Butler of Bel Air, now King on the Heath | Joseph Marcell

In an exclusive interview, British actor Joseph Marcell – famous for his portrayal of the British butler Geoffrey in the beloved Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – speaks to us ahead of his visit to Malta in July, when he will be taking on the titular role of King Lear in the Globe Theatre’s touring production of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.

Joseph Marcell as King Lear – coming to Malta for July 16 and 17. Photography by Ellie Kurrtz
Joseph Marcell as King Lear – coming to Malta for July 16 and 17. Photography by Ellie Kurrtz

Now that you've got a few performances of the play in – and in several locations too – was it everything you hoped it would be, and were there any surprises along the way?
Absolutely, yes. I mean even given that I played the role in other productions before, I feel as though I never quite got it as perfectly as I could. This production in particular was exciting for a number of reasons, mainly because we got to perform both indoors and outdoors – and I tend to enjoy the latter a lot more. Our show in Oxford, for example, was helped along and actual storm… the lightning and thunder accentuated the famous scene at the hearth wonderfully! And during another show, we ended up swarmed by mosquitos… so the audience got to suffer along with us. It does add to the magic of it all, and makes our audiences feel as though they’ve really participated in the play.

You’ve performed the play in various locations: from the UK to Turkey. What was it like adapting it to different countries? Has it brought out different textures to the play? And what kind of atmosphere are you expecting from Malta, and are you looking forward to it?
I expected an unfair question, but that’s actually quite a nice question! Well, the Globe makes it a point not to presume the level of knowledge our audiences would have, of both the plays and the English language. So in essence, we play to international audiences in the same way as we would play to audiences who come to watch us at the Globe in London’s South Bank. Now, fortunately for us, the audiences that did come to watch us – and we’ve performed in places as diverse as Turkey, Austria, Denmark, St Lucia, Armenia… – were very adept at the language and they even got the obscure jokes, and I’ve enjoyed some very interesting conversations with them afterwards.
I also look forward to coming to Malta. It will actually be my second visit, as I had flown over for a four-day stay in 2012 to meet some of the actors working on World War Z. I couldn’t cross the street without someone telling me, “You… you’re that man from that television show!” It was great!


On that note, given the enduring and global popularity of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, do you think people who watch you in this play will come with their own expectations of you and your performance? Is there a part of you that wishes people would forget Geoffrey, for at least a little while? Or do you still cherish it?

Oh yes, absolutely. I flatter myself to think that Geoffrey was a bona fide phenomenon! People are drawn in by the memory of they have of Geoffrey I’m sure. And I don’t mind that – whatever gets them into the theatre in the first place is a good thing, in my book. I do owe that character a lot. He has transformed my perception of myself: both as a person and as an actor, and at the end of the day, the fact that he remains popular gives me great pleasure, and it’s fun. Now of course I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t intrude on my private life at times: people are excited to meet me because the character was dear to them. But what I’ve learnt is that really, all people want is for you just acknowledge them, which only takes a second or two, so it’s not worth getting irritated about!


What do you think made Geoffrey such an enduringly popular and endearing character worldwide?

Oh, if I knew that I would bottle it up, sell it and get rich on the back of it! But from where I’m standing… I think what people responded to was the fact that he’s an employee who doesn’t hesitate to criticise his employers. He’s not a bore: he pushes the boundaries and risks things all the time.

What was it like to return to your roots in the theatre after the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air experience? What did you take away from it?

Well… upon my return to the UK, I didn’t have white lilies in my dressing room, a personal assistant and Voss water from Norway – I had to deal with that kind of stuff (laughs)! But seriously, it was difficult in some ways because the Hollywood thing is that you have people who do things for you – in the theatre, on the other hand, you do things for yourself, and you have to do your job with a certain conscientiousness; when you’re doing a performance you have to do it perfectly on the night. It makes demands on your concentration, but the hardest demand is the fact that it gets you to look at your artistic integrity. And on that score, coming back to the theatre has been great.  

Now, you’ve said – and I emphasise that I’m quoting you here – that the role of King Lear is the dream role for an actor of “a certain age”. Having had a chance to play the character now, do you still see it as this culmination of an actor’s career?

Well – they do say you should watch what you say, as it can come back to haunt you! To be honest, that is the sort of thing you think when you’re in your 20s – that King Lear is the role you ought to be playing later on in your career. But then when you get there you realise there’s so much more to it than that. It’s simply a new challenge for a mature artist.  At the end of the day, it requires the same amount of mental agility as any other role – physical agility too: I do have to lift up my daughter at the end of the play, after all! So more than the apotheosis of my career, it’s really just like a strawberry on top of my cream. I’m at the stage in my career where I should be playing this role… and now I can see what that really means.

King Lear will be playing at the Argotti Gardens on Wednesday 16 and Thursday 17 July at Pjazza Teatru Rjal at 21:00. The Globe Theatre production forms part of the Malta Arts Festival. For more information log on to maltaartsfestival.org