In early summer 2019, those heady days before Covid-19 stripped words such as ‘summer’ of all meaning, Sheila Atim was woken at 8am by a phone call from her mother.
‘She was just talking gibberish,’ the actor says with a grin. ‘I was like: “What are you on about? It’s very early to be calling and making no sense.” Then finally she said: “You’ve got an MBE!” And I was like… “What?!”’
Yes, apparently the notification process for the Queen’s birthday honours list is not dissimilar to the one Hogwarts School uses to initiate new pupils. ‘You literally just get a letter, out of the blue, no warning,’ Atim laughs, talking to me from her east London flat. ‘It went to my mum’s address in Essex and she opened it by accident, which is hilarious because when you see the envelope it’s got “Her Majesty’s Office” written on it in massive letters.’
Atim was 28 at the time, a Ugandan-born, Rainham-raised model-turned-singer-turned-actor-turned-playwright, with a degree in biomedical sciences to boot. But it was her services to drama for which she was being honoured. She had spent the past few years stealing the show in various critically lauded Shakespeare productions, a rapid rise that culminated in 2018 with a starring role opposite Mark Rylance in Othello and an Olivier Award for her tear-jerking turn in the Bob Dylan-inspired musical Girl From The North Country.
‘It still feels mad,’ she says of the MBE and the journey that led to it. ‘Also, I’m Ugandan and for anyone from a nation that was once colonised by the British Empire, an MBE is a complex thing. But I want to do the best I can with it. I know it’s not given to you as a tool, necessarily, but I want to use it to push the envelope, to push beyond just being a passive role model.’ A pause, and then her mouth twitches upwards at the edges. ‘Plus, it’s great at the end of emails: “MBE.” People tend to respond that little bit quicker…’
If you’re after a potted summary of Atim’s personality, you could do worse than that last paragraph. Equal parts serious and hilarious, she has the rare gift of being able to toggle seamlessly between thoughtful, considered eloquence and zippy, silly wit. It makes her an incredibly engaging interviewee. ‘I do really enjoy interviews,’ she says brightly at one point during our hour-long chat — a good thing because many more are likely to come her way.
Until recently, despite all her email-hastening accolades, Atim was little-known outside of the theatre world. All that is set to change this year. Having made the leap from stage to screen last winter with an impressive turn in the BBC’s Agatha Christie thriller The Pale Horse, she will star in two huge productions landing in 2021: Barry Jenkins’ much-anticipated TV adaptation of The Underground Railroad for Amazon, and Bruised, a Netflix drama set in the world of mixed martial arts, and the directorial debut of none other than Halle Berry.
‘That was a dream-come-true job,’ she says of Bruised. ‘I never thought I’d get it. I did the audition tape when I was in Georgia filming The Underground Railroad and the light in my hotel room was so terrible that I had to drape a curtain behind me and stand in the windowsill. Plus all these loud bus tours kept coming past so I was constantly starting and stopping. I was thinking, “Why am I even DOING this?” But then my agent called me an hour later and was like: “They really like your tape!”’
Atim plays one of the trainers to Berry’s disgraced ex-MMA fighter, and while she can’t say much more at this stage, one early review from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival cites her as ‘a revelation’ and ‘the best actor in the film’. What was it like starring opposite someone of Berry’s calibre? ‘I grew up watching her,’ Atim says, simply. ‘As a black woman, she trod the path before everyone else. She’s one of the idols, and still the only black woman to have won the Oscar for Best Actress. But she’s got such a warm, welcoming nature that I had the best time on set. She was so focused and she’s a brilliant director. It was lovely to share scenes with her.’
For most young actors, working with Rylance, Jenkins and Berry in the space of 18 months would feel like a pretty major step up. But Atim remains typically level-headed about her progress. ‘It feels like a nice confirmation that I’m making good choices. But it’s still surprising. I think because I learned on the job — I didn’t go to drama school — I’ve always had that [imposter syndrome] thing. Maybe that never leaves you, unless you’re Meryl Streep or something.’
She laughs, silver hoop earrings bouncing above her shoulders. ‘I’ve been working consistently for the past seven years so I haven’t really had time to process it all. Then last year, with lockdown, I was forced to get off this mad ride and reflect. When everything is suddenly snatched away from you, you think: “Hold on: what do I actually want to do?”’
This is a question Atim asked herself fairly regularly growing up. Born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1991, she moved to Rainham, in Essex, at five months old. An only child, it was just her and her mum, a managing commissioner for the NHS, and while Atim remembers her childhood as broadly a happy one, she felt a certain ‘outsider’ status in the community.
