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Inspired with Susan Wokoma and Rogan Graham

Nothing Concrete text
24 Feb 2021
55 min listen

Barbican Young Film Programmer alum, writer and journalist, Rogan Graham speaks to actor Susan Wokoma about finding your community, creative process, activism and inspiration. 

** This episode was recorded over Zoom and so there are some audio hiccups in parts **

Our series of inspiring conversations returns with a twist as we hand over to our Barbican Young Creatives to interview the artists that inspire them as they being their careers in the arts in series two of ‘Inspired’ on Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast.

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About Susan Wokoma

Susan Wokoma’s television debut was at fourteen years old as one of the eight children selected for CBBC's Serious Jungle (2002). Susan then became a member of The National Youth Theatre. At eighteen she landed her first professional acting role in the BAFTA award winning That Summer Day (2006). The following year she started training at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Susan is known for her film appearances in Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), Crazyhead (2016) and Enola Holmes (2020) as well as TV appearances in Bluestone 42 (BBC) Crashing (Channel 4) and as Cynthia in the comedy hit Chewing Gum (E4). In 2017 she won BAFTA Breakthrough Brit award and was listed in Forbes Magazine '30 Under 30' Entertainment list.

About Rogan Graham

Rogan is a freelance film journalist and programmer from South London, who believes in pursuing avenues vital to broadening the scope of industry and audiences alike. She has worked as a Barbican Young Programmer, with Indie Memphis Film Festival as juror and screener, a facilitator of the Black focused Small Axe Forums and with by-lines at Little White Lies and i-D magazine. 



Rogan Graham: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This is Inspired, a series where an artist invites someone who’s influenced their creative lives to share the stories behind their connection. I’m Rogan Graham and I’m a Barbican Young Programme alum, film-writer and journalist and workshop facilitator. In this episode I’m speaking to Susan Wokoma. Susan’s television debut was at fourteen years old, as one of the eight children selected for CBBC’s Serious Jungle. Susan then became a member of the National Youth Theatre. At eighteen she landed her first professional acting role in the BAFTA award winning That Summer Day. The following year she started training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Susan is known for her TV appearances, in Truth Seekers, Crushing and where I first saw her, as Cynthia in Michaela Cole’s E4 comedy hit Chewing Gum, as well as in recent films like Enola Holmes. 
In 2017, she won the BAFTA breakthrough Brit Award and was listed in Forbes Magazine's 30 under 30 Entertainment list. I invited Susan because her onscreen presence has always been a source of comfort for me. And knowing that she is a gifted writer and future director and fellow South Londoner, I was thrilled to be able to pick her brain on her craft and future endeavours. She generously obliged. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Hi, Susan. 

Susan Wokoma: Hi, Rogan. 
RG: How are you? 

SW: I am well thank you. How are you doing? 
RG: I'm good. I'm good.

So I first sort of came to you, your work sort of became like a little bit, you know, became a fan through Chewing Gum, of course. And me and my school best friend at the time, we loved Cynthia, because we went to an all-girls school. It wasn’t a religious one, but we're terrified of boy and of anything. And we were like, Cynthia, she gets it. And then I've sort of just kind of followed you ever since. So yeah, just get a little bit of fan information out the way.

SW: Always welcome. always welcome. 

RG: How has your lockdown? Well, I mean, it's sort of over. Is it? 

SW: I mean, to be honest, because I was filming, I was filming a TV show, which then stopped because of lockdown. And then when lockdown 2 got announced, we carried on. So for me, it feels completely different to the initial lockdown earlier in the summer. So yeah, some things haven't really changed for me. But it's been a really strange year. Really, really strange. The case for everybody. And actually, I was hosting co-hosting, well guesting, on the Guilty Feminist podcast, which I sometimes co-host, it was our five year anniversary yesterday. And I was talking about the thing that I have appreciated about this year, which is like a sentence that I always go, oh please don't say I've just like found inner peace, because that's annoying. But what I – but also like well done if you have – but one of the things that I have appreciated this year is that you can have, like a zoom meeting, or you know, have some work to do. And you can call whoever up and go, do you know what, I can't do that today because I'm just, I'm not in a good place. And I think that a year ago, if you said that everyone would be like ‘Oh, you've got problems’. Now everyone goes ‘yeah I understand’. And I think that that is a really, really good thing, to be able to just have a universality of I'm not in a good place.

RG: Absolutely. 

SW: So yeah, so that's been a good thing of this year. But it’s been weird, weird sort of having projects come out and being sat on loads of zooms and meetings just kind of promoting it. But you know, from the waist down being definitely in my pants. 

RG: Oh, yeah.
SW: Completely done up here. But then, my God, you know, the film is just amazing. And then down here, just like packets of crisps and, and all my hopes and dreams on the floor. So it's been weird, it's been a real duality, but like workwise I've been probably as busy as I've always been, which is also combined with guilt. 

