Read about how growing up in Hackney and his connection with Hackney Quest have influenced the creative choices of the actor, writer, director and choreographer.

Lanre Malaolu: ‘I have this impulse to understand who I am’

The actor, writer, director, and choreographer on the influence that growing up in Hackney has had on his creative choices

by Jordana Seal/April 11, 2024

Lanre Malaolu commands attention not with his list of accolades (actor, choreographer, playwright, and filmmaker), but with the striking rhythm of his speech, which makes him sound like he is on stage, and you are his audience. He refers to this as his ‘energy’. His creativity, he says, his hands gesturing, “started from expression, expressing energy, and that energy grew into wanting to connect and understand and tell emotionally full stories through theatre and through film.”

Malaolu, who publicly hides his age to prevent being “put in a box”, first discovered this “energy” at his secondary school, Cardinal Pole in Hackney, when he realised that his need to constantly move and speak could be channelled into acting.

“I will never forget when this outside film crew came in [to school], and they were casting for this short film. You got some brothers who were like, ‘fuck it, I wanna try’, so there was this long line,” he says. “I auditioned, and out of everyone, I got it, and we ended up filming this short film in the school. There was something about achieving that as a young black boy. Being able to do it and do the work and explore and express and be on camera and just learn about the arts that really stayed with me.”

Afterwards, Malaolu’s mother started taking him to Anna Scher Theatre School every Saturday. The school is synonymous with nurturing the talent of working-class artists, but to Malaolu, it was simply a place that taught him how to express himself.

“Anna Scher was my first experience of connecting with different people to tell a story,” he says. What he loved about the Saturday classes was, he says: “walking into a room with 25 different people who had their own independent and unique energy within that energy of wanting to express and connect.”

Malaolu values collaborating with like-minded artists. Pic: Daniel Lloyd

His creative journey has always been rooted in trying to understand himself from an emotional perspective, express his feelings, and connect with others, he says. It is these three things that drive him. Speaking in a melodic pace, he says: “I don’t wake up and go, I want to tell stories about my community. It’s more I have this impulse to want to understand who I am, to understand the emotions that I’m going through, to understand the person that I’m growing into, to understand the things I held back from emotionally in the past, and the things that I’m holding back from in the now.” Each phrase accompanied by a whole-body movement not unlike dancing.

Growing up in Hackney has had a subconscious and sometimes conscious influence on his work, he says. “Hackney is not the Hackney it was,” he stresses. “I grew up in the hood, and I use the word the hood. So growing up, it was a lot. It was really challenging; it wasn’t hipsterville, and there were times when you were afraid to walk down Dalston Junction after 9pm.

“But brotherhood is a really important part [of Hackney], there’s a magnet,” he says. “These men with all these different experiences gravitate towards each other into this ‘gang’, when it’s just these young lost black boys trying to find brotherhood. Brotherhood and connection, it’s all about connection.”

This feeling of connection is the backbone of Malaolu’s short film, The Circle, which came out in 2020. The film tells the story of two black brothers growing up on a council estate in Hackney. Exploring themes of mental health, family dynamics and dreams, the film uses movement and distinctive speech rhythms to delve into these emotionally complex topics – much like Malaolu himself.  

“I always wanted to tell the story about young boys growing up in Hackney and who they are, not who the media say they are. Who they are from their mouths and their bodies, because in the media black bodies are brutalised or brutalising but we don’t see black bodies expressing and connecting with themselves and with each other.”

To tell this story, Malaolu reconnected with Hackney Quest, a charity that provides members of the community with the support they need to positively deal with challenges they may face. Hackney Quest was a key part of Malaolu’s childhood, and he fondly remembers the support they gave him.

“Hackney Quest should be talked about. The things they achieve and the people who have gone through them are incredible, myself included.”

During the casting process for The Circle, he contacted the charity, asking if they knew any boys who would feel comfortable telling this story. They put him in touch with the two brothers that the film centres around.

This film, he says, tells the stories that “I’ve felt in my body, that I’ve wanted to say and tell but I’ve never seen, and I know that these boys want to tell.

“What I’m doing right now is living the fullness of who I am,” he says. “There’s a swirl of energy in my body that I feel every day, and through writing, creating, and collaborating, I’m letting it out.”

Read the article on East London Lines