Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood

Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House

The Emmy award-winning multi-hyphenate and the star of ‘The Woman King’ stopped by Soho House’s Words We Write Festival to drop some gems

Thursday 20 October 2022   By Sagal Mohammed   Photography by Feruza Afewerki

Both Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim know a thing or two about successfully carving out space for themselves and new narratives in the otherwise gate-kept world of film and TV. Waithe, an Emmy award-winning writer, producer and actor – best known for creating the Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith fronted film Queen & Slim, and coming-of-age drama The Chi – has built a career off telling stories the way she sees fit, often spotlighting the Black queer experience along the way. 
 
Similarly, Atim holds authenticity at the core of her craft. Having just starred in The Woman King – one of the biggest movie releases of the year, alongside Viola Davis – the British-Ugandan actor, musician and playwright hails from an on-stage background, where she made a name for herself starring in and composing music for productions including Girl From The North Country at the Old Vic and Les Blancs at the National Theatre in London, before her big-screen breakthrough in Doctor Strange earlier this year. 

Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House

The pair joined us to kick off this year’s Words We Write Festival in London, where Atim stopped by 180 House for a breakfast Q&A, discussing her career trajectory and tips on storytelling. And Waithe spent an evening at White City House, giving members and guests an insight on how to navigate Hollywood on your own terms. 
 
Here are six key lessons we learnt from them… 
 
1. Pick the roles that are right for you 
Sheila Atim: ‘When I choose roles, I pick stuff that’s impactful. That can be a big role, like Amenza in The Woman King. It could also be a much smaller role like Sara in Doctor Strange – her contribution to the story and the narrative is still huge. Sometimes a person’s characterisation in a project is really strong, so even if they’re only there for one scene, you remember them. It’s not necessarily about how many lines you have or how many scenes, it’s just about what my presence within that project does.’ 
 
2. Tell the truth
Lena Waithe: ‘The biggest thing I was taught by Gina Prince-Bythewood [the American director behind The Woman King] was to be honest – to always tell the truth. The place where we differed is that they’ll say, ‘write about the world that you want to see’. And I think I want to write about the world in which I live. I think both are absolutely fair and both need to exist.’
 
3. Check in with yourself 
SA: ‘I think what’s hard is when you’re a Black woman – or anybody who comes from a marginalised community or an underrepresented group within creative industries – is that you tell yourself you should be more available than you need to, as you’re trying to grab hold of all the opportunities because you know there are less of them. 
 
‘That’s why it’s important to check in with yourself regularly. With any work, you can recognise when you feel you need to just pump the brakes. You have to communicate that to your team or work colleagues. You can’t assume that other people will do it for you, especially in the creative industries or as a freelancer. People are always looking to you to see where your boundaries are, so you need to be clear with yourself where those are.’ 
 
4. Remember that success is subjective 
LW: ‘People think success is a finish line or defined by a thing. I think what we all have to do is to define success for ourselves, because your idea of it may not look like the vision that society tells you it is, because we also live in a capitalist world. You could be living the most fulfilled, joyful life in the world, but if it doesn’t look like how success is “supposed to look”, you’ll be thinking that you’re missing something or that you should continue running after something you don’t even want. So, to me, success is finding a way to maintain happiness, and that is a full-time job.’
 
5. Set yourself boundaries 
SA: ‘You have to set boundaries. Speaking specifically about Black women, I think it's about two things: the first is to listen to your gut, because gaslighting is very real. It’s a powerful tactic and it’s difficult to detect, and even more difficult to raise. You have to have a really strong communication with your gut when something doesn’t feel right and really sit with that. The second thing is trying to find your community.’
 
6. Immerse yourself in community  
LW: ‘It’s instinctual for me to help people gather – even if I’m not in the room. I think it’s super important. I had a revelation recently when talking to a friend about company versus community. It’s company when a person or people leave and you feel drained. It’s a community when they leave and you feel full. So, make sure you surround yourself with a community.’

Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
Lena Waithe and Sheila Atim’s guide to storytelling in Hollywood | Soho House
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