Sheila Atim opens about a role that has stayed with her ever since
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Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists
‘I think people always know when something rings false, and if you really want to get them in the gut, in the feels, and to connect with what you’re saying, then always go for the truth,’ says actress Sheila Atim in her sonorous voice on a Zoom call.
She smiles humbly when called a quadruple threat during our conversation, with an inner light reminding me of some of the ethereal characters she’s played before. For those who are hearing her name for the first time, this will be a first from many more times to come. Sheila’s a talented actress, writer, singer, and composer, and her gift shines brightly through both her stage (Girl from the North Country, Othello, Les Blancs) and screen work (The Pale Horse, The Irregulars, Bruised).
Now the Uganda-born, Olivier-winning actress will dazzle in the highly-anticipated Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) TV adaptation of The Underground Railroadfor Amazon. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, written by Colton Whitehead, the 10-episode period drama follows the journey of Cora Randall (played by Thuso Mbedu) as she flees a Georgia plantation in search of the Underground Railroad.
If you haven’t seen the series, that embody I-can-not-take-my-eyes-away storytelling at its best, a few spoilers may lie ahead. Read cautiously.
The Underground Railroad. I can’t remember when it was the last time I was glued to the screen as much as I was when watching these series. I think it’s a true masterpiece that is filled with brutal honesty, desperation, and…hope. As I can’t reveal any spoilers, would you mind telling our readers more about your character, Mabel?
Mabel is Cora’s mother, but in the course of the story, she’s absent because she left the plantation by escaping it years before and leaving Cora behind. Her daughter has been left to grapple with the aftermath of being left behind to suffer in those conditions, and also not knowing what happened to her mother. That is me. My character was also a midwife. I can’t say much more than that because that’s spoiler territory.
We’re not here to spoil anything for the viewers! How did the script land on your table?
As far as I’m aware, and I’m sure there are many other parts of the story that I’m not aware of, but back in 2018 when I was in a production of Othello with Aaron Pierre and André Holland in the Globe, Barry Jenkins came to see it. He and André are friends and collaborators. I didn’t get to meet him back then, but I think I must’ve lodged myself in his brain somewhere. Once I got to Georgia, where they were already filming the series, Barry said to me ‘You had blonde hair, didn’t you.’ I said yes because my hair was blonde when I was playing Amelia in Othello. I believe the casting team sort of presented me as an option, and this jogged his memory. That might be how the story went by but I’m not quite sure. I received an email from my wonderful manager, Frank Walsh, saying that I got a letter and a script, asking if I want to play Mabel. My answer was all right. No, it wasn’t like that. I said yes. Cancel everything else yes. (laughing)
How much did you know about the Underground Railroad before joining the series? This may be influenced by sometimes faulty education system but I didn’t know much at all about this particular subject, and it’s truly fascinating, isn’t it?
I didn’t know until quite deep into my adulthood that the Underground Railroad was not a train which is very interesting because we have a book and a TV show which are the manifestation of it as a physical train. But yes, you’re right, education systems and patchy history, as well as your location, can influence how much do you know about the subject here versus in the US. I was aware of it. I was aware of what it achieved, what it was created to do and just wasn’t entirely sure of how it operated. In terms of the actual book, I was aware of it as well, but I haven’t got around to reading it though it was on my to-read list.
When this opportunity came up, it was the perfect time to get into the source material, and I thought it was such an extraordinary and unique read. I never really read anything like it. It educated me in lots of ways. I had to learn what it was like to be a midwife on a plantation, and what the dynamics were to be somebody who’s bringing life into the world, but also into those terrible circumstances. Also, what it meant to be a midwife on a personal level as those babies that you’re bringing into the world are essentially property. Whilst their life is not respected by those plantation owners, they’re highly sought after, which is something that the TV show talks about as well. You have an important job, and a degree of I’m not going to say respect, because I don’t think it was that, but a degree of responsibility then comes with that. The plantation owners recognised that. There were some stories of midwives, who were able to negotiate a payment, obviously, disproportionate to what they should’ve been paid, or negotiate terms. Or even carve out some space for themselves within what is an unimaginable experience. Even Cora’s story of getting free and staying this way, as opposed to just learning entirely about the plantation life was something that was a sort of newer investigation for me. I was aware that people get free, and they go to the north where they start a new life. But I’ve never really seen or read anything with that kind of detail about what that was like. To continue being pursued as well, and potentially taken back once you’ve built a life outside of the plantation. There was a lot of newness for me about the project, which is another reason why I’m so happy I had the chance to work on it.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the episodes were written incredibly well. Some of the lines that struck me the most are from the first episode when we see Cora boarding the train. They go like this: ‘If you want to see what this nation’s all about, you got to ride the rails. Just look outside as you’ll speed through, and you’ll see the true face of America.’ Colton Whitehead said that Barry Jenkins was very truthful while adapting the book to his vision. How important it is to have brutally honest storytelling in television and cinema? Do you think we have a shortage of such stories?
