Nikki Amuka-Bird has a distinguished list of acting credits to her name in TV, cinema and theatre. It shouldn’t be surprising, since she graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and subsequently performed and toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). She went on to perform in theatres up and down the country – the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, Donmar Warehouse and the Tricycle Theatre, to name but a few.
She has appeared in over 30 long-running and limited series as one off and recurring/central characters, as well as movies, for television. Our favourite appearances are, obviously, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008, Alice Busang), Torchwood (2008, Beth Halloran), Small Island (2009, Celia), Luther (2011-13), Sinbad (2012, The Professor), Death in Paradise (2014) and Quarry (2016, Ruth). She has played an MP (Survivors, 2008-10), a Vietnam Vet’s widow (Quarry) A PC (Five Days, 2007), a DS/DCI/detective superintendent, a professor, a cyborg sleeper agent, a socialite and a star ship captain!
Now, this November Amuka-Bird will be on our screens as Zadie Smith’s barrister, Natalie Blake in the BBC 2 adaptation of the 2012 novel NW.
I’m laughing like a kid at Christmas at the prospect of interviewing one of our, if not now, then soon-to-be, most important actresses. Can you hear the delight in my voice [laughs]?
Hello, how are you? [laughs] I’m thrilled to speak to you!
Oh, likewise. It’s a genuine pleasure to finally get the chance to have a conversation with you! Congratulations on your whole career. It’s been a long and varied one. You’ve done some weighty and interesting things, having graduated from LAMDA…
Yes, well, time flies! I graduated in 2000, so it’s been 16 years, and I still feel very lucky to be doing what I love to do, still having that huge sense of discovery and excitement about it and that passion. So thank you, very much!
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to be an actress?
I always leaned towards the arts and being creative. I went to a school that was really encouraging of the student’s creative side, and at that point, I was naturally dancing. It wasn’t until later, [during] my A-levels that I found a drama teacher who kind of spotted the potential in me to be an actor. He was the one – Michael Friend – who actually got the drama school applications out and said, ‘I think you should really think about doing this!’
Well, thank you, Mr. Friend!
I know, it’s [so strange] that I’ve never really made that association before! It was great, and I think it was good for me, because I was a blank canvas. I went to drama college and I didn’t really have an idea of what acting meant. So I was a sponge and just open to all the disciplines that you can learn. It was a really wonderful time in my life.
What’s always struck me about you is your beautiful dark skin. You, Ellen Thomas, Judith Jacob, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, are some of the few darker-skinned British actresses who have been given very substantial roles. But also, there’s something in the way you carry yourself. It’s definitely not haughtiness – that’s way too harsh. It’s more like a regal bearing… You manage to translate that into characters like the Professor (Sinbad), DS/DCI Erin Grey in Luther. I loved Anna Jackson, that spoilt little rich girl (Death In Paradise, #3.7, 2014), and as Captain Diomika Tsing in Jupiter Ascending (2015), which showcased so much black British talent – Ariyon Bakare, David Ajala and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Yes, the Wachowskis (Lana and Lily) are really keen on diversity. It was a really lovely thing to make a black woman the captain of a ship in an authoritative role! I always try and use my dance training, that posture you learn in your dance work and that sense of movement and how a character carries themselves, it’s really helpful in my work. I’m often wary of that sense of haughtiness which, as you say, is an easy way to define women who are powerful and in control and ambitious. It’s something that I really try and unpick, because I think life’s challenges require that you have to be strong, and you have to find your power, whether male or female, black or white.
Oftentimes, it can be misinterpreted as being cold. I’m often worried about the sense of powerful black women being misunderstood, because I think they are heroines as well. People like Michelle Obama, when she first came onto the scene, it was just so wonderful to see a woman like that in a position of power, and I remember, at first, her being criticised for being so strong. But I think we have to look past those stereotypes and clichés and celebrate her strength and what it takes to get to that position. But I’m really glad to play women who inspire me and, in some ways, are stronger than I am, and that you have to rise to the challenge to define their power!