RG: Yeah, that's a good thing. You shouldn't feel guilty about having work. Like that's one thing that always fascinated, I don't know, fascinated isn't the right word, intrigued me about you, because there are all these kind of stories, which I think are definitely not accurate, you know, to the people's experience of like I couldn't do anything over here. I had to run like, you know, you've not had to run away

SW: to the States?

RG: Yeah

SW: I think it's a couple of things. I mean, I did… I think the biggest thing is because you can do a show here in the UK filming down the Old Kent road. And that can end up on Netflix. Like, before streaming services, you never had that. If you had a really successful series here in the UK, if it got adapted into an American version, like The Office, for instance, that's how they sort of gains notoriety. But you do three series, and then it's done. But now, because you have all these co-productions you can do a series here that will have an international audience. That never used to be the case. So there's less reason to sort of make the pilgrimage over to America really. So I think that's probably the biggest thing. But for instance, Crazy Head that I did, and Chewing Gum, they all, you know, Crazy Head was co produced with Netflix and Chewing Gum was acquired. But you know, that became a hit without ever having to go over and do promo in the States. So I think that that's the biggest thing. But also, I did go out and they did do a pilot season, and I just did, it was sort of based on… So a pilot season is a season of work, normally the beginning of the year in America where they make all these pilots just for people who don't know, and I, my first pilot season, I didn't go over, I did all my tapes from home. Because I was scared, I was really scared at being in this industry here. The confidence that I've had to acquire, the thick skin that I've had to acquire, I didn't want to then go over to a completely different beast and be told, ‘oh, you're amazing, but completely change’. Like, I'd work too hard in accepting myself and who I was and am and continue to evolve into. And I know that that has been not because I fit into a mould. It's been because I don't. And I've had to, and there are some people who absolutely are interested in that and excited by that and people who just don't understand why I have a career. So I was so scared of going over and being told, you know, the typical, ‘you've got to lose weight’ or, or any of that. And I went over I didn't enjoy it. The main thing was pilot season is so. You get scripts one year, one I taped from London. And I tested for three shows, that means that I was sort of down to the last couple and that was out without leaving, you know, South London, so I was like brilliant I can do this. Because essentially, if I'm doing a film or series in Bucharest, I'm going to go to Bucharest. To go somewhere and work is, that's not what sort of irks me, it’s the idea of having to move all your life forever. But then the following year when I went out, I just didn't like any of the scripts. I just kept reading them going ‘would I ever spend five years of my life doing these?’. And I was like, ‘I wouldn't do one year’ and that is just, that's not me being above myself, I just don't like them. So it's always about the quality of work. If the work is great, if the part is good, I will pack my belongings and hand in my passport. But so far, I've not really seen the right thing for me. 

RG: It's really, because you make such interesting choices. And I find myself watching things that you're in that I don't think I would usually, I just wouldn't usually watch. Honestly, it feels like at the minute when it comes to a lot of TV shows that either feature black people or don't, or just want to kind of  interrogate race in some way. It's very much like, okay, we're going to explain this in really simple terms. And it's not really about the story. It's about kind of, ‘Okay, how do we show that we understand’, and it's like, I don't really want to, I don't need to sit and watch that, you know, because I know and you're not telling me anything new. And it appears to me that you've always kind of avoided that work. And I don't know if that was conscious at all, but I don't know, I just look at stuff that's in the States and I think, I'm really glad that it's happening and people are working and black women and you know, and then I'm like, I don't want to see it, though. 

SW: Yeah. It always comes down to who are the audience, who is it being made for? And a lot of those things can feel very heavy handed. And as a black person, you go, ‘Oh, well, I know this. I know this’. And so where’s the entertainment? So I do, I completely understand. And I think that, you know, like any other person who's a young actor coming out of drama school, or you know, just putting themselves out there, there wasn't a whole lot of choice to begin with. You know, you do the work that you do. But I think that my taste has always been. I think, you know, loving comedy has helped a lot. Comedy sort of opened up to me because it's my taste, like if I decide what I'm going to watch, it's normally going to be a comedy. But I think that I realised quite early, the lack of limitations when it comes to comedy, and what I could be, and what I could do and what I could say. And then of course, there's the other side of my brain that goes, Okay, how can I make this comedic character real? How do I make sure that I'm making people laugh, that people see the heart in her? And so I think I just feel more free. Whenever I read a lot of drama scripts, I just find it so boring, I find it really, I’m just not that moved. It doesn't mean that I can't do drama, it doesn't mean that I don't want to. But I just feel like particularly for black people in them, You're just going, ‘oh, I've got the files Sir’. Or you're you're doing legal speak, or you're a therapist, a black woman therapist.

RG: Oh God yeah, that’s so prevalent.

