Light Within with Sheila Atim
To celebrate International Women's Day 2023, we sat down with Sheila Atim, co-star of the COS Spring Summer 2023 campaign, to discuss empowerment, sisterhood and the art of transcendence.
If International Women’s Day marks a global opportunity for womankind to celebrate a collective strength, courage and determination, there’s perhaps no better film to mark it with than The Woman King. COS 2023 star Sheila Atim (she/her) stars as Amenza in the Gina Prince-Bythewood-directed epic – a film based on the Agojie, a real-life, all-female army who go to war to protect their West African kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) against slavers. She is spiritual adviser to Viola Davis’ imposing lead, Nanisca, the army’s most revered fighter – and deft with a spear.
Atim’s performances are the kind that stay with you for a long time. Whether it’s screen or stage, in the Bob Dylan-inspired Girl from the North Country, or the West End’s Constellations (she won Olivier Awards for both), her presence sets us alight.
Yet, acting is not Atim’s only strength. She is every bit the multi-hyphenate: an accomplished musician (she plays four instruments and composes her own music, a fusion of jazz and hip-hop with classical influences). She writes too, developing a screenplay based on her Ugandan heritage (she was born in the East African country and moved to London with her mother when she was small). This combination of acting and music wasn’t even her initial plan; when Atim first embarked on further education, she was set to become a doctor, studying Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London. Even now, she explains, the curiosity fostered by her scientific studies underpins every role she takes on.
This International Women’s Day, we sat down with her to talk gender equity, the magic of performing, and the ways women in film can all support each other, now.
‘We are all different. Linked, but facing different battles. If one of us gets left behind, we all do.’
– Sheila Atim on the greatest gift women can give one another
‘Woman… That word can mean so much more than conventional ideals, if you allow it to.’
– Sheila Atim’s advice to women entering the industry
WHAT DRAWS HER TO A ROLE
‘I’m always looking for something with intrigue. Those characters that pull you in, even if you can't put your finger on why.’
WHERE ACTING AND SCIENCE INTERSECT
‘I have always been an artistic performer of sorts, since I was a child. And I've always loved science too. So, the two don't feel that disconnected to me. They both explore human beings and the world around us. I think my curiosity has lent itself well to both.’
THE MAGIC OF PERFORMING
‘Like many people who experience a sense of flow when they're working, it's very difficult to describe. But, at its best, it feels like touching something transcendent, for a brief moment.’
WOMEN WHO INSPIRE HER
‘Nina Simone. Yes, for what she symbolises, but also because she started out as a classical pianist who secretly played the blues in clubs for money. Her music is such a wonderful fusion of those two influences – she created something that was uniquely hers.’
‘We need to make sure that we're giving everyone their flowers.’
– Sheila Atim on celebrating women
SHARING OF STORIES
‘It's important to take a moment and appreciate the contributions that women have made and continue to make to this world. We are still unearthing many of the stories that have been erased. And, ideally, that won't continue in the future. We need to make sure that we're giving everyone in this current time their flowers too.’
WOMEN LOOKING OUT FOR WOMEN
‘[The greatest gift women can give one another is] to celebrate ourselves and each other. And to display true allyship. We are all different. Linked, but facing different battles. And if one of us gets left behind, we all do.’
HER ADVICE TO UP-AND-COMERS TODAY
‘Stand firm in your own personal identity. You are a woman, but that word can mean so much more than conventional ideals, if you allow it to.’
ON DRESSING FOR ALL HER MANY SELVES
‘I’m always striving towards elegance and ease with a hint of edge. Something that reflects all the sides of me. And finding a way to make my outfits trainer-appropriate.’
HER HOPES FOR THE YEAR AHEAD
‘I’m holding onto myself and a better skincare routine. I'm letting go of the myths I've told myself and messy cupboards.’
THE THINGS THAT SHIFT HER PERSPECTIVE
‘Working with incredible people – on- and off-screen – who have also shown me so much compassion and brought me joy. Rather than changing my perspective, it's just made me even clearer on what really matters to me.’
Where do you go to escape?
‘Anywhere with water.’
What do you collect?
‘Miniatures from aeroplanes.’
What would you like to tell your younger self?
‘There's no rulebook.’
What brings you balance?
‘Meditation and music.’
Do you have a favourite piece of clothing?
‘My black roll-neck. It works anywhere with anything.’
Most treasured possession?
‘My musical instruments.’
What brings you peace?
‘Knowing that my loved ones are in good spirits.’
If you had to live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
Words by Maisie Skidmore
Sheila Atim wears the Spring Summer 2023 collection for COS. Photography by Glen Luchford. Styling by Suzanne Koller.
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