With the advent of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Hulu, it’s easier than ever before to enjoy stories. It’s no secret that we can’t get enough of movies and tv shows, and with the diversifying of narratives and people who direct them, it looks like our generation’s widespread love-affair with moving pictures is just the start. The faces on our screens represent so much more than their predecessors in flickering black and white could have hoped for; we look up to characters, we frown upon them, but most of all we marvel at the performers that bring the stories to life.
From this side of the screen, it’s simple. But what is life like for a modern performer? We called on Simona Brown to answer this for us. If you haven’t heard of her yet, let us catch you up. Relaxed, assured, and beautiful; Simona is a British actress who made her on-screen debut in 2013, and her talent for performance is evidenced since. She has made appearances in JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, classics such as Casualty and the iconic Roots. Right now, Simona is starring in a hotly-anticipated Channel 4 and Netflix original called Kiss Me First. She’s one to watch, literally, and she’s shooting for the stars.
We spoke to Simona about her journey, her process, her unconditional love of The Lion King, and her dreams for the industry.
What made you realise that acting was the career you wanted?
I’ve always been told by family that I’m quite dramatic, I used to perform little plays and songs for my family growing up, even if they didn’t ask! I was always a performer, but I’d say it was when I saw The Lion King in the West End when I was nine on a school trip. I was so inspired by such a colourful array of performers and I saw the richness of all these different backgrounds in the vibrant cast and I knew I wanted to do that – so I went to musical theatre school.
Many actresses start the run-up to professionalism in childhood – What was your path like?
I was going to drama clubs from quite young because I had quite a lot of creative energy. After seeing The Lion King, though, it confirmed for me that my aspirations were possible and it really just catapulted my desire to perform and be involved in storytelling. It’s always been bubbling in me, since childhood definitely.
How important is formal training?
Oh, I think it’s essential. You can never stop learning, and I mean that. Training was so important. Even just learning from others around you – during training, you’ll hear of plays and writers and viewpoints you would never otherwise come across. It enriches your approach to acting. It’s also so important to train at the beginning of your journey and during. I think it’s very vital – I find it kind of centring. It’s almost like therapy!
How was it training at the Identity School Of Acting In London?
Identity was great, it was great to be around like-minded people who shared the same dream with me. Femi Oguns (Identity School of Acting’s founder) was the master of tough love, so I learned really harsh but necessary lessons. I’m really glad I went there, they helped nurture me so much and I felt completely supported by them. (Laughs) They don’t do drop-in classes, but I would go back if I could!
On to your career – what was your early experience of auditions, and what advice would you give to newcomers?
Ah. Initially, at first, I was quite apologetic. Maybe it’s a British thing, but it’s just so magnified when you walk into an audition; like, why am I apologising for breathing? Plenty of times I’ve been rejected and I’ve been like ‘noo! that was my part, it was made for me!’, but there’s always a good reason and I learned to not take it personally. I think, after the audition is over, it’s best for me to no longer think about it. There’s no point. My best advice though would be just to be in the moment, not overthink, and take it all as it comes.
So, with their different pros and cons, do you prefer working on a film or a series?
The film experience I’ve had so far is great, but I wasn’t part of the entire filming process, so I’ve never experienced a lead role in a film. Yet! So, so far it’s gotta be series. But I am eager to do more film.
What’s it like being part of such a large-scale production as Roots?
Oh, it was amazing, but since I got the audition it was such a process! I found out I got the role at one in the morning – I was screaming my head off on the phone to my agent and my mum was right beside me, screaming too! Let’s see, it was great to work with Phillip Noyce (Director), and it’s quite an important story and it has very relevant themes to today – I was so proud to be part of something so prolific. Also, it was really fun working in South Africa! The travel was incredible and I had the chance to dive into a new culture. Even the sounds at night were so immersive and different from home, the whole thing was a huge experience.
You’re about to star in a drama series, Kiss Me First, which is airing on Channel 4 and Netflix! Congratulations, can you tell us a little about it?
Thanks! So, to set the scene, it’s a group of young adults who meet in a secret virtual world – the story goes on from there. I really enjoyed shooting it because it was probably the most collaborative project I’ve worked on creatively; we were all really encouraged to speak up and lend our opinions on the story and the characters, which was great for understanding each other and it made me feel like a really important piece of the project. We had so much opportunity to input and influence I feel like I really started to find my voice. I even got to direct one of the scenes in ADR! I don’t think it will be the last time I direct – we need more directors who are women of colour.