Interesting. With everything that’s created, there’s an artistic licence to a degree, and there’s also a subjectivity that you can never entirely get rid of. There’s also a vision, something that the creators want to say or investigate at the very least, even if they don’t have a definitive answer that they want to leave their viewers with. I think for that to be done well, you have to present the truth as much as you can. That’s the only way that people who are watching these things can make their own decisions about what they’ve seen and the learnings that they’ll gain from the show. I think people always know when something rings false, and if you really want to get them in the gut, in the feels, and to connect with what you’re saying, then always go for the truth. With some of the birth scenes in The Underground Railroad, Barry wanted to show a placenta. He wanted to show it falling and up close as well as what afterbirth is like. I admire the fact that Barry was always pushing for that edge and not shying away from those things.
I don’t know if there’s a shortage of such stories at the moment, but I know there’s always a scope to push further, I’d say. What I like about the rise of indie film and work in a sort of global sense and the way it’s being celebrated, with Moonlight, Parasite and Nomadland recently, is that people are less worried about the shiny face of entertainment. These films are passion projects, those that people want to talk about. They’re going right into the belly and into the heart of the issue, as opposed to worrying too much about the commercial return or trying to put a nice glaze over everything to make it more palatable for people. I think more and more people are engaging in projects that have a bit of grit, which is great because that’s right up my street.
We meet your character through Polly and Mosses’ storyline. Once again, without giving any spoilers here, but it’s both moving and heart-breaking. What was the biggest challenge that you had to undertake while preparing for your role?
I think the most challenging part was trying to figure out the conundrum of why a mother would leave her child, which is a question that Barry presented to me when he first approached me about the role. He said that it was something he wanted to make sure that we understood once the series had finished. It was crucial to understanding why exactly that happened, so we could rationalise that to some degree, as there are a million reasons for that. Another thing was to find a way to understand what that connection between the mother and her child is. I also think that the role of Mabel was challenging because of the topic itself. That’s not something that people necessarily want to think about as something that happens. And it does happen. I wanted to make sure that I was finding a way of humanising that action, trying to present it in its fullness as opposed to just that she left her child because she had a selfish moment. It was also challenging to tell a story that has that level of grief and trauma associated with it, knowing that they’re still very much alive for a lot of people, and in the cases of not just slavery, but also other types of racial oppression. Knowing that’s what we were embarking on, you feel a great deal of responsibility to do right by the story, the character, the real people who went through that, and by the rest of the team. I had these five intense weeks when I was going to film my scenes. I wanted to make sure that I could be at the level that everyone needed me to be at. The team was lovely, welcoming and facilitating. I was also aware of the calibre of talent and integrity that everyone was bringing, so I had to match that as well.
What would you like the viewers to take from this incredible story, and what did you take away from it?
I would love the viewers to take away a sense of hope and a sense of humanity. As said before, it’s not just the story of the brutality on a plantation. It goes beyond that. You see the other possibilities in the story, whether they go well or not. Some people did get out and did have brighter futures. Some people didn’t. But the invention of this network, and the human will that was powering that, is inspiring. I want people to take away some of that light as well as learning the lessons, being reminded of the atrocities and remembering history. It can be cyclical, and we can very easily find ourselves in darker places than we’d imagined very quickly. We’ve seen lots of examples in the last ten years I’d say. I also want the audience to celebrate people who went through that, acknowledge them, and allow them to be individuals who had names, family, friends. Whenever we talk about human suffering on a mass scale, whether it’s this or it’s the Holocaust or a huge event in which a lot of people suffered greatly, it’s very easy for these people to become nameless and faceless. As a Ugandan and as a black woman who’s in touch with racial oppression, and has experienced that, even I’m surely must be guilty of lumping people into a group. I want to make sure that we step away from that kind of generalised monolithic thinking and give people that individual respect that they deserve.
As a multi-talented storyteller, and I’ve even made a note quadruple threat next to your name, what kind of stories do you enjoy bringing to life the most?
I was talking to someone about this the other day because they’ve asked me what I’m working on. I was thinking a lot about the pieces that I’ve been writing or trying to develop… Particularly over the last year, because that’s what I did during the lockdown amongst other things. A lot of my stories have a theme of belonging running through them in some way. It wasn’t an intentional thing that I set out to do. A lot of the protagonists are just trying to figure out who they are and where they fit, and whether they even want to fit. I think that’s such a big driving force for human behaviour. The things we do, the things we feel and think of. Even in the moments where we don’t realise that this is underpinning our behaviour or perspective on something. It’s just us wanting to feel safe or to understand ourselves in the context of our surroundings, whether we are like them or not. I think there’s a direct reflection of me as well. Maybe that’s something that I’m trying to do so I think that’s where my sights are set. If I look back at the roles that I’ve played, some of them tend to be quite odd, unusual characters which I like. I don’t necessarily know why every single person has cast me as that but it’s always allowed me to explore people who either live on the fringes or are supernatural characters. You have to treat them like people, as opposed to just kind of ethereal entities so that you can embody them. I think trying to really branch out and explore what makes us tick is something that intrigues me and something that I’m going to keep on endeavouring to investigate.
