Episode 121: Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Don’t Jealous Me and Opeyemi Sofoluke on Creating Your Lane
On this week’s episode, we hear from actor Sharon Duncan-Brewster. Many of you will be familiar with Sharon’s work on TV shows such as Eastenders, Doctor Who, and Sex Education, as well as films including Rogue One. Sharon will be appearing in Denis Villeneuve’s hotly anticipated screen adaptation of Dune, and also plays Tula Quik in Sky One’s sci-fi series Intergalactic.
Sharon talks us through her journey to becoming an actor, from realising her childhood dream of becoming a pharmacist wasn’t going to work out, to finding a love for acting at the Anna Scher Children’s Theatre in North London.
- How attending a bi-weekly after school class, and being encouraged by one of her teachers, ignited Sharon’s passion for acting
- How being vulnerable offers up the space for the most powerful creative work
- The importance of actors speaking when they don’t feel comfortable shooting a scene
- The power of listening in order to understand other people’s points of view
- How Sharon was drawn to a character who embodied the opposite traits to what she normally plays
We also hear from Opeyemi Sofoluke, who is Lead Regional Manager of Diversity and Inclusion at Facebook. She is also a co-author of the book Twice As Hard — which charts some of the personal stories of Black business owners and entrepreneurs — together with her partner Raphael Sofoluke, who will be featuring in one of our future episodes.
Opeyemi talks about the importance of prioritising rest and self-care, particularly for those balancing work with family responsibilities.
Plus we hear some words of wisdom from comedian Don’t Jealous about how to deal with the naysayers.
Welcome back to Wanna Be, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less. I’m Imriel Morgan, founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do now. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industry. Today, I am back with three inspiring guests who are going to help you understand why seeing is believing, to be more playful and curious, and how to start prioritising yourself and your wellbeing. Let’s get into it.
Today’s guest is actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who is a familiar face to many Brits listening, I’m sure. Sharon is best known for her role as Crystal Gordon in Bad Girls, and as Trina Johnson on Eastenders, but she’s also had recurring roles in Top Boy and Sex Education. The focus of this interview is to help you find your place in the world and to carve out a lane that you can dominate. We also talk about taking back power in situations that you may find intimidating. Let’s go!
Imriel Morgan 1:24
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 1:27
To start off with, I wanted to be a pharmacist.
Imriel Morgan 1:33
That’s so unexpected!
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 1:34
Apparently, and I don’t I don’t remember this, I remember the saying it, but my mum said that I saw someone on the television. It was a documentary about pharmaceutical something or the other. And I saw this this woman, I think she might have been counting out medication or something like this. And I said ‘mummy, what’s she doing?’, and she said, ‘she’s a pharmacist’. ‘So what to they do?’. My mum told me. I said, ‘that’s what I want to do’. And for years that was sort of like my mantra: ‘I want to be a pharmacist, I want to be a pharmacist’. And then when I got to secondary school, I said that in my first chemistry class.
Imriel Morgan 2:13
I’m laughing because I can relate…
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 2:17
[Laughing]. I sat down in my first class. Eager, happy, so excited because this is it! This is the beginning of the trip! The adventure is starting here. And oh, you know, you put it in your statement when you go from primary school to secondary school – ‘I would like to do this’. And this was it. And so I sat in a class and the teacher started the lesson. When I tell you the class ended, I don’t even know when everybody left. All I know is I was still sat at the chair looking at the blackboard at the time going, ‘oh no’, because I did not get it. And I tried hard. I worked hard on that. I had private classes – my mum ever so kindly paid for somebody to come to teach me. Gosh, I used to dread that class. But yeah, sometimes you just need to face that, you know, you’re good at some things and not very good at others. I wasn’t terrible. But I wasn’t good enough to excel and go on to further education with that. But the to be honest, the acting always stole all my energies away anyway, from such a small age.
Imriel Morgan 3:27
Was it that you were in a theatre group? Were you in classes for that already? So there was already an interest?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 3:31
I used to go to a place called the Anna Scher Children’s Theatre, which was in Islington. It’s now called the Young People’s Theatre. It’s in Barnsbury in Islington. And I used to go there, at the time, you could go twice a week for an hour and a half. And the classes were 20 pence.
