Sheila Atim Suits Up for ‘The Woman King’


It’s the hottest day of the year so far in London, and Sheila Atim is lost. “I’m going around in circles,” she tells me over the phone from somewhere within the sprawling Somerset House complex. “How can I find you?” There’s no need to worry: The moment I step into the art center’s vast neoclassical courtyard, I spot her. With a willowy, nearly six-foot-tall frame and sculptural cheekbones that have graced a Bottega Veneta campaign, Atim is impossible to miss.

Moments later she’s nestling herself into a booth in one of the gallery’s cool, echoing rooms, her sleeveless V-neck dress revealing a prominent tattoo on her left forearm: her birth coordinates in Uganda, underlined by a spear. “I got this before The Woman King, and then they were like, ‘So, we’d like you to fight with this weapon…’ ” she says, laughing at the coincidence.

Directed by Love & Basketball’s Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King will bring to life the West African kingdom of Dahomey (part of present-day Benin), where a tenacious all-female army battles fearlessly against marauding European 
slavers to protect their empire in the 19th century. Viola Davis leads the cast as the general Nanisca, who mounts a heroic defensive campaign, with Atim and her close friend Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die) appearing as deputies. (Atim’s reaction to the epic battle scenes she’s seen so far? “Don’t even—I had to hit pause and do a little scream.”) Throw in the fact that John Boyega costars as Dahomey’s King Ghezo, and it’s no wonder the film is one of the buzziest releases hitting theaters this month.

Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis, and Shelia Atim in The Woman King.

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff

It’s also set to propel Atim to the forefront of every major Hollywood director’s consciousness—although she’s been so busy she’s scarcely had time to register that fact. “It’s mad,” she says. “It’s all happening.” In the three months before our conversation, the 31-year-old has scooped the prestigious Chopard Trophy at Cannes (a prize for up-and-coming actors whose recent winners include Oscar nominees Florence Pugh and Jessie Buckley); traveled to Hollywood for the premiere of her first Marvel film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; and collected a best actress Olivier in London for the Nick Payne play Constellations.

She’s most often recognized, though, for her devastating performance as Mabel in Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad—whose lead, Thuso Mbedu, plays an aspiring army recruit in The Woman King. “I find those sort of crossovers happen to me a lot,” Atim reflects happily. “You end up building these communities of like-minded people, and working with them again and again.” Her next reunion? An A24 film with Jenkins and Moonlight producer Adele Romanski, which she describes as a “coming-of-age story set in the South.”

All things considered, it’s hard to believe that Atim only seriously thought about an acting career in her 20s. Her mother left Uganda during the civil war in the early ’90s with an infant Atim in tow, settling in the suburbs of East London permanently. A keen student with a gift for music (she plays no fewer than four instruments), Atim initially planned to become a doctor, studying biomedical science at King’s College London with singing as her fallback—before £2 acting classes with Ché Walker, the same director who mentored Michaela Coel, set her on a different path. Within a few years, Atim had become a West End mainstay, claiming her first Olivier for Girl From the North Country in 2018.



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