Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith interview - 'I haven't worked as hard on a character as I have with Ike Turner'

Will Longman
Will Longman

Previews are in full swing for the Tina Turner jukebox musical, Tina, which officially opens at the Aldwych Theatre on 17th April, and promises Turner fans all the biggest hits they love from the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll.

But the show is more than just a celebration of her music; Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays Ike Turner, the man who helped launch her career and later married Tina, but their relationship crumbled following spates of violence and abuse aimed towards Tina.

We spoke to the actor about how he has developed the character of Ike for the show, getting back on stage after three years, and why he was so looking forward to working with Mamma Mia director Phyllida Lloyd.  

Last time on stage was in Hamlet alongside Benedict Cumberbatch three years ago, this is quite a different project for you?

I try to find projects I can really sink my teeth into. I don't have any strict rules, but I was finding more work that was interesting to me on screen, rather than on stage. Then Tina came up, and I simply had to do it. I really wanted to work with Phyllida, and I really wanted to play Ike.

You don't tend to perform in musicals very often, why did you choose to do Tina?

As a genre, musicals are something I haven't challenged myself with before so I wanted to flex those muscles. I've always sung, and I can dance - not that I have to dance much in this show. That's part of what attracted me to this, it's a new way of deploying my skills.

Does it feel like treading new territory?

Definitely. I feel like I'm new to the industry again. I've had to learn the guitar and revisit my singing. We've weaved that into my process of developing the character, playing truthfully and honestly. It's been glorious, the environment that Phyllida creates in rehearsals is very comfortable and feels like the right climate for me as an actor to build a character. As do the cast around me: Adrienne Warren is an absolute force of nature. She has a superb work ethic, very warm, very intelligent. It just feels like all I'm trying to do is honour the team around me.

Why were you so drawn to working with Phyllida?

I've seen her work before, and I just got a sense that she's the sort of artist it would be enhancing to work with. And I wasn't wrong.

Were you very aware of Ike ad Tina's relationship when you signed up to do the show?

I was aware, but only because of the film [1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do with It]. That came out when I was a kid, and I didn't really know there was an Ike Turner. I knew about Tina and her music, but it never occurred to me that there was an Ike. When I found out, I was shocked and appalled, but that film was my first introduction to that story.

So much has happened in Tina's life, it's quite an extraordinary story. What's being covered in the musical?

What this version does is look at the 'Tina-scape', rather than the 'Ike-and-Tina-scape' like that film did. But so much of her early career features Ike very heavily. The audience should expect to come and enjoy something feelingly, rather than bring their notebooks. It has more a sense of key moments, and isn't a strict retelling of her life story.

We know the show is being produced in association with Tina and she's had a big involvement in its development, how present has Tina been in the rehearsal room?

She came to visit us in rehearsals, but she's very much left her creative team to their jobs.

She said that your character is going to be particularly hard for her to watch, does that affect how you approach playing Ike?

Not really. In a perverse way, I hope it's hard to watch. If I've done my job, it should be hard to watch. I interviewed someone who's been institutionalised for domestic abuse and they gave me this really interesting insight: abusers see their abuse as a form of love. That was a real key unlocking moment for me. Ike has this mentality where he thinks he's being loving. That really helped me connect with the character, and not turn him into a psycho.

You've learnt the guitar, conducted some really in-depth research for your character development... have you ever done this much work on a character before?

I'm not sure I have. This job has been more enhancing and challenging than I could ever have hoped. Having to learn new things and develop those parts of me has been amazing; to get the chance to do something that feels new. So I'm not sure I have worked this hard on a character.

Why do you think that might be?

Ordinarily, the text is what guides me. I'm usually interested in what I have to say and why I'm saying it. I don't get too bogged down in background, because you can't play background. But because Ike is a real person, I've let a lot of this background inform some of my choices on stage. I've worked-in a lot more detail, and I'm very pleased with it.

If you had to pick one Tina Turner song to be your favourite, what would it be?

There's a song in the show called "Better Be Good to Me", which I find captivating. When Adrienne sings that, it alters me every single time. It melts me. But there's video on YouTube of "Higher" [see below], and it's absolutely mesmerising. The song itself is glorious, but with the routines and choreography, it's not a question of whether you like it, it's about how much you like it.

Tina officially opens at the Aldwych Theatre on 17th April 2018, and is booking until 20th October.

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical Tickets are available now.

Originally published on

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