20 Pence for an hour and a half! I loved it. My mum and dad sent me there, because although I was at home, singing and dancing and making up all kinds of voices and doing impersonations of politicians, and apparently being good at it, as soon as I left the house, I was really quiet and shy. And I still do have that shy energy about me in certain situations. They sent me there just to try and get me out of my shell because I was my mum’s only child. I was the only child in my house growing up.
But they had the agency upstairs. And as I got older, you start to realise that they’d have visitors coming in and they have in-house auditions as well. And kids would be asked to go upstairs. The deal is if you go upstairs, then you get to be on TV or you can get to be on stage in the theatre. Well, I want to know what happens when you go upstairs. It wasn’t like I was trying too hard or anything but it was a curiosity of sorts. And then by the time I was 16, it became very apparent that I really like acting, I really enjoy it and in my heart I was going, ‘I could actually really do this as a career’, because I was getting paid.
My careers officer was also my English teacher and she said, ‘you still haven’t filled in your form. Do you really want to go to university?’, and I was like, ‘I don’t know, Miss’. I was there toying with the ideas of doing psychology, criminal psychology, or media design or graphic design, that sort of thing. But every time I just keep coming back to this acting, going back to the acting. She said, ‘you haven’t filled the form in’. I said, ‘I know’. She said: ‘you don’t want to go to university’. I said ‘nah miss’. She said: ‘you want to act, don’t you?’. I said, ‘yes Miss’. She said: ‘well, you’re already doing it. Do you think you need to go to drama school? Because I don’t think you should just carry on. I think you’re doing really well as it is’. And and I tell you what, Miss Smith, if you’re out there – thank you so much, because I just needed somebody to give me the green light.
Imriel Morgan 5:49
We’ll come back to Sharon in just a few minutes. I want you to get to know Opeyemi Sofoluke, who’s the Lead Regional Manager of Diversity and Inclusion at Facebook. Opeyemi has a few things to share that I think you’ll a hundred percent relate to. Take it away.
Opeyemi Sofoluke 6:08
My name is Opeyemi Sofoluke, and I am the co-author of Twice As Hard, which comes out in the UK on the third of June. I am also the Lead Regional Diversity and Inclusion Program Manager at Facebook. And in addition to that, I’m also a mum and a wife, so many hats that I have to put on. Some of the things I’m currently working on improving right now, from a personal perspective, is really tied to self care. I’ve realised with all the many hats that I wear, and the hats that I’ve listed, honestly, I find that every day I’m busy, busy, busy, busy, busy. And I rarely find time to just take a break or reflect. Every once in a while I go for a run. And that really has been an outlet for me. But one of the things I’ve realised that I need to prioritise more is how I look after myself – am I taking breaks? You know, how do I prioritise my self care? So that’s an area that I’m really trying to improve on, on a personal level, and I’m sure it’s one that many can identify with.
In this busy kind of culture and world, there is that tendency to keep going or to push for more. But there is a need to ask yourself: am I rested? How do I feel? Do I need to take a break? Because in the long run, if we go go, go go go, while it’s great to push for greatness, while it’s great to work towards our goals, it’s super, super important that we take time to relax and refresh ourselves and make sure that we are charged so that we can deliver our best.
And then in terms of a book I would recommend, I would actually recommend Twice As Hard, and I’m not saying this just because it’s my book, but because I believe it is a really, really powerful book, which will educate, empower, inform the Black community on ways to really achieve success. But it also will help allies to understand some of the things we go through in the working world and in the world of business.
Imriel Morgan 8:15
Yes to taking breaks and prioritising yourself! I can a hundred percent relate to that. I have also been reading her book Twice As Hard, and I’m very grateful that this book exists as a blueprint for us to navigate our careers in the UK in particular. You can now find it in all major bookstores, and a heads up that we have got her husband Raphael Sofoluke joining us on the podcast very soon, so stay tuned for that. Now, back to Sharon.
With acting, it requires so much vulnerability and openness to do things on screen that any ordinary person living that life would just be like ‘I could not’. I would love to know how you tackle that.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 9:00
I totally agree with you. We have so many vulnerable moments. We have so many vulnerable moments as creatives. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, that’s when the exciting stuff comes out. And yeah, there have been scenarios where I’ve been asked to do things that I haven’t felt comfortable with as an actor, where I think inexperience has made me force myself to do it. And in some situations, the outcome has been okay. I think there are now things that I know I definitely wouldn’t want to do and I would feel very confident about saying it straight away in the moment, be it on set or in rehearsals or whatever. But there is still something about that old cliche, feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Even a change in habit.
