When Nikki Amuka-Bird started work on Old, the latest film from Hollywood supernatural-loving director M Night Shyamalan, she knew it was going to be special. It was the summer of 2020, and production on films and television had tentatively started up again. She flew to the Dominican Republic with an international cast, during hurricane season, to shoot the story of a group of people on holiday on a secluded island, who suddenly start to age at a rapid rate. I was not able to see it before we met, but it turns out that Amuka-Bird hasn’t watched it yet, either. The director of The Sixth Sense and Signs – Night, as she calls him, fondly – works on his films right up until the last minute and the mystery is all part of the fun. What she can tell me, though, is that it turned out to be far more than a run-of-the-mill acting job.
“It was the most incredible experience,” Amuka-Bird says, “on many levels.” She is on a break from filming the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and at home, briefly, in her flat near Westbourne Grove in London. She has lived in the area on and off since she was five. Her old primary school is just around the corner. Things feel familiar, “even though it’s changed quite a lot over the years, obviously – it used to have a bit of West Indian community.”
She is a thoughtful speaker, considered, careful with her words. She describes herself as “an eternal optimist” and a spiritual person. When filming Old, she had found herself “in paradise”, in a bubble of cast and crew. They were at the mercy of the elements, never quite sure if the set would wash away overnight. But she had a deeper connection to the story. Her character in the film is called Patricia, as was Amuka-Bird’s mother, who died three years ago. “Just an incredible coincidence,” she smiles. “I obviously thought, it’s a sign from Mum. But also the themes of grief and losing loved ones, it just felt like something I could channel all of that experience I’d had over the past few years in to.”
After Old was over, she returned to her flat alone, to the post-Christmas lockdown in England. “I landed back with a bit of a thump, actually.” She had just been through a break-up and spent that period on her own. How is she with her own company? “I was raised as an only child with a single parent, and Mum was often working really hard, so I had to be quite self-reliant. I think they call it being a latchkey kid.” She would often take herself to school and then make dinner for the two of them. She thinks the community that comes with being an actor is one of the reasons she chose it for a career. “But it was quite nice, in a way, to have that private time to refocus, and also just process what an incredible experience Old had been, especially this connection to my mum. In some ways, it was the first time I could really sit down and reflect on what life has been like without her. It felt healthy. It felt hard.”
Amuka-Bird was born in Nigeria. Her parents, who worked in the media, were separated by the time she arrived. Her father founded the daily Vanguard newspaper, and her mother worked for Ophelia, a women’s magazine. Both were self-made; her mother grew up in foster care. When she was five, Amuka-Bird and her mother moved to London, where they lived for a couple of years, until they went on holiday to Antigua, where her mother had been born. “She decided that she wanted to return to the island she was from and that she wanted to open a Body Shop. So she became the Body Shop franchisee for the Caribbean, and we moved there,” Amuka-Bird says. “She was an incredibly creative, driven, unique woman.”
But Amuka-Bird didn’t fit in at school in Antigua – she was nicknamed “English” by her classmates – and at the suggestion of the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, who had become a family friend, she moved back to England. She was 12, attending the boarding school Frensham Heights, in Surrey, which she describes as a creative place where pupils were encouraged to support one another. “I’m so grateful for the friendships I developed there. Those guys are like sisters to me and they’ve really taken care of me, since Mum has been gone.” Her mother died of breast cancer. “But she fought valiantly,” she says, with a sad smile.
At 45, Amuka-Bird is now a familiar face on the British stage and screen. At school, she thought she might want to be a dancer, but she had a problem with a back injury. “I knew that with dance you had to be committed in a certain way, and injury is a part of it, and I hit a crossroads.” She took the acting path instead, and at a different school an inspirational teacher cast her as a worm in a production of James and the Giant Peach. Even as an annelid, she knew this was what she wanted to do forever.
For the past few years, she has carved out a line in quietly authoritarian characters, the kind of women who work hard and take no nonsense from anyone. You might have seen her in Survivors, the BBC’s 2009 drama about a flu pandemic running rampant across the planet; she played an ambitious young politician who ended up in charge of the country. “Oh my God, yes! I hadn’t thought about Survivors in so long. And here we are, many years later, looking at a pandemic, and the fear that comes up with that, and how we look to our leaders for answers, and how a lot of the times they don’t necessarily have those answers.”
