When I ask Sharlene Whyte what drew her to the role of Baroness Doreen Lawrence in ITV’s Stephen, her answer is simple. “I had to,” she says. “It felt like a calling. I had to do it, to be a part of something important.”
The new three-part drama, which begins airing on Aug. 30, follows the real-life events of Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s fight for justice. In 1993, their son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack while waiting for the bus in South East London. His killers remained free for 18 years thanks to corruption and prejudice within the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service.
At the time of Stephen’s murder, Whyte was still young and growing up in Nottingham, but she remembers the shockwaves it sent across the country. “We were all kids,” she says. “Stephen Lawrence looked like a friend of mine. Plus, it was London, and we couldn’t believe it would happen in London because surely that was where all the Black people lived.”
“We were all kids,” she says. “Stephen Lawrence looked like a friend of mine.”
“It was quite traumatic,” she continues. “[When filming Stephen], I was able to tap back into how it felt as a youngster, and now, how it would feel as a mother.”
Stephen opens in 2006 and takes us through to 2012, the year Doreen and Neville were finally able to secure convictions for two of their son’s murderers (it’s believed five or six people attacked Stephen), almost two decades after the attack happened.
The family’s fight for justice led to a public inquiry, which found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist and brought about fundamental changes to U.K. law. In 2003, Doreen was awarded an OBE for her advocacy, and in 2013, she became Baroness Lawrence, sitting on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer.
For Whyte, Stephen is the second show about Black British history she’s been involved in over the past year. In December 2020, she starred in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Education, the fifth and final instalment of the BAFTA-winning BBC series. Education spotlighted the unofficial segregation policy at play in U.K. schools throughout the 1970s, and Whyte played Agnes Smith, the mother of an excluded child. Alongside this, her biggest credits include Waterloo Road, Mrs Phelps, and Second Coming. (“I feel like I’m a director collector,” she laughs. “I’ve been working with these amazing talents, and it feels great.”) Whyte — who graduated RADA in 1999 — describes herself as a natural “show-off” and tells me she always wanted to see her “name in lights.”
Yet, despite all this experience, she was still nervous to play Doreen, whom she calls “a huge figurehead in British society.” Understandably, the actor was daunted by the “responsibility” of this role.
While ITV had the “full support” of Doreen for the new series, Whyte says she was conscious not to meet her ahead of filming. “I felt like I didn’t want Doreen to relive anything; I didn’t think that would help the process,” she explains. “I’m not mimicking her, it’s an interpretation of Doreen. Although I do have her voice, I must say,” she adds, with a smile.
Instead, to prepare for the role, Whyte turned to music. “[Doreen] did a Desert Island Discs some years back, and it had all the songs she used to listen to as a child and a teenager,” she tells me. “I was able [use] the music that influenced her. I could relate to it as it reminded me of my family — uncles and aunties who would have grown up in the same era.”
She adds: “That’s how I often approach a character: I give them a bit of a soundtrack so I can live in the world that they lived in during that time.”
This process allowed Whyte to connect to Doreen as the person she was before her son’s death. “We never get to see the more human side of Doreen,” the actor explains. “She’s a mum, doing mum things, like making a packed lunch for her daughter. Talking about love life or social life. I hope I’m able to bring a softness to Doreen, which I thought was incredibly important in her legacy.”
“We never get to see the more human side of Doreen,” the actor explains. “She’s a mum, doing mum things, like making a packed lunch for her daughter. Talking about love life or social life. I hope I’m able to bring a softness to Doreen, which I thought was incredibly important in her legacy.”
Alongside Whyte, Hugh Quarshie and Steve Coogan occupy the lead roles in Stephen, playing Neville Lawrence and DCI Clive Driscoll, respectively.
Driscoll, a real-life former police officer who joined the Met in 1971, was a key ally for the Lawrence family, helping them in their pursuit of the truth. Whyte describes Coogan’s portrayal as “brilliant,” calling it “genius casting.” Similarly, she was “stunned” by Quarshie’s talent, adding, “we were so keen to portray the story with as much authenticity and authority as possible.” However, she goes on to say that, despite the heavy material, they were also “able to find light moments together.”
Finding the lighter side of life seems to come naturally to Whyte. While she admits she’s drawn to “tortured roles,” it’s clear (even via Zoom!) that she’s warm, joyful, and ready to laugh at herself. That’s why, for her next project, she’s hoping to try comedy or maybe even be involved in a musical.
Whatever the project, though, Whyte will always be striving to represent her community. “I’m a very proud Black woman,” she says. “And if my face and my voice can be seen on the screen for younger and older Black men and women, to just feel seen and heard, then I feel like I’ve done some good on this here planet Earth.”