Whether it is for her breakout role as the straight-talking Jenny in the cult noughties show Teachers or as Lucy Freeman, the frustrated BBC head of inclusivity in W1A, Nina Sosanya often ends up the fan favourite in whatever she appears in. Her recent turn as Kate MacKenzie in Last Tango in Halifax (as partner to Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline) generated an explosion of YouTube appreciation videos: fans would cut together clips of the duo’s loving looks and heartfelt embraces and add their favourite romantic music.
On stage she’s earned plenty of admiration too. The child of a Nigerian father and English mother, Sosanya carved out her name appearing in theatre classics – Shakespeare, Chekhov – often as the only person of colour in the production. “With such an array of talented actors, it is invidious task to pick out any particular performances for mention, but Nina Sosanya, playing Rosalind, puts in a superb performance,” reads a BBC review of As You Like It from 2003. And in 2002 the Guardian’s Michael Billington called her “sparkling” in The Marriage of Figaro.
Now she stars in the second season of the hit Philip Pullman adaptation His Dark Materials, airing on the BBC in December. Sosanya plays the troubled mother of Will Parry, played by Amir Wilson, 16, who in this series takes the lead role alongside Dafne Keen’s Lyra. It is only Wilson’s third television job after making the shift from West End musicals. And much like his on-screen mother did in Shakespeare all those years ago, Wilson takes on a key role that was assumed to be white.
“Look at our parallel lives,” laughs Sosanya, noting that Wilson also had aspirations for a career in science. “I wanted to be an astronaut,” says Wilson as the three of us speak over Zoom. “So did I!” Sosanya replies. She was switched on to acting through school plays: “I played the artful dodger,” she says. “No way, me too!” exclaims Wilson.
But surely, with decades between them, the acting world that Wilson joins should look markedly different from the one Sosanya entered? “Certainly the process of how you get the work has changed,” she says. “But the job of acting hasn’t – that never changes. All we can do is tell the story we’ve got to tell, and how people receive that is up to them.”
What about the job of actors these days to be public figures and to have their own personal brand? “There are [actors] that will do that, but you don’t have to,” says Wilson. “It’s like with anything. Look at social media: some people like to show everything about who they are and some people don’t.”
Sosanya is one of the don’ts. “There’s huge benefits to being on social media. And it’s clearly been a real force for good culturally, and sometimes politically,” she says. “But personally, I have a real horror of not being able to change my mind, of saying one thing one day and then saying a different thing the next, and being held to account. Because I’m not a politician, and I don’t want to be anyone’s role model. I want to be able to just think the things I think, and change my mind. Why would anyone be interested in what I’ve got to say?”
“Cancel culture is weird,” muses Wilson. “If someone has said the wrong thing, cancelling them can be good. But I feel like not everyone needs to be cancelled for everything they say.”
“What is cancelling? What does that mean?” Sosanya asks Wilson. “It’s boycotting someone,” he replies. Briefly a flash of something appears on Sosanya’s face. Disappointment? Annoyance maybe? “What that does is instantly cuts out any discussion, any debates,” she says.
“I understand when it’s clear,” Wilson continues. “Like if someone’s a racist then cool, cancel them, but I feel like there are people out there purposely trying to cancel someone. And it’s just like: why?”
“But also I think if someone’s a racist, instead of cancelling them, find out why,” counters Sosanya. “What are they so afraid of?”
I ask about an interview Sosanya gave in 2016 in which she said she was tired of talking about diversity. Is she still tired? “I’m not tired of the conversation, I’m amazed that we’re still having to have it,” she says. “I think we should find out what people are so scared of and why, after more than 10 years, the things [the industry] set out to do haven’t been done.
“And the thing with representation is, it should be all sorts – women, people of colour, people over the age of 40, people who are differently abled. We underestimate our audiences. White people will watch brown people, and black people will watch white people. We watch whatever if it’s good and interesting.”
Wilson agrees, but wonders aloud: “Instead of getting black actors to play white characters, why can’t there be more black characters written?”
“It’s tricky,” says Sosanya. “Perhaps sometimes colour-blind casting is just a box-ticking exercise, but some might say I’ve had a career based on it, so I don’t want to denigrate those casts.”
When it comes to life on set, happily both actors describe feeling totally at ease, with few experiences of cast or crew “making a thing” of their ethnicity. “Except when the issue [of racism] comes up,” says Sosanya. “Then the only person that they think is going to comment on it is me. It’s always down to that person in the minority who has to speak for the rest of what everyone sees is their people. And that’s not fair.
“I see how it happens. If it was a discussion on an issue on disability, and the production turned to the one disabled cast member, I don’t know if I’d speak up. I wouldn’t want to speak on her behalf. It’s complex. That’s why I say I get tired of talking about it, because you can’t have a detailed, robust discussion in a few minutes.”
But outside of these moments, “actors are actors,” says Sosanya. “And whatever age, shape, race, we all just do the job. When you look as a viewer you think: that’s different. But when you’re in it, you’re just amongst your peers and your colleagues.”
She describes the first time she met Wilson on set. “I was standing around with Ray [Fearon, who plays Will’s boxing coach, Mr Hanway]. We were in the RSC together, so we’re a couple of old hands, and we were watching Amir like: ‘Look at this kid, what’s he going to do?’
“But he was on point in his line run – professional, brilliant – and he just instantly became our colleague. That’s one of the most interesting things about being an actor – it’s one of the last industries where generations mix, and that diversity makes it interesting.”
For Wilson, life on set on His Dark Materials was easy “and normal. We all just clicked and we all knew that we were there to do the same thing. And I felt like when we did have conversations, it wasn’t really about work, we were just having a normal conversation.”
But with 18 million copies of the book sold, surely there’s nothing normal about playing a role that so many people – even the actors themselves – have preconceptions about?
Coming to the worlds of Pullman through acting felt like a privilege, says Wilson. “I auditioned without having read the books, and in the end I was reading the book and the script at the same time. It was amazing, it allowed me to get in touch with the world more quickly because I’m actually there, inside it.”
Sosanya says she felt the pressure – indeed, it is one she has felt before playing well-known and regularly played characters on stage. “It’s down to the individual actor to decide how much it’s going to affect them. And I think, well, the book exists,” she says. “Those characters will always exist in someone’s mind, in the way that they formed them. So actually, you can’t damage the book. That’s what’s so brilliant about the written word: it’s there in that book you can hold.”
His Dark Materials season two is on BBC One in November