‘The Woman King’s Sheila Atim On The Triumph Of The Dark-Skinned Black Stars On The Call Sheet

·17 min read

Sheila Atim marveled that the top four actors listed on the call sheet during filming of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s hot epic The Woman King “are all dark-skinned Black women.”

Counting on the fingers of one hand, Atim recited the names of her fellow stars: “Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu and me!”

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Smiling, she said proudly, “That’s something!”

Atim continued: “A movie of this scale with a studio, with this kind of platform. It does also mean something very significant when a big studio takes us on. That says something.

“I’m so proud of everyone in this film, I’m so proud. I was there with them and saw how much everyone gave of themselves and how much we raised each other up to deliver this.”

Sheila Atim in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony
Sheila Atim in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony

Sony

This weekend, the TriStar release topped the U.S. box office charts with a projected $19 million opening.

”In the making of this film we were all acutely aware of what it means to be a heavily female team, both in front and behind the camera, and to be predominantly Black women, predominantly dark-skinned Black women as well, which is an added layer. And to be telling a story that hasn’t been told before, and on a huge epic scale as well,” the London-based thespian told Deadline during a lunch at The Union Club located in Soho, in London’s West End.

“We were all acutely aware of what that means and how slim the margin for error was. And the stakes for us on a personal level.”

We met in peace, but talk soon turned to that of warriors and war.

The Woman King is about an all-woman fighting force known as the Agojie, who are loyal to to the king of the west African kingdom of Dahomey. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, the Agojie’s fictionalized leader.

Atim plays Amenza, a servant-turned-fearless fighter; she’s General Nanisca’s best friend and confidant, and spiritual adviser to King Ghezo (John Boyega). The film is set against a backdrop of a kingdom fighting to preserve its way of life from slave traders.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, Cast And Producers Of ‘The Woman King’ Discuss The History Of The Agojie – Toronto Studio

Director Prince-Bythewood wanted her cast to be fighting fit before the cameras rolled. For Atim, that meant six weeks of rigorous training before traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, to join cast and crew.

The actors trained throughout the shoot as well. Personal trainer Gabriela McLain put them through their paces. “She’s lovely and sweet but also, we would all hide from her,” Atim said, hooting with laughter.

”We’d be like: ‘Gabi’s trying to train people. Run away!’ ”

But as much as the women would hide out from McLain “we would seek out Gabi when we knew we needed to train. There was a lot of weight training  just to help sculpt the body. Gabi and Gina were very specific about how they wanted each warrior to look .What I think is so beautiful about this film is that we’re all very different body shapes…I like that it’s not an army that looks uniform in its body type. They wanted it to look real, they didn’t want it to be a hyper superhero version of what we’ve become used to when we see films with action in them.”

For Atim, as with her fellow cast members, her character has a back story. Amenza’s is that of a woman captured from a village and made a servant to members of the army. She then befriended General Nanisca and joins the Agojie. “The story that they carry as characters permeates every aspect of their lives including when they’re on the battlefield.”

***

Atim was born in Uganda and at 5 months old moved to the UK with her mother to Essex, a county in south-eastern England bordering Greater London. ”It was interesting growing up as me in Essex because I was so different but there was kind of no point in trying to be anything else. There weren’t that many non-white people in my school; there weren’t that many non-white in Essex. There’s more now. But it was really was the case that you were one of a handful. And on top of that I was really lanky, really tall, dark-skinned and, for a time, when I got a bit older, I had short hair which at the time was not a thing that Black girls were doing,” she recalled. “Black girls were like, ’We need to have long hair’ — I remember that obsession as well. I was almost so different …there are nuances within that, there were smaller things I’m still unpicking now, to be honest. A lot of the unpicking has probably happened as an adult because that’s the point at which I’m able to self-reflect and maybe be kind to myself.”

Atim has a memory of wanting to have “long blonde hair.” Waiting a beat for the statement to sink in, she added, “I did.”

At around 10 years of age, Atim said, ”I remember when I was really drawn to Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, partly because she’s a super-cool character and also because she’s Brown. It really can be that simple when you’re young. But I don’t think I recognized it at the time of me craving representation.”

Acting was not Atim’s first calling. She studied biomedical science at King’s College, London, and after graduating with a degree she trained at an arts centre in north London. This writer saw her early on in small roles at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; at the Royal Shakespeare Company in a season of plays at the RSC’s Swan Theatre. But it was a featured role in Les Bancs at the National Theatre, where she sashayed nonchalantly across the stage carrying a bundle on her head that garnered a lot of attention. The slow walk was done with such panache, such style and wit, that the audience was instantly buzzing “Who was that?!”

Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) swooped in and cast her in her Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre. Later, she auditioned for playwright Conor McPherson in his play Girl from the North Country, which placed Bob Dylan’s music into a story set during the Great Depression. For her performance playing Marianne, the adopted daughter of Ciaran Hinds and Shirley Henderson, Atim won the Olivier Award for supporting actress. The room went wild when she won.