Or perhaps you caught her in Luther, as DCI Erin Gray, Idris Elba’s colleague-turned-nemesis. “The character didn’t start that way,” she reminds me. “She was just a keen rookie. Idris is one of my – one of many people’s – heroes, and I was quite worried at the time, especially as a Black woman, going up against him.” She wondered how people would react to the relationship once it aired. “But people responded well. As much as we love Luther, he’s also a wildcard. And so they saw her standing up against him as an interesting show of strength from a woman.” She says that on set Elba was an inspiration, and gave her confidence. “He’s somebody you feel like you’re getting in the ring with, someone you need to keep up with. He moves at such a pace. It was exciting.”
But it was NW, the BBC’s 2017 adaptation of the Zadie Smith novel, that changed the game for her. She starred as Natalie Blake, a high-flyer who lives a kind of double life, and won a Bafta nomination for the best actress award. “To put it simply, it’s a leading role for women like myself, specifically – a dark-skinned woman with many layers,” she says. “Zadie wrote something really profound in that. It was about the experience of being a woman of colour, but it expanded in a way that was unpredictable, that looked at her sexuality. That’s a rare opportunity for actresses like myself. It was a really tasty meal, and a challenge.”
The experience of playing Natalie reminded her of her mother’s journey, “in terms of the cost, mentally, it takes to fight for what you deserve in this world.” She adds: “Women of my mum’s generation, and then mine, were always taught that you have to work twice as hard for half as much.”
Does she feel she’s had to work twice as hard for half as much? She pauses to consider the question. “It’s hard to know how to compare these things,” she says. “I feel like the conversations that have come up, particularly in the last year, have been really revelatory for me. Because you can internalise rejection or things that may not be fair, in terms of diversity and equal opportunities… You can internalise that as being your own fault, that you’re not good enough, you’re not working hard enough, and keep pushing yourself. And it’s been really important to me, the conversations that we’ve had this last year, just to say that your best is enough, and that actually perhaps it’s the system that has to change.”
Now, she says, she realises that she has to be kinder to herself, to celebrate her own work. “I think the conversations around colourism have been particularly important for me. There’s been a quiet heartbreak around that issue for me for a long time, and I think we’ve discovered that part of the healing process is having these conversations out loud. So I found my voice a little bit more, and I now feel I know how to stand up for myself in a different way.”
Amuka-Bird has been busier than ever over the past 18 months. One of the many projects she currently has on the go is Avenue 5, Armando Ianucci’s space comedy, in which she plays the head of mission control for a space tourism company. She previously worked with Ianucci on his film adaptation of David Copperfield, playing Mrs Steerforth. The film was cast colour-blind. Amuka-Bird first encountered this approach when she started out at the RSC, in the early 2000s. “That was a real moment where the idea of colour-blind casting was really being celebrated,” she says. “But I think what I found, as a young actor, was that I was leaving a bit of my culture behind.”
Now, she sees it slightly differently. “I see it as being more like colour-enhancing than being colour-blind. I don’t want to think of the idea that my colour is something that is not needed in this situation. My experience as a human being is also defined by my experience as a Black woman in the west. I’ve learned how to use every part of myself, even in situations where there might not have been a woman who looked like me at that time in history.”
Amuka-Bird is about to head back to Bath, to resume filming Persuasion, directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson. “It is just so much fun. I hadn’t factored that in, but going to Bath, going to Salisbury, being pulled by horses, wearing the dresses, the little girl in me is having a full ‘Cinderella, you can go to the ball’ moment.” She laughs, heartily. “There are times when you realise, you are just allowed to enjoy yourself. You’ve done all of the work, and now you can just really play.”
Soon, she says, she will “take off the frock, put on the power suit and get back to fighting bad guys”. She’s filming an action series for Amazon called Citadel, with Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra. “So that will be a trip, going from one to the other.” After that, she has a short break, then it’s back to Avenue 5.
I ask her what her ambitions are. She’s doing comedy, action, period dramas, film, TV. What’s left? She would like to get back to theatre. “A role I’ve always wanted to play is Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.” Recently, she has been watching a lot of the late Helen McCrory’s performances online. “She’s somebody who really inspires me. The kinds of roles that she takes on, those complex heroines, they’re the kind of roles I want to seek out, as well. What a sad loss. I didn’t realise how much I had been looking up to her. She was the definition of a powerhouse, and I would like to emulate that.” What a great ambition, I say, to be a powerhouse. She laughs. “When you say it like that…” She smiles. “It keeps you motivated, and it keeps you pushing yourself. And I like that.”
Old is in cinemas 23 July
Fashion editor Jo Jones; hair by Jason Brookes using Moroccan Oil; makeup by Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group using Spectacle Skincare and NARS cosmetics; photographer’s assistant Chris Chudleigh; fashion assistant Peter Bevan