SW: So predominantly dangly earrings all the time, like some ethnic beads. And she’s like ‘let me help you progress your story along’ all the time. And so I just, I think the reason why I've avoided that is because of comedy from if I’m being very, very honest, I think it's that. There was definitely a few things about a film that I did that came out this summer, called Enola Holmes, and I'm in a couple of scenes, and one scene is with Henry Cavill. And I basically tell Sherlock that the reason why he doesn't care about politics is because he's privileged to do so. And it's so interesting because that scene sort of became like a meme and there was a whole like

RG: I saw it, yeah.

SW: I honestly, and I think this goes to show how I approach my work. When I was filming it last year, I didn't read it going ‘And this is the bit where the black woman…’

RG: Here’s the zinger.

SW: I was like, these are my lines. This is what she believes. This is what I believe, it’s what I believe about people. I'm just gonna say it, I'm just gonna do it and then I’m gonna go home. And Henry was lovely and we had a lovely day. And when it sort of became this thing, I understood why it became this thing. For me, that isn't my my zingy thing. It's just that. People can afford to not care about politics, like done. So I just went huh, interesting. And then there were a couple of friends of mine, because I've left Twitter. And a couple friends of mine was like, Oh, you know, this and people saying that. It's just basically the sort of white guilt section of the film, and how my character wasn't really developed or anything like that. And I just thought, Well, if you're not Millie Bobby Brown, or Louis Partridge, the two teams in the film, you're there to serve Enola Holmes. There is such a thing as intentionally being a supporting character and that was my job, in a YA book. People were like we want more of Edith, which I thought was really lovely. But I was like, this is for teens, you know, and hopefully other people will love it. But sometimes, as an actor, you do just want to do your cameo. You just want to do your bit and be a part of something wonderful. And for it not to be political.

RG: Yeah.

SW: That can be frustrating, but it's also none of my business because I do understand exactly what I said about you know, the therapist, with the dangly earrings and the ethnic beads, we do see that we do go ‘Oh, yeah. Okay, here we go again’. But for me, that character wasn't here we go again, because how many black women do you see in big period movies, really? And she was fun, and she spoke sense and I was like, Yeah, cool.

RG: Going back to comedy. I've heard you talk a little bit about Nollywood films now. So my background, so my mum's Irish, my dad's West Indian, he’s from Dominica. And so Nollywood was just not it's not like my friends. It's not in my purview and I really want to get into it.

SW: With Nollywood, so for people who don't know Nollywood is, it's Nigerian movies, the Nigerian film industry. Hollywood, Nollywood, like Bollywood, and it's huge. It's absolutely huge. And I grew up watching, I think the first Nollywood film I saw was called Nneka, The Pretty Serpent or something like that. It terrified the shit out of me, it was so scary. It was about this woman, who and what I've learned is this was a very typical storyline of Nollywood films, particularly the 90s, a woman who sort of turns up, she wants to marry this man. The man's mother is not happy about it. So the mother and daughter-in-law, they don't like each other and it's all about, she turned to a snake, she’s the devil, or something like that. So there's always themes of marriage, children, not being able to have children, evil spirits, that's kind of, definitely in the 90s. And so I just found them really scary. It really tapped into my Christian guilt as a child. But then as I grew up, and definitely as film industries all over the world have evolved, Nigerian movies now have better budgets, better scripting, bona fide movie stars. Yeah. And you know, Netflix, Nigeria’s just launched. All this stuff. So it's a huge, huge, huge, huge business. It's not an area that I necessarily went ‘I have to conquer’. But I definitely wanted to film in Nigeria. And so my first experience with that was the adaptation of Half of the Yellow Sun. And so that was a British production but we shot out there. And then I did a film a couple of years ago called The Ghost and the House of Truth. Yeah, so I've had my experience of working out there and as much as I can, kind of what I said before, in that, you know, you go where the work is, you know, I do love experiencing what film sets and TV sets are like in other countries I think.
RG: It's funny as well, you said that they like terrified you. Because again, I only see kind of distilled clip. I mean, I only see that because I haven't made the time to go and watch but I only sort of see the distilled clips. You know, why are you running? You know that? 

SW: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They're very fun with well, they’re very, very funny as well. But like, the ones that my mum were into, were always the ones about like, witches coming out of the sea, the morality ones and they, the graphics in those. I mean, now I look back and and go, ‘Wow, you were scared of that?’. But as a
kid, just honestly, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.

RG: I really wanted to ask you about just growing up in South London. I love it. I'm from Lewisham, well Brockley in Lewisham, and I went away to uni in Nottingham, very white. Did it. Came back and I'm like, never leaving. I think I have to leave go out of zone three, maybe it's to go to an airport. I'm such a homebody. 

