Actor, musician, writer, Olivier-winner and MBE Sheila Atim tells Fergus Morgan about the culture she’s been enjoying during lockdown: from Netflix series Unorthodox to a physics book by Richard P Feynman and Nigel Kennedy’s music
Sheila Atim didn’t actually speak during her first major theatre role. She just solemnly stalked the stage in the acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs at London’s National Theatre. She’s had plenty of lines since then though, in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, in Girl from the North Country – a part that earned her an Olivier award at just 26 years old – and opposite Mark Rylance in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
“I feel like it is important to acknowledge some of the women who have been on this stage before me,” she said in her Olivier award acceptance speech, before namechecking Noma Dumezweni and Amber Riley. “They’ve been here accepting awards and they look a bit like me. And that, to me, is very, very important. I really hope that in the future there will be more women who look like me accepting awards.”
Originally, the actor, who was born in Uganda and grew up in Essex, wanted to be a doctor, but she failed to get into medical school. “Now I think back, it was so obvious I wanted to do acting, because of the amount of care and attention and emotion I gave it,” she told The Stage last January. “Even my A-level presentations were so intense, I got so stressed out. I really cared.”
Earlier this year, Atim moved seamlessly from stage to screen, starring as a witch in Sarah Phelps’ BBC One adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, and in the upcoming Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.
As well as being an actor, Atim is a model and a musician, having written scores for theatre and film. And, as of last August, she’s a writer, too: her debut play Anguis, a drama that saw Cleopatra produce a podcast with a virologist, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe. Her multi-stranded efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last June, she was awarded an MBE for services to drama. And all before she hit 30.
“I’m taking things day by day,” she says of her life under the coronavirus lockdown. “I have a huge selection of activities written down and every morning I select a few depending on my mood. So, playing music is on there, alongside cooking, reading, some exercise. It’s been a good way to take the pressure off this period of time and keep active and spontaneous.”
I’ve been reading Six Easy Pieces by Richard P Feynman. It’s a book about basic physics and is very interesting. Physics isn’t my strongest science, but I’ve always been interested so I’m giving it a go, and Feynman had a very visual way of explaining the concepts, so that helps someone like me.
I’ve just finished Unorthodox on Netflix, which is a mini-series following an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman who makes the decision to leave the community. Not the cheeriest thing to watch during lockdown but the performances are so brilliant and the story is very compelling, so it was really worth the temporary heartache.
I’ve been listening to Nigel Kennedy’s album Recital. I saw him playing Hendrix live last year and was completely transfixed, so when one of his songs came up in a random playlist, I did some digging and found this album from 2013. I love the way he weaves in and out of different genres with such ease and is always finding new and intriguing connections between them.
I saw Uncut Gems at the beginning of lockdown and it’s one of the most exciting films I’ve seen recently. It’s about a man who sells diamonds and he gets his hands on an intriguing African gem, while also having a foot in the gambling world. It is beautifully shot, with great performances, particularly from basketball player Kevin Garnett – who knew he was so multi-talented? – and a story that felt very fresh in its set-up and its commentary.
How are you keeping your theatre work going?
I’ve just recorded The Understudy, as an online audio play in isolation. It’s about a character called Stephen who is the understudy to the famous lead, Josh, of a West End show. I play Nora, who is married to Josh. It’s a heartening story about people in a situation that is less than ideal but trying to find their way through, and that’s something we can all relate to.
To listen to The Understudy go to: understudyplay.com