When did you realise that you wanted to be an actress?
I used to dance when I was little and used to do performances and stage school shows, so that had the performance element to it. I first started taking acting seriously when I was about 14 and started going to routine classes with the national youth theatre where we would read scripts. At 15 I started at Young Blood Theatre Company at Riverside Studios, and we used to do workshops and improvisations and performances. That is when I knew that acting is what I wanted to do full time. I started auditioning for roles when I left school.
Acting is a notoriously difficult industry to get into. Why did you choose it over more of a secure career path?
I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me really. I have always wanted to perform and one of the first things I said is that I wanted to act. It is an unstable career, and you do have times when you think “why didn’t I just want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, or something that is more stable and secure?” But I just love performing, I love that process of creating a character and exploring humanity through different roles and scripts.
‘The skinny’ seems like a distinctly different film to the urban films you have starred in previously. Can you tell us a little bit about the role?
Yes, ‘The Skinny’ is about five friends who are reuniting a year after they have graduated from university, and they are meeting up for Pride weekend in New York, and it’s about all the crazy stuff that goes down over the weekend. It is very different to a lot of the roles I have played in the UK. I am a British character but all the black characters come from wealthy families. There’s none of the slang or the hood stuff. They are all inspirational; they are in good industries and are working towards a positive goal. So it is different in that sense. It’s a film about friendship and love in a way.
Are you consciously trying to move away from the urban British film?
I was in ‘Adulthood’, which was a number one box office smash. It did so well over here and set the bar so high for those urban films and I think there is still definite a place for them. But if I want to be part of one in the future, I would want one where the characters are amazing and the script is amazing. I feel like I have already done the highest I can with ‘22.214.171.124.’ and ‘Adulthood’, so unless a script is amazing I think I have made a conscious decision to explore other areas. I think exploring different genres is healthy. It’s also good to test myself and see how I fit doing other things.
How do you approach auditions? Do you find them daunting?
It depends. Sometimes I will go into the audition as if I am the character already – so the way they would walk and talk and different gestures and things like that…
Even in 2012 there is still a clear inequality in the amount of black actresses in lead roles. Do you find that you have to work harder?
I think yes, there is no point in sugar-coating it; especially over here we do have to work harder. The roles available to us are less varied. So yes it is a harder slog over here. I think in the US because there is so much more of a body of work, the roles available are more varied. So it is harder, but I still love the independent film scene over here and I enjoy the hard work.
What would be your ultimate film role?
I get a lot of ‘pretty girl’ roles, and I really want to play something really different and completely stripped back. More character roles so I can take off all the makeup, hair and get to the heart of the character, and let people see me in a different light.
What excites you the most about the film industry?
Especially at the moment over here, there is a lot of young new talent coming up and a lot of actors who have been a part of the scene, who out of frustration or lack of work or not being satisfied with the level of work that is being produced, are coming out with their own things. A lot of friends of mine are writing, and that’s what I am getting into now as well. I’ve always written. I loved writing when I was younger on my blog and putting up things like poems and theatre reviews and things like that, and I’m now getting into some script writing as well. It can be frustrating in this industry getting through scripts that don’t challenge you or you don’t feel are roles that you want to play, so rather than sitting and bitching about it, I’ve started writing my own.
Are there any actors that have inspired you?
I love Halle Berry for her tenacity and how far she has come in her career. Over here I really admire Sophie Okonedo. She seems to have such integrity with her work. She has had the mainstream success over in the US with a play she did over here with Nick Cork. I just love her. I met her once when she did a talk at The Royal Court Theatre.
What do you do in your spare time away from acting?
I love to read! I’ve always been a reader. When I was little, if I was to get punished, my mum would take my books away from me and I would cry. I love to lock myself away in my own world and read. I’m reading ‘One Day’ at the moment – even though I have seen the film, which is totally the wrong way to do it!
How do you feel about fashion and the fashion industry? Is that something that you would like to be a part of as well?
I love to dabble in it. I went to a couple of shows over fashion week and I love exploring different styles. One minute I will be in massive high heels and little dress, but then today I’ve got my DMs on. I love vintage clothes! When I was out in LA recently, I went to the flea market at Fairfax and I loved rummaging through and finding unique things. I do love the high street. I think the British high street is amazing. It’s always nice to put a spin on your outfit with a little vintage number that no one else is going to have though. I’ve been doing some really cool fashion shoots, and I think it is a fun way of expressing yourself.
Would you ever consider getting into modeling?
Yes, definitely! I would love to work with the right brands and cool stuff that I was really into.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
The industry as a whole I think. As we’ve said it’s not a stable career path. You do have your moments when it gets really hard – I am not going to sit here and pretend that it is an easy industry to get into or to stay in. So staying in it, thriving in it and getting great opportunities to do really great work that people can enjoy or people are moved by and touched by, I think is the biggest challenge but also the best part of it all.
What advice would you give to up and coming or aspiring actors or anyone wanting to get into the film industry?
First of all make sure that it is something that you really want to do. People can think of it as red carpets, glitz and glamour, but it is a lot of hard work and there is a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes; the preparing can be really emotional, putting yourself in certain situations for a role, so make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. And if it is something that you really like doing, then just keep at it. Whether its amateur theatre or student films, just practice as much as you can. Also watch different types of films, study different directors and writers. Go and see a theatre production if that is something that you are interested in as well. Just really immerse yourself in it as much as possible.
Do you have a favourite genre of film or an all time favourite film?
I can’t pick out a favourite film – there are so many. I quite like thrillers and emotional dramas. I do like rom-coms, but I am not your typical rom-com girl. It would have to be really smart to catch my attention.
What can we look out for from you in the near future?
‘The Skinny’ is still out in the US at the moment and is doing well. ‘Victim’, which is an urban thriller with a love story element is coming out in June. Also Noel Clark wrote a romantic comedy called ‘The Knot’, which I think will be out over the summer around August and I have a funny little cameo in that as well. I have a few other things coming up that I can’t talk about yet, but are away from acting and very exciting.
Who is your idol?
I would say my mum. I know that is probably the biggest cliché but my mum has been through so much, and she is such a good mum to myself and my brothers and sisters and is so supportive. She didn’t want me to get into this industry. She wanted me to go to university (which I did) but she also wanted me to get a stable job and settle down and had her own dreams for me; and I was always like, “Mum, I want to act.” She knows now that this is what I want to do, and she is just so supportive. She says, “What else would you do? This is what you live for, so of course I will support you.” She is such a strong woman and always maintains her morals and she’s fun! When we are out everyone thinks we are sisters.
Find out more about Shanika here:
Interview: Rebecca Moore
Photography: Joseph Sinclair