Well, as a DCI or detective superintendent (Silent Witness, 2005-10), for example, we have to believe that Erin Grey/Gaynor Jenkins/you can command a mainly male force beneath you. But, also, that you’re capable of the physical side, as well…
Completely; making decisions that are uncomfortable, and that are not always going to be popular! I was really pleased with that role in particular, because I was so worried going up against Idris (John Luther). He’s just a hero to so many people and a National Treasure. I was like, ‘oh no! why did MY character not like him?’ So I’ve been really pleased with the audience response, and that people have taken the time to really think that she could be a 3-dimensional character and not see her as an ‘angry black woman’, but, as the 3-dimensional person that she is. See that she is struggling. She does see that she’s made mistakes in the course of that and she tries to explain herself as somebody who had to work really hard to get to where she is. She just doesn’t want anything threatening that…
The Grey/Luther dynamic did bother some of us, especially since she was the only other black character for a while. But, what you say is also true, as illustrated by the difficulties Obama faced in trying to convince Michelle to go out with him!
…She doesn’t want reckless behaviour threatening her future, even if it is from our hero. Really trying to look into why people become who they become is part of my job.
I think you bring a lot of that to the table. In other hands, Grey might not have gotten away with her actions, and her redemption wouldn’t have been believable. People got a lot of that sense of her from you – the non-dialogue, the non-verbal Nikki interpreting the character and shaping who we saw. You have this wonderful face, which inspires empathy. I think, people would be naturally drawn to you and open to what you had to say without you even saying a word…
That’s a really lovely compliment! I’m so glad to hear you say that. I was raised by my single mother – an incredible woman. A woman who has had to be completely self-reliant, who has not only raised me, but has been successful in her multiple businesses. I feel an empathy with women who life has put into a position where they have to be the breadwinner and they have to be tough. If they’re not tough, they won’t succeed. I feel a kind of responsibility to look behind the surface of that, because I know that it can be intimidating to some people. I’m really glad hear you say that the truth of that comes through.
With Anna Jackson (Death in Paradise), the spoilt rich girl in a house full of rich men – her brothers (Jimmy Akingbola and Chris Obi) and father (Joseph Marcell), the responsibility of being a rich black family on a Caribbean island, I thought you brought quite a nice vulnerability to her. Now, she was haughty, but at the same time…
[Laughs] Well, she was definitely confused. But, she was also looking for love and appreciation from her father who didn’t understand her artistic sensibilities. She was still trying to find herself. She had been spoilt and that privilege meant that she was slightly indulgent in her search for herself. I always try not to judge the characters, and that allows me to play with them and let the audience decide what they feel about them.
When I saw you in Jupiter Ascending on the bridge as Captain Tsing of the Aegis force, I think I nearly jumped out of my seat I was so pleased! I was in a big iMax, so I got her, full force – her comportment, her authority and calm. All of the things we’ve seen in Star Trek, Star Wars – even Idris as the captain in Prometheus – we’ve seen it in everyone else, but I’m thinking you may be the first black female Captain, certainly played by a Brit… I can only think of freighter captain Kasidy Yates-Sisko (Star Trek Deep Space 9, Penny Johnson Jerold, 1995-99) and Terran Federation Pilot Lt. Rosie Forbes (Wing Commander, Brit Ginny Holder, 1999).
The film found a more positive response, among female science fiction fans who appreciated the film’s campiness and the film’s deviation from typical gender norms in a genre that is traditionally male-centred. Tsing’s fan Wiki page says “Diomika is shown to be an extremely brave and principled leader, and is respected and obeyed without question by her crew members.”
For me, I love the way that these bigger roles that you’ve done now bring us to NW’s Natalie – your 45th acting credit! Set in present day, she is a barrister, rather than a solicitor. She’s one of a group of childhood friends – Leah (Phoebe Fox), Richie Campbell’s Nathan and OT Fagbenle’s Felix – from the same estate, but your lives have gone off in different directions.
Yes, Natalie actually started life as Keisha. She’s a product of her own self-invention. She’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly capable, self-taught and she has this hunger for knowledge and learning and new experiences. She’s ambitious and propels her life forward at an extraordinary rate, and achieves a huge amount of success. She has success in her personal life – she’s married; she has 2 kids. Everything on the surface looks like she has the perfect life. In terms of her story it’s examining the cost of breaking through the glass ceiling in the sense that she feels slightly disconnected from her culture and her earlier life. It looks at a crisis of identity, a cultural or existential crisis of her asking herself at this point, now that I have everything, am I really happy? Who am I? Do the people who knew me when I was a child accept me? Do the people who I work with now, who surround me, do they accept me? It’s a sort of look within herself to find her identity again, which I thought was a really brave idea and brave story-telling from Zadie [Smith], because she’s really honest about what it can mean to be ambitious and what it can cost you.
