Culture

Nina Sosanya: 'I never wanted to be part of the popular gang'

Blue lipstick, studs and tie-dye were a way to stand out, before stilt-walks at clown school laid the path to Good Omens

Nina Sosanya

Image: RACHELL SMITH

Nina Sosanya was born in Islington, North London, in June 1969 to a Nigerian father and an English mother. She trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds. 

After bit parts in The Bill, Prime Suspect and Jonathan Creek, her big break came in 2001 with a role in Channel 4’s Teachers. High profile TV roles in Last Tango In Halifax, W1A, Marcella, Killing Eve, Silk and Hustle followed, as well as an appearance in the hit 2003 film Love Actually. 

All the while, she has maintained a theatre career, was appearing as Desdemona in Othello, Olivia in Twelfth Night and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Joining the RSC, she appeared in Henry V, The White Devil, The Learned Ladies and Herbal Bed, before moving to the National Theatre for Anthony & Cleopatra and House and Garden, followed by The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Exchange.

She has most recently been seen on our screens in Good Omens 2 alongside David Tennant and Michael Sheen, and starring in the second season of Channel 4 prison drama Screw.

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Sosanya looked back on early attempts to stand out from the crowd, inspirational actors, and idyllic childhood memories.

I’d gone from loving school when I was very small, and then really, really hating it once I got to around 12. By the time I was 16 I think my imagination started firing. And I was much more interested in stories and adventure than buckling down and doing things I just couldn’t understand the relevance of. Like maths and science. Now I find all of that absolutely fascinating and I tried to make up by doing a couple of courses at Birkbeck a few years ago, and Open University. Because now I find all of that wonderful. I just wish that at the time there had been some context to what they were teaching us because I never really understood it. So I just started wandering off in my head somewhere. 

Apart from English, art and English literature I was failing miserably at school. I was knocking about with two pals I’d found at school who were also huge misfits. That’s the reason we found each other I think. I never wanted to be part of the popular gang. Because I just wasn’t and neither were they. So we discovered each other and then we found this way sort of offending other people a little bit, forming our own gang and looking a bit different as an expression of accepting that we were different and going with it and really celebrating it. We were pretty creative. One of my friends looked exactly like Robert Smith from The Cure. I tie-dyed everything and wore black mohair and studs. And I had metallic blue lipstick. 

We used to go to this club, an alternative music night, where we hung around with punks and goths listening to The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Sisters of Mercy. I think we cut quite a strange threesome among that lot but you know, you find your group. I’m still friends with those two girls. But I was also only just letting go of climbing trees and fossil hunting. I didn’t really feel any great rush to grow up. 

I wasn’t really a riddled-with-angst teenager. I was quite looking forward to the future. I didn’t have any particular goals or ambitions. I was – I still am – one of those people who just goes with the flow and rolls with whatever turns up. I wasn’t overly concerned with boys at all, and they weren’t really overly concerned with me. So that was a win-win.  

Nina Sosanya
An early role in Hair. Image: supplied

Life at home was nice. It was me and my mum, and I went off to do my A levels at this really brilliant place in Melton Mowbray in the Midlands. They had this amazing working theatre. It was just heaven, it was completely freeing. It was like a mini drama school for me. I had no ideas about what would happen in the future. But it was great. I’m sure I had some anxieties but I’m probably very good at ignoring them. A lot of actors say this I suppose; I was very shy, but at the same time weirdly fearless in terms of performing or just putting yourself in front of people and making a complete fool of yourself. I was more comfortable in that situation than I probably should have been, given that I was quite a shy, reserved kind of person. And I suppose I have stayed that way. Although I’m more likely to speak my mind these days.

Whenever anyone said, you’re good at this, I didn’t believe them for a second. I ended up going to dance school because I didn’t really have the nerve to audition for drama school. It just seemed like auditioning to go on the moon to me, it seemed outlandish. I joined a physical theatre group called The Kosh, and we went to do a show at the Edinburgh Festival. After that I went to see Alan Rickman in a play because I was a huge fan of his. The girl sitting next to me said, Oh, I’ve just seen you in The Kosh. So that was quite amazing. She said, why are you here? And I said I’m a big fan of Alan Rickman. She said, do you want to come and meet him? Because I know him, that’s why I’m here.  

So after the show we went backstage and I remember he came through the crowd in his dressing room and shook my hand, and said to me, that was a great performance. He’d been to my show! Then we all went to dinner and the girl, Leila, introduced me to somebody as a dancer. And Alan Rickman said, she’s not a dancer, she’s an actress. And that was literally… I went, oh, oh… I mean, the best endorsement you could ever get. Apart from being an amazing actor, he was just an extraordinary person, the things he did for people. He was just lovely. 

Nina Sosanya, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, reclined white robes
1998 Alongside Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Trevyn McDowell in Antony and Cleopatra. Image: Simon Leibowitz/PIP-Landmark Media

I had no other skills other than performing by then. So I had to go for it. There wasn’t anything else for me to do. I had no idea how the industry worked, I was completely naive, which really helped I think. I phoned everyone, I walked in on auditions, I sent my pictures to absolutely everybody. I was my own agent for quite a while and managed to support myself in various things. I joined a theatre company called Odd Socks – we would fire breathe and juggle and stilt walk. Then I got into the RSC as an understudy and went from there. 

I didn’t have any plans about the kind of work I wanted to do. Early on in my TV career there was a show called People Like Us. It was a pretend documentary, that kind of very real delivery that seemed improvised. Though it wasn’t. But I just sort of understood that the more real you play the situation, the funnier it is. And from that, all sorts of shows were spawned, including W1A, which had the same producers. Yet I trained to be the clown, doing slapstick. I’ve not been seen doing that much on TV but you know, when I’m playing a bizarre satanic nun in Good Omens it’s kind of big. It’s not subtle.  

I’ve worked with both David Tennant and Michael Sheen on stage. And I’ve worked with David on so many things, and Michael years and years ago when he was Henry IV and I was a boy getting trampled to death on stage. You can sort of tell what they’re like, even if they’re not playing themselves at all in Staged. They’re so front footed, they’re so quick witted, and they are just very down to earth and silly people to work with. It really helps when someone’s quite silly. 

Maggie Service, Michael Sheen and Nina Sosanya
2023 With Maggie Service and Michael Sheen in Season 2 of Good Omens. Image: Amazon Prime

The benefit of getting older is that you lose the worry about saying the wrong thing or being a problem. I never wanted to be a problem. I think I would tell my younger self it’s OK if you’re a bit of a problem. It’s fine. It’ll work itself out. I am not one for regret at all. I’ve always aimed to understand what a good time I’m having at the time I’m having it, taken a mental picture and tried to really appreciate that this is now and this is good.  

If I could sit down and have one final conversation with anyone I’d like to sit down with my nan and talk about flowers and birds. She wasn’t formally educated in that area, she was a self-taught gardener. But she somehow knew all the Latin names for the flowers and we used to take strolls in the garden, pointing out all sorts of things. I was too young to appreciate it then, so now I would just love to go back and talk about plants and botany and birds. But I’d have to invite the rest of the family because they’d be much too jealous if it was just me on my own. 

If I could go back to just one time in my life, I’d be about 11 or 12, going for a walk with my cat Tabby across the fields, fossil hunting. She would hang around with me for days. And I’d dig around in the stream for fossils and get mucky and she would just hunt things, and then we’d wind our way back home. Those were days well spent. 

Season two of Screw is on Wednesdays at 9pm on Channel 4 and channel4.com. Good Omens 2 is on Prime Video.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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