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In Conversation: The Cast of ITV’s Riches

Sophie Harman is joined by Deborah Ayorinde, CJ Beckford, Adeyinka Akinrinade, Ola Orebiyi, Emmanuel Imani and Nneka Okoye in multiple video calls to discuss the new ITV show 'Riches'.

In a mesmerising collision of business, ambition, family and secrets, ITV’s Riches delves into the lives of a formidable family empire, delivering high-stakes drama from one riveting scene to the next.

Abby Ajayi’s story unfolds with the sudden death of family patriarch, Stephen Richards, leaving his legacy in the hands of his estranged eldest children from his first marriage, Nina and Simon. After the shocking revelation that Nina has been anointed head of the family’s beauty business - Flair & Glory - sparks of both anticipation and trepidation ignite amongst the family and their inner circle.

Stephen’s children from his second marriage, Alesha, Gus and Wanda, must contend with the grief of losing their father and their personal troubles, while the stage is set in the boardroom for an intense battle between their mother Claudia and half-sister Nina, pitting sibling against sibling and ambition against loyalty.

Did you face any challenges in bringing the characters to life? For instance, I read that you [Deborah Ayorinde, playing Nina Richards] yourself were born in the UK and then raised Stateside. Is it hard to toe the line between drawing on your own experiences and creating an individual character within Nina?

Deborah - Not really, I feel like for all of my characters I can use a part of myself to inform my characters. But Nina, as a person, is still far from who I am as a person, she just has a different vibe. She's way more cutthroat. For me, the fun of acting is to kind of step out of yourself and use little bits of yourself, maybe you kind of use it as therapy or whatever. But you can also step out of yourself and use things that you've learned from other people. Like I told my sister the other day that a lot of me now is acquired by her, my older sister. So I guess some parts of it were challenging, because obviously, after every role, you have to kind of take time to reconnect, but that's the fun of it. So it's like a fun challenge, if that makes sense!

As someone who was born and raised in London [CJ Beckford, playing Andre], how was your experience bringing your own opinions to the character and making sure that Andre is very authentic to a Black-British man who is navigating the corporate world at one of the highest levels?

CJ - It was interesting, because, like you said, I was born in London, I also spent a lot of time in Central London as well. I’m used to seeing so many different businessmen in suits, just walking around. So the fact that I kind of got to play one, it was a blessing in disguise. I used that knowledge to my advantage, I just wanted to channel that energy and use it. It was so lovely to actually film in London as well. With the beautiful locations, it was all amazing.

Where do you think your characters’ appeal lies?

CJ - I think mostly because they're strong and independent. And I feel like a lot of Black women or women in general can relate to strong characters. Then Andre is definitely a strong, Black, independent man. So I feel like a lot of people will relate to his aspirations, as well as you know, all the strong Black female characters in this as well. They'll relate to their empowerment that they bring to the show.

Adeyinka - I think for Alesha, people love her because obviously, she is the one that seems to have sense in the family, when it comes to the business and what is right for the business. Seeing people's comments about the show was really, really amazing. They were like, I love Alicia, she's the only one that has sense, she knows what's right for the business and all this sort of stuff! But, obviously, as with every character, they go on a journey, but I think that’s the biggest thing. I think she sees what the family is doing and what's right for the business from a different perspective, because she was treated differently from the rest of the family. And that sort of got me on side with her as well, because as the actor looking at the character, I was like what is it in Alesha that makes an audience member go I'm with her, I understand her. So I would say that she has the most sense out of all three of the kids.

Nneka - I think with Wanda, she’s quite a complex character, isn't she? One minute you hate her, and then you see her go on a journey. And then you sort of see where she's coming from. Wanda is unapologetically herself, and whether you like that or not, there is something endearing about someone who can just sit in their own and be themselves. Because ultimately, we always want to just be able to be in spaces where we can show up as ourselves. And a lot of the time. I feel like we don't always get that opportunity. So it is kind of an aspiration, of just seeing her be, and you have a lot of respect for her as well.

Emmanuel - I think [with Simon] it’s about representation on multiple layers. Simon is a queer character played by a queer actor, there are nuances in his character that perhaps only people from my community would understand and appreciate. I think about other things such as fashion, I’m not sure outside of the UK I’ve really seen this, I have friends who dress really fly but I’ve never seen someone as fly as Simon on television. I think that, as well as going through therapy, not having a problematic relationship, these are qualities that make the character aspirational and also real because there are people like that and I think it’s time we depicted them. I love playing an unproblematic, happy, Black man!

Ola - Gus is a character that is a little bit misunderstood. He’s been allowed to grow up as a spoiled kid, that’s the card he was dealt, that’s the role he has to play, he hasn’t been shown anything else. I pray that there is a second season, and I think then you would get to relate a little bit more to this guy and see him go from this spoiled kid to this man, because again the circumstances have required him to step up. One thing I love about this character is that he’s not one dimensional, none of the characters are. Abby’s writing, she’s done a great job, I really love the character, I want to see where he ends up. I think he helps people connect to the fact this is reality, you’re probably not the person you were 5 years ago or even 6 months ago.

Emmanuel - Or 6 minutes ago! Can I say, I could potentially change my answer from earlier, maybe I would play Gus. Gus actually is very aspirational, he isn't your typical guy from London, he dates a woman with a kid and doesn’t even bat an eyelid. So many men are intimidated by a woman with children, they’re intimidated by that situation, regardless of whether their parents come from that walk of life. Also Gus is a bit of a superhero. How many Black men are able to investigate when they are stopped and held [by the police] and also then able to take legal action against that person. How many times has that ever happened? That’s some marvel type stuff! That’s again incredible writing, incredible characterisation.