SW: No, I love South London. And I think what I love about South London is, it's, I've just always felt, I've never felt invisible there. I've never felt uncomfortable there. It’s truly truly diverse, I think. And you know, growing up, my neighbours were Irish, we had a Punjabi family next door, that was just all I knew. And so, going to other parts of London and indeed the UK was weird for me. Really, really strange. I don't like being the only one in rooms. Obviously then when I entered the industry when I did, I was a lot of time, the only one in rooms and I would meet other black actresses in the audition room. Never on the job. I think that's honestly why I love southeast London because it is truly, truly diverse, in terms of us literally sitting eating together, rather than, you know, East London, we've got communities and then they just a Pret and a massive building and you know, loads of bankers or like loads of advertising people. I'm like, that's not real community.

RG: Smooth segue into, yeah.

SW: Yeah.

RG: Smooth segue into your experience at RADA. I'm really interested to hear about that.

SW: I think for a lot of people RADA was this destination that they really wanted to get to. Whereas I discovered its existence not that long before I got in. So it wasn't this Holy Grail place, I didn't have that much attachment to what it and what it meant and who went there. My first year that I auditioned, I was 18 because that's what everyone did. And I could not manage my nerves. For whatever reason, it didn't matter how much I'd prepared something, my nerves would always get the better of me. And it culminated in, I went for an audition for Guildhall, Barbican. And I was so nervous in my audition I fluffed my lines. I remember whoever it was, I can’t remember who it was, he said, he stopped me. And he went, ‘do you want to just come back next year?’ And I went ‘yes’. And so I left and normally you wait to hear like if you got to next round. I just went home, because I know that I haven't, so that’s fine. And so I spent the next few months getting to grips with my nerves. I started breathing exercises, I discovered rescue remedy. I just did my best to, because I knew it wasn't about the acting, and it wasn't about learning the scripts. It was about my nerves. And so yeah, so the next year I got in and I got in quite quickly. The process happened really quickly. Like I think within a month I did all my four auditions and was in and was like ‘brilliant’. And so the first year particularly was so much fun. We were a very, it also depends on your year, like your experiences of RADA. So my year was a very young year. So I was 19. There was a lot of 18 year olds. And a lot of people who were new to London, so it really was like, fame. It was just like, everyone was like ‘my dreams are this big and I’m in London!’. We worked hard, we partied hard. And it was just joyous and messy and fantastic. And I just, I felt like, I felt the joy of what I do. And then after that, it became quite difficult, became really difficult. Second year at drama school has always known being quite hard. It's the year where they sort of traditionally break you down, whatever that means. But what I found was, the constant sort of looking inwards and navel gazing of it, I really struggled with. Not because I'm a supremely, you know, selfless person who just doesn't, you know, look inwards positively, but it just… When you're looking inwards, and everything about you is wrong, so my voice and my back and my posture and my lungs. I was like, well, I can't buy new lungs. So what do you mean, like, I don't get it. And there was this notion of going back to… The thing about breaking down, it's about getting rid of your bad habits, which I believe. There are certain things that if I don't have a good director, or I don't have a director, I’ll fall back on and sometimes it's useful, and sometimes it's not for a character. And what they were trying to do is they try and make you get rid of your bad habits so that you become like the neutral actor, of which you can then build character on. My issue with that was who decided on this idea of neutral? Who decided, and it's never ever going to be a black woman. It's going to be the basis. It's kind of like this play that I did, and they had audio description script that was written out. And my director went over the script, which a lot of directors don’t. And she came to speak to me because I was the only person who was referred to by their colour. And everybody else was not. And audio description, so they say ‘so-and-so walks on the stage, she is black, der der der der’. And it's not that I am angry about being described by my colour. That's a fair point. But the fact that no-one else was, it tells you that the idea is that the neutral of actor, the assumption of an actor is white. And, you know, at RADA, I don't think that that was racist, people weren’t in a corner going, ‘hahahaha, white people will take over the world’, it was just this fed down notion of a relaxed, you know, posture is like this, without any consideration genetically of what my lower back might do, or, do you know what I mean? And I found that hard. And I didn't want to lose all of what I was. And so there was a bit of a battle in my second year of going, I feel like the things that make me me will actually serve me when I leave and start working, as opposed to getting rid of every essence of who I am. 

RG: Did you identify that in the process? Or did you completely kind of surrender to ‘I need to be, you know, broken down’. 

SW: No, I fought it in the second year? Oh, yeah, I would leave classes. Not in a huff. But like, if I knew there was bullshit going on, I would just politely get my bag and say, I've got Alexander Technique session, and just leave. The thing is, there doesn't need to be a drama when you are opposed to something. The whole point of drama school is that they throw all these tools at you and you take what works and you leave what doesn't. Doesn't need to be, you know. Working as well, you meet actors and they have different processes. I can't sit there and say that that's absolutely wrong. If it works, it works. And I think sometimes at drama school students can get very impassioned, you know, what is art and what is the process and it's different for everybody. And yeah, I discovered that, and also discovered that I didn't need to show everyone my homework. If I didn't believe in something I just put it in the bin and so that was my process of drama school. But I found that the constant focus on self difficult. 