For example, okay, when I get out of bed, the first thing I do is this: what would happen to your day if you just stepped right instead of left? If you got out of the bed on a different side, you know, some people arguable there’s a wall there, so I ain’t going to do it, but what about crawling out of the foot of the bed, jump a bit? I don’t know, don’t bust your head on the ceiling, just to switch it up a little piece and just by slight fragments of changes. Fragments of change? That’s not what I mean! I mean, sort of very minute turns on the dial, if you know what I’m saying, just to see what happens.
And rather than try to be in control all the time as well, I think that’s where artistry really starts to show itself. Because when we are in control, it normally means that we’re guarded, it normally means that we’re holding something back. The moment you start to allow yourself to be open, there are some scenarios where it’s really healthy to push yourself and do it. And yes, true say, there are some scenarios where people are just taking the piss. And in those moments when your gut instinct is no, no, no, no, no, stick with that, I would say, for sure, because normally, when that alarm bell is going off, it’s not discomfort, it’s a different sort of reaction or response. And when that happens, the safest thing to say is in the moment, ‘I’m not comfortable here’. And then what follows can be a conversation, where you can think about it as you’re talking. It’s not like you’re making decisions straight away. But from that people can respect that you’ve vocalised it, and they should then engage in a conversation about what’s going on. And they should listen.
And I think in a scenario where, in a world where sometimes people say, ‘well, sometimes there’s not enough time, and I felt like I was new to the profession, and I didn’t know what was right. If it was the norm’. I would say this: any employer, director, producer, who hears somebody say, ‘I’m not comfortable’, should respect that, and do something to make you feel comfortable. And if they’ve tried to do that, and you’re still not comfortable, then the answer is ‘no. I am not. I will not. I don’t want to. It wasn’t agreed and discussed before. Let me go on and do as we discussed’. And hopefully, that will be okay. I think if it goes beyond that, then you’re in a very tricky situation. And I would say to any actor who’s out there who feels like they have been in that scenario, to just ask for a moment to talk with the director or producer, if they’re around, and hopefully come to an understanding about it.
Sometimes I would also say prevention is better than cure. So if you see something on a script that you already don’t feel comfortable about, don’t leave it to the last minute. Straight away, get on it, and talk to somebody, be it the producer, director, and if they’re not willing to talk about it, then talk to your agent, if you are fortunate enough to have one. But always be vocal as much as you can, and if the only thing that can come out of your mouth is ‘I don’t feel comfortable’, that is a good way to start the dialogue.
Imriel Morgan 13:37
Brilliant, thank you. Thank you for saying all of that and sharing that, because I think that there is something, especially because the audience is largely women listening, it is a big thing to feel pressured or like you don’t have a choice in certain situations. And it doesn’t need to be like these big extremes, but comfort sits on a spectrum in general. And that could be as simple as saying a line that could be seen as offensive or triggers something in you emotionally, that you’re just like, ‘no, actually people I know aren’t like that. I don’t want to play into that’. So I think it’s just acknowledging that you can say, ‘I’m not comfortable with that’, and like you said, it doesn’t need to be a final thing. It’s a conversation. There’s so many layers before we get to completely writing it off, but I think I definitely needed to hear that because I can be quite final in my way of thinking. It’s very black and white.There’s no shades of grey. The answer is yes or it’s no.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 14:35
I think with regards to any job description or any scenario, there’s always an explanation from where the person on the other side is coming from. And I think in some scenarios, they’re wrong, they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And so therefore, by you saying you’re not comfortable, then you can open up a dialogue which is: ‘this is really how it is’, or ‘this is it from my perspective’. Whatever it be, if it’s a line, or let’s say for example, I’ve had scenes where I’ve had to have my character just coming out of bed. And so I’ve said, ‘okay, have you got any scarves, please?’, and they’re looking at me like, ‘what do you need a scarf for?’. This is a long time ago. I think the good thing is now people are starting to get onto that. They’re really tuning in now. People are making an effort, which is a good thing. But back in the day, they’d be like, why? I’d say: ‘because she’s just waking up, she’s gonna have a headscarf’. A scarf?And they’re looking at you like: no, no, no, no, can you not have this? The designer says that, the scarf, the way that the colours and everything… I said, ‘listen, a Black woman coming out of her bed, she’s going to have a headscarf on her head’.
