Veteran actor Earl Cameron brings a sense of world citizenship to UN role

LONDON – When veteran actor Earl Cameron stood at the lectern in the United Nations General Assembly hall, portraying an African despot for the film The Interpreter, he had one of those strange moments where the larger reality of things snaps into focus.

On the one hand, the 87-year-old British actor was playing the corrupt and unsavory president of a fictional African country — a role he had no hesitation in accepting.

“I feel that an actor must portray life, and despotic characters need to be portrayed and shown up,” he said.

On the other hand, as a Bahá'í, the scene reminded him very much of the Bahá'í belief in the need for world unity.

“There I was,” said Mr. Cameron, “standing at the lectern in front of 2,000 extras playing all the ambassadors. Seeing the names of all the countries on the desks in front of me, I got a real sense of the importance of the UN.”

“The world is desperate for peace and there's no other way it can go but towards greater cooperation at a global level,” he said. “Solutions have to be found at a level above national interests — and so far there isn't any other organization which can establish these first steps towards lasting peace.”

Before becoming a Bahá'í, Mr. Cameron rose to considerable fame in the United Kingdom as one of the first black actors to break the “color bar,” winning acclaim for early roles about race relations in England.

After becoming a Bahá'í, he continued his career — but coupled it with service to humanity at large, as exemplified by a 15-year stint in the Solomon Islands in the 1980s, where he sought to teach principles of human oneness.

“He had the choice of going on with his career and becoming a stronger actor, but he decided to work for the Faith, because that was more important to him,” said his daughter, Serena Cameron. “Because he was at a stage where he could easily have gone the same route as Sidney Poitier.”

Mr. Cameron is quite satisfied with his career choices, but he was nevertheless very happy when he was called out of retirement to play the role of Edmund Zuwanie in The Interpreter .

It was in early 2004, while he was taking part in a Bahá'í community activity in the United Kingdom, that he received a surprising phone call from his agent.

His agent told him that Sydney Pollack, director of Tootsie and the Oscar-winning Out of Africa, was considering him for a part in a new political thriller.

“I had to rush to test for the role,” Mr. Cameron said. “I turned up late...but they liked what I did.”

The film tells the story of a translator, played by Nicole Kidman, who overhears a plot to assassinate Mr. Zuwanie as he addresses the UN General Assembly. The film also stars Sean Penn, who plays a secret service agent assigned to protect Ms. Kidman's character.

The Interpreter is the first film ever to be shot inside the United Nations building in New York . When Alfred Hitchcock made North by Northwest in 1959, he built a replica of the UN's interiors. For The Interpreter, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan allowed the movie to be filmed in the UN building after office hours.

The critics have unanimously praised Mr. Cameron's performance in The Interpreter .

The Baltimore Sun wrote: “Earl Cameron is magnificent as the slimy old fraud of a dictator...” The Rolling Stone described Mr. Cameron's appearance as “subtle and menacing.” Philip French in The Observer referred to “that fine Caribbean actor Earl Cameron.”

The film's UK premiere at the Empire Theatre in London 's Leicester Square was a glamorous occasion. Mr. Cameron was called to the stage by Sydney Pollack to be presented to the audience along with Nicole Kidman. “It's the first time I had been to a premiere for many years,” Mr. Cameron said. “I've never experienced anything like that. There were thousands of cameras.”

Mr. Cameron moved from Bermuda to England during World War II and there became a pioneering black British actor. In London in 1963 he became a Bahá'í.

“I never felt there was any conflict between being a Bahá'í and being an actor,” he said. “From time to time I managed to get certain lines in the script changed by the director if I felt uncomfortable saying them.”

“Very occasionally I turned a part down. There was a period when black actors tended to get the villain parts. But I often got sympathetic character roles. Perhaps I have a sympathetic look about me.”

His breakthrough role was in The Pool of London, a 1951 film set in postwar London involving racial prejudice, romance, and a diamond robbery. He won much critical acclaim for his role in the film.

“From then on, I became the best known black actor in England, for quite a number of years,” said Mr. Cameron, adding that the part in Pool led to a number of other roles.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, he appeared in many films including Sapphire, The Message — the story of the Prophet Muhammad — and the James Bond movie Thunderball.

Mr. Cameron also became a familiar face on television in such popular shows as Danger Man, Doctor Who, and The Prisoner. A 15-year career break followed when Mr. Cameron went to the Solomon Islands with his family to assist the Bahá'í community there.

He recounted his decision to go to the Solomons with considerable humility, saying he almost came back immediately after being shown sleeping quarters that were also home to several families of rats.

“I can't stand being near rats,” said Mr. Cameron. “And I thought, ‘No way am I going to sleep there!'” Fortunately, an American Bahá'í couple also living in the Solomons offered him a room in their home.

He went on to buy a local ice cream shop, which he renovated with new equipment and décor into the “BCool Dairy,” which quickly became a focus of social life in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands .

Mr. Cameron left the Solomons in 1994, shortly before his first wife, Audrey, passed away from breast cancer. He had met Audrey in the early 1950s when both were working in the theater in Halifax, Yorkshire, UK . They married in 1954 — another step which was unusual at the time, inasmuch as she was white and Jewish.

“In England, they don't make a big deal about mixed marriages,” said Mr. Cameron. “But, in any event, I met with a lot of prejudice before I was married. When I first arrived in England in 1939, for example, it was just impossible for a black person to get a job.”

He ultimately found employment as a hotel dishwasher, and later began working in the theater, after getting a walk-on part in a musical show, Chu Chin Chow .

Both he and his wife became Bahá'ís in 1963, after a Bermudian friend invited him to a major Bahá'í conference. “I went very reluctantly, to tell the truth, but my wife said, ‘He is from Bermuda and so why don't you just be polite and go.'”

He found himself immediately attracted by the great diversity of people — and their sense of commitment to humanity at large.

“I saw that many of the Bahá'ís were African, and that made me feel very good,” said Mr. Cameron. “I came to think that this is what humanity needed. Because I felt that people in Africa needed an up-to-date religion. In fact, the whole world needs an up-to-date religion.”

“I had seen and experienced all the mess that the world is in, the prejudice and sickness of humanity,” he said. “I just felt there had to be some solution to it all. So when I eventually read the Bahá'í writings, with their teachings of oneness, it didn't take me long to say: ‘This is it, this is what I have been searching for all my life.'”

Reported by Robert Weinberg