Susan Wokoma: “I thought the TV belonged to the size zero models” | Television

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SUsan Wokoma arrives at Regent’s Park in central London with a nostalgic vibe. “I was here last summer,” she said, “and it was the better the summer of my life ”. Wokoma, who describes herself as having been “terrified of Shakespeare”, faced her fears as Bottom in Dominic Hill’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the outdoor theater in that park, warming up on the grass every day. She wasn’t sure if she was playing the comedy movie, until Hill told her what he had heard about her. “He said, I know someone who was in your year at Rada [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and they said your Ophelia was the best they had ever seen. It was a show for our year and our teachers, so for this secret thing to be revealed as proof… I was like, damn it, I have to do it now!

Wokoma, 32, has played a series of singular roles on television in recent years, from the screaming sister and critic of Michaela Coel in the hit comedy Chewing Gum to a straightforward copper in Year of the Rabbit (with Matt Berry, who described the show as a Victorian version of The Sweeney). Now she plays the world’s tired brother of an amateur ghost hunter in Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Amazon comedy, Truth Seekers. As such, it’s hard to imagine him doubting his ability to captivate an audience – even in iambic pentameter. Even more surprising, perhaps, is her admission that she was a shy child who originally wanted to work behind the scenes of the creative world: “In my head, the actors were loud and bright. I was like, I’m neither Jim Carrey nor Arnold Schwarzenegger!

We are meeting at the end of September when the British theater is unquestionably in crisis. Right before the pandemic, Wokoma was in the cleverly subversive Teenage Dick at Donmar’s Warehouse, a reinvented Richard III centered on a disabled, narcissistic teenager. Now the industry is in peril and, like many, is reflecting on rescue efforts. (“In my head I’m thinking, could there be an extreme theater union? Could we pair the National with a smaller theater? It seems unnecessary to take care of your own building right now.”)

Unsurprisingly, Wokoma says she’s grateful to have the optional TV job, with productions restarting tentatively. Revolutionary British Bafta in 2017, she hasn’t run out of opportunities in front and behind the camera in recent years – though her career has started off in a wonderfully chaotic way. Originally from a Nigerian family, she grew up in Elephant and Castle, South London, and giggles as she remembers misunderstanding what gentrification would mean for the area: “I was so excited I was. thought, this is gonna be awesome. There will be a better bowling alley at the mall!

Susan Wokoma comme Bottom et Amber James comme Titania, dans A Midsummer Night’s Dream au Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, 2019. Photographie: Alastair Muir / REX / Shutterstock

She co-founded her parents by participating in endless competitions, once winning a month-long pass. Then one day a little bigger opportunity presented itself. “I saw an advertisement for BBC Talent. They were looking for children to participate in this CBBC show called Serious Jungle, ”she explains. “I didn’t even have a passport [aged 14] and I had never been on a plane, but it was snowballing. Soon Wokoma was roaming the Borneo jungle, referred to as’ the common sense ‘jungle, while fellow travelers struggled with the journey: “The producers asked,’ Do you miss home? I was like, no!

After dreaming of working behind the scenes at the BBC, she turned to theater, performing with the National Youth Theater before drama school. While his late father was not happy with his decision (“He said I couldn’t live at home. I was only at Tottenham Court Road – it’s the 176 bus ″), the experience forced her to embrace her vocation. “It was a hard lesson, but it meant I had to really understand why I was playing,” she says. “I think most of the time you’re like, ‘I’ll show you! When my parents weren’t interested, I thought to myself, why am I doing this? I’m really glad I had this – there haven’t been a lot of times since I left drama school where I didn’t really know why I was doing something ”.

After Rada, Wokoma did “a little bit of everything”, although she is honest that we did not see her tick the right boxes. “I remember there was a teacher who just before I left said, ‘You are like a beautiful untrained butterfly.’ It was fucking rude, but also quite nice. But also rude. I was really open in terms of work because I felt you had to be at the start. But the television was not in my head – I thought the television belonged to the size zero models because that was what I had seen at the time, and there weren’t a lot of women there. dark skin [on TV] Is. However, small screen roles began to emerge alongside her success on stage, and in 2015, Wokoma got her TV hiatus as Cynthia from Chewing Gum.

While she speaks fondly of the show, it’s another project from the same era that really makes her eyes shine. The Cult Hit Crazyhead, in which Wokoma played a socially awkward demon slayer, ran for a single series on E4 in 2017, although it later drew mainstream audiences in the United States through Netflix, which co-produced series. “I was really upset by the end,” she says. “I don’t think we gave him enough of a chance. There were just a lot of changes to the channel that meant it wasn’t a viable show. What broke my heart the most was the fan art, with people saying, “We always wanted that black character, this is the Buffy we wanted.”

Susan Wokoma comme Helen et Malcolm McDowell comme Richard dans Truth Seekers.
Susan Wokoma comme Helen et Malcolm McDowell comme Richard dans Truth Seekers. Photograph: Stolen Images / Amazon Prime Video

Wokoma says she discovered the show had been canned by chance, during a meeting with the streaming giant in Los Angeles. “I sent a message to all the other actors and I said to myself, ‘Go get work! Let’s make things happen. She also broke the news to fans on Twitter. “After a while I just went over there and said, ‘It’s not coming back!’ I thought it wasn’t fair to let it go.

Thankfully, Wokoma has come out on the other side of this disappointment busier than ever, and is turning to writing as well. In addition to a stint in the writers’ room on the hit drama Sex Education, she wrote a short film, Love the Sinner, in 2018, based on her mother’s reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the outpouring of sorrow. , especially among black women who pledged allegiance to him. “I knew it would be really funny, but it was also about that mass feeling – not just mass mourning, but the mass feeling of something that we all feel the same about, overall,” she says. “That kind of consensus is gone now. And also because it was really funny – even though it was scary at 10 years old to hear your mother screaming, “Take me instead!” Wokoma’s mother lent her clothes for the costumes, far from the good old days. “She felt very involved – she loves to be the center of attention.”

Wokoma film about the death of the Princess of Wales, Love the Sinner, 2018.

She’s writing another movie and developing a TV show, but luckily can still be seen on camera. In Truth Seekers, Wokoma plays Helen, whose brother Elton (Samson Kayo) was drawn into paranormal activity by her slash-poltergeist broadband installer search boss, played by Frost. “I like people who find it difficult to engage in the world, because my job requires so a lot of engagement, ”she says of the role. “But one of the main challenges was how not to be like Cynthia? It’s in the back of your head. So it was a real joy to go, how can you be socially awkward? How else can you find it difficult? Ultimately, it comes from his background, which returns a bit later in the series. Of course, there are parallels to the fan favorite character. “I look worried, that’s the way my characters look worried,” she laughs. “You cannot change your face!”

This year, Wokoma was also seen in the Sherlock spinoff film Enola Holmes, starring Stranger Things prodigy Millie Bobby Brown – which she threw across a room in a jujitsu scene. (“The night before I was like, oh my gosh I have to throw out the star and executive producer ?!”)

Although the pandemic has held back much of the arts, it remains in demand – and is grateful for it. She laughed as she remembered the taxi driver entering, who asked her if she wanted to be dropped off at the stage door – “I wish!” You can imagine that she will return to the stage as soon as Public Health England allows it.

Truth Seekers launches on Prime Video Friday, October 30

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