Rising star: Sheila Atim

Sheila Atim, star of both Babette’s Feast and Girl From The North Country, talks to Nicky Sweetland about her opportune change in career.

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After Sheila Atim starred in the highly acclaimed Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar at King’s Cross last year, her stage career really took off.

Now Atim is leading the cast of Babette’s Feast at the Print Room at the Coronet. She is also set to take to The Old Vic’s stage later this year for Conor McPherson’s much-anticipated new play, Girl From The North Country, which features the music of Bob Dylan.

Atim is very aware of the fortuitous nature of her success. “Everyone knows how this industry is,” she says. “Things can come and go in waves, so I’ve got to just take it one step at a time, celebrate the next job and try not to look too far forward.”

Despite studying A-level drama, Atim originally believed her future lay in a very different business. At the age of 18, she hoped to train in medicine.

After settling on biophysical sciences – which she studied at King’s College London – the academically gifted young star got involved in the workshop of a brand-new play entitled The Lightning Child.

Following that artistic breakthrough, the London-based performer made a career U-turn: “I got an agent from that and it just started to roll on from there. It was about being in the right place at the right time.”

The coming months are likely to prove even more fruitful for the all-rounder, who is not only a highly educated and talented actor but is also a proficient musician.

Atim believes it’s important to maintain all of her interests. “I think it helps if you remember that you have the capabilities of being a multifaceted person. Of course, everyone has strengths in different areas, but I think often our society is in the habit of cutting off potential because we feel that we have to pigeonhole ourselves quite early on in our lives.”

Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s much-loved short story Babette’s Feast began its run earlier this month. The play features Atim in the title role. “It’s a really lovely story,” she explains. “The script that Glyn has adapted from the original short story is very simple and economical with the language.”

The adaptation tells the story of two sisters living in a remote coastal village. They welcome Babette, a refugee seeking sanctuary as she flees revolutionary France.

The acclaimed pair of Bill Buckhurst and Simon Kenny, who gained notoriety for their collaboration on Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie And Mash Shop, are staging the production. It has obvious parallels with the refugee crisis in Europe, something Atim is passionate about highlighting.

“These people had lives before they were refugees. They weren’t born as refugees, they were people that were very highly skilled in the country that they came from.”

In July, Atim joins the cast of Girl From The North Country at the Old Vic. She has high expectations for the production following her audition, and she comments, “I could tell that it was a special piece. I’d heard that Bob Dylan is quite protective about his work, so I was already intrigued when I heard that he’d given his blessing to the script.”

It’s been a meteoric rise for Sheila Atim over the past few years. I ask what her best advice would be for young performers who want to follow in her footsteps.

“Get involved in anything that is going on in the community around you. Even if you’re writing something yourself and getting together with friends to create something of your own. It’s important, with cuts in the arts, to be self-sufficient and proactive. If you really want to do it, you can and you just have to work through the obstacles.”

Sheila Atim stars in Babette’s Feast at the Print Room at the Coronet until 3 June.
Girl From The North Country runs at The Old Vic from 10 July to 7 October.