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“If It’s A Race, You’re The Only One In It” 5 Insider Tips with Actress Abiola Ogunbiyi

“If it’s a race, you’re the only one in it — Gethin Anthony said that at a panel I chaired last year and it was like a lightbulb moment for the whole room. I do believe in studying people’s’ careers to get an idea of their trajectory and help craft your own plan. But know when it’s time to deliver yourself from Wikipedia.”
I had the pleasure to interview Abiola Ogunbiyi. Abiola is an English actress, singer, and musician. She has appeared in numerous productions across West End, Regional, and International theatres and will be making her television debut in SKY’s JAMESTOWN in February. After being selected by the National Youth Theatre to star in the 2008 Beijing Olympics Closing Cermony, Abiola went on to make her professional West End debut in the supporting role of ‘Ali’ in the hit West End production, MAMMA MIA!. She then played the female lead ‘Nabalungi’ in the smash-hit musical THE BOOK OF MORMON from August 2015. In 2016, she was nominated for an Offie Award for Best Female Performance for her role as ‘Tisana’ in the world première of GIRLS by Theresa Ikoko. In 2016, Abiola self-produced, directed and edited short film called THE DANISH GIRL (inspired by the feature film’s title), which premiered at The 2016 Hackney Attic Film Festival. Her third short film A NIGHT IN THE LIFE was completed earlier in the year. This year will see Abiola join the cast of the second season of JAMESTOWN. Commissioned by Sky and created by the makers of Downton Abbey, JAMESTOWN was renewed immediately upon TX for a second season. The first season was set in set in 1619 and followed the first English settlers in the New World, focusing on a group of women destined to be married to the men of Jamestown. JAMESTOWN also stars Sophie Rundle, Jason Fleming and Naomi Battrick.

Abiola, tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I am just another over-enthused Catholic school reared child who harmonised over Celine Dion’s greatest hits, made up dance routines, and walked around the lounge imitating the policemen in the old title credits of The Bill. Essentially, I did everything in my power to make life a full-time music video. Then I found out I could make a living doing those things; bye bye Maths degree!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your acting career?

A few years ago I fainted during an audition. A singing audition. I can laugh about it now but it was. I remember feeling more shaky than normal in the waiting room, but I played it down to nerves. I remember starting the song, then I remember taking two steps to one side, and then I remember lying on my back on the floor. So that was “most interesting” for the way my blood sugar failed me at such an inopportune moment. What blows my mind is whenever I tell that story now, the first question most ask is if I got the job (…I didn’t get the job).

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m producing and directing a sketch I wrote last year, and so that’s taking up most of my time. I’ve made my own work before but I want to go up a notch in production value, so there are a few more balls to juggle.

Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’m yet to have one of those mind-blowing, meme-worthy famous person moments. I queued for a coffee behind Kit Harington once. I didn’t speak to him but I remember his hair being really fantastic. Last year, I had a dream I’d been cast as a new Avenger and I was filming a scene with Robert Downey Jr and Samuel L. Jackson and it was going so so great, until I realised I hadn’t learnt my lines for the biggest scene. It was so vivid that I actually woke up sweating. And a few years ago, I sat on the same throne that Michael Fassbender used filming the coronation scene in the 2015 Macbeth film. My mum took a picture of me on it and there are maybe 6 other times in my life where I’ve looked happier. Do any of these count?

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

People who have, despite adverse circumstances, have gone on to bring joy and change the lives of others. Two of these especially being Charlie Chaplin and Hattie McDaniel. I’m inspired by people who made art in the midst of deep-rooted prejudice, people that literally paved the way for me to be able to do what I do now with this amount of freedom.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in Hollywood?

I am definitely not at the place in my career to be giving that advice! But advice that I’ve been given by people who have worked in the business is that with every step upwards and onwards, you will need to hold on tighter to your integrity and sense of self-possession, because it is what you will be celebrated for, yet at the same time what is also most at risk from slipping away in and amongst the smoke and mirrors. If I could give a suggestion, it’d be to watch clips of Denzel Washington giving advice; his wisdom is exemplary and the advice he gives is applicable whatever step you’re at on the ladder. And, he’s Denzel Washington.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope the good I’ve done and will continue to do is irrespective of recognition. At the same time I’m aware of the platform an opportunity like Jamestown can bring and I’m eager to use that for good. I’ve been the Young Members Councillor for Equity (the UK’s union for performers and creative practitioners) for 2 years, and recently panelled an event for students and graduates at the start of their careers; I’m currently part of a group within the union working to create permanent tools and methods of combating sexual harassment within the industry, after the outburst of allegations. Our work has been really extensive and I feel it will have a strong impact.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example of each.

• You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend — I spent too much energy early on trying to be liked; be yourself and you will naturally attract the people that will be a part of your life for the long-haul.

• Quality over quantity — You can feel like to have to want, or book, every single job you get a meeting for. But if the decision is thought through, there is power in saying no and having goal clarity.

• Never work at the expense of yourself — I pushed through injuries for reasons I thought were valid at the times, until I spent one Christmas Day on crutches. Mental and physical health is #1. Whatever the reason, it is okay to say that you need a break.

• What is right for you will not pass you by — This can be a hard one to believe, it was for me. But I look back and it’s so evident; the jobs I didn’t get taught me things that prepared me for the ones I did. And they taught me much quicker too.

• If it’s a race, you’re the only one in it — Gethin Anthony said that at a panel I chaired last year and it was like a lightbulb moment for the whole room. I do believe in studying people’s’ careers to get an idea of their trajectory and help craft your own plan. But know when it’s time to deliver yourself from Wikipedia.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this!

One person? That’s too hard! I would invite Tina Fey, who is my North Star, and Shonda Rhimes, who put five black surgeons in a scene on prime time television. Both women are entertainment powerhouses, whom I aspire to work with and follow suit of. So Tina Fey could sit in my seat, and I would stand with packed lunch and a copy of each of their books to write notes in.

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