Sheila Atim — Radiating Everywhere

Paul Phung
Rose Forde
India Hendrikse

There’s a common misconception that we must say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes our way. Be grateful. Hustle harder. Soak it all up. But for Sheila Atim, a calm discernment has been a powerful tool in her acting career so far. For the 31-year-old Ugandan-British Londoner, working in alignment with the roles she actually wants to do – and staying steady in her ‘no’ when the pace of her career dials up – has catapulted her to star status.

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello coat;
Panthère de Cartier necklace in 18K yellow gold,
tsavorite garnets, diamo16nd5s & black lacquer

Since making her start as an actor through attention-grabbing London theatre performances, Sheila’s roles have transitioned to on-screen grittiness. Her latest part in critically-acclaimed The Woman King has cemented her in the historical epic territory, while an award at 2022’s Cannes Film Festival labelled her as one of the most exciting young actors in the industry. As her success snowballs, she’s not limiting herself – from acting to screenwriting, she’s deep in the thick of telling powerful stories.
The Woman King is one of those powerful stories. For context, in the United Kingdom it wasn’t until 2018 that women had equal access to all roles in the military. Throughout our global history, assumptions around strength of character and physique, combined with restrictive gender roles, have barred females from the frontline.
And while we shouldn’t glorify warfare, sexism in any facet of our society goes on to permeate everything. Meaning we’ve been left with a film industry that tells historical dramas, but it’s men who largely get the meaty roles. Hollywood’s action films have male soldiers, generals, spies and navy officers, but female actors are left with narrow access to strong, leading parts.
Thankfully, The Woman King has turned this narrative on its head. Directed by Gina Prince- Bythe-wood, the film is based on the true stories of the West African kingdom of Dahomey (located in present-day Benin), where an all-female military regiment of fierce warriors protect-ed the kingdom’s wealth and power from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Maximilian jacket, Aquazzura shoes; Clash de Cartier earrings in 18K rose gold

Stella McCartney coat, Giorgio Armani belt;
Cartier LOVE necklace in 18K yellow gold,
Cartier LOVE earrings in 18K rose gold & diamonds

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello coat, tights & shoes;
Panthère de Cartier necklace in 18K yellow gold, tsavorite garnets,
diamonds & black lacquer, Panthèrede Cartier bracelet in 18K yellow gold16,
o8nyx & tsavorite garnets

Sheila Atim plays one of the warriors in the West African regiment. The Ugandan-British actor has had a slew of meaty roles in the past few years, including alongside Halle Berry in mixed martial arts film Bruised and in Amazon’s poignant The Underground Railroad which tells a snippet of the slave trade resistance in the United States. But the role of Amenza, a servant-turned-warrior, in The Woman King is arguably her most prominent to date.
“This feels like a potential gear shift for me,” says Sheila, reflecting on her contribution to the block-buster. “I’m seeing more doors opening in terms of conversations I’m getting to have. That’s been something that has been happening gradually over the years, but you do get these little leapfrog moments where things move a bit faster and with a bit more force.”
Nothing about Sheila’s role in the film was easy. Shot on location in South Africa, the physical effort it took to play the part of a fearless warrior was gruelling. “It hurt,” laughs Sheila, remembering the training that it took to be able to do her own stunts. “In the immediate wake of it you feel sore, but the actual transformation aspect of it felt incredible. You do feel like you can do anything. You feel stronger and the way I walk now is differ-ent. In this film, we were fighting with weapons so it’s not just about learning how to hold weapons, but it’s about having the physique and stature that would go with that.”
Despite appearances, The Woman King isn’t a traditional story of empowered women. Many Agojie were forced into the army by the will of expansionist royals. But what is empowering about the film is both the storyline, in the individual strengths of each character and the assumptions they overcame as women, and the real-world impact of the story – it being a movie with a Black, women-led cast. “I think the film is going to be empowering to a lot of people,” shares Sheila. “Yes of course we represent a different cohort – Black women,  African women, women generally – but the thing that makes these women so incredible is that they stood up against adversity in a position they wouldn’t have tradition-ally been in.”