I think, as with this generation, her mum says to her you’re gonna have to work twice as hard as everyone else to be counted and to be seen, and you’re gonna have to be perfect. I think she takes that very seriously, and that’s her drive in life, that you have to work so hard to get what you want, and she thinks the answer to all her problems in life is professionalism and perfectionism. In a way, it works. But, in a way, she loses some of herself in that journey. I think people will be able to identify with her, hopefully. If I’ve done a good job [laughs].
It sounds right up your street, to be honest. All the other entertainment news outlets, were stressing how delighted everyone was, including Zadie Smith, that you were cast as Natalie.
I was really excited about it, because it’s set in my old neighbourhood. I know NW, I know those streets really well, I’m a real fan of Zadie’s work and I had the book. So by the time the script came my way, I just felt really excited and ready to dive into it. I also feel that what Zadie’s written in this character is something I’ve never seen before, in terms of the honesty of that journey, of pioneering in your career, and being the first person to be a professional in their family, of being the first person to achieve their dream in their family, and what that experience really entails – not being a fairytale, but the truth of that. I was thrilled that it came my way and to find out that Zadie knew who I was, I was like, WOW! The biggest reward was right there, because she had seen my work and there was an affinity. She was sharing her experiences and I was sharing mine, and she was really encouraging about playing the role. It was really exciting!
It’s written Rachel Bennette (Bel Ami), and Saul Dibb is directing, and he was involved in Bullet Boy (2004), so he’s handled similar material in terms of your council estate beginnings…
He’s worked in documentaries, I think, which is really key to his style. He really knows how to go into communities, into different territories and capture the truth of those lives. He really demanded from all of us that we really strip back everything in terms of anything stylistic and just get to the bottom of who these people are and allow him to observe. Not feel that we have to try too hard, but rather slip into the characters and feel exactly where they were coming from. This is the second time I’m working with him. I did a mini-series called Line of Beauty years ago (2006). It was only a small part, but I remember having a really profound experience with him, because he knows how to bring out the truth, and that’s exactly what you’re aiming for every time. You might pick up bad habits along the way, but he just strips it back and goes, No. We’re not doing anything here, but offering up the truth of these lives to the audience. He’s brilliant.
You’ve got a great central cast, it’s just brilliant! What a great poster that’s going to be!
OT Fagbenle is actually a really good friend of mine – someone I’ve known for a long time. So it was really lovely to be working with him and Richie and Phoebe. There was a real sense of camaraderie. What’s great about this story is that even though it centres around the best friends, each character has a very challenging journey and a different story arc. There was a real sense of us coming together and going, we really want to make Zadie proud and to a make each other proud and to show a slice of life that maybe doesn’t always get shown on British television. There’s a real passion there, and compassion. I hope it comes through in the final film!
So apart from all the wonderful theatre and these brilliant mini-series’ – you’ve got everything on your CV. But, you have done quite a few movies for TV – around 6. So is there anything you want to tell aspiring actors and actresses about what maybe sets the extended one-off episode apart from the other TV mediums?
This is a 90 minute, one-off film, yes. Well, it’s interesting that this is a book adaptation as well. I’ve done a few of book adaptations which lend themselves quite well to TV movies. What’s lovely about that is having the book as source material, so you have all of the rich reference of detail and it can really spark your imagination. You ‘re really supported with the information that the author gives you.
I love all the different styles and genres. I think what’s nice about doing TV movies, is you can have a clear sense of what the story arc; what the narrative is going to be. Sometimes it can be challenging with series’, because you have to be on your toes all the time in a different way to interpret the character’s actions, because, you don’t know, until those new episodes arrive, what your character’s story is. So it’s a completely different style. I like both of them. But I must say I do enjoy the chillness of the story-telling with these films [laughs]. I’m not fussy, I love it all!
It has been such a pleasure for me, I hope you’ve enjoyed it too! Thank you!
Thank you, yes, it was lovely talking to you. I love what you do, by the way. I’m really aware of what you do. I check in with what you guys are saying, and I always find it so supportive. So thank you, guys!
Well, thank you very much, on behalf of the team and Madame TBB.
In my mind, Nikki Amuka-Bird is our Viola Davis, demonstrating a similar quietly powerful star quality, which I can only see getting better. It will, I’m absolutely sure, bring her the same well-deserved success as that currently enjoyed by Ms. Davis.
We will be watching and cheering her all the way!
NW will air BBC2 on November 14th 2016 at 9pm.