Sheila Atim

Sheila Atim: “This is who we are”

Short Profile

Name: Sheila Atim
DOB: January 1991
Place of birth: Uganda
Occupation: Actor, singer, composer, playwright

Sheila Atim stars in The Underground Railroad, available now on Amazon Prime.

Ms. Atim, throughout your career, you’ve been an actor, a singer, a composer, and a playwright. How do you see yourself?

It's always a weird thing… Whenever you're filling out forms for the tax officer or something, and they're like, “What's your job?” “I’m an actor — but not really, I’m not just an actor.” Then sometimes I want to put actor/musician, right? (Laughs) I guess I would say that I work in performing arts and my primary job is an actor at the moment. But one thing that I've learned so far, over the course of my journey is that I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the places I’ve found myself. I never thought I'd be writing music and trying to stumble my way through some sound design for a show at the Finborough Theatre. I never thought that I'd even be an actor, I thought I'd be a singer-songwriter, and before that, I thought I’d be a doctor!

Your life would be very different if that had been the case.

Yeah, I think that is an interesting thing, the little bifurcations that happen in our lives! But you know what? I feel like somehow, I might have ended up, not exactly in the same place, but I know that creativity and the creative arts wouldn't have left me. And there would have been some kind of way of finding my way back to that — or infusing that in my scientific work, or whatever it was. I really do feel that partly because that's almost what happened, you know? I didn't get into medical school originally, and then I went into biomedical science… But the not getting into the medical school, that was the wake-up call. That kind of slapped me in the face and said, “You're an artist.” Even then I thought I was going to be a singer, songwriter, and recording artist, I didn't think I was going to be an actor.

“If you had asked me years ago, I would’ve told you there’s no way I’d be writing a play, that’s not in my arsenal. And now I’m developing even more ideas..”

And what happened to change your course?

The job sort of presented itself through various steps. I went to an arts college, and I was doing classes on a Sunday, and I did some singing and acting, and then the teacher of that class, Che Walker, asked me to help with some workshops and then put me in a show. So, it feels like whatever people believe about religion, the universe, whatever kind of mythical side of things… It just feels like everything was like, “Nope! This is what you're gonna do!”

It must be great to have this kind of creative freedom to try out all these different avenues.

It actually really helps me to broaden my horizons and keep exploring, and keep seeing what's out there, keep surprising myself. I think it's important. As somebody who has ambitions to do more than just acting, it’s really great to be a part of projects like for example, Bruised, which I did with Halle Berry, that was her directorial debut… And The Underground Railroad with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins because he had written on the scripts, not just the dialogue but also the screen directions, he really tried to paint a picture of what it was going to look like, and that helped me understand the journey of Mabel so much more. Both those projects were completed with such vision… Seeing them both navigate those films wearing multiple hats was really inspiring for me.

And now you’re following in their footsteps. You’ve already presented your first play, Anguis, which you wrote and composed the soundtrack for.

It’s crazy because if you had asked me years ago, I would’ve told you there’s no way I’d be writing a play, that’s not in my arsenal, it’s not my thing. And now I’m developing even more ideas.

What other stories are you hoping to tell? Is there something burning inside you that needs to get out?

Well, a lot of the stuff that I've been writing or developing or sort of pulling out of my mind, more recently, are stories to do with belonging. I guess that tends to be quite a common theme that comes up. And I think particularly in the last couple of years, we've seen that really come to the forefront politically and socially, you know, people have really started to become quite rigid about where they align themselves. It's becoming so much a part of people's identity now, how they think and feel about things. And I think a big part of that has to do with wanting to belong, and wanting to be a part of a group and know that you are safe with these people who are of the same school of thought.

“I think that everyone in the world has a moment where they're trying to figure out where they belong.”

Finding your tribe.

That’s right. People who all fly the same flag, so to speak. I think it's a really powerful driver of human behaviour. So, I think instinctively, that's what I seem to notice is coming out in a lot of the ideas that I'm sort of working on. And maybe that stems from my own experience, you know, wanting to find out where I belong. I'm Ugandan born, Essex raised now living in East London, so I’m still trying to figure out what that means for me.

Apparently growing up, you and your best friend, who was Nigerian born, reveled in your outsider status.

Yeah, but part of that was probably a coping mechanism, you know? Looking back, there were unpleasant times and and kind of difficult dynamics related to being an outsider — whether that was racism in a more sort of explicit and overt sense, or just a kind of underlying otherness that is difficult to pinpoint, just feeling like you don't necessarily belong, or that this place isn't for you. I think when you're in a situation where you feel othered, or you feel like you're the minority, it's very easy to fall into a place where you try to do as much as you can to appease or to assimilate. But that always comes at cost.

You mean because you would be conforming in order to make other people comfortable?

Yeah, I think there's a degree of kind of inauthenticity that creeps in and an internal kind of struggle that I just don't think is conducive to anyone's mental health. So, my friend and I, we kind of went the opposite way. We didn't explicitly talk about it, we just got on with each other, we found each other funny. Our response was to just go, “Well, this is where we are, this is who we are.” I think that everyone in the world struggles with that at some point, or has a moment where they're trying to figure out where they belong — and I think that's probably what's underpinning a lot of my ideas.