Otherwise it doesn’t read true.
Straight away. ‘She ain’t come out of bed!’
Imriel Morgan 15:54
Do you know what? I watched something up until a week ago, and the girl came out of bed without a headscarf and I was like, ‘this is unrealistic. It’s just not true’. And literally it is like that, though. Because you’re just like, ‘that’s just not true’.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 16:08
That just dispels everything. It ruins everything. There’s a certain amount of audience sitting there going, ‘that’s just… no’, and rather than being pulled into the drama and the strength of whatever individual’s performance, they’re now sort of questioning, not only that’s not true, but ‘why did she not say something? What’s she letting the team down for?’. I don’t think people realise the domino effect of not being vocal has on society – and this is the thing about a certain duty that we have as performers to be truthful and honest about who we are and where we come from. And a lot of the time it is difficult, it has been difficult, but I think we’re now in a position with everything that’s going on, where people are… I don’t know why it’s taken this long, and it’s frustrating that it has, and it’s frustrating that it’s taken the extent of what’s occurred, especially over the last seven years for things to, you know, there are these cycles of things that happen and our generation, it’s what’s been going on over the last year in particular, but prior to that, we all know it was much further than that.
For certain people to now step up and go: ‘okay, I’m ready now. I’m listening’. Right? And we can go into the depths of… and and that is a sit down and buss a drink open and chat conversation that goes on all day, weeks with our lot because it’s deep. But we have arrived at a point where people are saying, ‘I want to know your truth. I want to know the truth’. And that’s really interesting and I’m glad it’s happening. And what I now need to hear next is: ‘I want to know our truth’, because I don’t think people… some people are clicking. Some people are. But it’s important that we, and I say ‘we’ meaning everybody, talk and listen to each other.
Imriel Morgan 18:29
Listening is key, for sure.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 18:31
It’s so simple. As we say it in words: talk and listen to each other. But I know a lot of people are tired of doing one action or the other. And I’m talking from both sides of this very intersected fence – this distance between us, on one hand, the ways that we connect and the ways that we are so different, you still go, ‘I understand you’re tired. I know you are and I know you’re hurting’. I’m hurting. I’m not talking about any one person when I say this, and I really want to make it important that’s understood because we all are tired in a way. And what am I saying? How can I say this which will really convey what I mean from my heart? It’s about the fact that ‘tired’ has so many different connotations. And so we are all tired, but your tired comes from a very different place to my tired. Does that make sense?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 19:35
Right. So yeah, you might be hurting, but I’m also hurting too. And the extent of my hurt, my pain, my frustration, my fatigue – if you really want me to talk to you about it, and if you really want to listen, I hope maybe that you won’t respond in a sort of mirror-like fashion and say, ‘well, I’m tired too, and I’m fatigued too’. I feel like having a conversation means that you listen and you respond, and that different words come out of your mouth that I can then respond to, and that we then engage proactively and constructively to sort this mess out. Because it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a long, long time. But if we don’t listen to each other, I don’t know how far we’re going to get.
Listening, actively listening, which means taking in and absorbing with your mind, your body and your spirit what someone is saying, not just going ‘oh, yeah, I hear you, I hear you’. No no no no no, don’t rebuff me like that please. Do you know what I mean? It’s it’s a deeper sense of listening. And I think that’s going to hurt a lot of people. It’s going to be difficult, but we have to face it is a difficult scenario that we’re in. And a lot of us have been facing difficulties for a very long time. So accept that. Accept that that is a truce. And get involved is what I’m saying.
Imriel Morgan 21:15
Yeah, one of our guiding principles at Content is Queen is: inclusion is a process and your participation is necessary. And so we can’t not engage, we can’t avoid it. Eventually, we have to engage in this.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 21:31
And I can understand why some people… you know, I’ve been in places where I’ve wanted to take the positive baton. You know: ‘let’s talk about it in this way. Let’s talk about it’. But sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.
Imriel Morgan 21:47
Yeah it does not work that way at all. You can’t kind of wish it away.
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard.
