Her breakout role on the hit TV show, The Bill, came on screens across the UK 10 years ago, and since then, WERUCHE OPIA has spread her wings throughout the acting world, from the UK all the way to Nigeria. Her career trajectory is proof that she’s more than able to succeed in multiple spaces at once and she’s certainly not one to compromise her integrity or let the ups and downs of life deter her focus. Mo Adefope caught up with her to talk about her experiences as a Nigerian, British woman in the film and TV industry; her role as TV’s most dynamic and relatable best friend and the impact her most recent project, I May Destroy You has made on the world so far.
With the global pandemic and everything that’s been going on, how have you been able to maintain your balance and sanity?
There’s been good days, bad days; good weeks and bad weeks. Obviously we have the coronavirus, the protests against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, so it’s been very up and down but I have been able to try and balance myself with working out. I spend some time praying and reading the bible, that helps me to keep things together. I’ve [also] been trying not to stress out too much; [I’ve] been spending time with my family, my mum and my brother, watching TV and just enjoying ourselves. I’m very grateful that I haven’t had to go out that much, I’ve been blessed enough that I’ve been able to isolate and still be fine. Hoping it will come to an end soon so life can go back to some sort of normality.
Your breakout role was playing Selina on The Bill in 2010 and you’ve come a long way since then. Would you say that you’re exactly where you envisioned you would be, 10 years down the line?
I thought I would be where I am now sooner. I think every young person naively thinks that they’re just going to decide what they want to do and it’s going to happen immediately. I never anticipated the ups and downs of the industry, not working for 10 months or the years where I had one or two jobs. I thought I’d be here sooner. (Laughs). I was pretty convinced that this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. There was no plan B; plan A had to work, and I’m very glad that it’s working out.
Let’s dive into what everyone is talking about right now, I May Destroy You. It’s such a timely and groundbreaking piece in that it touches on so many aspects of sexual assault and consent but also race, sexuality, relationships and much more, all bringing to light the wider conversations we collectively need to be having more of. How much has the show personally affected your views on these different subjects and how you engage in these important conversations?
I think more than anything, it’s been a learning curve in terms of learning about the different kinds of sexual assault and understanding the technicalities of consent because there are grey areas where people are not quite sure what is what. My personal relationship with it is to always be respectful and to be mindful. A lot of people, scarily enough, have had some sort of experience with a lack of consent or sexual assault, and a lot of people are going through things, maybe suppressed or overtly, from being affected by that. So I think it’s something that we actually have to be very mindful of as humans in general and have empathy and understand where people are coming from because these are deep-seated issues that affect people a lot more than we think. Some people are very flippant about it and I think that’s wrong. We need to understand the trauma that comes with sexual assault and the lack of consent. All over the world… I definitely know in Nigeria, especially in the past few months, there’s been so much going on in terms of sexual assault and rape and I’ve always seen an issue with the stigma on rape, towards the people who are the victims, where there should be none at all. No one deserves anything like that, so I think it’s a very timely piece like you said and it’s an educational show to teach people about sexual consent and sexual assault.
The show touches on race as well and we see Terry trying to navigate the acting world as she experiences racial microaggressions, which is unfortunately commonplace for many Black women actors in the industry. Did any of the instances on screen reflect real life situations that you have experienced as an actor?
I haven’t experienced anything to that extent but there have been other microaggressions which are definitely present; I think it’s a case of ignorance, and [people need to be educated] what you can say and what you can’t say. I do think a lot of Black women experience similar situations [and] I’m hoping that this is going to teach people that you can’t ask a Black woman about her hair or if she’s wearing a wig or not. (Laughs) These tiny, little microaggressions affect people. But if we’re not aware of them or if people aren’t aware of them, they won’t know. So now is the time to get to know.
“[Black people] are human beings; we bleed, we hurt and we deserve to be taken care of as well as caring for people. Shows like [I May Destroy You] tell that side of the story that is not seen on a wider scale.”
Another great thing about I May Destroy You is how Black women are given the space to be vulnerable, dependable and dynamic characters, which is very different from the strong black woman stereotype that we tend to see far more of. How important was it for you, as a young Black woman, to be a part of this cultural shift?