RG: Yeah. Because I mean, when you're talking about the idea of neutral and who decides what's neutral, I know you said you didn't feel like anyone was kind of sitting in the corner being actively racist or actively trying to, but there's a thing that like, the passivity of it all or like just the assumption, you know, without like interrogating, you know, assuming there's one size fits all. That is so to me at times, like that can be so aggressively racist when you don't even, when it's not, obviously, it's not the same as being aggressively racist, but just not even considering anyone else.

SW: Okay, here's a tangible example of what I'm talking about. We were in Alexander Technique classes, and that is classes which is about your posture. And it's really, really amazing, it helps you have a bigger lung capacity, which is what you need when you're on stage and all that. And I was in session, and I think I was lying on my front. And the teacher who was holding the session kept saying, oh, you're holding a lot of tension in your lower back. And I was like, probably, I'm quite stressed. She was like what you need is, it's sort of, it's sort of doing that, as like you're pushing out your lower back, what you need is it for it to be like that. And I was like, that's my bum. This idea that I had to sort of make myself into a spoon. I was like, well, that's gonna hurt. That’s gonna hurt after a while. 

RG: How was that neutral. If I'm in pain, that's not.

SW: Exactly. So it was things like that. And then I walk away, because I'm 19/20, thinking, well, then I am pushing out my lower back, and why am I doing that? And then you realise that's just how I'm built. And so I have to learn the neutral for myself. And how do I, Susan, not hold tension in my body, as opposed to trying to achieve something that isn't me?

RG: I'm really interested in sort of activism. So your first TV appearance was Serious Jungle?

SW: Yeah, God. Serious Jungle, then they did Serious Desert, then Serious Arctic, and I wanna say they did another one but I can't remember. 

RG: I was obsessed with all of them. I did. But then I would be too scared to do it. So you did that. And then I know that you volunteered at refugee camps. Is that correct, in Calais? 

SW: Yeah. 

RG: And I would just would like to speak more about it. 

SW: I mean, with Serious Jungle I was 13/14, I want to say, and, again, I didn't want to be an actor, then. That wasn't something that I thought was for me. Not because I'd considered it but because I hadn't considered it. I thought other people were actors. I just saw, I used to enter a lot of competitions, all the time as a kid. And I would win quite a few. But I remember once I sent off this slip, and then I won like a bus pass for a month. And my dad was like, why? And I was like Oh, brilliant. Like, always just win stuff. Anyway, so this was another one of those. There was an advert on CBBC, I applied. And then before I know it I'm on a plane going to Malaysia. I’d never been on a plane before. It was intense. And so, in terms of the animal conservation aspect of it, that was I mean, I'd never, I think beyond a dog I’d never been around animals. And that wasn't even like my dog because we weren't allowed animals. Like it was just the most. It blew my mind, it absolutely. And it sort of changed my life. In that whenever I feel really sort of navel gazing-ey, I will just travel, I will just take myself up somewhere. Because the idea of feeling very, very small amongst you know, jungles and animals like that makes me feel really comforted. And to be that age and never had been on a plane, didn't even own a passport until that show. And you know, there with a baby orangutang also called Susie and trying to reintroduce it, I know yeah, they gave me one and they were like, ‘that’s Susie!’, so cute. And trying to reintroduce them into the wild was just, yeah, that was a crazy experience. But then the other side of it that was weird was that it was a TV show. So my experience of it and then the TV show that everybody watched was completely different because I was barely featured in the show. And it was really odd, because whilst I was on the expedition, I felt, you know, I didn't feel awkward. I felt looked after, I felt funny and all the things that, you know, that got me onto the show. And then I realised when it came out, it was like, ‘Oh, the cult of TV personality’. Nothing awful happened to me. I didn't particularly miss home, I was having such a good time. All the fitness stuff. I was never, I've never been a rail-thin person. But I am fit. So it was like Susan, do you want to jump up that huge ledge? And I’d just do it. And I'm like, oh, great, could do that. General happy together kid. And that's great in terms of the group. But in terms of television, it’s interesting.
And it was, I remember one of my teachers, Miss Hall. Is my Design and Technology teacher, who’s white. And she sat me down, she was like ‘it was really upsetting watching it’. I was in it, but she was like, it's just really upsetting. Because we've all known about it at school, I think I had to miss a month of school for it. And then to watch it and not to see you featured because you don't fancy anyone or anything. She was just like, it just always happens with young black kids on TV. And when she said it, I was like ‘wow’.

