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What's love got to do with it? Everything

To research his role as Ike Turner, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith discovered the awful ways abusers justify their actions, he tells Jessie Thompson

When Kobna Holdbrook-Smith met Tina Turner for the first time, you might assume it was a little tense. He is, after all, playing Ike Turner in a new musical about her life - the man who subjected her to years of domestic abuse. But no: "She said, 'aww, you don't look mean enough to be Ike!'"

I meet Holdbrook-Smith at the Aldwych Theatre, where the cast of Tina is in tech rehearsals.

There's a buzz in the building; the carpets smell fresh, the bars are being stocked and bursts of music are coming from the auditorium. Holdbrook-Smith's own excitement is contagious, but he admits that if anyone had told him he'd be doing this two years ago, "I would have just thought it was weird".

He had always wanted to work with director Phyllida Lloyd and thinks writer Katori Hall's plays have the same "glow" as his favourite playwright, August Wilson. But it wasn't until the auditions that "a switch kind of flicked". It made him fall back in love with singing and he was struck by the enduring, universal pleasure of Turner's music. "Banger after banger", we both agree.

Born in Ghana, Holdbrook-Smith went to school in England and says he began to wonder as a teen if he was "allowed" to be an actor. "It felt improbable, like saying you want to be an astronaut."

He was last on stage as Laertes alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet in the Barbican's sell-out production (What's Cumberbatch like, I ask? Lovely, he says - "but when I tell people that they go, 'ahh, cool… but he's a d***, right?'!").

Meeting Turner was like meeting the queen, he says.

"She's like a stateswoman. When you meet somebody particularly charismatic and powerful, there's something about their achievements that suddenly makes sense," he adds.

In conversation, Holdbrook-Smith is thoughtful and expansive. He opens questions back round to me, wondering what I think; this mix of meticulousness and curiosity is clear in his approach to getting inside the mind of Ike Turner.

To research the role, he interviewed a man in a secure institution for abusing his wife. "He gave me something that I found very unlocking. He said people who do that don't see the abuse as abuse - they see it as love," he tells me. "Does that sound mad? It's that their vocabulary of love is f***** up."

He also read Ike's autobiography, which details the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, including losing his virginity at the age of six.

"There was this synthesis of violence and misogyny that was built from a really early age," he says.

Audiences accustomed to frothy jukebox musicals, akin to Lloyd's earlier hit Mamma Mia!, will welcome "the salt and the caramel" within the show, Holdbrook-Smith thinks.

He's not sure how he will be received come curtain-call time, "but if there's tension I don't mind. That's what he did. I'm happy to indict him".

As one of the first female celebrities to publicly speak up about the abuse of women, Tina Turner's life is an apt story for the stage in the age of #MeToo. Holdbrook-Smith speaks very passionately about supporting women (his fiancee, Nydia, has a PhD in gender studies).

"As a black person, I've been lucky to understand issues affecting women by running them through the filter of my race," he says. "I only see that because sometimes, as a black person, people disregard my opinion."

Holdbrook-Smith has been a part of Act for Change, a campaign for greater diversity in the arts, since its inception.

He is encouraged by the growing number of initiatives and conversations happening, and with Tina, Hamilton and Motown, says he can't remember a time when representation in the West End was so good. But there's still a problem, he thinks, and doesn't buy the accepted narrative that change has to happen at a glacial pace.

The rest of Holdbrook-Smith's year belongs to Tina, but two years' worth of TV and film work will also start arriving on screens soon, including parts in Disney's new Mary Poppins and Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories.

He speaks generously and sincerely about the people he worked with on each one, and I might have to agree with Tina - he is way too nice to be Ike.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is at the Aldwych Theatre, WC2 (tinathemusical.com), from April 17 to October 20

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