Michael Balogun spent his early years in and out of jail — until he decided to become an actor. Now he has a role in a production of Macbeth at the National Theater in London.
Growing up in South London, Balogun stole, mugged and dealt drugs to survive. He spent much of his younger years in and out of prison and was beginning to think his life would end behind bars.
“So the first time I got arrested, what happened was me and my little sister – we used to go and steal donuts from a shopping center called Sainsbury’s, and then one day, the security guard basically arrested us, so that was my first, first ever experience of being arrested. The first time I went to prison I would have been about – I think I was 17 – 18.”
Initially inspired by Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and his own love for food, Balogun decided if he could get out of prison and save up some money, he might be able to open his own restaurant.
Balogun kept himself out of trouble long enough to get moved to another prison with a work release program and took a job at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
When Balogun arrived at the drama school, his first job was to chop vegetables to help prepare for lunch, but he says his slicing and dicing technique was not quite fast enough for the chef, so he transferred to the bar.
“What this allowed me to do was it meant that I was in contact with the students and some of the teachers, and then, my manager at the time who worked on the bar — she was like, look. ‘Michael, when it’s quiet, you can go and watch some of the shows these guys are doing,’ ” he says.
The first play he saw was Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, but it was set in New York. “Normally, when I thought of Shakespeare, I just thought of people in tights running around speaking really posh, speaking like quite the Queen’s English,” he says.
When Balogun would go back to prison after working, he would tell the other men about what he saw and act scenes out for them. He would often run lines with students who would comment on his natural instinct for the text; they became his friends.
“Then what happened was I tried to sneak a phone back into the prison with me, and I got caught. So what they did is they stopped me from going to [work] and sent me back to a normal prison in closed conditions. I felt like I’d messed up another opportunity that was given to me. I was kind of at rock bottom, and because I’d messed up so many opportunities in my life, I decided that if I didn’t figure out what I was going to do that night, I was going to hang myself.
I made a noose to hang myself.
It was about 7 o’clock, so I gave myself till 7 o’clock in the morning. So I – so I gave myself 12 hours to think, and I wasn’t about to go to sleep. I was wide awake. And I can’t explain this, man. Like, I can’t call it a spiritual thing – call it God, but something spoke to me, and I just heard this thing in my head just say, acting.
The next day, a lady came to my cell who was a psychiatrist because the office was worried about my mental health because I was getting in a lot fights. And she was like, Michael, the offices are really worried about you and we’re thinking about, you know, getting you sorted out, in whatever way they meant that. And I was like, no. No. No. No. No. No. I’m fine now. I’m great. I know what I want to do with my life.”
Unbeknownst to him, she was a drama teacher on her free time.
“She started bringing me in classical plays like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, American plays — Arthur Miller, everything,” he says.
Balogun was released. First thing he did was try to get into acting school, but he didn’t know how to get a student loan, so he went back to selling drugs to save up money.
He was caught and sent to prison. Again.
It was only at that moment that he realized what he needed to do to fulfill his dream. If he was to try and become an actor; to really try, he was going to have to lose his identity and leave everything about his now-past life behind. He realized one cannot do something great unless everything in one’s life is aligned towards that goal.
He served his sentence without a single issue marked on his file. He used the time to find ways to properly pay for acting school and practicing and reading whatever was available to him. He was released he got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He trained and then signed with an agency.
Then an opportunity came. His agent proposed him to audition for a role in People, Places And Things — a story that revolves around drug addiction. This was his big break.
Now Balogun has a role in The National Theatre’s production of Macbeth.
“That genius just captured the human condition in its raw essence,” Balogun says. “In Macbeth, this guy is so ambitious, and he wants it all, but he goes around the wrong means about getting it. These were all things that I could directly connect to because of my criminality and because of my circumstances.”
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