RG: Yeah, that's interesting that 

SW: She picked up on it Yeah, Miss Hall, big up Miss Hall. Yeah, so that was odd. And it's always made me feel a bit funny about reality TV actually. If I know that there's a black person or a black woman in the show, I get quite anxious. Are they being looked after, you know, are they, you know, all that sort of stuff. So if that was an odd experience.

And then going to Calais, that was with the Guilty Feminist, which is also, joining that and meeting Deborah has changed my life. I've never met somebody who, the ethos of the feminist is we’re feminist, but we get things wrong. Right? And this is an opportunity to talk about all those things that we get wrong, and to learn and to grow. And I think now more than ever that is so important. Because if you're so scared of getting something wrong, you won't try. And Deborah, you know, I think that, we laugh all the time. She's like, I'm the poster woman for like, white feminism. She knows it. But she's like, but I have to show that I will enter these debates, I will put myself out there and get wrong and listen to criticism and take it on board. Because I can, because I've got the base, I've got the time, I've got the resources. And the fact that we try should be, not enough, but it's a good thing that you try to learn. So, we went out to, this was after the Calais jungle had been dismantled and we went out there, because there are still refugees, and there are still people working. But morale was so low at that point. And so we went out to volunteer, and then we put on a comedy gig for the workers. So this was something that wasn't recorded or anything, it was just volunteers. One of the things that was amazing, we were in the infobus, which is where this bus turns up, I think it's once a week or twice a week. And refugees can charge their phones, they can send emails, they can get legal help with anything that they that they have. And we were serving food and all of that. It started raining, we were all under this tarpaulin, like marquee, and I was there getting rained on. And then one of the guys, one of the refugees, he just sort of pushed me in, like into underneath it. And I was ‘Oh, thank you. Oh, no I’m alright’. And he was like ‘no, your hair’. It’s a weave but thank you. That’s cute. And then he went, and two of them came over and went ‘Where are you from?’ and I was like, ‘Oh I’m from London’, and he went ‘no’, they went ‘no, where are you really from?’ which made me laugh so much, I was like ‘I’m in an uber, this is crazy’

RG: Oh God.

SW: And I said, ‘Oh, Nigeria’, and they all went ‘Oooo Nigeria, bad place’. And I was like… But do you know what, what I learnt from that was. The volunteers in Calais were overwhelmingly white. And there's all sorts of reasons for that. But I did feel that having someone like me there, you know, it helps with the dignity of refugees that they're not, it's not the perpetuated sort of white saviour thing. 

RG: Yeah, absolutely.

SW: And so if you can do, I think, for people of colour and volunteering, because it just, having somebody who looks like you, I think always sort of makes you feel like, you're not this ‘other’. And so that's definitely what I took from that experience.

RG: I always wanted to, like be a creative writer, I wanted to, I want to still be a screenwriter. And I feel like I'm at this place where I kind of fell into film criticism, like an editor just was like, ‘would you like to write for a magazine one day’? And I was just like, ‘Yeah’ and I just was like, said yes to everything that came to me. But now I’m kind of like, which is great. And I'm so happy with sort of how far I've come, especially after having a tough time at uni. But I'm like, Okay, well, now I need to make an active choice. And I kind of wanted to use this to like, pick your brain a little bit about writing. So you've written this film? Three Weeks?

SW: Three Weeks yeah

RG: Which is an abortion comedy drama. 

SW: Yeah, I haven’t made it easy on myself? Yes, it’s an abortion comedy drama.

