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Adjoa Andoh: “Life is short – we need to dive in and grab it”

nominees' party for the ee bafta film awards 2024, supported by bulgari arrivals
Adjoa Andoh on 'Bridgerton' and turning 60Rowben Lantion - Getty Images

Adjoa Andoh has so much to say that our video call can barely keep up. She is talking to me from the back of a moving car while on route to the airport in Milan, following a charity trip with the International Rescue Committee. The line keeps freezing and her words then follow in an impassioned torrent. Rather than wait for a question, Bridgerton’s Lady Danbury launches into our conversation without so much as a beat. She can’t help but talk in great detail and enthusiasm about the subjects that move and engage her. This doesn’t make for a straight-forward interview, but it does make her excellent company.

The issue that’s causing her to speak with such conviction is the refugee crisis. She has spent three days in Italy with the IRC, meeting female refugees via the humanitarian organisation’s Women and Girls Safe Spaces in Trieste and Milan. “The women I met this week came from very different parts of the world – from Bolivia, Pakistan and Ethiopia to Ukraine – but there was one common thread: they were so terrified of what was happening at home that they had to flee and face the unknown,” she says. “My father fled from Ghana in the '50s due to politics and so I look at the refugees and see my dad. All these refugees are just us in terrible circumstances and having to get the hell out of somewhere as fast as they possibly can. If you break it down, these are just ordinary people who would rather risk smugglers, the sea, physical violence and sexual violence than stay in the environment they’re in. Imagine those things being preferable to staying at home because what’s happening there is that bad.”

The IRC’s women-only Safe Spaces are created to give female refugees protection against sexual violence (a widespread issue among women and girls, and to a lesser extent men, fleeing their homes both while travelling and in exile). They also provide inclusion and integration support for women seeking safety in Europe. “It’s exhausting to keep your guard up all the time,” says Andoh. “All refugees are vulnerable but, if you’re a woman, you have the extra risk of sexual violence. Beyond that, quite often it’s the women who are responsible for the children, which makes things more fraught. It’s important to have somewhere where you can exhale finally.”

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Adjoa Andoh and IRC clients in the emergency dormitory for people on the move in Trieste, ItalyFrancesco Pistilli © International Rescue Committee

She tells me about one Nigerian woman who had left her native country with her two-year-old twins and a five-year-old. “She was exhausted and understandably at the end of her tether,” says Andoh. “We looked after her kids so she could sleep for a few hours. It’s the small things, and there aren’t safe spaces like that when you’re on the road. I think what’s happened in Ukraine and it being so close to home has helped us to see that sometimes things happen that we have no control over. These refugees are you and I.”

The focus of our call is the women that Andoh has met over the course of her trip, but she is also deeply troubled by the absence of accommodation for male refugees. “The IRC is helping find emergency shelter for women, but there’s nothing for men,” she says. “In Trieste, they’re housed in two 18-century stone military houses by the docks called The Silos. There’s no roof, it’s filthy – and there are rats. They live in tents. It’s inhumane.”

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Adjoa Andoh visiting the abandoned silos, where people on the move seek shelter in Trieste, ItalyFrancesco Pistilli © International Rescue Committee

Andoh has a direct way of talking that draws you in and makes you care. She is a natural story-teller – which is handy, given that she has spent her life connecting with others by chronicling, as she describes, “people doing stuff”. Her acting career, which began in the '80s, spans multiple mediums, from cerebral to the mainstream. Her acting credits include Eastenders, Doctor Who, Shakespeare and, of course, Bridgerton. “All culture is good; it’s all just stories and we pick and choose how we like to hear it,” she says. “Some people get their stories from Eastenders, some people get them from the Brontes, others get them from both. I’m a storyteller and I don’t care what medium I tell it in, as long as the story is good.”

Her personal story started in the Cotswolds where she grew up in the '50s. Her father worked for British Aerospace and her mother was a history teacher, which is where her own love of history comes from. Her rural childhood, which was spent playing in rivers, fields and treehouses was, for the most part, an idyllic existence – although not without its challenges. “We were the only African family living in a Cider With Rosie existence,” she says. “There were different strands of what it meant to live there, but my dad still lives in the village I grew up in. My childhood gave me an abiding connection to rural England. It was all those clichés; we’d leave the house at nine am with a sandwich packed for lunch, and be told to be back at six. We ran round in big packs of kids, got lost and went on mini adventures.”

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Adjoa Andoh in BridgertonLiam Daniel/Netflix

In her late teens, she began a law degree in Bristol, then quit and moved to Brixton in South London where she began acting. When she was 23, she became pregnant with her first daughter, and raised her as a single parent while still picking up acting jobs. A dedicated punk (she still loves The Clash and the Sex Pistols), she formed a pioneering theatre-production group called Wild Iris, with the director Polly Irvin. Her goal has always been to make all forms of culture more inclusive, which leads us to Bridgerton – a show that prompted much discussion when it launched four years ago for casting Black characters as Regency era characters. Period dramas before it had been overwhelmingly white.

“People were very suspicious about it because we don’t know our history,” says Andoh. “My kids were taught about the Tudors and the Nazis, that was it. We aren’t taught all of our history. Bridgerton is entertainment, it’s not a documentary, so you’ll see stories on a Shondaland epic scale – dresses in psychedelic orange that weren’t the colour of the day, but they were the cut. We all like to hear a good story, and even more so if we feel we can be part of it. Bridgerton has done that on many different levels.”

Today, Andoh lives in South London with three grown-up children and her husband, the author Howard Cunnell. Last year, she turned 60 and her world looks fuller than ever. She is a doting grandmother, an active member of the church, a devoted Leeds United fan and an advocate for the Black community, women, and LGBTQI people. As a mother of a trans son, she is also a vocal supporter of trans rights. “One day I believe we may understand the myriad degrees of gender to be so nuanced that three genders will look like a joke,” she said during a 2014 TED Talk. “One day we will perhaps not look at the colour of someone’s skin, or the swellings beneath their clothing, or the trappings of their status and make any judgement about them at all until we have engaged with them individually – until we have engaged with the content of their character.”

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Andoh with Bridgerton co-star Phoebe DynevorBFC

She is driven by campaigning and fighting for the marginalised. “This is a glorious adventure that we’re all on and I want to glory in it as much as I can and to share that glory with other people,” she says. “I want to advocate for people who aren’t able to get as much juice out of life."

Despite the entertainment industry’s famously hostile approach to female ageing, work is still abundant. “We’re shifting in the right direction,” she explains. “There are lots of interesting roles for older women – which is great because, frankly, we are interesting.” She pauses momentarily before ending our interview with a monologue worthy of another inspiring TED Talk. “What does age really mean? Are you still engaged in the world? Do you still have an appetite for food, sex, life, travel? We still have great stories to tell and my career is full and long may it continue. I still have lots of things I want to say, do, engage with and share with different generations. Life is short – we need to dive in and grab it.”

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