Sheila Atim pulls no punches starring with Halle Berry in Bruised
If Sheila Atim were a gambler, she probably wouldn't have bet on getting Bruised. The Ugandan-born Londoner, now 30, was shooting her first American TV role, Barry Jenkins' Emmy-nominated series The Underground Railroad, when she got the casting call for Halle Berry's directorial debut (on Netflix now).
She thought she blew it. Instead, she got the part — and soon found herself playing both hard-nosed trainer and potential paramour to Berry's Jackie Justice, a washed-up MMA fighter from Newark looking for one more shot in the ring. For Atim, whose background is in British theater, it would also be her first on-screen sex scene. She spoke to EW from England about her American breakthrough, bad accents, and building a love story with Berry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You haven't really worked in America until now, but then you went and booked your first two big jobs with Barry Jenkins and Halle Berry. That's not too shabby.
SHEILA ATIM: [Laughs] It's very cool and almost seems a bit not real. But I just feel really grateful that I've been able to have those two experiences more or less back to back. I actually had my call with Halle the day I was flying home from Georgia shooting Underground Railroad.
And that's where you sent in your Bruised audition from?
Yeah, I was taping it in the windowsill of my hotel, because that was the only place that had good enough light and a plain background. And it took me ages because if you've ever been to Savannah, there's lots of tour buses that go around that do these historical tours, so either I messed up the take or the bus would and it just took forever. I was like, "Oh my gosh, what am I doing? I'm never going to get this job anyway, this is ridiculous." So it seemed very dreamlike because it was completely out of the blue.
[But] the two projects, to me feel very interlinked, even though they're not actually, and the experience was huge for me because it was meeting people I have great artistic admiration for, and having such a lovely time on both and finding they were also just really nice human beings.
Were you an MMA or UFC girl at all before this? Had you ever been to a to a fight like the ones depicted in the movie?
No, never. I had watched a couple of compilation clips on YouTube, you know? Like the 10 best positions or something like that, just out of interest, but I wasn't really well versed. I had dabbled in a bit of martial arts before like, very loosely. [Laughs]
Your character, Buddhakan, comes on very guarded and tough at first when you first start training Halle's Jackie, who's been out of the game and had this inglorious fall from grace — you basically tell her you expect her to fail. Then the relationship really opens up and it ends up becoming a love story. How did she guide you through that, and the romantic scenes you had together?
One thing that I really loved actually is that Halle always referred to their interaction as a scene of love. Which I'd never heard before and it was really lovely because I think it was absolutely that. Aside from whatever else anyone takes from it, it really is just two people connecting above anything else. And I think both of them in this story are searching for that. They're both looking for connection in some way or another. And the world of MMA gives that to them in some sense, but it can't be everything.
It does feel like something really special and really beautiful, I think particularly for Halle's character, Jackie. You see her relationships with other people in the story and it's quite turbulent. It's not got the same quality as it does between Jackie and Buddhakan.
Originally, this was supposed to be a Blake Lively movie — no Halle, no Newark, none of that. So how much of Buddhakan was the page and how much did you guys work out together as you went? Did they adjust to allow you to be British and use your natural accent?
It was written as an American, but it wasn't too much of a leap. There were things that they gave me complete license to do. It was very funny, the wonderful dialect coach, Denise, she came up to me and said, "Okay. So, you know, we were wondering, would you be able to do a Cockney accent?"
Anyone who knows me knows I grew up in Essex, which is a part of greater London that is basically filled with Cockneys, right? Essex and East London. So I was like, "Denise, don't worry about it. I'll be fine, I've got this one. That's what you want? You're going to get a Cockney!" [Laughs] But there was also the challenge of not taking it too Cockney, that it was a caricature or something that wider global audiences couldn't access.
Halle said she felt like the queen of Newark when you guys were there, that the locals really came out for you. How was that for you, coming from London — between your time there and in Atlanta, do you feel like you have a real sense of America now?
It was really nice because, as you say, when it comes to things that are depicted on TV and therefore the things that we experience [overseas], there are some places that get much more coverage than others. So it was nice to kind of see a different area where people just live, somewhere that doesn't feel as popularized or as driven towards tourists. What was so great about Halle is that she found a way to utilize it. She really did want it to be a celebration of the places that we were filming, as opposed to it just being about these characters who could be anywhere.
I really vividly remember one lady who was driving a school bus with a load of kids in it. She just stopped the bus in the middle of the street and was like, "Oh my God, is this a Halle Berry movie?" And I was like, This is great! Those kids are going to be late to school, but it's fine. [Laughs]
So what's next for you, project-wise?
I don't know how much I can or can't say about them. There will be something! I filmed a few things this year, so hopefully if they don't cut me out, I'll be in them.
Last question — being in a Netflix movie means such a big potential audience, it's possible there could be 60 million people watching this. Are you prepared for that?
It's a big deal! I mean, yeah, I'm very aware. The main thing that I've really bracing myself for is all of my friends. I think they're all kind of really looking forward to seeing how good-slash-terrible-slash over the top my accent is. Like whether I took it all the way to the fish market, you know, or maybe I reeled it in a little bit [laughs].
In Halle Berry's directorial debut, a disgraced MMA fighter seeks redemption in the ring while also fighting for custody of her son.