Susan Wokoma: 'I’m writing for women of colour – everyone else is taken care of'
The Chewing Gum actress and screenwriter talks racial politics, stalking Helen Mirren – and teaming up with her bestie, This Country's Daisy May Cooper
As part of our Women's Words campaign, RadioTimes.com has approached established screenwriters and asked them to nominate up-and-coming female writers they believe have a bright and exciting future in television.
Here, Daisy May Cooper, the Bafta-winning co-creator of This Country, explains why Susan Wokoma is set to become the next big name in screenwriting.
I nominate Susan Wokoma, because you can search the entire world and you are never going to find someone as funny or as talented as that girl. Dead or alive. No one. Not one single person. Not Shakespeare, not Dickens, not even me… But more importantly, she’s got the balls to change the c**p that's been going on round here.
Who is Susan Wokoma? RadioTimes.com's Flora Carr sat down with the writer and actress for a frank discussion on her screenwriting debut – and her battle to create roles on TV for women of colour...
Of all the words Susan Wokoma could use to describe herself, ‘quiet’ isn’t one of them.
“Every time I do an interview, I’m like, I talk way too much,” she says, laughing. She explains that she often reads profiles where the interviewee is depicted as “looking into the distance… really enigmatic”, but she believes she’ll never be described as such.
She's certainly not enigmatic about her convictions. Throughout her interview with RadioTimes.com, her message, and the motivations behind her writing, are communicated with crystal clarity. Wokoma is a woman with a purpose. As I get up to leave, she gives an anecdote about how she always wears the same coat every time she visits Rough Cut, the TV production company she worked with on her recent short for Sky.
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“[It’s] this shaggy black sort of cardigan jumper coat,” she says, and “I walk in like that.” She mimes tossing part of the coat over her shoulder, her nose in the air. She stretches out her arms.
“'I’m here, taking up as much space as possible'.”
Wokoma is known to most as an actress, notably starring as devout, sex-starved Cynthia in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. “Ms. Wokoma steals every scene she’s in,” The New York Times said of her performance.
She also played demon-hunter Raquel in E4’s Crazyhead and starred in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing, before being named a Bafta Breakthrough Brit last year. Podcast aficionados might recognise her as a regular voice on Deborah Frances-White's The Guilty Feminist.
But Wokoma is also an increasingly prolific screenwriter, and she’s championed to RadioTimes.com by one of her best friends: This Country’s Daisy May Cooper.
We first meet in a cafe called Fuckoffee, in Bermondsey Street. Wokoma’s dressed in a bright pink polka dot dress. The venue was her choice, and it’s filled with neon lights and scribbled jokes on chalkboards. It proves as bold, irreverent – and funny – as her.
As Cooper’s nomination (above) is read out to her, there’s a shout of laughter from Wokoma: “I can hear her voice, saying it!” The pair first met at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), where both harboured dreams of becoming comedic actresses. Wokoma recalls going on a road trip to Cooper’s home, where her friend's aunt would “turn on the lava lamp and… read my palm or do tarot cards”.
"It said, 'you’re gonna be alright’.”
“But,” she adds, “I remember thinking, if this [acting] doesn’t work out, there’s nothing else I can do. This is it. It was sort of scary to admit that it's [the] one thing you're passionate about, one thing that you care about. But it's sort of freeing, because it has to work — like, it literally has to work.”
Cooper also stars in Wokoma’s screenwriting debut, a new short for Sky, Love The Sinner, about a young girl who attempts to skip Sunday School after Princess Diana's death. Wokoma stars as her own mother in the short.
"I thought, I've never done this sort of thing before – I wanna cast my mate. And then I thought, f*** it. So everyone got parts."
Cooper had just started filming Armando Iannucci's The Personal History Of David Copperfield, but she took time off from her schedule.
It seems that Cooper – and specifically her experience and advice – is a running thread in Wokoma’s transition into screenwriting, which includes work on a TV pilot, with the working title of Fix You, which is loosely based on her own experience of meeting her Nigerian half-sister after her father died.
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“When I went to Nigeria, it just really made me look at identity,” she explains, “and always identifying as Nigerian, and then going to Nigeria and feeling, ‘Oh, I’m not Nigerian at all.'
“Daisy really encouraged [me] to write truthfully. I think before then, I liked the idea of coming up with something wacky.”
Wokoma will play the protagonist, Susie, in the pilot: "Again, I was like, 'I don't want to be in it', and then Daisy was like, 'you have to be in it'."
Cooper pushed her to look at her own personal experiences: “She was like, your life is funny… Writ[ing] something wacky because you don’t want to put yourself centre, you don’t want to make it about you, is pointless, because all the funny stuff is there.”
Wokoma may still be finding her space and voice as a screenwriter, but there's no doubt in her mind about why she writes.
“My real object as a writer is to write women, and particularly women of colour in these roles. That’s it. I feel like everybody else is taken care of,” she says.
