West End star Ray Shell on film, musicals and Spike Lee
- Credit: Archant
Ten years after the birth of his first grandchild, Ray Shell is swapping his life as a star of West End musicals to make it in Hollywood.
Having first arrived in London in 1978, he has starred in a host of leading shows, including Starlight Express, the Lion King and current box office hit The Bodyguard.
He puts his continued work ethic and youthfulness down to a state of mind, insisting he still feels like a 19-year-old.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Ray had a long-standing interest in film. But it was only when he went to study in Boston that a twist of fate saw his career in musicals take off.
“I was interested in theatre but not to the point that I wanted to go to fame school”, he said.
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“I wasn’t into it that much then. I only got into theatre because I had to take it as an elective (at university) and what happened was I sang because my daddy’s a Minister and I kept getting hired.”
After moving to London more than 30 years ago, Ray, who lives in Langdon Park, saw his career prosper. And his admiration for his co-stars and musical directors is clear.
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“Musical theatre performers are probably some of the most talented performers in the world.
“I love performing, I love being in front of an audience. Since I’ve been doing it for so long it’s a second skin - I know what I’ve got to do to prepare. I’ve got to prepare myself mentally and physically, I can’t just walk out there and do it.”
He admits that he gets bored easily, a fact which explains his staggeringly diverse career so far.
Alongside leading roles in musicals, Ray has managed musicians, directed plays, and has even had a novel published during the 1990s.
And work is now underway to turn ‘Iced’, which tells the story of a black American who is addicted to crack cocaine, into a film, which Ray intends to direct himself.
He has also just published a biography of controversial director Spike Lee. Having grown up in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, Ray found he could relate to the director on a personal level.
“I am an admirer of him”, he admits. “I think his ideas are great.”
Indeed, he sees similarities between where the pair grew up in New York and his neighbourhood in the East End, where he has lived for more than 20 years.
“East London is like the Manhattan of London. Skyscrapers have appeared before our eyes. Before I came all the skyscrapers they had was a newly built Canary Wharf so it’s interesting seeing the landscape change.
“There’s a feeling of the East Village or east Brooklyn in the Manhattan setting”, he added.
Despite carving out a successful stage career, Ray feels he needs to cross the pond again to make it in the film industry – a fact he says is partly attributable to the colour of his skin.
He said: “If I had had the career in the States that I’ve had here I’d have been Denzel Washington.
“I don’t want to pay the race card, but you notice lots of black actors – even British ones – have to leave here to get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. I’ve lived in the East End since 1990, but I ain’t never seen an American character in East Enders!
“In America having had all those roles on stage I would have moved into film and television, but not here.”
As well as pursuing his desire to try his hand in Hollywood and Broadway shows, Ray is planning to continue developing his Street Angels Books publishing project.
He hopes Street Angels, which will publish in a digital format, will help launch the careers of “radical and unusual” writers who may otherwise struggle to find a publisher.
“I do think that it can be difficult for new writers to get published right now because with the economic time as it is if you’re not Katie Price or some sort of celebrity you’re not going to get your book published,” he said.
Ray’s immediate plan is to continue in his role in The Bodyguard, which recently won Best New Musical at the What’s On Stage awards. He admits he has he enjoyed being part of such a “buzzy” show, but is looking forward to drawing on his experiences in the UK to oversee the production of his first film in America.
“I’ve worked with some of the best directors - I worked here during what they call the golden age of British modern musical during the 80s.
“Making my own film I can draw on everything I’ve learned. It’s a combination of everything I’ve learned as an artist.
“Right now it’s time for me to get on in a Hollywood movie or a television series.”
‘Spike Lee: The Eternal Maverick’ is available to buy online from: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Overdrive and Waterstones.