The actor talks Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor and representation in the film industry.
Taken from the Winter 2020 issue. Order your copy now.
Halloween may have passed, but Tahirah Sharif is keeping the spooky spirit alive with Netflix’s latest horror drama series, The Haunting of Bly Manor. Telling a chilling tale of love and loss, the London actor takes on the role of Miss Rebecca Jessel, a ghost and former governess of the manor.
Sharif has appeared in various genres throughout her career — from Netflix rom-com A Christmas Prince, to Film 4 comedy See Me alongside Olivia Colman — but horror has not yet been one of them. Speaking on her attraction to the project, she says she grew up reading Stephen King novels and has “always been into the dark and more sinister side of film”, but sometimes finds a lack of the depth of story and character she wants to work with as an actor. “A lot of horrors fall flat for me, apart from the ones that are told really intelligently,” Sharif explains, highlighting that Mike Flanagan, the creator of the show and its predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House, strikes the balance she had been looking for. “He writes these brilliant stories, creates these worlds, where the bulk of the story is essentially about the drama between people and dealing with all the themes that we can all relate to — like love and loss and betrayal and lust and devastation, and so on. But then he just adds this supernatural horror element that surrounds it, surrounds this world.”
Indeed, as we get to know Rebecca through both flashbacks and ghostly encounters, Sharif maps out a character that is layered and nuanced. With her dreams of becoming a lawyer undermined by the harsh realities of gender discrimination in the 80s, we learn that her decision to become an au pair for two orphaned children at the manor was a savvy move in the hopes of impressing their lawyer uncle. But it’s here that she’s drawn into a toxic love affair with his business associate, Peter Quint [Oliver Jackson-Cohen] — an involvement that ultimately proves to be fatal.
“At first I was a bit conscious that I didn’t want her to be this weak female victim who falls prey to this charming bad boy,” Sharif tells me. “But the more work we did and the more scripts that came out, the more I really loved Rebecca Jessel. She is such a good, clean-hearted person, but not naïve really at all. She was a very intelligent, very determined character […] It just goes to show that anybody can get caught up in a relationship like that, that can be quite toxic and was quite unhealthy. It doesn’t make you a weak person.”
With The Haunting of Bly Manor propelling Sharif to new heights in her career, I ask how she wants to use her influence, platform and work. “I do want to be, I guess, somebody who girls who look like me can look up to,” she considers. “Because I remember when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of girls or women who looked like me on the TV or on the shows in Britain. In America, possibly, but not in England. And I do think that is very important — seeing people who look like you shone in a positive light on your TV screen, who you can relate to and look up to, who represent you and your opinions and thoughts or values. If I can be that for any young person, regardless of what they look like, then that’s made me happy.”
Proceeding to reflect on industry representation as a whole, Sharif says: “With regards to being Black within this industry, for me personally, I don’t think things are moving along as quickly or progressively as I would like […] There are many more conversations to be had, and sometimes difficult ones, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think difficult conversations need to be had in order to move forward, but unfortunately, people are very hesitant to talk about things that might be upsetting or kind of awkward or uncomfortable. But that’s what we need to do, and I think when it comes to people who call themselves allies of Black and Brown people, those are the people that need to listen and also have many conversations. ”It’s refreshing to hear honest new voices in the industry, and as Sharif moves into the next stage of her career, hers is one we should all be listening to.
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