RG: That is a tall order. I just wanted to ask you, how did you, obviously you've read a lot of scripts and so on, but how did you kind of decide, Okay, now is my time to write creatively to kind of veer from like, the things I'm being offered and kind of make a choice to do it myself.
SW: Well quite similar to you, the offer came to me, in terms of, you know, you getting the offer to go into film criticism, I got, given, offered, permission, which I felt very guilty about, there's a theme with guilt. I felt very guilty about, because I felt no like, in order to be a writer, I've got to be trained and like, studied at New York Film School and do this and do that, and blah, blah. And so I felt really bad about it. But what happens when you are an actor and you start doing stuff that people enjoy is people make you offers of stuff. That could be a dress or it could be, you know, a TV series. And so I started working on a pilot script, which I wasn't crazy happy with but it opened doors to other commissions and my amazing literary agent, and then I did BAFTA, I got accepted onto a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and that's how I met Eva Yates at BBC Films. And I pitched her this idea. It wasn’t actually a pitch. I remember sitting down with her, because I've had this idea. And actually, the guys at Urban Myth Films, they produced Crazy Head, they were really interested in this idea. And so I told them about it, which is a sort of early, early version of Three Weeks, and they said it was me, Howard Overman, Julian Murphy, and they were like, this is a film. And I was like, ‘what, I don't write films, I do TV, this is weird’. And then I remember them saying that. And I explored different options with other TV production companies. And so when I went to go meet Eva Yates, because it was very much in a kind of mentorship, that’s what BAFTA Breakthrough Brit is, for people who don't know, it's went BAFTA select a group of actors, writers, composers, cast and directors, like across the whole board, video game designers, and you get like a sort of mentorship for a year. And that's BAFTA. And so I met Eva because I was like, ‘Look, I’ve been exploring TV, comedy writing, but I have this idea. And this is kind of like, this is this is the thing that if it's the only thing I ever make, I will be happy. And I think it's a film, so can you just talk to me about how you get a film made’? So I wasn't pitching to her. I just, everyone keeps telling me it's so hard to make a film in the UK. But clearly, people make films and that's your job. So can you just explain. So she explained, you know, getting a producer on board and all that I'm writing down my notes. And then she said ‘What is your idea?’ and I was like ‘Oh it’s..’ and I told her the premise of Three Weeks and then before I knew it I was in a kind of bidding battle between BBC films and Film 4 and I went with Eva. So yeah, I definitely, my writing career has definitely been because people have gone ‘Would you like to?’, and I know that that is based on the strength of my acting work. And I've had to believe that that is enough, I've had to believe that I have read so many scripts in my lifetime, I’m 32, about to be 33 soon, I've seen everything. And that I have to trust is enough to know at least what I think is good, and what isn't. And so, you know, that process, it feels like everything has happened in the last, I’d say four years, I’ve been writing for four years, everything has led to the film, and then my short film, Love the Sinner.

RG: I loved that.

SW: Ah, thank you. 

RG: I did, yeah.

SW: Well that was a TV-film. It was a short film and they do it nearly every year, where Sky commission people to write shorts. So, they do that, it airs on Sky, we all go home. But meaning Jennifer Sheridan, who’s the director, we had really high ambitions for it and she did say ‘should we enter the films into festivals, and do that circuit?’ and so we did, and it got in all over the place. And it got long-listed for a BIFA, and to be in that world, it was just fantastic. And meeting other female writers at London Film Festival where it got in as well and having those conversations about directing and what’s going to be the next stage and all of that was again, unity. These are the things that I feel completely nourished by, and yeah, it made me feel very confident and happy going into this film world.
RG: It’s nice to hear about that process. Because sometimes you don’t always see it in yourself. You have these ideas and you just kind of go, well I don’t know how to execute it so I guess it will just stay that, in a box. But when you have community and people who actually value you, it is just that bit easier.

SW: My whole career has been based on other people seeing something about me before I see it. All of it. Like with acting. That wasn’t me. I didn’t go ‘I want to be an actor’. It was other people going ‘You should do it, you should try it, you’re really good at it, you’re really funny’. And me just going I’m just whatever. It was never anything about my glittering, sparkling personality and I knew I was destined. I didn’t, I was just me and it was other people. And that becomes difficult at somewhere like drama school, because you’re there now, because other people have told you that you’re great. Now you have to believe it.

RG: You have to do it, yep.

SW: That’s a hard journey. Going ‘what is it that people see about me? What is it? Why am I here? I never wanted this’. Of course I wanted it, because I’m still doing it, and it’s a real difficult industry and I’m still here and I love. But that’s just the way that things have always happened with me and it was the same with writing. And so I thought yeah, I might be good at this. I might be, if other people are telling me. And writing is such a process, it isn’t just about you, it’s such a group effort. There’s so many people who give their ideas and their opinions. There’s so many drafts. Nobody writes a first draft and then that first draft goes on screen, ever.
RG: I think I need to accept that.

SW: Yep.

RG: Because I, you know, the kind of perfectionist that goes ‘well it’s never going to be perfect, so I won’t do it’. That’s not, is that laziness? What is that?

SW: That will never be. And also, with television and film, it’s made in the edit. It’s absolutely made in the edit. You can film whatever the hell you want, when you get into the edit suite, that’s where the film’s made. That’s where the film’s made. 

RG: Yeah, no, absolutely. I’m just seeing it as a massive Martin Scorsese fan, he wouldn’t be who he is without Thelma [Schoonmaker].

SW: And he knows it! 

RG: That’s the thing. That’s why I love him, because he knows it. Personal bias coming through, Quentin Tarentino edited his most recent film himself and you’re like ‘well, there we are’. You need community.

SW: You need community.

RG: Yeah and that’s another reason why I wanted to interview you, because you don’t, at all, and you’ve always spoken about the people who helped you or the things that inspired you, the things you were told, instead of being like ‘well I was the first and I was the only’. People, and I think it is a lot of women, a lot of black people, do take pleasure a lot of the time I think, sadly, in being the only one. And you might get a bit of an ego boost from that, but that’s not the way forward. You have to forge.

