EIGHT years ago, Nickolai Salcedo left teaching to pursue his dream and forge an acting career.
Next week on September 5, a special preview screening of Hero: Inspired By The Life and Times of Mr Ulric Cross will be held at the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival opening night in Toronto, featuring Salcedo in the lead role as Cross.
The film will then premiere in TT on September 18 at the opening night gala of the TT Film Festival (TTFF) at Napa, Port of Spain.
Cross was a diplomat, served in World War II and was a Royal Air Force (RAF) navigator. He is recognised as possibly the most decorated West Indian of World War II. He is the recipient of the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Asked how he snagged the lead role in Hero, Salcedo said he found out director Frances-Anne Solomon was having auditions for two of her films, one, a short called Break Out, and the other Hero, executive-produced by Lisa Wickham.
“Although I got a small part in Break Out, I couldn’t get anything in Hero, as my hairstyle was not appropriate for the period. At the time I had locks and had no plans on cutting my hair, feeling as though my mane was intrinsically tied to who I was. “Some months and a huge crisis of identity later, and my hair was gone.
“At that point, I took up a call to audition for the role of Ulric Cross in Hero. A couple of call-backs later, including a reading at Medulla Art Gallery, and I found myself staring destiny in the face. I got a phone call saying that I got the part and that I would be leaving for London, England in a few weeks. From there it was a one-way ticket to a new world.”
With the film being shot in Ghana, United Kingdom, Canada and TT, Salcedo opened up about his experience filming across the world with some well-known actors. He said everyone in this film was a star to him.
“This film really altered my perspective as it introduced me to so many new people, places, beliefs, understandings, cultures, victories and tragedies. Hero changed my life.
“I remember there was a moment in London where I was standing out in the backyard of where we were staying in Herne Hill, listening to a plane flying overhead. I remember at that moment saying to myself, ‘We are not home any more. Nickolai ... this is the first day of a new you.’”
Salcedo spoke of his working relations with the other actors.
“I remember shooting with the talented Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince Of Bel Air) and just thinking, Wow, he’s so humble. He spoke to me as though we were friends, giving me great professional and personal advice over coffee. He was such a cool guy.
“In London, I was also introduced to some of the UK’s brilliant actors: Pippa Nixon (Ann Cross), Jimmy Eric Kofi Abrefa (Kofi Mensah), Jimmy Akingbola (Kwame Nkrumah) and Fraser James (George Padmore). These highly-talented artists taught me so much about film acting just by being themselves in front of the camera. They taught me to relax and just enjoy the process. The London experience really humbled me and encouraged me to get lost in the role and the experience.”
In Ghana where the film industry is huge, Salcedo said from the filmmakers’ base in the capital, Accra, he met with some of the country’s biggest film stars. including John Dumelo (PK Asante), Adjetey Anang (Patrice Lumumba), Prince David Osei (Mobutu Sese Seko), Eko Smith Asante (Eduardo Mondlane) and Kenneth Fiati (Ahmadou Ahidjo).
“We would go to shoot at locations and people would crowd around to say hi to John Dumelo. It was quite an experience. The Ghanaian actors really felt like a team of brothers and it was an honour to share the screen with them.
“I fell madly in love with the food –fufu and goat soup, kenkey and akpeteshie (Ghanaian babash). I was nicknamed the ‘wengeze king’ by the film crew after a loud, drunken night. Wengeze is another rather potent infused alcoholic beverage.
“All of these experiences were had before we even visited the former slave castles in Cape Coast district, where I think a few of us had a very rude awakening to the history of humanity.”
From Ghana there was a brief stopover in Barbados, after which an eventual flight to mid-winter Toronto, Salcedo said, provided a sobering conclusion to a truly epic adventure.
“It was sobering as it has represented the end of the project. It was here that I was introduced to Peter Williams (Anthony ‘Pony’ McFarlane), who became another mentor/brother, teaching me a lot about acting and life, being another Caribbean man in this North American landscape.
“CaribbeanTales provided an office full of friends to keep me sane in the lonely cold of winter. Toronto is also where I now find myself at the end of a huge project.”
About the man himself who he portrayed in the film, Salcedo said he did indeed relate to Ulric Cross’s personal story.
“Growing up in a small place with global dreams has always felt a bit like being a majestic bird trapped in a tiny cage with no room to spread its wings. I have always felt trapped by the limitations of the society into which I was born.
“Then I left to travel with this film on a grand adventure that kept extending as we were all beginning to realise only while on the road just how epic Ulric’s journey really was.
“On this journey, I came face-to-face with the realities of other countries and their histories, feeling every step of the way as though I was Ulric moving through our modern world, working in a different profession, but pretty much on the same mission. Even if I just looked at the simple act of walking through his journey while doing this film, going to England and Ghana, it always felt as though my life was mirroring his.
“Like him, I left a steady pay cheque to pursue my career of choice. He left a job at the BBC, and I left my teaching post in 2010, after six years at Couva East Secondary School. He followed his inner compass and I am following mine. There have been many moments along this journey where I lost touch with who I was, and couldn’t tell where Ulric ended and Nickolai began, or vice versa. I could only hope to influence the world as much as he and his peers did.”
Salcedo, who also describes himself as a visual artist, singer/songwriter, mentor and apprentice, said as a professional actor, he has been working now for some years, building his portfolio and gaining hands-on experience in the field.
“My creative integrity has been a guiding principle for my career. I believe in the purity of the artist’s self, in knowing who or what one is.”
Salcedo also acted in the films Moko Jumbie (2017), Moving Parts (2017) Play the Devil (2016) and Battledream Chronicle (2014).
About Ulric Cross
Ulric Cross was a Trinidadian judge, diplomat and Royal Air Force (RAF) navigator during World War II. After the war, Cross went to London to study law and was called to the Bar in 1949.
Upon his return to TT he served as legal adviser to the comptroller of imports and exports, and lectured part-time in trade union history and trade union law at the Extra-mural Department of the University of the West Indies until 1953.
Back in London, Cross worked as a talks producer with the BBC, quit in 1957 to practise law in Africa until 1971, when he came back home to serve as High Court judge, then elevated to the Court of Appeal, after which he was made chairman of the Law Reform Commission. In 1983 he was made chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation before being appointed TT High Commissioner to the UK, Germany and France from 1990-1993. In 1993 Cross co-founded a non-profit organisation with his colleague Desmond Allum, SC, the Cotton Tree Foundation, which works with deprived Port of Spain communities to combat poverty and unemployment through counselling, self-help, education and training projects.
Cross also served as president of the Royal Air Forces Association’s TT branch from 2009 until his death in 2013.
Among the many awards and accolades he received are the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, for distinguished and outstanding service in the sphere of law on the 49th Independence Day celebrations, and earlier that year the Piarco Air Station was renamed the Ulric Cross Air Station
. In July 2011 President George Maxwell Richards presented him with the Heroes Foundation first heroes medallion.
In 2012 a comic book entitled And Justice For All, The True Story Of A Local Hero was published in his honour by the Heroes Foundation, in their Heroes of a Nation series.