Speaking of the characters that you’ve played, is there one that has stayed with you since you’ve stepped into its shoes?
There are so many because they’ve all been quite unusual. There haven’t been many roles where I’ve just kind of slipped into them. I had to find a way to connect with them, and it’s been an active process. I also always endeavoured to make sure that I’m just not taking any roles for granted. The character that I’m playing in Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised on the surface might seem like yes, that’s definitely within Sheila’s wheelhouse. That’s easy to do. Even with that, I try to approach every role in the same way which is not assuming that I can do this in my sleep. I’m going through the steps of trying to understand this person and why they’re special. Through that, I’m trying to connect that to me. That’s why I feel a strong connection to almost every character that I’ve played. I’d say a role that stood out for me would probably be The Woman who I played in Les Blancs at the National Theatre, directed by Yaël Farber and written by Lorraine Hansberry. My character was this ethereal ancestral figure that never spoke and had this kind of slow, relentless walk that I’ve been told was terrifying, but also very penetrating and gripping. She wasn’t a malevolent character, but she was urgent. That was interesting because again, it’s that balance between this ethereal figure which I had to root into something very real. Having to root her desires in something very human.
Speaking of stage, is there a different way of getting into the mindset of your characters if we’d be comparing stage roles versus screen roles?
To be honest, for me it’s pretty much the same. The only differences are dictated by the differences in the mediums themselves. With theatre, you tend to have a rehearsal process that’s going to be a minimum of three weeks. You have time to mess around and ask all these questions, do lots of wrong things and be in a room where it’s being recorded. Then once you’re on stage, you get the benefit of the full trajectory of the piece and go on this continuous journey in chronological order with all the cast around you. There isn’t a camera or a boom hanging right next to your face. The momentum of the piece carries you through every single night.
And then with the screen, you don’t necessarily get a long rehearsal process. Sometimes you’ll get a few days, that don’t tend to be as extensive as theatre rehearsals, but you get multiples takes on set. It requires you to be pretty self-sufficient. I’d say come prepared on the day so that you’re not having to worry too much about the choices you want to make or your lines. Then you can just get into the nitty-gritty of having a go and seeing what works. This will give you the flexibility that you need to be able to switch things up.
What’s the difference? Just don’t worry about that. You will instinctively feel where you need to place your performance, whether it’s screen or stage, whether it’s a small close-up or a massive wide shot. That will come with experience in time. Just focus on all the same things you usually would – your choices, attentions, understanding the context, the scene and your character. Just keep it basic. I think that’s one of the ways to approach anything. If you have a standard toolkit that you always use, then it should be applicable and flexible to most circumstances. But that’s how I like to work. I like to be sort of lean. This is what my agent said – ‘You’re very lean.’ When it comes to my process, I like things to be no faff, clean and straightforward.
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I think when you’re working in the creative field, it’s important to know how to be in the present. How do you put your mindset into such mode? I imagine that it can be quite hard to enjoy the momentum when there are so many things happening around you.
I think that was one of the things I had to slightly adjust to when I’ve started doing screen work. A lot is going on in very close proximity to you. Having said that, I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I think there’s a lot of people who are saying that you have to be in a moment, but you can just do your best. Then you’ll have these moments of magic. Particularly with the theatre shows, you’ll have some nights where you just couldn’t be in that moment. It might look alright from the outsider’s perspective but you’ll know it inside as it didn’t feel like you were caught in the way as in previous shows. We’re human beings and we’re not able to replicate the same thing. I allow myself to be okay with the ebb and flow of that moment. Yaël Farber, the director of Les Blancs, said that it’s a slippery pig which is a great term. You get the pig, then it’s sat in your hands, and then it slips away. I don’t think that anyone should get too stressed about being in a moment. You have to trust yourself and how you do this job. You know how to act. You have your process and you’re trying to be truthful to the character in the situation. You just have to relax. I think the moment you tense up is when you start to block the channels of expression. It sounded like a very flowery way of putting it. (laughing)
The time has come to wrap our conversation this time. What projects are on your sight next? I know that we’ll be able to see you on stage in London very soon.
Yes. We’ll have four different casts for Nick Payne’s Constellations. My duo will be myself and Ivanno Jeremiah (editor’s note – play will be running 18th June – 12th September at the Vaudeville Theatre). The other duos will include Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd, Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas. I think it’s a chance for the Donmar Warehouse to create a production model which is a bit more COVID-proof in terms of having multiple casts. This also helps to tie in the multiverse concepts that are already in the play. I’m really excited about it, particularly because I didn’t get to see the production, but I always wanted to. Now I’ll get to be in it and also, hopefully, get to see the others doing this as well. I’m looking forward to that this summer.