Extremely important! And I’m very glad to have been a part of something that I think is a step in the right direction; I actually think it’s the beginning of change. There have been some articles that have quoted seeing Black people as [three-dimensional] and full human beings, which is ridiculous because we’ve always been human beings. I think it’s a portrayal that we’ve seen [too often], of [Black women] taking anything and being able to move with it, but we are human beings, we bleed, we hurt and we deserve to be taken care of as well as caring for people. Shows like this tell that side of the story that is not seen on a wider scale and it allows us to be seen.
I appreciated the fact that Arabella, Kwame and Terry responded differently to their individual experiences of sexual assault as it showed us that there’s no one way for survivors to find their path to healing. Do you think Terry’s experience, not being a widely known example of what we understand sexual assault to be, ultimately informed how she reacted to her experience and the fact that she showed a level of care to her friends that she didn’t quite give her own self?
Yeah I think so, in the sense that Terry’s experience could fall under what’s known as the grey area because, on one hand, she believes she was in control of the situation, she felt that she gave her consent to be part of this threesome [with two men who were strangers to each other]. But on the other hand, we see as the men are leaving, that they actually know each other. So there’s a question of if her consent was given or whether it was actually taken. With her experience being in that grey area, I feel that Terry struggled to identify where she [fell] in terms of whether that was consensual or not. That also informed how she reacted, or treated herself. Her response to her trauma… she wasn’t quite sure whether it was trauma or not.
You’ve talked about your discomfort with sex scenes and nudity, and the adjustments that had to be made for you to be comfortable with playing the role of Terry. In your experiences, have you found that there’s this fine line that you’re constantly pushed or expected to cross, to prove yourself as an actor?
I personally haven’t experienced that. I think the industry has made it out [of the mindset] that you’re just expected to go along with everything. You don’t want to seem difficult, you don’t want to seem like you’re going to cause a problem or feel like speaking out might make you lose the job because they can get anyone else who’s ready to do whatever they ask. But I have my boundaries, I have what I’m comfortable with and from the beginning of my career, I’ve said that I’m going to stick to them, which I have. And I’m glad that, even in a job of this magnitude, I was able to stick to my guns and it was respected by production. We were able to come to some sort of compromise where my integrity wasn’t compromised and the artistic integrity wasn’t. So I think it was a fantastic way to show the progression of the industry.
What’s been the most fulfilling part about playing Terry and being a part of the show for you?
As a Black, Nigerian, British woman, seeing Black British Africans on screen, reflecting a version of reality in London, in the UK… it’s very empowering to be part of something like that. BBC One is one of the most conservative channels in the UK, and to have a show like this, hearing different stories from a black [person’s] perspective in such a frank, authentic and raw way was fantastic to be a part of. I’m thrilled to [have been] a part of it because it feels like our stories are being told and heard and a lot of young Black British people have reached out to me and they’ve been quite happy to see people speak the way they speak and see the stories that they may relate to. It’s always encouraging to see it and representation definitely does matter.
And from the onset, did you think the show would get the reaction or the response it’s gotten so far?
Yes and no! I read the script and I was like I’ve never seen anything like this before. It addresses so many issues and so many themes that are so poignant, so important… So from the get go, I knew that it was definitely going to be something historical, something that we’ve never seen before and I was happy to be in it just for that alone. I mean, if it came out at any other time, I think it still would have made an impact but I think it coming out right now is even more significant because we’re at a point in humanity where we’re all paying attention, we’re all alert, so it’s hitting even harder now. Everything’s just falling into place and yeah it’s doing great. (Laughs)
Despite Terry and Arabella’s undeniable bond and love for each other, we get to see the weaknesses in their friendship through their interactions that are not always outwardly symbolic of the care and thoughtfulness that is expected between friends. In your own view, why was it important for the show to delve into the complexities of female friendships in the way that it did?
