The Version Interview... Nikki Amuka-Bird on new BBC Two drama, NW

NW is the television adaptation of Zadie Smith’s bestselling book of the same name, now a 90-minute drama for BBC Two.

NW tells the story of Natalie and Leah, friends who grew up together in North West London but whose lives have taken them in different directions.

Set apart from the friends and family she grew up with, Natalie finds herself asking not only who she really is, but where she belongs. In an area where wealth and poverty are only streets apart, life is fragile and secrets are dangerous - as Natalie and Leah are about to find out.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (pictured) plays the outwardly successful but unfulfilled Natalie, with Phoebe Fox as Leah, her more grounded friend whose life is also at a crossroads.

Adapted by Rachel Bennette, directed by Saul Dibb and made by multi-award-winning Mammoth Screen.

Nikki Amuka-Bird tells us more...

Tell us about your character Natalie Blake
Natalie starts out life as Keisha. From a modest background, she’s incredibly intelligent and driven, and pushes herself on to university, eventually becoming a barrister. She then marries the ‘perfect’ man, has two children and seems like she has the perfect life. She’s a miracle of her own self invention, but she reaches a point in her mid-thirties where she asks herself what it’s all about and has an existential crisis. It’s at this time in her life that we meet Natalie in NW.

What appealed to you about the role? What were the challenges of playing Natalie?
The complexity of Natalie’s character, and the exploration of the tensions that arise when you feel you’re a part of different cultures. Natalie feels equally West Indian and British, and has been shaped by both the estate she grew up on and by her professional life as a barrister, two
completely different worlds.

The role was seriously challenging. Natalie’s crisis unfolds is quite a shocking way: she is so disconnected to her own life that she develops an online alter-ego, purposefully going out of her way to connect with strangers because that’s the only way she can ‘feel’. It’s not something I
have ever seen before and I genuinely felt it was going to take courage to explore.

Tell us about Natalie’s relationship with Leah?
Natalie and Leah have been best friends since they were five. But when Natalie goes to university, she changes the way she speaks, the people she spends time with and as she becomes more and more obsessed with her professional life. She grows apart from Leah. What they want
from life becomes more and more different but they are clinging on to each other because, deep down, they really need each other. In many ways NW is a love story between these two best friends.

What’s it been like working on NW?
Joyful. Everyone felt very passionately about this opportunity to celebrate multicultural London in such an honest way.

Were you familiar with the NW area before filming?
Absolutely - it was actually my neighbourhood for six years! I absolutely loved living there. Even though you can feel all the different cultures simmering, everyone bumps along together and there is a huge sense of community. Zadie captured that brilliantly in the book and it really
comes across in Rachel Bennette’s script too.

How was it working with the director, Saul Dibb?
I love working with Saul, I think he is extraordinary. He started his career as a documentary maker and so he knows what it means to enter the life of real people and observe them. He’s got a very keen eye on naturalistic behaviour, on stripping everything back and making things feel very real. We were on the streets, in the communities that the story is set in, interacting with real people. It felt like guerrilla filming, like capturing moments that were unexpected.

Were you already a fan of Zadie Smith?
I’ve been a big fan of Zadie ever since I read White Teeth. I’ve read nearly all of her books and I like that I see a London that I recognise. Zadie’s not afraid to tell it how it is. It was really interesting to enter her mind for six weeks and try and do justice to one of her characters. She writes brilliant women – strong, multi-faceted and emotionally complex - as an actor that’s really exciting.

Have you met Zadie?
Zadie came to set with her mother, her children and one of her oldest friends. It was just lovely to meet her – she was incredibly supportive. When she said she thought it was all looking perfect, we were all very relieved – we so wanted to do her proud.

What can viewers expect from NW?
An honest, vibrant, energetic, passionate story about modern, multicultural city life.

How would you describe the show in three words?
Affectionate, angry and energetic.

 

NW begins tonight, 9pm on BBC Two.