Naomi Ackie is a rising star in British film. The actress whose credits include a stint in Doctor Who and 2016’s emotional drama Damilola, Our Loved Boy has now gone on to have her breakthrough role in new British Period Drama Lady Macbeth.
The film is an adaption of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk and explores the role of women in the 19th century, adultery and murder. The film is directed by William Oldroyd and stars Naomi alongside Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis and Golda Rosheuvel.
Having two actors of colour taking lead roles in a British period drama has pushed Lady Macbeth into ground-breaking territory, we spoke to Naomi to find out what it means to her to be involved in a project like this.
Can you tell us a little about who Naomi Ackie is?
Hello! I am 25 and from East London. I guess I’m just a normal 25 year old. I like going out, meeting friends and chipping away at my dreams.
What is your character Anna like, do you have any similarities?
She’s a timid character who grows more fearful as the film progresses. She’s also very observant she knows and watches everything. I guess we’re the same in that instance. I’m quite a perceptive person and can be quite introspective when I’m ready.
Did you find the role at all challenging?
Yes. Mainly because it was my first film, so every day was a challenge to figure out the tricks of surviving on set and working the camera, especially with such an intense script. I struggled playing Anna at times because she was constantly at the mercy of others. My sense of pride sometimes made it harder to show what I needed to show.
The film is an adaption of Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtensenk, after reading the script did you go on to read the novel?
I purposefully didn’t. To me, it was important to create my character from Alice’s [Alice Birch – screenwriter] interpretation of who Anna was. I sometimes feel getting all the information handed to me takes away the sense of ownership I need to play a character.
It’s no secret that we don’t often see people of colour in period dramas such as this, previously there was Belle directed by Amma Asante in 2013, but it has been almost 4 years since its release. Did you feel pressure taking on such a significant role?
Absolutely, because it feels like I’m stepping into unmanned territory. There is a spotlight on me that isn’t only about what I can do on screen but my personal opinions about it as well. I want to be able to speak my mind constructively about what I think needs to be changed within this industry but I also want to bring more people like me out of the shadows so there is more of us to encourage that change too. It seems to be a big goal shared by a lot of people so if I can play a small part in achieving it then the pressure is inconsequential.
Golda Rosheuvel is also part of the cast, how was it working with her? Did you both share the same excitement of acting in a period drama?
Golda actually plays the grandmother of Teddy [Anton Palmer]. She’s not even a servant which is even rarer to see than a character like Anna! She plays this amazingly strong matriarch who rivals Katherine for control of the house. We talked a lot about how great we felt about working in this film in between takes. We marvelled about this film’s progress and what it means for the future, it was so joyful to share that experience with her.
What made you try out for the role, and were you confident you’d get it?
I was so surprised when I saw what the audition was for. I had written off that a character like that would ever come my way. So when I went into the audition room I threw everything I had at it, but in the back of my mind, it felt like a very long shot. It’s really changed my mind about what’s possible for me as a black woman and reminded me not to limit myself.
The director William Oldroyd made it a point to have an open audition where race wasn’t a consideration, how important do you think this decision was?
So so important. I know so many people of all different colours, shapes, and sizes who are so talented but are not given the same opportunities as the majority. It’s not only the actors that are missing out but its the audiences too. I believe now more than ever all of us would so deeply benefit from seeing many different perspectives of the same narrative.
What’s next for you?
I have a project coming up which I’m not sure I can talk about yet but I’m really excited about it. In terms of breaking down barriers I’ve always felt very different from the normal actress you see on TV, from the colour of my skin, to the texture of my hair, to the size of my thighs. I feel like the biggest way I can break down barriers is to be exactly who I am in this industry inward and outwardly. I think it’s also about choosing the right projects that stretch the imagination of what a woman like me can be and experience in fictional and real life.
Where would you like to be in the next 5 years?
Alive! I’m trying not to make plans anymore. But I definitely know I hope to still be open and creative and working towards building a great career that can bring people joy and maybe a little food for thought every now and again.
Why should people watch Lady Macbeth?
It’s nothing that people expect it to be! It packs a punch. It’s this dark story of the desperation of oppression. People should watch it because it completely rips apart the British period film genre, a time in British history that is so often seen through rose-tinted glasses. I think it’s a great piece of work and I’m so excited for people to see it!
Lady Macbeth is released in UK Cinemas Friday 28th April 2017 | American Cinemas 14th July 2017
UK cinema-goers can book a preview screening via BIFA independents for Thursday 27th April. Find out more here.