SW: I remember going to, when I went to the States for pilot season and I remember meeting a casting director, and they were like ‘oh my god, there’s no-one else like you, there’s no-one else like you’, I just thought ‘there’s bare. There’s loads back there mate. That’s an untapped resource my love’. Loads. Obviously there’s no-one like me but if we’re talking about brilliant, dark-skinned, black actresses, there’s loads. And I think that one of the things, when I see other women killing it, I believe that it can happen to me. That’s what I believe. I’m like ‘OK cool, that’s possible’, rather than thinking no-one else has done it so I’m going to be the first. I think that that sort of competition, time, is bollocks. Because if you’re the first, that normally means that in five years, somebody else, because of what you’ve done, is gonna come along and do it better. 

RG: Yeah. And that’s how it should be. Because if you’re not wanting a progression of the craft that you love, why are you doing it, do you know what I mean? Because you’re not always going to get it, like, right. Just because it’s the first doesn’t mean that’s it, that’s definitive kind of thing.

SW: And also I think that success, and this is going to sound very sort of succession-y, but success does corrupt, and I think the way that you stop that happening is the company that you keep, your community. Like I make sure that I have the sort of friends who will message me and go ‘you need to take that off Twitter, girl, you need to take that off Twitter, you need to speak to your therapist’. That’s never happened, but I’ve got friends who would absolutely do that. And also in terms of, you know, I’m not a saint, actually I’m a complete dickhead, but I do believe in, you know, going about things with some kind of moral compass. And I mean in terms of like, the stuff that you create. I think more and more now, and actually, there’s been a long history of it, especially with female writers, what you’re writing about is autobiographical. We write about our lives and the men write about galaxies. And so, I think that with that responsibility you have to be careful, not even careful, that’s the wrong word, you have to be respectful of what and how you go about your business, especially if you are using yourself, because that can be exploited. You can in turn end up exploiting other people, there’s just a whole myriad of things to bear in mind, and the way that you do that successfully is through community.

RG: So I wanted to ask one final question, which is more of a recommendation. I wanted to ask, is there anything, it could be a film, book, album, whatever, that you’re really evangelical about. That you just want everyone to listen to, that you would recommend to me, to the listeners?

SW: Oh my gosh. I would say, do you know what, I don’t think I’m evangelical about anything. I don’t know what that means, I have a lot of loves about a lot of things. OK I would say Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids. I sort of picked it up thinking ‘Ah I’ll read this’, I was about to go to New York for the first time, you know it’s all about her and all these artists living in Chelsea. I was like ‘ah I’ll read it, that’s cool’, and I, at that point I didn’t really, I think I was sort more concerned, not concerned, but I was really overwhelmed with the business. Who I should be when I walk into a casting, how to make sure I present myself in a certain way, and my natural kind of spirit wasn’t chiming with that. And I just needed to read somebody else’s creative, artistic journey, somebody who was not ashamed of calling themself an artist. Because I was definitely at that point at the stage where I wouldn’t even call myself an actor if someone asked, I would say that I did something else. And I read that and I just loved reading somebody’s artistic journey, all the difficulties, all the lumps and bumps, the community, that’s all those guys were really about, community and collaboration. I guess I’m a big, massive hippy at heart, but it just made me feel like an artist, and being an artist was something that was possible. And being excited about the people that I would then go on to meet on that journey, who those people would be, how they would shape my life. And I have read it several times. I think it’s a book that ordinarily I would go ‘why would I read anything about Patti Smith?’ but I really, really love it. There was one particular thing in it, where she said, she worked in a bookshop. And she said by a certain age she was going to stop working at that bookshop, and never do any other work other than her art. And I was at a point where I was considering giving up my temping job, which had saved me so many times. I remember my flatmate at the time saying, you know, I’d literally finished a job at The National [Theatre] and then I’d pick up my shifts, and she’d be like ‘why are you doing this, you don’t need to do it, you don’t trust that you are now on the right path many years out of drama school’. And it was actually reading that book that made me quit my temping job and since then I’ve never done any other job than acting.

RG: That’s good, that’s amazing. 

SW: It’s a big, it’s about me taking the leap and being brave and being an artist so yeah, I think I would advise that one.

RG: That sounds beautiful, and it’s one of those things where things just come to you at the right time.
It’s been lovely talking to you, thank you so much. You’ve been so generous, and so generous with your time. 
SW: That’s OK, thank you for having me. 

RG: That was my conversation with actor Susan Wokoma for this episode of ‘Inspired’ on the podcast Nothing Concrete. Next week Barbican Young Poet alums Jeremiah Brown and Gabriel Akamo speak to actor Sope Dirisu about heritage, diversity in theatre audiences and training. Stay tuned to more inspiring conversations by subscribing to Nothing Concrete, on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. Thank you for listening.

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