Girl from the North Country star Sheila Atim: ‘You don’t want to be a freedom fighter every time you enter a job’
After appearing in acclaimed productions from Les Blancs to the Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar, Sheila Atim broke out last year in Girl from the North Country, which won her an Olivier award. She tells Tim Bano about turning composer for her new show, theatre’s fight for diversity, and how she’s heading for Westeros next up
She plays four instruments, trained in biomedical science, used to be a model, and won an Olivier Award last year for her soul-melting performance in Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country. Not content with that array of talents, however, Sheila Atim has composed the score for her current show Time Is Love, a new play at London’s Finborough Theatre.
At 27, Atim has been acting for five years and in that time has worked at Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company. During our conversation, what stands out is her work ethic – she’s barely had a break in the last couple of years, jumping from one high profile piece to another – and absolute dedication to each project she’s working on.
For Time Is Love, which she also acts in, the team had three weeks to rehearse, then a few days off for Christmas, which Atim had to spend writing her compositions for the show. She’s been solidly rehearsing and composing every day since Boxing Day. But the hard work clearly pays off.
In the last couple of years she’s worked with some of the most important directors around: Phyllida Lloyd for the acclaimed all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar, Yael Farber for the searing revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs at the National, and Claire van Kampen for Othello at the Globe, in which she played Emilia alongside Mark Rylance’s Iago – and pretty much stole the show.
Atim was only a few months old when her mother brought her to the UK from Uganda. She grew up in Essex and studied acting to A level, but never considered it as a career. Instead, she intended to become a doctor. But she failed to get into medical school, vindicating the teacher who had asked her: “Are you sure you want to be a doctor? You should do something artistic.”
“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. Even my A-level presentations were so intense, I got so stressed out. I look back on my 17-year-old self and roll my eyes,” she laughs. “I really cared.”
As a teenager Atim took on a couple of modelling gigs, but thought the way she looked would prevent her from getting big enough gigs to pay her way. Indeed, almost every interview with her comments on her appearance. Doesn’t it get annoying?
“I don’t know,” she says with a sigh. “It’s tricky because there’s been a lot of discussion around commenting on people’s appearances – particularly if they’re women – and whether or not it’s reductive, or insulting, or sexist. There are definitely instances when it gets tiresome.
“But then part of me understands it. I’ve grown up in the UK and I don’t look like a lot of people in the UK. Also sometimes it’s stuff that comes up in my own discussion: I talk about my race, about my gender, about how that plays in the world and in the industry I’m in. So it depends whether it has a point. There’s nothing wrong with talking about how we look. It’s about how that is framed.”
Atim acknowledges that appearance is always going to be a big part of being an actor, but says it becomes problematic when “You assume the rules we have set up are absolute and don’t have to be challenged. You have to reserve a little imaginative space for the exception to the rule. A scary character doesn’t always have to be big, for example”. And a romantic lead doesn’t always have to be white.
When she landed the role of romantic lead Marianne in Girl from the North Country, which ran at the Old Vic before transferring to the West End and is currently playing on Broadway, writer Conor McPherson adapted the script to suit Atim after she was cast. “That’s very admirable because not a lot of people are willing to do that”.
And when she won the Olivier Award for best supporting actress in a musical, in her Olivier acceptance speech she said she wanted to see “more women who look like me” winning awards. So does she think directors and casting directors are getting better at leaving that ‘imaginative space’? Is the industry getting better at representation?
“It is, but sometimes I question the motivations for it. The difficult thing about pushing forward with diversity and representation – and it’s absolutely needed – is that we all have to understand why it’s needed, and why it’s good for all of us. Only then will it become a thing we don’t have to question or test or constantly assess. The test is a longer one. These are long fights and we’re still fighting them.”
Atim explains colour-blind casting isn’t good enough if it’s done without thought and care. There’s a responsibility to think carefully not just about the diversity of casts, but what roles non-white actors are cast in. “There is a possibility that you may be inadvertently making a statement about that casting. Are you casting them as leads? Are you casting them as romantic leads? Or still as criminals?”
A lack of thought, as well as a lack of diversity in creative teams and institutions, can lead to actors being in difficult and vulnerable situations in predominantly white rehearsal rooms. “I’ve been there. You just want to get on with doing the part. You don’t want to have to be a freedom fighter on the side every time you enter a job, nor do you want to be constantly on guard waiting for some kind of situation to arise where you have to be the one to stand up and say: ‘Hey guys I have to bring up that awkward topic of conversation’ when the rest of the cast can just get on with their jobs.”
She adds: “In my life, being black is not a statement. It’s how I was born. It’s me being another black person out of billions of black people in the world, which is a very natural, normal thing to be.”
Q&A: Sheila Atim
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in the kiosks in football stadiums, and tennis coaching.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Lightning Child, Shakespeare’s Globe.
What’s your next job?
Game of Thrones prequel series.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Do you want to work again? Then you’ll work again. There’s loads of work, and it’s a long life.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My cousins and my best friends. I really am nothing without them.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Stay calm, forget about it afterwards.
If you hadn’t been an actor/composer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
After the success of Girl from the North Country, Atim is now itching to move forward and explore what else she can do. “That’s not to say I want to throw away the experiences I’ve had. There are roles, like Marianne, that I consider to be turning points for me. But that feeds into the impetus to move forward and discover new things. That role feels like the beginning of something else.”
It was the beginning, in part, of Atim’s fledgling career as a composer. When McPherson had picked which Dylan songs to use in the show, orchestrator Simon Hale gave each cast member free rein to develop the melody lines that Dylan’s ragged voice had often left quite undefined in the original versions. Hale then orchestrated around what they decided to sing.
Take Tight Connection to My Heart: anyone listening to Atim’s version of it, which reduced a large part of the Olivier Awards audience to tears, can hear the care, the intelligence and the beauty of her phrasing.
Now, with the encouragement of her former acting teacher Che Walker, who cast her in her debut role at the Globe in 2013 in The Lightning Child, Atim has written the score for his latest play, Time Is Love. It’s a collection of moods and soundscapes, skittering beats and sultry melodies.
Although she has been composing music for years, this is only the second theatre production she’s scored; the first was another Walker production, Doubt, a Parable at Southwark Playhouse. Atim is entering a period, she says, where she’s “really trying to explore and interrogate what I want to say in this career.” She adds: “Writing the score for Time Is Love is me saying: ‘Here are my ideas, here’s what I have to offer’ in a way I wasn’t able to before.”
For audiences just getting to know Atim as an actor, this new strand may seem like a surprise. But, she says: “Composing has always been a huge part of my life, and I want it to be a huge part of my future. All I can do is kind of just approach it in the same way as acting, which is to do my best in every job I’m given.”
What’s Atim up to next, then? Well she’s got a couple of embryonic ideas for musicals, but in terms of acting roles “it’s a bit hazy”, apparently. “There are things going around and pots bubbling. Hopefully we’ll know soonish.”
Well, two days later we do know, as it’s announced she’s been cast in the hugely anticipated Game of Thrones prequel alongside Denise Gough and Jamie Campbell Bower. From Essex to Westeros via the North Country, Atim is taking, and owning, her own distinct path.
CV: Sheila Atim
Born: Uganda, 1991
Training: Wac Arts, Belsize Park, London
• Klook’s Last Stand, Park Theatre (2014)
• Girl from the North Country, Old Vic and Noel Coward Theatre (2016-17)
• Time Is Love, Finborough Theatre (2019)
Awards: Olivier Award for best supporting actress in a musical, 2018
Agent: Lucy Middleweek, Middleweek Newton Talent
Time Is Love runs at the Finborough until January 26