"I'm Falling In Love With Myself":
Interview by TAIYE SELASI
Images by TINO CHINO
Laughing all the way, actress and singer, Sheila Atim talks with novelist Taiye Selasi about Uganda, Sheila’s path from science to singing to acting, and why she’s having a good time.
Shelia AtIM IS A SHAPESHIFTER.
When I meet her, first, in the opening moments of Barry Jenkins’ Amazon series—that masterful adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—she is heroic.
Nearly six feet (182 meters) tall, all dazzling cheekbones and defiant shoulders, Sheila Atim is a warrior goddess. Heroine par excellence. But when I see her next, in a video clip of her star-making scene in the British play “Girl from the North Country,” singing Bob Dylan, Sheila Atim is heartbreaking. The bone structure is, of course, unchanged, but the being has transformed: From wildness to wistfulness, vulnerability. Not power, but pain, embodied. Eyes closed, she sings with the vocal control of a chart-topping songstress—pairing, improbably, the heart of Adele with the hurt of Tracy Chapman.
I shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps. This is what actors do. They transform themselves again and again, shedding and growing new skins. And still, I think certain skins are harder to shed than others. For a girl born in Uganda in 1991, shuttled to England in search of asylum, raised in a mostly White working-class suburb, skin is no neutral phenomenon. To be seen, as a black woman, for one’s nuanced humanity; to demand, as a black actor, a contemplation of humanness; and to do this, simultaneously, in the English and American entertainment industries—this is a feat. Even before I meet her, I know: Sheila Atim is a force.
And so I am shocked when she appears on screen for our midday Zoom conversation. Propped on her couch in a cozy turtleneck, eyes twinkling with curiosity, Sheila Atim is, now, sweetness incarnate. Though she is preparing to leave the country for Uganda the next day, and her publicist has granted only one hour, Atim gifts me three, speaking with transparency, intelligence, and wit about her life and her work. There is something so shockingly balanced about this enthusiastic woman, a 30-year-old whose boundless talent and curiosity have, together, launched her to stardom. It is rare, I think, to find an actor who can find the hero and the heartbreak within herself—while remaining both pragmatic and playful in person. That is to say, for all of her success, Sheila Atim isn’t fussed. She’s girl-next-door grounded.