Simona Brown is just 22, and has won named roles in notable mainstream projects since hitting the scene a few years ago, such as BAFTA-nominated BBC TV Movie Murdered By My Boyfriend (2014) with Georgina Campbell; Wizards vs Aliens (BBC, 2014); big screen romantic comedy Man Up (2015); J.K. Rowling’s BBC/HBO TV adaptation The Casual Vacancy (2015); The Night Manager (BBC, 2016) with David Harewood; The History Channel’s 3-part mini-series Roots (May, 2016) with fellow alum Malachi Kirby, and noted actors Anika Noni-Rose, Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker; and her US TV series début Guilt (June 2016) with Robbie Gee, amongst others.
But, there’s relatively little out there about her. Enter a delighted TBB and Brown’s first ITV project, the new supernatural 3-part mini-series, Him. I wanted to know more about who Simona Brown is…
I did go to a performing arts school. In the lead up to that, my mum saw that I had quite a lot of creative energy – I would write scripts and do plays with my friends and we’d force my mum to watch them. I’d play out really extravagant storylines with Barbies’ that would last for weeks! So, my mum thought, yeah, she probably needs to let out her creative energy into performing arts, singing and dancing and things.
I knew I wanted to be an actor after I saw The Lion King for the first time when I was about 9, on a school trip. I would watch TV when I was younger and I thought it was cool. I was quite dramatic and would sing and dance, perform and play… But, I never said I want to be an actor. I wanted to be Whitney Houston. Everyone wanted to be Whitney Houston when they were 5. Then I saw this amazing show, and I think, seeing all of those actors of colour perform at such a high level like nothing I’d ever seen before, inspired me! I could identify with them! I associated myself with them! So I was like, I want to do that. I want to be a bird, I want to be a lion, I want to be a tiger, I want to do that!
After that, we took it more seriously, and I would do drama clubs, singing lessons, and then I applied for the Brit School. I got in when I was 14 and stayed until I finished 6th form. After that, I went to Identity [School of Acting] and with that, Femi [Oguns] and Jonathan Hall signed me. Ever since then, it’s just been go, go, go!
Brown plays Faith, who is also narrator, in ITV’s Him – (Fionn Whitehead) is a once-bright, disconnected teen, whose parents have been divorced 5 years. Mum Hannah (Katherine Kelly) and new husband Victor (Patrick Robinson), also a previous divorcee, have a new baby. Dad Edward (James Murray) has an expanding new family with new wife Beth (Lucy Liemann), and Him must divide his time between the 2 homes. When Victor becomes Faith’s only parent after the death of her mum, she must move in, just as Him begins to re-discover his strange supernatural power. Then, between a mutual and inescapable attraction to his stepsister, his capricious teen disposition and the damage that marital discord and separation can inflict on any vulnerable child caught up in it, the question is, will Him use his power for ‘good’ or not?
As 17-year-old, Faith, estranged daughter to Patrick Robinson’s Victor, I wondered about the age group and how Brown had won the role …
I’ve had predominantly younger roles of 20 or younger. I was filming in South Africa, so I had to do a tape instead of [auditioning] in the room. I sent in the tape and actually thought I looked older, so they asked me to make myself younger! I did it again. Then when I came back to London, I did another audition with them in the room and met Andy (De Emmony, director), Chrissie (Skinns, producer) and Daniel (Edwards, casting director).
When I initially got the script I was interested in the character, because she seems very still and self-sustained. But there are indications that there is so much more. I mean, she’s been through a lot, like having to deal with the loss of her mother, and being reunited with her absentee father. I could really empathise with her. So I was just intrigued by her character, and the writing. Because I found when I was prepping for the audition, it just kind of flowed. There were no lines that I was tripping on, or that I would forget, because it felt right.
How much of the script did you see before the audition?
With the first 2 auditions, they were very hush-hush about it. I was only sent [pages]. There wasn’t that much information about the characters or the storyline. It was just scenes [between] Faith and Him. They gave some insight into what the character is like – her background, and obstacles, overall objectives, and I could really relate to her. It just felt very real, like a moment tucked [away] from the world.
In this type of setting you play step-siblings, though you haven’t been brought up together. Did you feel that there might be that element of discomfort for the audience, and that’s why they didn’t romanticise it too much and they tread a little carefully there? Or is it because he is this unusual person with mysterious gifts and that’s how they thought a relationship might begin for him?
I think it’s very true to the playing age and the circumstances that both of the characters are in. I mean, sure, like maybe a step-brother and sister might meet each other for the third time, they’re living together and they can’t keep their hands off each other. But then in other circumstances, they might just be like, I sort of like that person a lot because they’re not related to me, and I know it’s wrong. They just form a natural connection that comes from a commonality of pain, really – having to deal with the destruction of the infrastructure of his family and being elbowed out with babies popping out left, right and centre. Then to have a new step-sister moving in, and she’s had to deal with the death of her mother, leaving all her friends behind and staying with her dad who couldn’t really care less about her before her mother died. So I think they just kind of made a connection through that. I don’t think it’s a physical thing. It’s more like an emotional thing that they share.
How did you prepare for becoming a 17-year-old again? Did you go back and read your old diaries?
