous, and within five or six minutes I forgot it was Hugh Jackman. He was also much taller than I expected! I was also very impressed that he was off-book [not using a script] for the scene and that he had so much to say about it and obviously loved the play. I had an incredibly exciting time working with him. He does something that is obvious and you hope is going to happen every time you work with someone, but often doesn’t: He listens. Sometimes actors can stare at you with glazed eyes, waiting for their next line, but you have to be a good listener in the theater. And he is, and works very hard at being one.”

So is Cush. And she’s also a good talker, not taking for granted anything that has happened to her. “I didn’t come out of drama school and roll from job to job; my first year was really tough. I had to work as a teaching assistant for an agency, I ran a pancake stall in Dulwich Market, I taught drama classes and ran my own workshops. I applied for every ad on Gumtree there possibly was.” The same was true while she was training. “I’ve done every job possible. I’ve cleaned and looked after kids and stood on roller skates wearing hot pants. I worked in bars and at a dry cleaners, cleaning the collars with a sucky thing! I worked at a market-research company, calling people up and asking them if they wanted to come in and taste Kit Kat Bars.”

But she says now, “I’m very grateful for the way things have panned out. If I hadn’t had a struggle at the start, I wouldn’t know what a struggle is in terms of this job, and I wouldn’t appreciate every single day. Whether you love or hate a job, you mustn’t waste the chance to do something with it.”

And she didn’t. Critics soon started sitting up and taking notice of Jumbo’s performances, like her Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre — the theatre where, in 2012, she won the Ian Charleson Award for Best Classical Performance by actors under 30 for playing Rosalind in As You Like It. Reviewing that production, British critic Clare Brennan wrote that Jumbo “looks set to become one of the best actresses of her generation.”

Last year, she returned to the Manchester Royal Exchange to play Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; earlier in the year she played Mark Antony in an all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse (for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award), and that subsequently transferred to New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse. She also starred in her self-penned one-woman show, Josephine and I, about a personal heroine of hers, Josephine Baker, that premiered at London’s Bush Theatre. That show is now eyeing a New York outing after Jumbo completes her run in The River.

As that eclectic range of roles suggests, Jumbo doesn’t impose any limits on the work she’ll put herself up for, whether on nationality or even gender, and she tells Broadway Direct, “I’m an adventurer. There are so many things I’d like to. I’d love to do an Angelina Jolie and dress in Lycra and kick the crap out of somebody in a movie. I’d like to train with the Army, shoot people, and roll off cars — who wouldn’t like to do that?”

If it’s surprising to hear an actress who’s played Nora and Mark Antony confess to such aspirations, it’s obvious she is imposing no limits on where she will go or what she will do. “I’ve learned that you never know what is around the corner, so it’s best to enjoy the ride.”

And she’s definitely enjoying the ride right now. Earlier this year, she completed her first feature film role, in Remainder, a psychological thriller that was shot in London and Berlin — “It’s a British film, but I’m playing an American!” — and she’s recently gone back to film the fifth season of the British TV show Vera, in which she previously appeared on an earlier season. “I left it to do Julius Caesar, but I really enjoyed working with Brenda Blethyn. It’s a really high-quality show made with a lot of integrity. It’s always good to do something a bit different, to shake up your muscles a bit!”

She’s looking forward to returning to New York next. Appearing in Julius Caesar last year, she said, “I absolutely loved it. We were staying in Brooklyn, and living there with the girls meant I got a real sense of New York as a city of real people, rather than tourists. The show also seemed to really speak to people, to penetrate into their hearts — there were always people of different ages wanting to talk to us after the show about what they had seen, and it reminded me of the high level of risk we take with our theater [in Britain]. When we take it elsewhere, it really affects people’s hearts and minds.”

She anticipates that the same will be true of The River. And no doubt people will soon start recognizing her in New York — as they do in London, though not necessarily as herself. At the Olivier Awards, she hilariously reveals, someone came up to her afterward and said, “I loved the song you sang from The Bodyguard.” They thought she was Heather Headley. She says, “At a fashion party, someone came up to me and said, ‘I absolutely loved you in Skyfall!’ As I was wondering how to begin a sentence with ‘I’m not Naomi Harris,’ he said, ‘It’s OK — there are loads of celebrities here!’ as if I was hiding it to be really cool. When I said I really wasn’t her, he gradually started to realize his mistake — then he said, ‘You’re the nurse from Getting On!’ I went, ‘Yes, I am! A much smaller series, but that’s exactly right!’”

Soon, I’m sure, she’ll be recognized as the star she is in her own right.