Sheila Atim: "Hollywood needs to be less risk averse"

Sheila Atim
(Image credit: EE)

Sheila Atim is a woman to watch, bursting onto our screens this month in Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King.

The highly anticipated action film sees Atim star alongside Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch, as a team of all-female warriors protecting the African Kingdom of Dahomey - something that has earnt the Ugandan-British actor an EE Rising Star BAFTA nomination. 

The prestigious EE Rising Star Award - the only BAFTA voted for by the British public - honours and celebrates emerging talent, with the results announced during the televised ceremony this Sunday.

Sheila Atim

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sheila Atim's star is certainly on the rise, but the actor and playwright is far from new on the scene, with an MBE and two Olivier Awards to her name already.

And now that she's fast becoming a household name, she's not slowing down - instead Atim has big plans to create, direct and make lasting change in the industry.

Ahead of the BAFTAs this weekend, Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Sheila Atim to talk The Woman King, her EE nomination and the changes she would like to make in Hollywood.

Sheila Atim

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Congratulations on your EE Rising Star nomination...

Thank you - It feels great. It's such a lovely award and gets so much celebration - even before the actual ceremony, so it feels like it's got such good will around it. And obviously the previous winners and nominees are just all extremely talented people who have gone on to do really exciting things, so it feels lovely to be amongst them.

Do you feel that we are seeing a shift for women in film?

I think so - I think there is still a way to go if I'm honest, but I think it all starts with an awareness. That's the first barrier to access isn't it - like actually knowing that something is an option for you. That is something that we definitely have and we are seeing the trickle-down effect of that, but yeah I'd like us to keep continuing and not get complacent. We need to keep pushing. 

Is directing something you would ever consider?

Yes definitely. I'd love to direct. I've been lucky enough to work with some brilliant directors over the course of my career so far, so they are actually the people that have made me want to try it. Just by watching them do it and seeing what they have the ability to create - seeing how powerful a director's vision is and how vital that is to being able to pull a project together. So, I'd love to be able to try that as well. It feels just as creative as acting, but in a completely different way. 

Sheila Atim

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Are there any specific role models that you have in the industry?

Conveniently enough, I would say Viola Davis, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Halle Berry. They were role models for me anyway, just because of course. But now having worked with the three of them, I know more about them as people, and so there's even more to admire about them. Not just their work but also how they conduct themselves - their ethos, their ethics and their hearts and minds. Just from the conversations with them about work which inevitably extends beyond just the work. You know, you're dissecting people, time, location, story, motivation and all these things - and that gives you a really keen insight into what matters to a person. What they're interested in, what they think is important - not just because of what it is that you're discussing, but also the way you're discussing it. How much care these people are willing to take of you, of the character, of the story, and of all of the elements that they have to look after - as a lead actor, director or producer which all three of them have been in some capacity. Just being around them and witnessing that teaches you a lot and I'm really grateful to have had that chance.  

What is the greatest piece of advice you've received?

A great piece of advice was given to me by my agent, Lucy Middleweek. She told me, don't worry about it - just do whatever you want to do. She has said that to me a few times actually - usually in relation to acting roles and whether to say yes or no to something, but it can be applicable to everything. Now it's actually a bit of a mantra for life. Like, when it all boils down to it, you just have to put yourself where you want to put yourself, and usually where you want to be will be right for you. So it will fulfil you and everything it is that you are aiming for, because, you've got to enjoy this life, do you know what I mean? It also means that you can make peace with anything that comes your way - anything that was unexpected. Being a freelancer you're constantly changing jobs and going into new environments, but if you literally don't worry about it and just do what you want to do, then even if something unforeseen comes up, you know that you made the choice you wanted to make. 

Sheila Atim

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is your super power?

It's not acting-related but do you know what I'm really good at? I'm really good at undoing knots in jewellery. I help my stylist all the time - with undoing knots in jewellery, shoe laces - anything like that. I'm just good at getting small knots out - I don't know why. I can just see the bit where you need to pull to release the whole thing, so yeah - that's my super power. 

What is your favourite food?

Ugandan beans and rice - I make it a lot, but my mum makes it better - as per usual. 

What is your go-to travel destination?

I really like Malta - I've actually only been there once, but ever since I went I wanted to go back, and I just haven't had the opportunity. But I really liked it there - it was the perfect blend of peaceful and interesting, and it was small enough to just get around and see lots of things but not too small. The food was great, everyone was really nice - yeah, Malta was just beautiful.

What is your ultimate book recommendation?

My book recommendation is one that hasn't actually come out yet - The List by Yomi Adegoke. She's a fantastic writer and it's just been picked up by A24 and HBO Max to turn into a series. The premise for the book is great - it's about a couple and one of their names comes up on an exposing list - a sort of 'this is a list of people who have been abusing people' type of thing. It's topical, and it's just really great so everyone read it - it comes out in July.

Sheila Atim

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is there a dream role that you would love to play in the future?

There's not really a role per se, but I'd love to do a musical on film - I don't know which one, but I think it would be cool. I have quite a strong stage background and I sing, but it's a really challenging thing to do and tying those elements together isn't easy. I've seen it done really well before though, and I'd love to have a go.

Would you ever make one yourself?

I would, but it's really hard - it would probably take me a little while, but yeah I have had ideas. I haven't started working on them yet, but I have had ideas for projects that have music in them - particularly things that play with form and try to blend the theatrical nature of live performance with screen, so let's see.

If you could change anything about the film industry, what would it be?

I would cut down the time it takes to get things made. I don't know how to do that really because my understanding is that it's a combination of lots of factors, so it's not straight forward and the timeline can be variable. But like, The Woman King took seven years to get made - and that can happen, that's not irregular. There can be film projects that are floating around for years and years - and they get changed hands, and redrafted, and left on somebody's back burner for a while, and then a studio picks it up and options it, and then leaves it, and then drops it. And again, I don't know if that is actually something that can be solved, but I feel that if the industry could be a little less risk averse, then maybe things wouldn't take as long. So I guess maybe that's what it is that I'm trying to change - more of an attitude than anything else. If a script lands on your desk and you like it, just back it.

Voting for the EE Rising Star Award is now open at and the winner will be announced at the EE BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday 19th February on BBC One.

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.