I read my old diaries every couple months or so! I was so cringey! It doesn’t feel that long ago for me. But, I guess you’re not 100% yet. You’re still figuring out where you’re going, or who you are, and I just mirrored the pressures that I’m having versus the pressures that she’s having. How important exams are for her, is how important getting a job is for me [laughs] and I would sort of relate to that. Liking a boy, not knowing if he likes me back. The relationship with her dad – I kind of looked at my relationship with my dad. I think it’s just finding commonalities and remembering what it was like…
Because you know when you become a global superstar, it’s a pretty standard question – if you could go back and meet your teenage self, what would you tell them? This is good practice for you…
Yes! I don’t know what I’d tell myself… I guess, maybe love myself and don’t relax my hair. Like, STOP! Put the relaxer down! Never touch it again! It is the Devil! That’s what I’d tell myself [laughs].
This is also the meeting of two racially different halves of a family. Your dad is black and Him’s mum is white. Has that been addressed in any way, or has the writer just been able to present another example of a modern family, and say we’re not going to highlight those differences…?
When I was reading the script, it wasn’t really made into an issue or a theme of two different races living with each other. I think it was just an example of modern Britain; modern families really. I haven’t left the project thinking, Oh! They should have addressed this issue… I don’t think that was the main focus of the piece. Faith comes from a mixed background – she went to a school with both black and white kids and she probably has black and white friends. I don’t think she thinks, oh my God, I’m living with white people now, she doesn’t know how to do jerk chicken! It wasn’t addressed and I don’t think it needed to be [laughs].
Well, not all Jamaicans were brought up doing it! The Jerk centre of Jamaica is Port Antonio, in Portland, at the Eastern tip of the island. I just think it’s something we’ve been able to hang our hat on culturally. I find it interesting, though. For a start, I know that Him was commissioned by Steve November, who is no longer with ITV, and he was very keen to ‘normalise’ inclusivity. Another one of his commissions, Brief Encounters, for example, showed an aspect of life for a mixed race family in the 1980s. Then, we also know from the Scottish Referendum and then the EU Referendum votes that kids of that age now see themselves as global citizens. So, there is this feeling that they don’t really know what all the fuss is about when we start talking about ‘diversity’…
Yes, of course, I’m quite happy to see black faces, Asian faces, white faces on screen… It is nice to see when it is a mixed family and the dad just happens to have a Jamaican accent. Although, I can’t lie, when I read the script and it said “VICTOR (Jamaican descent)”, I skimmed past it and I assumed that it said Jamaican accent [laughs]! So, when we came to the read-through, I was expecting Patrick to come out with a Jamaican accent! So, I was like, oh, was that me being quite presumptuous.
Well, you say that, and I commend the writer and production team on that. But, we have working actors today who remember receiving scripts which just said, “Philip, 19, black” as a character description! It doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on you, but it does reflect well on the production.
So you have been working almost non-stop since 2014, really, haven’t you?
Yes! I look back and I think, it’s only been 3 years! I love J. K. Rowling! I used to read her books in my French classes, which probably did not help me in the long run. But, it helped me through. I loved the Harry Potter series and I always dreamed about being in something written by her. So when I got The Casual Vacancy I was over the moon and then after that… Murdered by My Boyfriend. I know girls that have been in quite controlling relationships so to be involved in something that addresses domestic abuse, I think it’s really relevant, such a relevant story. I like to think that it has inspired women out there, or friends of women out there, or even men in domestic silent controlling relationships. I hope it inspired them to get out of that situation, or to help someone get out of that situation. I’m so happy to be part of something like that. It was so well-directed and had such a great performance from Georgina. I’d love to be involved with something like that again.
In the last few minutes, can you tell us a little about your other work…?
Yes! Roots, I remember watching it when I was a kid. That was the first insight into anything to do with black history. It was quite harrowing to watch. I was about 9 and it made me so interested in learning about my history. When I got the audition, I was thrilled and truly honoured to be able to do a re-make of something as big as that. I think it’s still a very relevant story. I know people say the whole slave [story] is becoming like a money-making trend… But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I do feel that you’ve got to learn about your history and some parts of that history are ugly. I do, however, wish there could be a series about just living in Africa or Jamaica or Haiti. There’s more to our history than just slavery. But, I think it is a very integral part of our history.
Guilt is a random one! I play the part of Roz Walters. She’s a DJ and a part-time pimp! She’s a little Madam! The character is quite random! You see the chameleon I’ve turned into! It’s great, it’s what I love about this job. You don’t know who you’re gonna play from one story to the next! I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was wild, it was crazy. The costumes were great and I got to work with Billy Zane, which was just awesome! He was like ‘You’re good, kid’ [laughs disbelievingly] and that was amazing! I was like, I saw you in Titanic and now you’re saying I’m good!!!
So yes, with each project comes new experiences, new friends and just learning more. I find the more I do, the more I want, the more I want to learn! And I want to, eventually, with enough experience under my belt, get onto the other side – the writing, the producing and maybe directing. But that’s all to come, hopefully, one day. For now, I just want to get as much experience as I can and have as much fun as I can.
You have been described as an up and coming actress by Screen Daily, and I think I’d have to agree. We’d like to wish you luck and support you in any way we can!
Thank you. It’s been fun talking to you.
That was our time. Simona Brown is going to have a huge career ahead of her. The camera loves her, she’s an engaging, intelligent woman who still can’t believe her own luck, and that makes her hugely endearing.
The first episode of Him aired on October 19th 2016 on ITV 1 at 9pm and continues for the next two Wednesdays in that slot. It is also available for catch up in the ITV Hub.
Stay tuned for our interview with Patrick Robinson, who plays Victor. For an excerpt showing the excruciating family dynamic see
Follow Simona Brown via her Instagram