Sheila Atim: ‘Six wings, chips and a drink. That’s my guilty pleasure’

It’s fun to write MBE after your name occasionally. I got the honour in 2019 for services to drama. I have complex feelings about it and it hasn’t made any tangible difference to my career, but it solidified my sense of responsibility. I’m a big advocate for youth arts access and young people often ask me about the MBE, so it’s cool to show them what’s possible. It’s almost an ambassadorial role. Hopefully I’ll get invited to those ambassador’s parties where they serve pyramids of Ferrero Rocher.

My mum taught me tenacity. I was raised by a Ugandan single mother in Essex. Immigrants want to succeed and find a stable life, of course, but it’s also quite easy in a foreign country to accept your position and settle for a perceived glass ceiling. Mum never did that. She was always striving and studying. She’s got degrees coming out of her ears. She showed me I didn’t have to place restrictions on myself.

I would’ve been a funny doctor. I graduated in biomedical science. If I’d pursued a medical career, I would have tried to make my patients laugh. NHS hospitals are under-resourced and it’s tough. When doctors have a bit of levity, it helps.

I definitely had a moment when I met Tom Hanks. One of my favourite childhood films was Big. I used to bawl my eyes out when he becomes a kid again. To be honest, I still do. I had “only child” existential angst aged six. My cousin used to laugh at me.

I’m addicted to pole-dancing. It’s a brilliant mix of gymnastics and dance. Classes tend to be supportive, encouraging and attract a real cross-section of people. I shared a pole with an amazing 65-year-old woman recently. I do aerial silks, too. Anything that lets me spin around and go upside down.

Six wings, chips and a drink. That’s my guilty pleasure.

I’m going to call my memoirs Being the Tall One. I’m 5ft 11in and was always put in the middle of the back row on the school photo. Finding clothes was a struggle. Before Asos, there was nothing except Long Tall Sally. My mum shopped there.

Progress doesn’t go in a straight line. Representation moves forward, then retreats. It’s a journey. I don’t know what the final destination looks like, or if there even is one. It’s just about pushing forward.

People oftenthink I’m scary. Certain stereotypes come with how I look, which can be frustrating. I’m assertive, sure, but I’m also personable and open.

Growing up, I had to have my own back. Being tall, black, skinny and angular with short hair wasn’t the easiest. I ran into Edward Enninful [editor-in-chief of British Vogue] at London Fashion Week and he said it’s funny, all the runway models look like me now. Back when I was modelling, that wasn’t the case.

Halle Berry is a heroine of mine. She’s a trailblazer, she trod the path, so it’s poignant to be part of her directorial debut [the new MMA drama Bruised]. She is still the only black woman to have won the Oscar for best actress but the subsequent years didn’t go the way she deserved. She got branded as this Hollywood pin-up, rather than recognised as the artist she is.

Caterpillars are my phobia. And butterflies by association. They might have pretty wings, but I know what they used to be.