Shakespeare’s Globe signed her up to play Emilia opposite Mark Rylance’s scheming Iago in Othello starring Andre Holland (Moonlight) in the title role. Barry Jenkins, visiting Holland, saw Atim and her short-cropped blonde hair — “she demanded my attention,” Jenkins was to later remark to this writer — and thought of her when he was casting The Underground Railroad.

Atim finds the links to The Underground Railroad to be really special. She met Thuso Mbedu on that project; she plays Mabel, her mum. “I think she’s incredibly talented — the work she did on The Underground Railroad was extraordinary. She’s also just really lovely,” Atim said of Mbedu, who she met up with again in the army ranks of The Woman King.

”It just feels like you‘re doing something right. When you get the same people popping up, or friends of people who I’ve worked with before popping up, it feels like there’s such a beautiful network being created and this is part of the foundational building. For example: Gina saw me in The Underground Railroad and also in Bruised, which the editor of this film [The Woman King], Terry [Teriyn A. Shropshire] also edited Halle Berry’s Bruised. Gina saw Bruised at a family-and-friends screening and that’s how I ended up being in the mix for Amenza. And I love that. I love seeing that we, as a community, are watching each other, supporting each other, are collaborating with each other, crossing paths again.

“It makes it feel a lot less lonely. In my early career, and I’m sure lots of Black actors can attest to this, I’d often be the only one in the cast. That’s really heartening for me to know that we are occupying these similar spaces and that we can go on these journeys together.”

Now, literally, everyone wants to work with her.

At a dinner for the UK launch of Paramount+ back in the summer, David Oyelowo (Selma)was in the throes of making a speech in response to the hosts when he spotted Atim seated at the next table. He stopped in mid-sentence to acknowledge and salute her as one of “our great actresses.”

Atim in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony
Atim in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony

Sony

DEADLINE: All this glory yet women still have to fight for their spot, on and off screen.

SHEILA ATIM: There’s movement and there’s counter movement, there’s ebb and there’s flow. I think what I’ve started to realise in my life is that these things tend to be multi-faceted and multi-layered, and in order to really create the foundations and roots for change it’s going to take  a couple of goes. Each time it can’t be the same depth of excavation, you have to go one level deeper and then another level deeper and then you have to keep learning from before, so when I think about the generations before me I both celebrate the advances that they made knowing that they have paved the way for me, and I also try and look at them objectively and try and see how we can build upon that.

DEADLINE: Who paved the way for you?

ATIME: My mum paved the way for me in a very literal sense …and in a figurative sense. She brought me here with other family members.

And then actresses like Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace and Secrets and Lies) and Martina Laird (The Donmar Warehouse’s All Female Shakespeare Trilogy), Mona Hammond (10,000 BC) … those women who were occupying spaces on their own and having to really hold their ground. There are so many I could name. I thank them so much for what they did but I also know that it’s never over. … And I have now come in and contribute to that and try and deepen that another layer so we can get to the point where we can build roots which are foundational and immovable. It’s really tough having to convince people that your identity matters and that it makes sense in the world and that it isn’t a sort of nebulous concept, or a money-making scheme, or an idea. It’s real, I am real.

DEADLINE: You mentioned dark-skinned woman earlier in our conversation. This was a very long time ago, but at the girl’s school next door to my school I can remember that some of the girls would have soap and lotions that claimed to lighten the skin … do you think that more doors open for Black women with lighter skin?

ATIM: I think historically that’s been the case. I think that’s changing. This is not to pitch anyone against anyone — I want that to be super clear because it’s not about it being a competition and an us-versus-them. I don’t think that’s helpful or healthy at this stage, but the fact is anything, whether it’s your skin tone or anything else that is adjacent to a values system that prioritises whiteness is going to be celebrated — skin, hair, texture, physical features, the dialect you have, the way that you dress, the circles you move in — all of these things can create these false caste systems when it comes to race. And then there’s class which is an added layer in all of that. That interplays with that quite directly.

I remember those soaps and those creams and all of those products that were designed to change you. I try not to pass heavy judgment on that stuff, also our bodies are our own. I don’t know the exact reasons why somebody’s done what they’ve done. All I do want to encourage is people just to celebrate themselves, and to find acceptance in themselves, and I also know that’s a difficult thing to do because I had to do it as a dark-skinned Black girl growing up in Essex. I had to find a way to be okay with myself, so I know that it’s not an easy thing to do. I think, sometimes when people talk about self-love and self-acceptance, it can become this kind of easy, flippant buzz-word, and this fashionable thing that we must all do — and why wouldn’t we do it? But it’s hard, it’s hard to dig into the depth of your own psyche and pull out all the ways in which you may have been punishing yourself for being yourself. That’s not easy. And sometimes, even once you’ve pulled it out to change, it’s not necessarily easy to change your habits. So it’s kind of a two-pronged…

DEADLINE: All that and Essex to boot.