I want to see more images of women in power. I wanna see more female badasses!
Which qualities attract you to a new project, and how much agency do you have in the genres you get cast in?
To start with I’d say the writing is really important. It could be ridiculous to read but if I can’t put it down then I’m like ‘there’s gotta be something about this’. If I’m curious about it, or finding myself visualising scenes or characters I’d say that’s a good sign. Also, I do get to pick – I have a really open relationship with my agent. If I don’t like something I don’t feel weird or scared to tell them I don’t like it or that I feel that I wouldn’t work for the role. Initially, I was a complete yes-woman but as I’ve worked for more projects I’ve ended up with a more developed taste. As for genres, Drama follows me! I wanna be a superhero, though. I wanna do Action and inspire little girls. I want to see more images of women in power. I wanna see more female badasses!
Preaching to the choir! Is that something you hope to achieve within your industry?
Well, I’ve always been interested in telling narratives we usually see less of. I was really proud to be in the film about domestic abuse; Murdered by My Boyfriend. My involvement actually may have helped someone I know personally recognise that their future may be in danger, like one of the characters. I wanna keep telling typically overlooked narratives and storylines. Maybe even direct them myself in the future, (laughs) a girl’s gotta dream!
As everyone’s success story is so different, do you find it easy or difficult to find your own course?
It’s probably a mixture of both. It’s challenging, achieving any dream is never easy. The obstacles we see on the way only make us work more and want it more, I think. It’s also character building, there are so many times I’ve been rejected and I’ve learned to move forward and become better.
Who are your role models within your industry?
Angela Bassett. Her depiction in the biopic of Tina Turner was phenomenal. I was in awe, she completely embodied her and approached her story with such sensitivity. Also, Issa Rae of Insecure, I think her writing is great. She’s creating so many opportunities for women in diverse ethnic communities and telling untold stories, which I love. Who else? I love Donald Glover, he’s just frigging amazing. Lupita Nyong’o, she’s… just incredible. Oh my god, and Meryl Streep too! Especially in Death Becomes Her! Also shout out to Bruce Willis in that. Their performances stuck with me from such a young age.
What’s it really like being on a red carpet?
It’s a new experience for me! Initially it was really scary, I’m sure I looked like a rabbit caught in headlights… I didn’t know what I was expecting to be honest, but I was totally blinded by all the camera flashes. Over time I remembered to breathe, and it’s actually ok now! It’s still pretty surreal, though.
Has the reality of your industry surprised you, and if so, how?
Oh, so the other day I was sat opposite Idris Elba at the Empire awards show! It’s pretty shocking to realise that people are actually even cooler in real life than on tv! What hasn’t really surprised me, though, is that I’d like to see more women in positions at Producer level, and more women of colour in hair and makeup positions as well. The MUA’s I’ve worked with have been awesome – or at least I think they have, could remain to be seen – but I think there could be more ease for actors like myself if there were more diverse skills available, especially with afro and kinky hair.
We agree. More personally, how do you balance work with your private life?
When I’m working I’m kind of off the radar. I try to see friends and family as much as possible as they are what inspires and drives me – especially my niece and nephew who own everything they do! When I’m not working I just disappear on holiday. I can’t ever stay away that long, though. Sometimes I’ll call my agent and I’m like, ‘hey, remember me from before I disappeared? Anything new? Anything?’
I heard that you’re in an all-girl band…
(Laughs) Who did I say this to? In real life I was, slash am, in an all girls band. I play the drum kit and we just play a lot of old-school dub with reggae over it, basically. It was tons of fun as an outlet, maybe we’ll reform in the future. Who knows?
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started acting?
I think I now know not to pressure myself to be perfect. To not have to practise every beat or every facial expression I’m gonna pull. I learned to trust my instincts more, and have fun. Before, I wasn’t relaxed. I had a mindset about winning.
Finally, what advice would you tell an up-and-coming actress today?
Right. Make sure you like your agent! That’s really important. To feel comfortable and be real with your agent – that makes the whole process much easier. At the end of the day, you just want to surround yourself with another person you can rely on, who genuinely has your best interests at heart.
Kiss Me First airs Mondays at 10pm on Channel 4. You can catch up via All 4.
Words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing