By Eleanor Robers
I first met Jessica when we were both five, just having started primary school. From then until high school we were inseparable. Sharing such a friendship is a privilege, and even as we have grown up and followed different paths in life I will always remember the first time I saw her star on stage.
I had seen her before in some minor roles, but when she took to the stage starring in the local theatre’s ‘Oklahoma!’ it was as if she was transformed. Her energy, her personality – which I had previously only known in the confines of our tight, and at times, claustrophobic, friendship – suddenly expanded to fill the whole theatre. She was captivating, her every movement inviting you to follow her with your eyes whenever she was on stage. She climbed upon a piano that was wheeled from curtain to curtain as she sang the story of the young girl with big dreams from Oklahoma – I know Jessica has never stopped chasing her own dreams of an acting career on the West End since.
I caught up with her to find out what it’s like to be an aspiring actor in London today.
Eleanor: Where does your love of acting come from and when did you decide to pursue it as a career?
It’s something I fell in love with from a young age. My mum enrolled me for drama classes at the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy as I was shy as a child and it grew from there. I was in the Children’s Ensemble for the New Vic Theatre’s Christmas production of ‘Oliver!’ in 2006/07. It was my first professional production and the first stepping stone that confirmed by desire to be an actress.
Eleanor: Who or what were / are your idols and inspiration?
I admire so many actors and actresses, and feel constantly inspired by the plethora of work I get to see on stage and screen. But above all, my mum is my idol. I am constantly inspired by her strength and beauty inside and out and she has taught me so much of what I know.
Eleanor: How have you found your experiences in amateur / professional dramatics in terms of representation of people of colour and diversity in general?
Sadly, I was often the only person of colour in the amateur dramatics I took part in. Despite this, I feel this could be related to location as I grew up in a town in the North West of England, and I have met and worked with a much greater diversity of people since moving to London.
Eleanor: Growing up, what impact do you think representation of people of colour (in particular, women of colour) in the dramatic arts has on aspirational young women?
It’s incredibly encouraging to see the development of racial equality, particularly in the entertainment industry. As a young woman of a mixed racial background, it’s a wonderful thing to see women of colour being featured in varied roles on stage and screen. It feels like a special and exciting time to be graduating.
Eleanor: What has been your biggest obstacle?
Self-doubt. It takes a lot of courage to work for success in this field. I feel blessed to have an incredibly supportive family and group of friends, and wouldn’t have achieved what I have without them behind me.
Eleanor: What has been your proudest moment so far?
Most recently, one of my proudest moments was performing in my drama school showcase. I was very proud of myself – and my classmates – to have stood and performed on a West End stage for a vast number of agents and casting directors. Performing on that stage felt electric. I was so proud of all that I had been through to get to that moment and it felt like an incredible conclusion to so much hard work.
Eleanor: How, if at all, do you think being a woman of colour has affected your ability to attain your current level of achievement?
I feel lucky to have never felt subject to discrimination because of my racial background. I’ve always felt encouraged that I have the same opportunities as anyone else.
Eleanor: How will this change, if at all, as you begin your professional career?
As I’ve said before, it feels like an exciting time for me to graduate. There is an increased level of racial diversity across the entertainment industry and a greater amount of opportunity for actors of colour. I feel blessed to be a face of diversity in the arts and I am proud to acknowledge this. However, I would want my success to be based on merit and not colour.
Eleanor: How well do you think the dramatic arts as an industry is tackling lack of representation and diversity and casting?
It seems that small steps are being taken that will go a long way. Actors of different race and colour are being cast in leading roles on stage and screen. Furthermore, there continues to be a greater level of diversity within the recognised talent in the entertainment industry’s award ceremonies. I believe that everyone should be given equal opportunity, and I would be saddened to hear that someone’s skin colour could prevent their casting. Theatre often asks us to suspend belief (I recently watched a stunning production of Into The Woods with a heavily pregnant actress playing the Baker’s Wife – it is a crucial plot point that she is not pregnant in the first act!) and I do believe in looking past the colour of someone’s skin. Despite this, I would never want to feel that actors of colour are somewhat exploited to make a statement about racial diversity. I also acknowledge that there are limitations on some roles and an actor may be prevented from a casting for various factors such as height, weight, physicality, experience and other elements other than skin colour. This is all part and parcel of being an actor!
Eleanor: What would you like to see change with regards to diversity of race, sex and gender?
I would like the development of diversity to continue. I would love for more leading roles to be written both for women and actors of colour – and ideally roles that do not stereotype a woman as the obedient housewife, or a woman of colour with a predictable ethnic accent. Films such as Gone Girl and Star Wars: The Force Awakens challenge the role of women – though I was saddened to see a slight case of sexism by not including Rey as a figurine in the children’s toy Star Wars merchandise…!
Eleanor: What do you foresee to be your biggest challenges in your new professional life?
It’s an incredibly competitive, demanding industry so it’ll be a challenge to establish a successful acting career for myself, and additionally to adapt to the actor’s lifestyle of being in and out of work.
Eleanor: What is your dream achievement?
I would love to play a leading role in a production on the West End.
Eleanor: What message would you like to give to other young girls (particularly of colour) with similar aspirations to your younger self?
Take courage, hold your loved ones close, believe in your ability and have the confidence to make your dream a reality.