“This past year’s been a bit mad,” Sheila Atim tells me from Cannes. “I’m just having the best time. The sun’s shining, I’m by the sea, the sky is blue…” The actress is on top of the world having just received the Chopard Trophy at the Film Festival, the annual award celebrating two of the most exciting young actors in the industry. It was presented to her and Jack Lowden by Julia Roberts at a sparkling dinner on the Croisette last Thursday, hosted by the co-president and artistic director of Chopard Caroline Scheufele, the Cannes Film Festival president Pierre Lescure and director Thierry Frémaux.
A reel of Atim’s stellar performances was played at the event, which she says she found unexpectedly overwhelming. “I was extremely nervous. I hadn’t mentally prepared to watch myself for a minute and a half in all these projects back-to-back, thinking about the different people that I've been so fortunate to meet and work with.”
The 31-year-old actress’ star has risen to celestial heights in recent years through rapturous turns on stage and screen – most recently joining the Marvel Universe as Sara in the Doctor Strange sequel. “That was my first time working on a big franchise project. It was a massive studio with green and blue screens, and it was my first time working with people doing motion capture, acting with somebody in a suit with dots on it and looking at tennis balls above their head. I was like, ‘What is this?’,” she says, laughing. “It was a step up, I was learning new skills.”
Born in 1991 and brought up in East London, she studied biomedical sciences at King’s College while taking weekend acting classes, and began her career in theatre – first stepping on stage in 2013 in her teacher Ché Walker’s show The Lightning Child. This was followed by two Olivier Award-winning performances in the Bob Dylan-inspired musical Girl from the North Country, and in last year’s two-hander Constellations at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. She also featured in Phyllida Lloyd’s ground-breaking all-female Shakespeare trilogy, portraying a frisky Ferdinand in The Tempest, Lady Percy in Henry IV and a perfect, witty Lucius in Julius Caesar.
In 2018, the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins saw Atim playing Emilia in Othello at the Globe and wrote her a letter asking if she would be in television adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad, which reimagines the metaphorical “railroad” of secret routes and safe houses used by runaway slaves in America as a real system of subterranean train tunnels. “The book as a piece of work on its own is extraordinary, I had never read anything about slavery like it,” says Atim, who played the protagonist’s mother, Mabel, in the series. “The style of the writing lays everything out in this matter-of-fact way that makes the horror ping out even more.”
The series was released last year on Prime Video to critical acclaim; the same year, she also appeared in Bruised – Halle Berry’s directorial debut. Set in the world of mixed martial arts, the extreme full-contact combat sport that encompasses cage and ultimate fighting, Atim delivered a powerful performance as the trainer to Berry’s disgraced MMA fighter, Buddhakan. “Working with Halle was so affirming,” she says. “She has great creative vision and allowed me to feel super relaxed.”
In character and in person, Atim is undeniably radiant, so it’s little wonder that the actress was scooped up by Bottega Veneta for the brand’s S/S 21 campaign. But despite having delved into the worlds of modelling and music (she plays four instruments), acting remains her kingpin; she was awarded an MBE in 2019 for services to drama, and she is also on the board of trustees for the Old Vic.
In September, she will be starring alongside Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch in The Woman King, a historical epic about the African Kingdom of Dahomey. For the project, she spent five months filming in South Africa. “That was one of the most intense working experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “Just the amount of ambition that the project has, the heights it’s trying to reach; the people that I was working with, the schedule, the environment, the stunts – it was so much.” Atim will also appear in the Robert Zemeckis live-action remake of Pinocchio later this year, with Tom Hanks and Cynthia Erivo. The precious time she has left will be spent screenwriting. “I’ve got a couple of scripts on the go, so that’s my main focus at the moment. I really want to start creating.”
With previous winners of the Chopard Trophy including Marion Cotillard, John Boyega, Florence Pugh and James McAvoy, there is no doubt that Atim and her fellow award recipient Jack Lowden (the Scottish star of Small Axe and Dunkirk) will continue to take their industry by storm. While she says she was most excited to meet Julia Roberts – “Definitely. I mean, wow” – she has enjoyed getting to know Lowden during the festival. “This was an experience that we were sort of forced to share with each other, but in a really good way; it’s always nice to see a counterpart version of you, as opposed to being on your own. We’re going on this little journey together, and he’s been really cool to hang out with.”
Atim has learnt never to second-guess herself when it comes to choosing what to do next in her career, “because whatever choices you make in life, it’s OK – there’s more life, you know? Not everything is career-ending or career-making. There’s more time, and there’s more ways to do it,” she says. “That approach has been massive for me, because it both raises and lowers the stakes at the same time. It makes you keep the passion for what you do.” I suspect that whatever she brings to the world stage next, we will be in for a pleasant – and enthralling – surprise. “I’m always pushing for a challenge,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t want to get too comfortable in one lane.”