Ola - I think Emmanuel will be my spokesperson from now on!

As we go through the character’s lives day-to-day, the show discusses wider issues like racism, sexism and colourism, but we get the sense that the characters are not centred around these issues, they're bubbling at the surface, something they have to navigate throughout life, but not their main focus. Did you feel it was important to address these issues in the way the show does i.e. with Nina through her childhood memories.

Deborah - Yeah, I think it's extremely important. And so when I, when I met with Abby about the role, she said, obviously racism unfortunately affects all people of colour, you know, no matter what socio-economic status you are in. She told me I want in this for racism to have a lowercase r instead of the capital R. Basically, I don't want it to be the centre of the story, because they, you know, rose above it. But I want and it's truthful for it to still be peppered through the series.

And how important do you feel it is to discuss issues like colourism? I don't think I've ever seen that discussed on TV, maybe a couple of American TV shows, but I think it really opens up a new audience to those kinds of issues.

Deborah - Colourism, like you said, that's something that is not often touched on, but it is extremely real. And it's extremely important to talk about something that I've experienced. So I just think, yes, absolutely. It's important. As artists, we have the privilege of having a platform and I think it's important for me personally, to use that platform, to talk about things that are important to me, whether it's a comedy, whether it's a family drama, whatever it is, I love using my art to say something and say something important. I literally will say no to a project that doesn't say something. And so the way that it's done in riches is just so genius and shout out to Abby, because it's so entertaining, and juicy, and fabulous and sexy, and all these things, you don't really realise until you're done watching it that you've learned quite a bit, you know. So I think it's extremely important. And I just love projects like this, they are my jam, to be honest with you. They're my bag!

To add to that, what I think was so beautiful about this show is that even when we've done press in America they feel like they can relate, in Nigeria they feel like they can relate, wherever they've seen the show, people feel like they can see themselves, you know, and so it's just been such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful project to be a part of, for that reason, that people feel like we’re representing them in a way, representing the things that are important to them.

Is there anything you feel your characters could do to progress themselves more? Is there somewhere unexpected you'd like to see them go? Or a certain position you'd like to see them take up?

Adeyinka - For Alesha, I'd love to see her more in the company. You start to get a sense of that in the first season. But her backstory is that she's been working on a beauty blogging business by herself away from the family. So I would really like to see what she does in the company. And what's really nice about that is that you then are able to see her talents, like, which were underestimated. But also I think I'd really like to see her in the CEO position. Alesha has been running her business by herself and been making that money. She could take over the machine!

Nneka - She's [Alesha] a dark horse, for sure. She’s done so well, so early. Without really anybody's help as well.

What are your favourite types of scenes to film, from the boardroom to the glamorous gala?

Nneka - Wanda’s quite arty. So I think in terms of her clothes and stuff, she really gets to experiment with bright colours, which is actually quite fun! I did like the gala scenes. But yeah, it's all really nice.

Adeyinka - Yeah, I agree. The gala scenes were a lot of fun. Because also, I think we filmed that over a couple of days consecutively. So it was really fun, being able to dress up like that for a couple of days, feeling really fancy and looking really, really pretty. But for me, I actually really loved the boardroom scenes, because I love the drama. I'm always there for the drama.

Nneka- She actually does, in real life too!

Adeyinka - I do, but that’s because I'm quite observant, so I'm always observing the drama. I love the boardroom scenes, I feel like ultimately, that's where we come head-to-head with situations. So you know, whenever we're talking about the family business, stakeholders, colourism, who's going to take over the business, about money, what's been going on, it all happens in this boardroom. I like those scenes, because the majority of the time the tension in that scene is high and so thick, I just love it!

Nneka - She’s just saying that because she wants to be CEO, she’s putting little nuggets out there!

Adeyinka - And what about it?

Ola - [For Gus] CEO is kind of expected, but…

Emmanuel - I cannot give my ideas away for free darling, but imagine Gus is like, get this I’m going to start my own business.

Ola - That’s what I was about to say!

The girls’ relationships with their parents has been explored somewhat throughout season 1, but we haven’t seen that as much with Gus and Simon. Is that something you would like to explore should there be a second season?

Ola - Of course. Again talking about three-dimensional characters, there are many things in your life that make you who you are. I think a lot, I’m always trying to find out how did you get where you are? What are some of the decisions in your life, or some of the things that happened in your life, as a kid, that got you to where you are now? I think it would be great to explore why Gus and his dad were the way they were and why Gus and Claudia are the way they are. What was Gus’s childhood like? What are some of the things she said to him? What were some of the expectations placed on him and when did they start?

Emmanuel - Script-wise in season 1, but off-camera, I think I [Simon] have a great relationship with my Mother. I’m the one that culturally speaking she kind of pumps all of the Nigerian culture into. Simon is the one that effortlessly speaks Yoruba, he doesn’t miss a beat with that kind of stuff. Simon is very rooted in his Nigerian culture and that is by way of his mother. If we got a second season I would actually love to explore Simon’s relationship with his step-mother, because they have a mini run-in in episode 2 and that was quite electric on various levels. Getting to play tennis (as my friend calls it) opposite Sarah Niles [Claudia] was a bit of a moment for me and I would love more of that!

They could have a real back and forth type of scene…

Emmanuel - Yes, he’s quick with that wit and also I think Claudia kind of recognises parts of her in Simon. Simon is a lot more level headed, of course, but you see that quick banter and wit, even in episode 4 in the boardroom. It’s quick, it’s there, and Claudia is like don’t try it, because real recognises real. I would love more of that!

Riches is available now on ITV1 and ITVx


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