“Zadie Smith has an incredible eye for the detail of London life. She is literally covering every single thought of what it is to be human, to be alive in the city.”
Nikki Amuka-Bird fought hard to win the role of Natalie Blake in the BBC’s superb adaptation of Smith’s 2012 bestseller NW. And little wonder. Stories like NW, which centres on lifelong friends Natalie and Leah (played by Phoebe Fox) in North West London, do not come along every day. Or every year. Particularly for black British actors. But more on that later…
“It was almost surreal. On so many levels I wanted to do it,” says Amuka-Bird, whose long list of credits include Luther, Small Island and Five Days. “As an actor, it is a complex, three-dimensional role for a woman. On a personal level, I lived in that postcode for six years, so I felt real affection for that community.
I lived in that postcode for six years, so I felt real affection for that community
“And I also had an extraordinary affinity for Natalie. It was the first time I had seen a female character represented like this, with so many different facets of being black and British.”
We enthuse about Zadie Smith’s writing and the rich characters in the original novel. Natalie, apparently successful, a wealthy barrister with a beautiful home, children and husband seemingly a world away from the estate where she grew up is a gift of a role.
“But I feel I have to defend her,” says Amuka-Bird. “People see her as cold and so ambitious. But where I identify with her is that she is navigating different cultural communities at the same time. That is something that is a very real experience for me in terms of going to a private school but coming from a modest background, growing up in the West Indies where people might think you are too English, or being in other rooms – maybe in this profession – where you are the only black person.
“Sometimes there is a sense of going into yourself. You are observing the different rooms you are in and the people, and need your friends to understand that you are navigating different worlds.”
One line from the novel, included in Rachel Bennette’s script, jumped out for Amuka-Bird.
“There is a passage where her mother says: ‘As a minority, you have to work twice as hard to get anywhere,’” she says. “I think the book is looking at the cost of that. The cost of feeling you have to continually push yourself so hard, to be at your best to be perceived as good.
“It is wonderful, the idea of bursting through the glass ceiling. But there might be some actual damage as you burst through. You can never relax. And there is a real stress and strain in that. It was brilliant Zadie was so honest about that, whether from a female perspective or a race perspective.
“I grew up with that. It was reality for many in my generation. Our parents worked hard to give us opportunities we can’t afford to waste.”
Amuka-Bird talks at length about her mother, the first in her family to go to university, a magazine editor in Nigeria who moved to London as a single parent and worked for a feminist film distribution network before becoming franchisee for The Body Shop in the West Indies. “She is an incredible woman. A complete project of her own imagination,” she says.
I loved the time I spent with Zadie,” she says. “She is a gorgeous specimen of a woman
The depiction of modern, multicultural London in NW is one that many of us know, but rarely see on screen. In place of picture postcard capital city, are north west London’s busy markets, high streets, mixed neighbourhoods.
“The London you see in NW is my genuine experience. To navigate from one neighbourhood to another as a Londoner, you are constantly brushing up against people from every background.
“We all know what it is like to walk down the street and have your armour up, because you are in a neighbourhood where you might need to be slightly careful. But that neighbourhood can be full of delights as well.
“It was a very ad hoc, guerrilla style of shooting. Filming the scene where my character has lost her kids in Kilburn Market, these Jamaican ladies came rushing up: ‘it’s all right, darlin’, we can find them.’ To see people taking care of each other, and feel that generosity was incredible. There is real beauty in the real people, the real lives.”
Zadie Smith came on set for the last day of filming, preferring to allow screenwriter, director and cast to do their thing with her original source material.
“I loved the time I spent with Zadie,” she says. “She is a gorgeous specimen of a woman – beautiful, confident and supremely intelligent. I asked about living in New York, and we had an interesting conversation about the opportunities for black actors and artists.”
Amuka-Bird is full of admiration, she says, for the way former co-stars David Oyelowo and Idris Elba have found success in the US and are now using this success to create opportunities for others. She recalls Elba mentoring budding black filmmakers during lunch breaks on Luther, and Oyelowo setting his sights on stardom in the US. “I remember him leaving, packing up his family and his house. He built a house over there before he got his first major film deal. He was so determined to make it work.”
Now the 40-year-old has taken her first steps on that well-trodden path for black British actors, with a role in new US drama Quarry, which will air on Sky Atlantic early next year.
I know that there aren’t enough opportunities here, but things are changing
“Their demographics mean they can invest in black-led work more,” she says. “I rushed over there looking for gold. And I did find some gold.”
But home will always be London. “I practically kissed the soil when I landed back here,” she grins. “We are so diverse. I took it for granted how mixed the community is here, but there is a lot to celebrate about that.”
The lack of diversity in the arts, though, remains a problem.
“I know that there aren’t enough opportunities here, but things are changing. And I feel it is important to be here and be part of that change.”
So as well as a role opposite Emma Thompson in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (“I literally had to warn her: ‘I’m going to have to hug you a lot because you are awesome and I have loved you for years’”), what can we expect?
“I am trying to mobilise projects. And miraculously, people are listening to my ideas,” she says, outlining ambitious plans to bring classical theatre and urban dance together via a collaboration with the Young Vic theatre and dance group BirdGang. “It is not as strange as you might think!
“And in terms of TV, I also feel I am throwing down the gauntlet with NW. Because I want more roles like this…”