The Chewing Gum actress talks career highs and lows with Candice Carty-Williams.
Top MSGM at HARVEY NICHOLS
When we meet, Susan Wokoma is a handful of performances into Labour of Love, a new play set against the backdrop of the Labour party over 25 years of great and tumultuous change.
Starting out in theatre but traversing TV and film, Susan scooped a Royal Television Society award for her lead role of Raquel in E4’s supernatural comedy Crazyhead, is recognisable to many as Cynthia in Chewing Gum – Tracy’s bible bashing sister who stole pretty much every scene she was in – and has most recently appeared in Porters on Dave. In short, with a career so brilliant and varied and a backstory so breezy, she makes this look easy.
To conduct this interview, one that started out professionally but immediately descended into a laughter filled, and at points emotional, chat, I’m encouraged by Susan to relax on a sofa-like armchair in her huge Noël Coward Theatre dressing room.
The bright lights that surround her dressing table mirror shine on Susan, who already radiates warmth so brightly from within, as she talks candidly about navigating the theatre and TV space as a black woman, visiting her family in Nigeria for the first time, and making her way in a representationally-challenged industry despite having no role models.
Dress MCQ ALEXANDER MCQUEEN at HARVEY NICHOLS, shoes ADIDAS
When and why did you get into acting?
When you speak to other actors, they start as a child, but I got into it when I was about 13 or 14, which I still think is quite young, but since meeting other actors I’m like, “Oh, that’s quite old?” My English teacher at the time gave me an application form for the National Youth Theatre, which I applied for and got into. I didn’t really think about the fact I auditioned and I got in, I thought, “oh, they see you and then you get in.” Since then I’ve realised, “oh no, it’s actually quite hard to get in”. It wasn’t until I was about 17/18 that I thought, “okay, I’ll do this as a career.”
Though there’s this sort of idea, especially when I was younger, and because I’m from south east London, people hinge on the, “you’re a raw talent, you’re just like a raw talent off the streets; you’re this and so you’ll be this.” I didn’t trust that rawness, because I was like, “yeah, rawness is cute, but if I want to have a career out of this I need to have control over what I’m doing.” And I saw too many young actors that I started out with who get too old – they get past 23 and they’re like, “you’re no longer young and raw anymore.” I could foresee that happening, so I was like, “If I’m thinking this as a career, I need to get trained.” I applied for RADA and I got in! I was like, “…why is this easy?” Long story short, it was through teachers saying, “you should maybe try this.” It never came from an innate, “I feel a connection to this career,” but I think that’s because I loved watching TV comedies, that was my thing, is my thing.
Did you have any role models when you were watching TV or theatre, before you did any auditions?
None. There was a time when I was really obsessed with Helen Mirren and I think it’s because she went to NYT as a kid. She didn’t go to drama school or anything like that. In terms of people that I looked up to and thought, “oh, I could maybe do that or do what they do, or they inspire me,” not really, but that was mainly because no one looked like me. And even if we did have black actresses, you know, when Halle Berry won the Oscar and everyone was like, “it’s such a big, big win,” it didn’t feel like it to me, I was like, “I don’t look like Halle Berry.” She’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, she’s mixed raced, she considers herself black but I was like, “but I know that she’s a different black to me,” I’m not a size whatever she is. So any sort of person that I was sort of being told, “you should aspire to that,” I was like, “they’re not quite me still.” So, for ages, I think genuinely the first role model was Viola Davis and I really only came across her when she was in Doubt. She’s honest to god the only one.
Do you prefer TV, film or theatre? Do you have a “love”, is theatre your innate love?
Well theatre is how I started, so there’s always this [she gestures to the space around her], and the coming in the stage door and all that sort of fancy pants-iness I love, because it reminds me of my first contact with acting; it was theatre. What I love about TV is that everybody’s here to create one thing, but everyone’s got their job and it means that it’s, weirdly, less focused on you. But I love theatre and would love to have more opportunities in it. It’s been really interesting the way that things have panned out and the way that doors have opened in television, which was absolutely the thing that I didn’t think would happen, and in theatre I just think that it’s much more difficult to sort of place me at the centre of a play, because you’ve got to think about bums on seats, you’ve got to think about selling tickets.
