Age 11 Pippa Bennett-Warner took the role of one of the original young Nala’s in Julie Taymor’s 1999 London production of The Lion King. In 2006 she won a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and for the role of Emmie Thibodeaux in the musical Caroline, or Change, she was nominated for the Whatsonstage.com Stuart Phillips London Newcomer of the Year award 2007. She then went on to star in the lead role in Athol Fugard’s UK premiere of Victory for the Peter Hall Company all that before she went to RADA in September 2007.
Since then the 2010 RADA graduate who left early to take on the role of Sophie in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined at the Almeida Theatre has comprised many roles to name a few: in Crocodile, written by Frank McGuinness) with Sinéad Cusack for Sky Arts, King Lear as Cordelia, with Derek Jacobi in the title role. Come Fly with Me with David Walliams and Matt Lucas and also in Case Histories alongside Jason Isaacs. Pippa was named as one of the 1000 Most Influential Londoners in 2012.
For King Lear she received an Ian Charleson commendation. She then took the role of Denise in D. C. Moore’s new play The Swan, Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse with Eddie Redmayne in the title role and Andrew Buchan as Bolingbroke. Since Pippa has massed up numerous credits: more recently viewers would have seen her in Silent Witness, MotherFatherSon and Gangs of London and now she is about to make her feature lead debut as Jamie in writer, director, and actor Aki Omoshaybi’s REAL. A suburban love story that follows the lives of a people who fall in love under difficult circumstances. The film is released in the UK on Fri September 11. ALT caught up with Pippa to discuss her career, racial tensions and REAL.
ALT: What was it like making your Westend debut at age 11?
I think looking back on it now, I’d be absolutely terrified, but at the time, you’re sort of so protected by your innocence, your youth, it was just literally the most exciting thing on the planet and the Lion King it’s such a brilliant musical and of course it was one of my favourite Disney films. So, it was kind of exhilarating and wonderful. I know now that I am in my 30s, I believe I’m just so grateful that I was I was 11 and so protected by that bubble of youth and, you know, innocence.
ALT: How did you get into the industry at such a young age?
Yes, I was really young. I was very green, and a school friend’s mother said to my mum said, they’re doing open auditions for The Lion King in London because it’s coming in from New York. My parents mentioned it to me, and I said, oh, can I audition? So, we went down, and I think there was about three thousand kids and I was one of the very green non stage school kids and, you know, wearing cycling shorts. And wearing the Cats musical t-shirt, huge sweat patches, just looking like a kid from the countryside, which is where I was brought up. And then ten rounds later I got the job. And I guess I also about being a kid I didn’t really realize the scale of it and the weight of it. And still in my thirties, I am looking back on it, going, oh, wow, that was actually a really cool thing that I managed to do. Such a tiny age. But no, I was I was completely green, didn’t have a clue about the industry but was really into singing and dancing and acting and luckily my name was called so thank you.
ALT: Let’s talk about REAL how does it feel to be part of that production, with a black female lead or co-lead and black director, writer?
It feels really special and especially now as well with what the black community has been going through since May. It feels really, really special, really important, really timely. And to work on a project where, my leading man, my scene partner, my producer, my writer, my director is black. It was such a wonderful feeling, actually, and Aki had written these really sensitive, beautiful parts and this really sensitive, beautiful story, and it felt like a real privilege to be able to take his characters off the page and bring them to life and, you know, we were lucky because we did have this very easy, we found our chemistry very easily, which really helped because we didn’t have much time to prep, to do read throughs or anything like that. So, the fact that Aki and I were able to bounce off each other you know, was lucky because that is not always the case. I’m really very proud of it. And I’m really, really proud of my friend Aki as well, because I think he’s just done the most wonderful job. And he’s just, you know, he’s totally one to watch.
ALT: How did the relationship work on the set with Aki (Kyle) he is also the director/writer and the lead actor?
Well, I think you (ALT) have spoken to him before, haven’t you? He’s just you know, he’s just so humble and modest and gentle and chilled, the most relaxed human being on the planet. He very graciously and elegantly, wore all of those hats without a problem. He was there if I needed help with a bit of a scene I couldn’t work out. He gave me my direction as he was supposed too and also there as my guest, my scene partner, in the rhythm of the scene, if we wanted to kind of find different, you know, work out the rhythm of the scenes. He wore those hats really, really well and seamlessly, you wouldn’t have thought that he was wearing, you know, being everything to everyone. He was brilliant. He was he was absolutely brilliant. It was shot over twelve days and I would be very happy to do it again. Brilliant.
ALT: Where was REAL shot?
ALT: It was shot on location in Leigh Park, which I think used to be the biggest housing estate in Europe, which is outside Portsmouth. And so, we shot entirely on location with favours from the Leigh Park community. They were so kind and welcoming, and we used a lot of the shops and their homes and they were just they were so accommodating to this film crew from London who wanted to shoot a film. So, we shot it in entirely in Portsmouth.
ALT: You play Jamie, who is she and how do you resonate with her character?
Jamie is a young woman who has a son and who has had issues in the past with alcohol, (spoiler alert), and she’s just living her life and getting on with her life. And at the beginning of the film, she’s kind of swept up by Kyle. And I think, you know, I was saying earlier that I don’t think she in any way, in any means, is looking for a relationship. I think she’s very much about her own feelings and Felix her son. Her son is the driving force for everything. And then this guy walks into her life and she goes, oh, I don’t know. I as soon as I read the script, I said to myself, oh, my goodness, this is kind of part I’ve been waiting to play. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do with her. I felt like I knew her. I do have this thing of being quite protective of the parts that I play. And she’s so vulnerable and yet strong at the same time and determined and firing and also lost. I just felt like I wanted to kind of wrap her in a cocoon and make her safe. But I don’t have children yet, so I haven’t had to navigate what that is or what that feels like. And to do that on my own, I don’t know what that is. But I think, you know, she has so much drive and courage and tenacity and I really love her, actually, I think I really, really love him. I just love the two characters that Aki’s created. I think he’s done a really remarkable job because they just feel real no pun, they feel quite real. Don’t they?