‘I’m really proud to be from Essex now but racism was definitely a thing I encountered,’ she says. ‘Me and my best friend, who’s Nigerian, stuck out like a sore thumb at school, so our reaction was to embrace it. We thought: “We’re never going to be like the other girls, so let’s go all out.”’ Cue teenage years packed with piercings, wild hair experiments, an unfortunate ‘flares phase’ and a penchant for ‘dark, vampy’ fashion that still lingers today. ‘I wear a lot of black,’ she chuckles, pointing out her T-shirt and cardigan. ‘I’m kind of obsessed with Morticia from The Addams Family. If anyone’s doing a remake, call me.’
Throughout school she was constantly performing, in plays and concerts but also around the house, quoting large chunks of Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America from memory (‘I cannot wait for the sequel!’). Despite all this, a career in the arts never seemed a viable option. ‘I wanted to be a doctor until I was 18,’ she says. ‘I was fully content that the other stuff would be something I did on the side.’
When she failed to get interviews for medical school, however, a drama teacher suggested it might be a sign that she was destined for a more artistic route. As a concession she applied to study biomedical sciences at King’s College with plans to start focusing more seriously on the Alicia Keys-esque soul music she had been writing as a teenager.
Before she even got to King’s, though, another path opened up. Aged 17, at the height of her follicular experimentation, Atim shaved her hair into a Kelis-style half-Mohawk, complete with ‘Aztec patterns’. Her mum flipped out but the very next day, at a music festival, she was scouted by a modelling agent. ‘Suddenly my mum was like, “Oh, the haircut’s great!”’ she says, laughing.
Modelling could never rival her passion for music or drama but she enjoyed it, and the experience has come neatly full circle with her being unveiled as the new face of Bottega Veneta this year.
‘One of my favourite things about Bottega’s clothes is the way they embrace androgyny,’ she explains. ‘I definitely fall into that category myself and have learned to take ownership of it through my style. I love suits, boots and trainers, I love gowns and heels. It just depends on where I’m at that day. So, it’s nice to see that woven into their designs in a really relaxed and effortless way. Throughout the collection, everything could go with everything and could be worn by anyone.’
The catwalk is unlikely to coax Atim away from acting any time soon. She kept performing throughout her degree at King’s and by the time she had graduated, drama had outmuscled music as a career prospect. Her first major role was a non-speaking part in 2016’s Les Blancs at The National — the solemn otherworldliness of her character slightly at odds with her Essex-honed humour and accent. ‘It was funny meeting casting directors afterwards,’ she recalls. ‘They’d seen me playing this mute “ancestral spirit”, and then I open my mouth and it’s all “apples ’n’ pears”.’
Collecting her Olivier in 2018, she expressed the wish that ‘more women who look like me will be accepting awards’. Does she feel it’s coming to fruition? Only last month, social media went into meltdown over the Golden Globes snubbing Michaela Coel’s critically adored series, I May Destroy You. Atim winces and nods: ‘Yeah, it’s an up-and-down thing with representation, it’s never linear. I May Destroy You received so much positive feedback and acclaim, and then Michaela Coel doesn’t even get nominated at the Golden Globes: it’s like she’s represented in some spaces but not others. But her work is still being recognised on huge platforms — she’s got a voice and everyone knows about her. That’s really heartening.’
Equally if not more important, Atim thinks, is off-screen representation. ‘It’s not just about having lots of actors from different backgrounds, it’s about having producers, the people doing the work before you see the final product. That’s something I hope to be part of in the future.’ She’s already on her way. In 2019 she took a play she had written to the Edinburgh Festival, and while most of us have spent the past 12 months ignoring Duolingo notifications, Atim has been ‘squirreling away’ on more writing projects as well as getting back into music composition. ‘That’s something I reflected on during lockdown, and after turning 30 in January,’ she says. ‘I want to do it all: sing, act and write, maybe in the same project. I’ve always been good at resisting the pressure to choose one particular path.’
As for the future of theatre post-pandemic, she remains cautiously optimistic. ‘I don’t think it’ll ever go back to how it was before, there’ll always be a digital side now. But I’m in awe of how the industry has adapted, with live streams, archive shows and podcasts. Theatre has suffered during lockdown but it has also proved how important it is.’
Ultimately it’s a case of sink or swim, and Atim is confident it can stay afloat. ‘I’ve always had that “sink-or-swim” thing about my own career, too,’ she says, as our meeting draws to a close.
‘At difficult moments, it’s like: “Okay, you’re not gonna sink so let’s figure something out.” Take a moment, have a whinge… and then get on with it.’