(LEFT & RIGHT) Shirt and trousers MCQ ALEXANDER MACQUEEN at HARVEY NICHOLS
(CENTRE) Top STYLIST’S OWN, jacket BARBARA I GINGINI, skirt BOUTIQUE MOSCHINO at HARVEY NICHOLS, shoes ADIDAS
I fucking hate that.
I loved you in Half of a Yellow Sun.
It was a strange time doing that. My dad passed away when I was doing that job and I hadn’t been to Nigeria before, so it was this weird, obviously grieving, but being in my parent’s homeland for the first time ever. Our producer, Andrea, who I will always, always remember for this, said, “you have made the decision to come out here during such a difficult time, we’re going to send you to meet your family.” So I met all of my family for the first time. I thought, “it’s the first time in my career where I don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards, but I was definitely meant to be here for this.” And it was a real moment where I went, “I’m going to just trust that I’m in the right place, despite it being really, really difficult.” We couldn’t afford for me to go to Nigeria as a kid, and then when I was at drama school I was like, “I’m going to go find my roots, I’m going to go inter-railing around Nigeria,” and my mum was like, “that’s not a thing. Inter-railing around Nigeria’s not a thing.”
So. The amazing, exciting new comedy with Matt Berry?
It’s a pilot for Channel 4, and Matt plays a detective in Victorian London. I can’t say who me and Freddie Fox play, but it’s just the dream. I texted my agent who was like, “How is it? How’s day one?” and I was like, “This is great! …I am in this corset though, I can’t breathe and I know that we’re talking about diversity, but you can keep this. You can actually keep this fucking corset.”
Do you have any preferred genres that you like working on? You took to the supernatural Crazyhead so well.
It was the first time I got to do something like that. I adored it because the scope for things to happen is so big and I’m so used to the scope of any of my characters being quite limited, due to my race and due to how I look. On the scale of conventional attractiveness, I’m buff, but in another world, you know… So to be in this thing where it was like, “Okay and then this demon lunges at you and then you run away and you do this and you kill this thing!” we go home at the end of the night just like tired, battered and we’re just like, “yeah, this is cool!” I’m really, really eager to do something supernatural again. The scope of it is so big, like it becomes sort of Greek. It’s like life and death.
Dress MCQ ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
What are your highs?
I would say Crazyhead was one of the highs. I loved it. Chewing Gum was definitely a high. Half of a Yellow Sun was a personal highlight. There have been lots of really, really weird moments where you’re just like, “I can’t believe I’m doing it” – I was about to go to LA, and my mum called me at the airport as she always does and she prays down the phone like, “don’t crash.” Then she went, “Oh, I just want to say something. It’s really weird because you said you wanted to be an actress and now you’re an actress.” And I was like, “yeah, okay” and I knew she was saying “I’m just letting you know, you said you wanted to do it, we were all like, “no” and then you just did it.” Her biggest fear was “you’re going to go into this world and I’ve got no knowledge of it, and so I can’t coach you, I can’t protect you, I can’t guide you.” And then she’s like, “you’ve done it and you’re relatively unscathed. You can pay your rent.”
And the lows?
I think the lowest was doing a show with a studio, I won’t say what it was. We were filming, I was working with people that I knew, and during rehearsal there was one moment where I got taken to one side and they said really bluntly – it was like the person was gearing up to say it, so they just said it like this – “so basically, you,” – there’s three of us, one light skin guy, one white quite pale actress – “we’re going to have to lighten you.” And I was like, “what?” “Yeah, for lighting, just to make it easier …so if you just sit down we’re going to do a makeup test.” And I just sat there, this wasn’t that long ago, my eyes burning thinking, “wow, just when you think I’ve just come into work, I’m going to get on with my job.” That broke my heart. I had to be in the makeup chair that little bit longer, because I knew they were trying to change my appearance in order to make it easier for them to light me. And it was coming into work knowing that was happening and then having to be on set and being all funny and jovial, but knowing that I was having to do that every single morning. I was like, “that’s psychologically fucked up.”
That’s such emotional labour, isn’t it?
So much emotional labour.
I’m writing my pilot! We’re looking to get that made next year, I’ve also got a development deal in the States. It’s a really, really funny premise, I don’t know whether I’d be in it because the lead is a young, eight-year-old black girl, our hero of the show! Hopefully the Matt Berry thing will go, hopefully Porters will go again. But the primary focus is my writing, and getting stuff made.
Labour of Love is at the Noël Coward Theatre until 2nd December.