ATIM: It was interesting growing up in Essex as me because I was almost so different but there was no point in trying to be anything else. There weren’t that many non-white people in my school, there weren’t that many non-white people in Essex. There’s more now…

DEADLINE: But you’ve very much made your own stamp…

ATIM: Me and my representatives, everybody I work with, down to my hair and makeup team and stylists, we were all very intentional. … I think it started off as an accident, and when I say accident I mean it was intentional but not something I was conscious of. With regards to choices that we made with regards to the kind of jobs that we’d gravitate towards … that’s something I really want to be involved in. I just don’t want it to be ,”Cool, let’s wear a dress.” I want the dress to be an expression of me and I want my hair to say something, my makeup to say something. I want things to be complex. I don’t want the simplicity that can sometimes be imposed upon you because it makes it easier for other people to digest. I want it to be dynamic to wear a dress.

Like at the Olivier Awards. I had this Prada pastel pink dress but it had this shawl that was a bomber jacket, and then my hair stylist cut my hair into this cool fade … funky pink purple lipstick. I liked just mixing up different elements. There’s something about the pastel pink and the beautiful elegance of the gown crashing up against this shawl that does look like one of those bomber jackets from the ’90s that someone’s wearing with some Nike Airmax. I like that you can have a boy-ish haircut and some diamond earrings — that kind of stuff I really enjoy. Even in my acting work, even in my music I like fusion of sounds. I enjoy playing characters that are succinct. Do they mark a mark? Are they significant, do they reverberate after you’ve seen the film? We’ve all been really aware that that’s something that has formed within my career and we just want to keep pushing that.

DEADLINE: I have a memory of you telling me that you told your agents: ”Don’t put me up for the obvious roles.”

ATIM: She [my agent] would just put you up for all of it. “Let’s see, let’s not have any limitations on where we think you should be.” I’ve had many times where I’ve been surprised in something, and maybe even the teams themselves didn’t think they were going to cast someone like me and I came in and changed their minds. If you are intentional about expanding the space in which you think you can exist, other people will eventually come on board.

DEADLINE: What was the first part that you didn’t think you’d get?

ATIM: The Royal Shakespeare Company season at The Swan in Stratford was the first one. And, The Girl from the North Country [which won her an Olivier Award]. The part of Marianne [from Girl from the North Country] because the character of Marianne was the daughter of the family, and it was a white family. The RSC was just great … we did Love’s Sacrifice, The Jew of Malta and Volpone. Oh, cool, I can do some classics! Even on screen playing the Tooth Fairy in The Irregulars on Netflix. That was one I was surprised I got. Sometimes it’s the nature of the character, sometimes it’s the style of the project. I’m like: ”They want me for this!” I saw Everything Everywhere All at Once, whatever the headspace was that everyone was in when they created that, that’s what I aspire to, not in a literal sense. Just the expansiveness of what they believe was possible for this project and then they execute it.

Viola Davis and cast in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony
Viola Davis and cast in ‘The Woman King’ - Credit: Sony

Sony

DEADLINE: Tell me about working with Viola Davis?

ATIM: Viola was a big part of the driving force because JuVee, her production company she runs with Julius [Tennon], was involved. Viola is so funny, her sense of humour. She is like the general in the sense that she’s a great leader. But she’s not imposing at all, very much a team player and she steps up when it’s needed but she’s not walking into a space demanding any other recognition other than just being another human being in the space. It’s such a wonderful type of person to be around, not just from an acting perspective, because obviously that’s great, just generally in life it’s nice to be around somebody like that. A big part of this job and being an actor, and I think with lots of jobs, is the people you get to spend your time with, and I’m so happy I got to spend my time with people like Viola.

DEADLINE: I like Viola’s sense of not always being grateful to be there … you know what I mean?

ATIM: I think it’s important to try and keep some of that whilst also balancing it against humility and the way in which that gets balanced is you do your hard work and then when the good things that come are owed to you. You’re right to bring that up because one of the things I really learned from her is to keep on reminding myself of my worth both in this industry and in this world. It can be very easy to forget. She was instrumental in reminding me not to undersell myself.

DEADLINE: D word diversity?

ATIM: That’s the big thing I sometimes get frustrated with when it comes to the diversity conversation. What people need is access and resources and then they will create whatever it is they need to create to exist at a certain level of quality. You need to give them the access, the resources and the trust. If it’s being approached via a mind-set of shoehorning then you just do everyone a disservice. I have every faith that we can achieve diversity and variety, which is a word I kind of prefer, purely by focusing in equity. Once you focus on equity at the first base level and you say, “:ou have as much access as that person.” Then the rest will take care of itself.

But I say it like equity is an easy thing to reach, it’s not.

DEADLINE: Parting thoughts on The Woman King?

ATIM: As much as the film is epic, and the film does go beyond me, these are my own personal life experiences and I like working on projects where I can look back, and then when the end of my life comes I can reflect on these things and say: “This was real, I experienced this, I was there. I had that conversation. [Laughs] I laughed with Viola on that day when she couldn’t open the door to the cage, there was a big cage and the lock got stuck, she’d had to turn around and deliver this really dramatic line to me but I was grinning … we had to cut and we had to go again. It’s about the moments in time.

Atim is represented by UTA, Middleweek Newton Talent Management, Manuka, The Artists Partnership and Tapestry.

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