It’s night time in Nepal. In a small southern village near the border of India, the sun has completely set. The population of this town is just under six thousand; the air pollution is minimal. There are no street lights. No loud machines. Just the sound of crickets, and stars spread out across the sky.
A little girl, curious and captivated, wakes to find a full moon. She leaves her clay house to step into a blue haze that’s been cast over her home by the circle in the sky. Her feet falter among the rocks and mud as she is at once willed to walk towards it, although forbidden for girls of that age.
She saunters in the silence. The fireflies follow behind her. The little girl marvels at the moon.
Amita Suman has always known how to walk towards the bigger picture. “I just remember thinking that if I jumped high enough, I could touch it… the only way I can describe it is as if I was in the film Avatar.”
She shares this memory with me as one of the few from her childhood that have managed to make it in her mind. Understandably so – it stayed with me, too.
I thought my life’s purpose was to get married and have a family
Suman’s life has been a series of these magical moments. Each as unlikely as the next. Take the first time she ever saw a TV. It was at a festival in her village. It took a moment for them to find a power source to connect to, but once they did, the screen lit up, and so did Amita.
She likens this experience to the Oscar-winning movie Room with Brie Larson. “I watched that movie and I related so much. Not understanding this dichotomy between freedom and the four walls around you.”
The movie, much darker than Amita’s life, sees a young boy stuck between four walls for his whole childhood, unaware and unable to imagine anything beyond it. When Amita saw that TV, the door cracked open. A moving black and white image was all it took to set in motion a series of phenomena that would mark the moments of Amita Suman’s life.
The spell had been cast. But before she figured out how to get into that screen, she had to make it across quite a few countries, not to mention, the Caspian sea.
So. How did she make it there?
Chasing the moon
Suman’s father was high up in the Nepalese police force. She explains, “That was the way he discovered the other world, he wanted a better education for his kids. Especially for his girls.” Back then, the education system was based around a belief that the country’s resources should be used on men.
“All I knew was what I was told – what I could see around me – so I thought my life’s purpose was to get married and have a family, to be a housewife and live in the village…But things in Nepal are changing. There’s a liberation. Women are feeling more that they have a right to education.”
As a child, Amita didn’t understand these dynamics. Naturally. A childhood is a childhood. She remembers fishing in the monsoon season, getting pinched by crabs, running away from snakes, the moon – not the social and political implications of the place she was born into. “I think that’s a testament to the incredible mother I had… I think she’s my God.” It wouldn’t be until Amita’s father sent her to boarding school outside of her village that she would begin considering this ‘other world’.
It was there she was introduced to books, and whispers of the west. She believed that there were only two countries in the world: Nepal and the ‘western world,’ which was England. Only a year and a half later, aged seven, Amita would be told she was headed there herself. To Brighton, to be more specific.
The culture shock is a given. She went from growing her own food in her backyard to primary school. In Nepal, you had to stand at the sight of the head teacher every time they entered the room. Amita kept that tradition going for a few weeks until she realised things were different here. There was the learning of the language, all the things you’d expect. But for Amita, this move wasn’t so crazy.
She had been looking for something big since she was born. It’s why she followed the moon and made a promise to a TV that one day she’d be with it. I asked Amita how long it took to call England home. She diverted the question. “I think I’ve discovered my ability to adapt to an environment, to fully immerse myself and get into it.” She continued. “I’ve never really felt this was home. Just somewhere I can call my…”
Base? She nodded. She describes her pursuit through the whole experience as extreme presence. She led with that childhood curiosity. Intrinsically interested in the world around her. But the bottom line is, it didn’t matter to Amita where they were, because she knew where she was going: back to the screen.
Her younger brother joined the family in Brighton a bit later on. At first it was just her, her sister and her dad. “What was so beautiful was watching Taj go through it, and be in the same position that we were in earlier.”
His entrance to the western world was a bit more traumatic than Amita’s. Within a week of arriving, the two siblings decided to watch a horror film. They went for The Grudge and didn’t sleep for weeks. Now, the memory brings laughter. “We didn’t know what it was! We just found this DVD and put it on, and sat down. We put the first five minutes on and it started making that sound at the back of the throat.” Right, enough said. Poor Taj.
The movie wasn’t enough to scare Amita away from acting, though. She enrolled into drama classes early on, initially just for fun. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was really insecure. I had no friends. I just about understood the language.”
Amita wasn’t cast as leading ladies for quite some time. She was usually the tree, she tells me. But her roles evolve when her drama classes become more in depth as she grows up, and she comes across a teacher that just about changes Amita’s life.
“In class, everyone got to be someone. Does that make sense?” Yes, it did. And it does. This teacher gave Amita the space to step into herself. There was one moment she remembered coming before the class to do a monologue. When she began, she changed, and the whole class knew it.