Schiaparelli jacket & skirt, Christian Louboutin shoes, Ann Demeulemeester hat

Chloé top & trousers; Cartier Agrafe necklace & bracelet in ro1s71e gold & diamonds,
Juste Un Clou earrings in 18K yellow gold & diamonds

Ann Demeulemeester dress, skirt & hat, Christian Louboutin shoes

In the process of the film’s release, a moment that stood out to Sheila was watching a video of fans reacting to the trailer. The film being shot in Africa clearly means a lot to many people. “Anything that is set on the continent of Africa and subsequently able to film on the continent of Africa is of huge interest to me and on my radar not just as an actor, but just generally as a person,” says Sheila. “I’m really proud that we were able to make this film. I watched a couple of reaction videos to the trailer and one was with these two Nigerian guys. They were just so excited by the trailer and the fact that it was them, it was their story in part, they talked about what that meant to them and I really felt that.”
Sheila is the sort of person that radiates joy, speaking in a genuinely heartfelt way. Her delicious openness smoothly transitions to serious topics, and a deep passion spikes through her words. This enthusiasm for her craft initially made it difficult to say ‘no’ to the wrong opportunities – but discernment is a skill she’s learnt with time. “My agents in the UK and US have taught me how to advocate for myself within my job,” Sheila says. “Learning to say ‘no’ to roles was a process because I’m naturally someone who will say ‘yes’ to everything when it comes to opportunities. But saying ‘no’ is an important part of that progress and a way of crafting what the future looks like. It can feel restricting and scary to a lot of people but it’s quite important to get strong and confident in your ‘no’ because that’s a big part of drawing the correct things towards you.”
Recently, Sheila has started writing her own screenplays be-tween acting gigs. “Writing makes me braver as an actor, both within a project and with saying ‘no’. Now that I’ve started writing my own weird and mad ideas, if a role isn’t weird and mad I’m like, ‘Eurgh…’”, Sheila says with a laugh. “Being a writer and creator I’m starting to think forward about the teams I want to build and how I want that to work and how I want to treat people on set. Even though that’s a way off, there’s a lot of layers to writing in terms of what it helps me excavate and explore.”
To fuel her creativity, Sheila prioritises time off. “In-between creative surges, me going about my life helps little things percolate and helps new ideas drop in. Things that I see or read or hear about or watch help form where the story [I’m writing] is going next.” Sheila may have made the switch from stage to screen, but it’s clear the art form of acting is something she approaches holistically. She doesn’t just play a part but wants to write parts too.
What fuels her creativity in the literal sense is snacks. Lots of snacks. “I like writing at home be-cause there are snacks,” she grins. “Snacks, for whatever reason, are a huge part of my writing process. Suddenly I just need everything; I need the popcorn, I need the nuts, I need the fruit, I need sweets… it’s constant grazing.”
Jovial snacking conversations aside, Sheila’s ability to chameleon between complex roles and mediums is a rare skill. In 2019 she was recognised with an MBE for her services to drama and just this year she picked up her second Olivier award. She’s made a name in the London theatre scene, and now that she’s entered the blockbuster territory, it’s clear she’s on track to be a household name.
Her catch-all abilities with diverse audiences are part of her charm. “Because it’s artistry and has a level of subjectivity to it, there’s no clear cut rules with acting,” she says. “In one sense that’s really allowed me to thrive because I don’t think I’m someone that’s easy to box into a clear definition, so that’s worked in my favour in some ways.”
Because she’s not boxed in anywhere, Sheila is radiating everywhere.

Maximilian jacket; Clash de Cartier earrings in 18K rose gold

Chloé top & trousers; Cartier Agrafe necklace & bracelet in ro1s71e gold & diamonds,
Juste Un Clou earrings in 18K yellow gold & diamonds

Gucci blazer, shirt, skirt, shoes, belt, tie & hat;
Cartier Double C de Cartier chain bag,
Pasha de Cartier watch in 41mm yellow gold & leather straps

Bottega Veneta coat & trousers; Santos de Cartier necklace in 18K yellow gold

Prada jumper, shorts & shoes;
Les Berlingots de Cartier necklace in 18K yellow gold & snakewood,
Tank Louis Cartier watch in 18K rose gold & leather strap

Order your copy of issue 16 here
Photographer: Paul Phung
Stylist: Rose Forde
Makeup: Francesca Brazzo at The Wall Group
Hair: Marcia Lee at One Represents
Stylist’s assistants: Lizzie Ash & Ava Domina Bozic
Photographer’s assistant: Ella Pileggi