Terry Grimley meets Chuk Iwuji, who plays the title role in the the play which launches the RSC's new Stratford theatre.
As Chuk Iwuji points out, his rise through the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company has been like a textbook graduation.
The first time he was in Stratford, in 2001, he played three of the smallest parts in Shakespeare including the soothsayer in Julius Caesar.
"When I came back I played Aufidius in Coriolanus. That was a real leap of faith by the director, David Farr, because I really hadn't done anything that suggested I could do it, apart from a recommendation from Greg Hicks, who was playing Coriolanus."
For his third appearance with the RSC, he has moved up to the title role in Henry VI - not only the epic among Shakespeare's histories but the production (a revival of Michael Boyd's staging first seen in the SwanTheatre in 2001) which launches the RSC's new temporary 1,000-seat theatre, The Courtyard.
When Boyd's production was originally seen a lot of attention was paid to the casting of a black actor, David Oyelowo, in the title role.
Since then we've also had Adrian Lester's Henry V at the National Theatre, so that element of novelty has gone. But actually there is a direct link between Oyelowo's casting and Iwuji's, as the latter explains.
He was in America when he had a telephone conversation with his eldest brother, who suffered from sickle-cell anaemia and was about to go into hospital for an operation.
"He called me and said there's this young black actor playing Henry VI. We had this long conversation where he said 'maybe you should come back', and he went into the operation and passed away. It was the last real conversation we had, and it was a big reason I moved back here."
Born in Nigeria, Iwuji enjoyed an international and culturally diverse upbringing, as his parents worked for the United Nations. But from an early age his interest in acting was stimulated by the English classical tradition.
"I performed at the Nigerian National Theatre and I was on TV as a young kid. As far as I can remember, every game I played as a kid seemed to be reconstructions of things I had seen on TV, my version of how I would like it to be. The first films I remember were Day of the Jackal with Edward Fox and The Godfather.
"I went away from it for a while. I played sport and stuff, and if you played sport you liked to fit in with the jocks, but I liked watching certain actors. I remember seeing Jean Anouilh's Beckett with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. I was ten or 11, and I liked the voices of classical actors.
"Fast-forward 12 years and I was at Yale majoring in economics and I saw a poster for a production of Beckett and got offered the role of Beckett. Nothing else appealed to me. I did economics because my whole family is in economics, but the reason I went to America is it gave you more time, because for the first two years you do liberal arts. I knew I didn't want to be an economist. For the first time I was doing something I wanted to do, rather than something I could do."
When you haven't seen the Henry VI plays for a long time it's easy to think of them as some kind of English pageant. Then it's a shock to discover a country which more closely resembles modern-day Iraq, with rival warlords competing for power with horrifying brutality. The king is the traumatised, quiet centre of the storm who it is easy enough to characterise as weak.
"I've tended to play passionate, strong characters, and although at first he struck me as too mild for my liking, Michael Boyd was saying to me dont judge him," says Iwuji.
"His strength is in the vulnerability, the honesty - his refusal to play the game, to adjust to political needs. He's probably the wrong king at the wrong time.
"You know what's horrible about it? York has reasons for wanting the crown, and they're perfectly legitimate. Shakespeare does this brilliant thing of showing you the situation and you can't say this character is wrong and this one is right. When does it really end, when you have two legitimate causes fighting?"
With epic press day - Part 1 starting at 10.30am and Part 3 at 7.30pm - still more than a fortnight away, the three parts have been gradually eased into performance in The Courtyard, the theatre with a deep thrust space which gives a foretaste of how the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre will look.
"It's a very alive space," Iwuji enthuses. "I've used the metaphor of getting into a Rolls Royce and finding Michael Schumacher at the wheel. This theatre is on the front foot, particularly for a play like this from the transition from medieval to modern, where a lot of it is delivered directly to the audience. You can see people's faces all the time, and it has that thing of people feeling they're part of the show.
"The big word I would use is that it's a brave space, and it needs a brave performance." n Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 is at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon, until October 21 (Box office: 0870 609 1110).