There are moments where Wokoma fools around during our interview, waving her arms in the air or picking up the dictaphone to use as a mic when a baby cries (“Testing, testing, one two three…”). But she’s also intent on getting her point across.
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She recalls the time she stalked Dame Helen Mirren around a supermarket, after falling in love with her performance on Prime Suspect: “I definitely watched it when I was too young.”
The point, Wokoma says, is that she was able to relate to shows like Prime Suspect despite their stories existing “so far away from [her own] experience”.
“I’m so grateful I’m able… [to] feel empathy and be moved and angered, and I don’t have to have people who look like me or sound like me or talk like me. That is absolutely a gift... But what that ability to sort of transport myself comes from, where that comes from, is because there was no one that looked like me or sounded like me growing up, when I would watch films or read books.
"And so the person that I am writing for is — this is gonna sound corny as f*** — but I'm writing for that little girl who used to devour all these TV shows and films and books and stories, and never saw herself, but never questioned it."
"So I'm writing for her," Wokoma concludes, "I'm writing for girls like her who can open a book or a film or TV show, and go, 'there I am'. Because it's incredible. Because if you don't see yourself, you don't believe it.
"That's why... I'm so single-minded about all of my narratives, because it's for her. Obviously, it's for her."
We need to get made. We're not doing this as a hobby, this is not a favour.
With her mission clear, Wokoma recently joined a writersroom for a well-known streaming service, and will work within a team of writers on an existing comedy show.
“I said [during initial meetings], ‘If I'm gonna come in and join this writersroom, I'm pushing for lead roles that you don't normally get in television. That's it. That's my contribution’,” she says. “I feel like everything else is catered for, and has been catered for. You have to have that mind[set] in a room, otherwise you're just forgotten about.”
But, she adds: “I really believe that ultimately nothing is going to change that much unless the gatekeepers change. It means people losing their jobs, that's why it's not gonna happen soon.”
Gender equality in commissioning roles – she says – is fundamental. "I just believe that in those rooms where decisions are made… where there is an equal amount of women and men in a room, the decisions are different. I've experienced that."
Wokoma recalls how in the past, TV developers have “entertain[ed]” her ideas — but never saw them from page to screen.
"I feel like a lot of developers will entertain your idea for a very long amount of time and work with you on something, to say that they've worked with you," she says. She puts on an upper-middle class accent: “'We're working with this wonderful woman of colour who's doing this delightful...' Yeah, yeah, yeah.
"We need to get made. We're not doing this as a hobby, this is not a favour."
Commissioners, she says, “largely men”, have in the past been scared of taking risks with storylines that don't have proven track records.
“If you're not the kind of person who's had to exist outside of your comfort zone a lot… there's gonna be another straight white man story about a guy who's a police officer, who drinks a bit, but ultimately solves the crime, [and] you're gonna be like: ‘Yeah, I know that guy, I know that story. That's been done before, and it worked out, and that guy won a Bafta for it. Cool, we'll do it again’.
“And there's obviously a naked raped dead body, somewhere, sliced in there,” Wokoma adds. She sounds neither angry nor resigned — simply matter-of-fact.
She's opinionated, but also weary of feeling "like you're political by default by being a black woman, and being in the arts. And I sort of am, and sometimes I take that up happily, and sometimes I'm just tired because... I don't want to be a politician.”
She later adds: “I can't help but be angry that it's always black women giving teachable moments. I just want black women to have peace, and get on with their art, and it really annoys me — it always seems like it's down to women — particularly not white women – to go, ‘I'm gonna stand up and say this’.”
Earlier this year, Wokoma's Chewing Gum co-star, Michaela Coel, sparked an important conversation on the state of the television industry when she revealed during her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival that she was sexually assaulted while she was working overnight on a script deadline.
Her disclosure prompted a response from Channel 4, who said: "broadcasters and producers now need to work in partnership to act on the issues she has raised.”
Asked if there could be another series of Chewing Gum, Wokoma deems it unlikely. Still, it's not like she's short of projects to work on. In addition to her short, the comedy writersroom and Fix You, she’s writing a film “about abortion in the UK – it's a comedy”. She’s also teaming up with an old friend: “Daisy and I are collaborating on another pilot that we're going to take to the BBC” which “[I] can’t talk about — so annoying”.
Wokoma’s often literally up all night working on scripts: "Nothing works better than starting to write at midnight at home – I'm a night owl." There's a sense of urgency to her. This is her moment, she says, and she’s not going to waste it: “I've got a window where I need to deliver, otherwise people will move on.”
"Getting your stuff actually made is... harder than acting," she says. "Acting's mainly luck. Acting's mainly right place, right time."
After years of grafting and waiting to see her words performed on screen, she’s ready to take advantage – and deliver a wake-up call to audiences.
“My work is about making people laugh but also giving them a massive slap in the face at the same time,” she says. “Comedy with a massive slap in the face. I'm not interested in anything else."
You can watch Susan Wokoma and Daisy May Cooper in Sky's Love The Sinner here.