Photography by The Other Richard / Canva
I for one was pleasantly surprised to find Jade Anouka cast as Ruta Skadi, queen of the Lake Lubana clan of witches in His Dark Materials.
Most people in the UK probably grew up reading the magical adventure series by Philip Pullman. And now after a successful first season, the HBO and BBC series is back on our screens this winter.
Hailing from Bexley, London, the 30-year-old has already appeared in the critically acclaimed all-woman Shakespeare trilogy. She went on to make an appearance in Chewing Gum, Turn up Charlie, and Doctor Who before taking on the role of the flying, kick-ass witch Ruta.
Like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, and Rue in The Hunger Games, when beloved books hit the screen, there’s always a bit of confusion when Black people are cast as characters people assume to be white. But for Jade, playing characters people might not expect of her is what she’s all about.
Speaking over Zoom, Jade is bubbly and warm. We catch up on learning to fly, how aspiring actors can stay motivated in 2020 and why she’s not waiting around for roles specifically written for Black women:
gal-dem: I’d love to know a bit about what drew you to the role. And can you tell us a bit more about the character, Ruta Skadi?
Jade: What’s not to love about her? She’s such a cool character. And just to be part of something that’s already quite well-known and well-respected. I read Northern Lights, the first one [in the series] when I was younger, and also saw the National production.
And then when this came up, I thought this is cool – and she flies and she fights and she’s kind of badass. That’s kind of I’ve always wanted to do. One of my dreams has been to do a superhero part, and I feel like this is nearly that.
Quite often with books, you have this whole “assumed white” issue. Was this ever a concern when you took on the role?
Yeah, it was and it is. It hasn’t even come out yet and who knows how people will respond to it. The book may not necessarily be written with a particular look in mind but people come up with them [in their head]. Then if you don’t match their idea … you don’t know how it’s going to work out. They might love the difference or they might not.
There was a worry that she would just be seen as the baddie. I thought “oh great, the Black witch is the baddie!” But I think there’s so much more to her than that – it’s way more nuanced.
You’re no stranger to playing roles people might not think will fit a Black woman like Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar. What draws you to these roles?
Yeah, I love to not just do what’s expected. I thrive in those roles. If you just go for roles that are written for Black women, you’d be quite limited. You gotta stretch out and try other things. I think there are so few roles that are actually written for Black women… so most of the stuff I do isn’t written for Black women.
It’s action-packed, there are CGI daemons and flying. What was it like preparing for your role?
They helped me get a personal trainer. All the witches got this because when you fly and they suspend you from your hips, you’ve got to hold yourself up and make yourself look like you’re flying. I love an excuse to get fit but it’s all gone now because of lockdown!
What is the biggest differences for you as an actor on TV, compared to being on stage?
What I feel is quite different is the interaction between you and other actors. Like, on stage you kind of get to play and it’s really live and everything you see is very live and active and reactive between the two actors, and you can only get that to a certain degree on-screen.
I know your family is Caribbean – what did they think about your role?
They’re quite funny that when I tell them things like, ‘I’m playing this thing, it’s like quite big, HBO and BBC, you know, there were books and they’re really quite famous books’ – and then I call them when they see it on TV, then they’re like, ‘Oh! Why didn’t you say that!?’
So, you went to the National Youth Theatre, how did you get into acting?
You know most people do a year six play at the end of the year? I really wanted to have an acting role. I was always showing off when I was little, doing performances for my family. But then all my friends were like ‘we don’t want a big role because it’s going to be lots of work’. I was like ‘yeah me too!’ Idiot. Of course, they all get lead roles and muggins is in the chorus behind a pillar. I was desperate to be on stage after that. Actually, National Youth Theatre came out when I was in sixth form college in Lewisham.
Do you have any advice for young people now, especially Black actors who are trying to get into acting in a year where it’s clear the arts aren’t being seen as a big priority?
Keep creating and try not to worry so much about the whole career or about ‘everyone needs to see and I need to make money’. Just start creating. What is your love? Why are you in this business, what do you enjoy about it? Find that pleasure within it and keep doing it. Just make stuff and, I think, the world will catch up.