ALT: What do you look for when you get a script?
It has got to be about the writing and the arc of the character and the piece as a whole, the world. I’m quite quick to know if it’s something that I think I could do or if I think someone else could do better or it’s not for me. It’s funny as I’m getting older, there are some parts that come in and I’m just like, oh, I don’t think quite fit. Or, you know, I just played a similar part. And I know each is different, of course. But I do not want to kind of exercise a similar muscle. I want to kind of try and do something different. So, I think it’s always about the arc, the character, the writing, the type, the director. It’s a mixture. It’s a mixed bag of things that attract me to something.
ALT: Do you have any dream collaborations or roles that you would just love to play?
No, I’m terrible at answering this question. My answer always is that I don’t know what I want to do until it lands in my inbox. I never know. And then I’ll read something and go, Oh, that’s what I want to do. And last year I had a few of those moments, the parts I played last year were brilliant, very different women. But I’m very funny about stuff and it has to come into my inbox. Then I go, oh, that’s the kind of thing I want to do. And otherwise I have no clue and I just kind of sit back and wait.
ALT: You recently did Unsaid stores for ITV, how are you feeling at this time of racial unrest and what gives you hope?
I think at the moment I’m really looking for a lifetime commitment, for change. I’m not interested in anything less than that. I think there’s a lot of talk. And I think that actions speak louder than words. And I think now really is the time. People know that there are problems in the industry and those problems need to be ironed out, need to go away. I feel hopeful. I was really impressed that ITV did those shorts (Unsaid ) a couple of weeks ago, I was really, really impressed with the group of people they brought together to make this happen, and again, it was a full black team that produced, black director and black cast. It was like they went all in and I was surprised because ITV doesn’t have a reputation for doing such work. I think the conversation needs to be ongoing and people need to realize that there’s room at the table for everybody.
ALT: How has Covid-19 affected you professionally?
Oh, my God, you know, it’s an interesting one because actually as an actor, there is always that level of uncertainty. You don’t know when the next job is coming, of course, because it’s slightly different, because the world is not going through a pandemic every time you’re not working. But I think initially I actually really needed a break. So that was quite nice. And then, of course, when I look up we are now in September I am like oh my goodness the world shut down in March, but I’ve managed to do a few things and I’m just bobbing along.] But actually, when we did Unsaid stories, it was quite strange being back on a set, there was only 5 of us and everybody was doing the jobs that normally require a full crew of 35 or 50. It was an interesting experience. But I think the industry is slowly finding its feet again, which is really exciting. I think people have gone back into production and I know friends that are now shooting again. It’s all going in the right direction, which is good.
ALT: What do you love most about acting?
That’s a really good question. I think I’m definitely an introverted extrovert and acting allows me to, I can be quite shy not all the time. I mean, it depends, but I think with acting you get to hide behind somebody else and you also get to dress up and that kind of superficial side to it, of doing all those fun things and lots of my friends work in offices and then I go, well, I get to put on a wig and speak with an accent or something.
So that’s just fun. But I think it’s just always something that I’ve wanted to do and love to do. And I can’t really imagine myself doing anything else and that there’s nothing that quite beats a really day at good work, whether it’s on stage or if it’s on camera when you feel like, you know, are getting better or you really liked how you played the scene, I mean, you don’t always feel like that, you know, but the days that you do are worth it.
ALT: What would the still very young Pippa say to the extremely young Pippa with hindsight?
I’d say two things. I’d probably say it’s all going to be OK, just fine. My dad always said to me, I’m sure you’re going to be fine. It’s fine. And I just sit with that. And then also, I remember doing a play when I just left drama school, and it was called Ruined, Almeida Theatre, Jenny Jules played the leading lady and I made a mistake on stage. And I went backstage and I kind of beat myself up. And she was like, Pip the thing that you must remember is that next time you just go out there and you score another goal, you just keep scoring goals, keep score goals. And I’ll never forget that because that was really useful, especially as a young actor who feels like they’ve just got the line or something wrong being on stage, could be such a scary experience so that I would probably say that to myself. But through Jenny Jules, she’s wonderful.
ALT: And what are you working on next?
Who knows what I’m doing? Gangs of London have been renewed for a second season, so I think we’re looking to start that next year. And then I’m working on developing a few projects of my own, which is really exciting and then I’ve still got a couple of shows to come out in the autumn on the telly. So, I’m kind of just I’m laying low and reading scripts, I guess.
ALT: Where do you call home?
Good question. I don’t know, I guess I live in London, but I was brought up in Buckinghamshire. But then my parents are West Indian, so I don’t know. I probably say London for now, but it changes when I go to the Caribbean, I feel like that’s home. When I’m in the countryside, I feel like that’s home. But I’m going to go with where I am now.
ALT: How would you summarize REAL for an audience?
REAL is a touching and engaging, real (no pun intended) story about two people who meet and fall in love whilst trying to navigate their way through their own troubles and issues.
Directors statement Aki Omoshaybi
I wanted to try and make an authentic film about how people navigate through
the world of dating when they’re struggling to make ends meet. We mostly see
romantic stories from an upper class/middle class perspective: big town houses
in London, posh accents, floppy hair. So I thought ‘let’s tip that on its head’ and
write something as authentic as possible, something that I’ve seen or could
relate to. So I started writing REAL.