Imriel Morgan 21:56
I do want to get onto Intergalactic. What made you say yes to this particular project?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 21:59
So with Intergalactic, I was on a sci-fi [film] at the time when I got the script, and I was like, ‘oh, my gosh, this is sci-fi. I can’t do another sci-fi. Let me just read the script’. So I read the script, and this character Tula Quik comes. And she’s aggressive, she’s rude, she’s noxious, or selfish. She’s all of these horrible things that I just went well, ‘of course, I’ve got to try and play this character’.
Imriel Morgan 22:30
I thought you were going to say no!
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 22:33
No, no! Because of the projects that I’ve been well known for being in, I think there are quite a few that are quite vulnerable, kind characters. And I get a lot of scripts, which are just asking me to play that same type of character. So this was such a breath of fresh air to begin with. And then when I saw the complexities of that – Tula’s got a daughter who is in the show with her and their mother/daughter dynamic is just so fragile, and so messed up. It’s a conversation that for me, it opens up many conversations. And I’m curious to hear what audiences will make of them and it, the situations that they’ve been in, and where Tula takes them, and why. It opens up a lot of questions about abuse, about our backstory, about women being powerful, what they have to do in order to maintain that status. She was described as a narcissistic psychopath. Likened to both the Kray Twins.
Oh wow, that is extreme!
so I was like, ‘yeah, I want to do something with that!’
Imriel Morgan 24:01
Were there any challenges with that though, because it’s such a different type of role to what you typically do play? Was that a challenge to take on this very different way of being?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 24:11
I would argue that I don’t typically play any one type of character. I think what’s happened is that people become synonymous with certain types of characters because of what’s been most popular, especially on screen. But for the audiences who’ve seen me on stage, I do so many different types of characters. I choose by decision. I design. I don’t take on the same thing ever, which is why it was so difficult for me to go from one sci-fi to another, but I did it because of how powerful Tula is. But yes, I mean there’s humour in it as well. So although she’s this tough cookie, there’s enough jokes as well, I know people will be busting up at certain points. I’ll be interested to see what audiences make of her, and I think I would urge people to just stick to not make assumptions because with Intergalactic itself, the minute you make an assumption about any character, it gets flipped on its head.
Oh right. It’s one of those ones….
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. So I would say stick with it to see why she is the way she is. Yeah, it’s very interesting.
Imriel Morgan 25:18
What are you working on improving right now?
Sharon Duncan-Brewster 25:20
I realised I’ve been asleep for a really long time. I had a few things that happened in my past that really affected me and I’d sort of been plodding along, but in a sort of zombie-like state. I was functioning highly, you know, working and doing everything. But there were elements of my mind that I’d just switched off, and I wasn’t engaged really in very much at all. And something happened to me three years ago, that just, it just ignited that spark within me. I’m forever grateful for it. From then on I just slowly started to entice the parts of myself that had been disengaged back into my myself, my heart, my soul, my spirit. And so I’ve been doing a lot of self-assessing and self-realisation, which has been… it’s extraordinary what the human mind can do, and how the human mind can sort of place things in safe corners until you’re ready to access and address them. So I’ve been doing a lot of that.
Imriel Morgan 26:33
That’s perfect, thank you so much.
I could’ve talked for longer you know! We could have gone on. I wouldn’t have even minded.
Imriel Morgan 26:40
I’ve really been watching shown on TV throughout my life and it was an honour to learn more about the woman behind all of the characters I’ve watched. You can catch Sharon on Sky One’s Intergalactic from the 30th of April. Follow her on Instagram @ShasDB to learn more about her work and just, you know, support her when she’s doing these things. She’s been in this industry for a minute y’all, like she’s been at this, so show her some love! Before we wrap up, here’s comedian Don’t Jealous Me with some must hear advice that will bring out the child in you.
Don’t Jealous Me 27:13
The worst advice I was given was: someone told me ‘don’t do stand up comedy because if you do that and you fail, everyone… it”s going to be like a really bad, you’ll get really bad feedback. And this is something that’s really hard. So just don’t do it’. That’s something that’s still affecting me today. But I’m working on it. Don’t worry.
Imriel Morgan 27:34
That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for listening. I hope this half an hour has made you think, reflect, and contemplate what your next step should be. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who would benefit from the messages that we’ve shared today, and I’d love for you to share this episode with them right now. If you’d like to hear the extended interview with Sharon, all you have to do is screenshot and share this episode to your Instagram stories and tag @contentisqueenhq. It will basically let us know that it’s worth doing the edit. So please do do that. Until next time, bye!