Susan Wokoma: ‘I thought that TV belonged to size zero models’

Susan Wokoma: ‘I thought that TV belonged to size zero models’

October 30, 2020

Following a string of strong roles on stage and TV, the actor now stars in Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s latest comedy. But, not so long ago, being on television hadn’t even crossed her mind

Susan Wokoma arrives at Regent’s Park in central London in a nostalgic mood. “I was here last summer,” she says, “and it was the best summer of my life”. Wokoma, who describes herself as having been “terrified of Shakespeare” faced her fears as Bottom in Dominic Hill’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in this park, warming up on the grass each day. She was unsure about playing the comic foil, until Hill told her what he had heard about her. “He said, I know somebody who was in your year at Rada [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and they said your Ophelia was the best they have ever seen. It was a show to our year and teachers, so for this secret thing to be brought out as evidence … I was like, shit, I’ve got to do it now!”

Wokoma, 32, has played a string of singular roles on television in recent years, from Michaela Coel’s shrieky, Bible-bashing sister in the hit comedy Chewing Gum to a straight-talking copper in Year of the Rabbit (with Matt Berry, who described the show as a Victorian version of The Sweeney). Now she plays the world-weary sibling of an amateur ghosthunter in Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Amazon comedy, Truth Seekers. As such, it’s hard to imagine her doubting her ability to enthral an audience – even in iambic pentameter. Even more surprising, perhaps, is her admission that she was a shy child who originally wanted to work behind the scenes in the creative world: “In my head, actors were loud and brilliant. I was like, I’m not Jim Carrey or Arnold Schwarzenegger!”

We meet in late September when British theatre is unquestionably in crisis. Just before the pandemic, Wokoma was in the smartly subversive Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse, a reimagined Richard III centred on a disabled, narcissistic teenager. Now the industry is in peril and, like many, she is thinking about rescue efforts. (“In my head, I’m like, could there be an extreme theatre union? Could we pair up the National with a smaller theatre? It seems useless to just look after your own building right now.”)

Unsurprisingly, Wokoma says she’s grateful to have television work as an option, with productions tentatively restarting. A Bafta Breakthrough Brit in 2017, she hasn’t been short of opportunities in front of, and behind, the camera in recent years – though her career started in a wonderfully chaotic fashion. Hailing from a Nigerian family, she grew up in Elephant and Castle, south London, and cackles as she remembers misunderstanding what gentrification would mean for the area: “I was so excited, I thought, it’s gonna be great. There’s gonna be a better bowling alley at the shopping centre!”

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