Susan Wokoma arrives at Regent’s Park in central London in a nostalgic mood. “I was here last summer,” she says, “and it was the best summer of my life”. Wokoma, who describes herself as having been “terrified of Shakespeare” faced her fears as Bottom in Dominic Hill’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in this park, warming up on the grass each day. She was unsure about playing the comic foil, until Hill told her what he had heard about her. “He said, I know somebody who was in your year at Rada [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and they said your Juliet was the best they have ever seen. It was a show to our year and teachers, so for this secret thing to be brought out as evidence … I was like, shit, I’ve got to do it now!”
Wokoma, 32, has played a string of singular roles on television in recent years, from Michaela Coel’s shrieky, Bible-bashing sister in the hit comedy Chewing Gum to a straight-talking copper in Year of the Rabbit (with Matt Berry, who described the show as a Victorian version of The Sweeney). Now she plays the world-weary sibling of an amateur ghosthunter in Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Amazon comedy, Truth Seekers. As such, it’s hard to imagine her doubting her ability to enthral an audience – even in iambic pentameter. Even more surprising, perhaps, is her admission that she was a shy child who originally wanted to work behind the scenes in the creative world: “In my head, actors were loud and brilliant. I was like, I’m not Jim Carrey or Arnold Schwarzenegger!”
We meet in late September when British theatre is unquestionably in crisis. Just before the pandemic, Wokoma was in the smartly subversive Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse, a reimagined Richard III centred on a disabled, narcissistic teenager. Now the industry is in peril and, like many, she is thinking about rescue efforts. (“In my head, I’m like, could there be an extreme theatre union? Could we pair up the National with a smaller theatre? It seems useless to just look after your own building right now.”)
Unsurprisingly, Wokoma says she’s grateful to have television work as an option, with productions tentatively restarting. A Bafta Breakthrough Brit in 2017, she hasn’t been short of opportunities in front of, and behind, the camera in recent years – though her career started in a wonderfully chaotic fashion. Hailing from a Nigerian family, she grew up in Elephant and Castle, south London, and cackles as she remembers misunderstanding what gentrification would mean for the area: “I was so excited, I thought, it’s gonna be great. There’s gonna be a better bowling alley at the shopping centre!”
She cofounded her parents by endlessly entering competitions, once winning a month’s bus pass. Then, one day, a slightly bigger opportunity presented itself. “I saw an advert for BBC Talent. They were looking for children to go on this CBBC show called Serious Jungle,” she explains. “I didn’t even have a passport [aged 14] and I’d never been on a plane, but it kept snowballing.” Soon Wokoma was trekking through the Borneo jungle, cast as the “common sense one” while her fellow travellers struggled with the trip: “The producers asked, ‘Do you miss home?’ I was like, nope!”
After dreaming of working behind the scenes at the BBC, she changed her focus to acting, performing with the National Youth Theatre before drama school. While her late father wasn’t pleased with her decision (“He said I couldn’t live at home. I was only in Tottenham Court Road – that’s the 176 bus.”), the experience forced her to embrace her vocation. “It was a harsh lesson, but it meant that I had to really work out why I was acting,” she says. “I think a lot of the time you’re like, ‘I’ll show you!’ When my parents weren’t interested, I was like, why am I doing this?. I’m really glad I had that – there’s not been many times since I left drama school where I’ve not been quite sure why I’m doing something”.
After Rada, Wokoma did “a bit of everything”, though she is candid about the fact that she wasn’t seen to tick the right boxes. “I remember there was one teacher who, just before I left, said: ‘You’re like a beautiful, unformed butterfly.’ It was fucking rude, but also quite sweet. But also rude. I was really open in terms of work because I felt like you had to be in the beginning. But television was not in my head – I thought that TV belonged to size zero models because that was what I saw at the time, and there weren’t that many dark-skinned women [on TV] either.” However, small screen roles did begin to emerge alongside her success on stage and, in 2015, Wokoma got her TV break as Chewing Gum’s Cynthia.
Though she speaks fondly of the show, it’s another project from around the same time that really makes her eyes light up. The cult hit Crazyhead, in which Wokoma played a socially awkward demon slayer, ran for a single series on E4 in 2017, though it later picked up a keen following in the US via Netflix, which co-produced the series. “I was really upset about it ending,” she says. “I don’t think it was given a good enough chance. There were just a lot of changes at the channel that meant it wasn’t a viable show. The thing that broke my heart the most was the fan art, people saying: ‘We’ve always wanted this black character, this is the Buffy we wanted’.”
Wokoma says she found out the show had been canned by chance, in a meeting with the streaming giant in Los Angeles. “I messaged all the other actors and I was like, ‘Go look for jobs! Let’s get this moving.’” She also broke the news to fans on Twitter. “After a while I just went on there and said: ‘It’s not coming back!’ I thought it wasn’t fair to just let it fade away.”
Gladly, Wokoma has come out the other side of that disappointment busier than ever, and is turning her hand to writing, too. As well as a stint in the writers’ room on the hit dramedy Sex Education, she penned a short film, Love the Sinner, in 2018, based on her mother’s reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the outpouring of grief, especially among black women who felt an allegiance to her. “I knew it would be really funny, but it was also about this mass feeling – not just mass grieving, but the mass feeling of something we all feel the same way about, by and large,” she says. “That sort of consensus is gone now. And also because it was really funny – though it was scary as a 10-year-old to hear your mum scream, ‘Take me instead!’” Wokoma’s mother lent her some clothes for costumes, a far cry from old times. “She felt very involved – she loves being the centre of attention.”
She is writing another film and developing a TV show, but, gladly, can still be seen in front of the camera. In Truth Seekers Wokoma plays Helen, whose brother Elton (Samson Kayo) has been roped into paranormal activity by his broadband installer-slash-poltergeist finder boss, played by Frost. “I love people who find it difficult to engage with the world, because my job requires so much engagement,” she says of the role. “But one of the main challenges was, how do I not make it like Cynthia? That’s in the back of your head. So it was a real joy to go, how else can you be socially awkward? How else can you find it difficult? Ultimately that comes from her background, which comes up a bit later in the series.” Of course, there are some parallels with the fan favourite character. “The way I look worried is how my characters look worried,” she says, laughing. “You can’t change your face!”
This year, Wokoma has also been seen in the Sherlock spin-off film Enola Holmes, with Stranger Things wunderkind Millie Bobby Brown – whom she threw across a room in a jujitsu scene. (“The night before I was like, oh my God, I have to throw the star and exec producer?!”)
Although the pandemic has put the brakes on so much of the arts, she remains in demand – and is thankful for it. She laughs as she recalls the taxi driver on her way in, who asked her if she wanted to be dropped at the stage door – “I wish!” You imagine she’ll be back treading the boards the moment Public Health England allows it.
Truth Seekers launches on Prime Video Friday 30 October