“It gave me this confidence that I didn’t have my entire life, like this entirely new way of communicating.” People started looking at Amita Suman differently.
She went on to discover her love for Shakespeare with her first leading role as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. Not one of Big Bill’s standout pieces, but she reckons it could be one of the best. She describes the play as, “fucking brilliant and absolutely bonkers.”
She continued, “It’s so mad. We were doing this whole banquet scene of pies coming in and everyone’s dying and I just remember thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ but just being so excited by it all.”
Many actors know this feeling – that experience of unequivocal play. Acting is one of those pursuits that can reach through us to release our inhibitions. For Amita, the map back to the beginning started to unfold.
It was ultimately that drama teacher, Edgar Talijaard, who convinced Amita to follow through with this dream. “He had this intuition. He said, ‘Amita don’t give it up, Just carry on doing it.’” And so she did. She prepped for University auditions, got her list together, and set out to do exactly that.
She botched her first big one. “I got on stage and I completely forgot my lines. I bogged it. I thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to do this.” Instead of giving up, she doubled down. She smashed the next five. She got offers from several but ultimately chose Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in Wandsworth, for their emphasis on screen acting. Surprise, surprise! But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
She hated the first two years. So much so, she leaned towards leaving. She persevered, landed a job at the hardware store Wickes that carried her through drama school.
“I was this teeny tiny girl moving around with massive sandbags and putting away all the wood, with big builders coming up to me to be like, ‘What kind of paint do I need to use for this? What kind of drill?’ and then I’d be like, ‘I know the answer!’”
When another scholarship came through for her third year, she felt she’d be an idiot not to follow through. So she had a little chat with herself. She would stop playing into the politics of drama school and just do it for the love of the work. That inner monologue was all it took to turn Amita’s luck around.
In her last year, she lands an agent and trades in the stockroom at Wickes for the fragrance department at Selfridges. (An upgrade, with all respect to Wickes.) Then she gets her rite of passage with a Casualty episode and follows it up with a role in Doctor Who. She lands her first series regular in The Outpost. And then along comes Shadow and Bone.
Out of the shadows
The show is based on two works by writer Leigh Bardugo: Shadow and Bone and The Six of Crows. Fantasy and fate and fighting all wrapped up into one of the most watched Netflix shows of all time: season one held the hearts of more than 55 million. Amita plays the knife-wielding spy Inej, a pivotal player among the six protagonists.
It’s clear that fantasy is where she’s found her home. But she didn’t think she’d ever end up here. “You don’t ever see people of colour in fantasy. I mean, you do now, but back then? Not at all.” We began listing out some of the classics – Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars – trying to name a main character that wasn’t white. We weren’t able to.
When the audition came along, Amita was first shown fan fiction pictures of Inej. She gasped, ‘Oh! That actually looks like me!’ She did her self tape with a bit too much attachment. “I wanted the part so much. Something felt right. I did so much prep that I got into my head and did the worst self tape of my life.” She ruminated on this, and requested to do it again. By the time she was going to send in something new, they asked to see her.
She walked into the room and it was like the character had come to life. Everything aligned. “I think I just needed it to go really really bad at first like the university audition.” She smashed the in-person audition. She was offered the role the next day.
How does her family feel about all this success? Her mother always knew one of her daughters would go into the arts. It was a predisposition. She would tell Amita and her older sister, “I’ve had dreams about you girls.” There is no doubt something supernatural at play. “I’ve always believed in a higher power. I think something is always with me. I have this weird sense of protection.”
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The reference to a higher power is a regular for Amita, though she does not define herself through religion. She was born into Hinduism, and has slowly let that identity dissolve into a general spirituality. But her faith is mighty, regardless of how much she might talk about it. It’s a quality she shares with Inej. They are both bound by a belief that no one else can take away from them.
Towards the end of our conversation, she begins describing the experience of watching the film The Whale with Brendan Fraser. She admits to me that she’s been in the same room as him a few times now, and regrettably has not told him how much his work meant to her. But it was what he did that reminded Amita of the power of a performance. “This is why I love my job. This is why I do it. The human condition… I cried so much.”
To state the obvious: Amita loves movies. It’s how she experiences the world, makes sense of it. Whether Room to describe her discovery of a TV, The Grudge to mark a memory, or The Whale to explore the human condition, she marks the moments of her life through motion pictures. And while Shadow and Bone is a dream come true, her sights are trained on Hollywood. “I want to be on the big screen.”
The Hollywood sign is no match for the moon. With the magic around Amita, I’d say she’ll be there in no time.
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Shadow and Bone Seasons One and Two are streaming now on Netflix