Their friendship is a reflection of reality. All human beings are flawed, nobody is perfect, nobody makes the right decisions all the time. There’s not one human being that gets it right every single time. Michaela did a fantastic job in building these characters as real [people]. Ultimately, most of us have good intentions but sometimes we make bad decisions and they have a knock-on effect. She also did a great job in showing how the characters grow and showing the reality of these friendships. As friends, as people, we all grow, we go through experiences, the good and the bad and we all try to do our best to get out of them and move forward. Your friend will let you down but it’s also a choice to decide that, regardless of what this person has done, regardless of their flaws, I choose to love them and I want them in my life and it’s so beautiful to see [this being reflected] in the show.
How much do you feel Terry grappled with the fact that giving Simon permission to leave Arabella that night in many ways impacted what ultimately happened?
I definitely feel like Terry felt some guilt towards that and that kind of propelled her – almost eagerness – to kind of fix Arabella with all the self-help stuff and she felt she had to be there because she did play a part in it. If she knew that was going to happen, I am a thousand percent sure that Terry would not have told Simon to [leave] her but she didn’t have the full picture of what the situation was and she didn’t know what was going to happen. But then again, it goes back to the whole thing with making decisions as human beings and dealing with the fall out of the decision and trying to make up for it, trying to grow through it and trying to fix it, which is what Terry attempts to do especially when she finds out that she may have been partly responsible for what happened to her friend. So she makes it her sole responsibility to fix Arabella, in a way.
At a young age, you moved from Nigeria, a predominantly Black country, to the UK where race and blackness are constantly highlighted and put on centre stage. How have these antithetical experiences shaped the importance you attribute to your identity as a Black woman, being that you’re also a Nigerian woman?
I didn’t realise the importance of race [at first]. Like you said, being in Nigeria, a predominantly black country, I never thought much of race. Moving to the UK and [seeing] different race relations, I understood that people tended to stay in their own communities. When I moved over, I felt like I had to dim my blackness to an extent because it wasn’t the norm. Jokes were made about being an African fresh off the boat and all sorts of racial remarks and I felt that I had to tone down my Africanness or my blackness so to speak. But as time has gone on, I’ve started to appreciate who I am, my Nigerianness. I am who I am regardless of where I am. I can be somewhere else but still embrace my culture and that is where I am now. I mean, the UK, especially London, is full of different cultures and I hope, I want to say that we’re at a point where we’re all able to respect different cultures and still live in some sort of harmony. I celebrate my culture and myself at all times.
You’re also no stranger to the Nollywood scene, having been involved in a handful of films. Do you see yourself venturing back into this space anytime soon?
A hundred percent! I’m a Nigerian, born and bred, and I want our stories to be told as much as I want Black British stories to be told. I want Nigerian stories to be told on a global stage. I think Nigeria, especially Nollywood has gone through so many changes. We are ready to be on that world stage. My career… I’ve always seen it as being [rooted in] Nollywood, in the British film industry and in the US. All over the world, but those are the three main places that I need to have a career established in so I definitely am open to Nollywood. If they want to call me they can call me, let me scream, I’m ready! (Laughs)
Out of all the Nollywood projects you’ve been involved in, which one did you enjoy working on the most?
When Love Happens was definitely my favourite. It was my entry into Nollywood. It was a rude awakening, (laughs), especially when I had done most of my work in the UK and I went to Nigeria and discovered the obstacles that were in place with trying to film and the fact that Nigerians were still able to produce quality work in spite of the madness that happens. I mean, I watched some of the scenes from the film and I don’t know how they were able to salvage it. You know, there were either sound issues, the generator blaring in the back or somebody shouting or something but it managed to come together and I think that’s a testament of Nigerians and how we push through regardless of the situation. We’re persistent people and we see it all over the world. I’m so happy about Netflix Nigeria and I literally wait on every film because I get to see the latest stuff. But yeah, [When Love Happens] is definitely one of my favourite films, I mean I got nominated for a few awards for it, I got an AMVCA nomination and I was completely shocked.
What’s next for you?
I’m open to more [work] all over the world. I’m trying to produce my own stuff as well, work with friends around me and collaborate. The world is my oyster, I’m open to everything at this point. Trying it all!
Photos by Aham Ibeleme