Born in Sierra Leone to Nigerian great grandfather and a Sierra Leonean great grandmother, Ellen Thomas lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, until she was nine. The London based actress in a chat with Encomium Weekly’s Bukola Edah shares how she took interest in film, television and stage acting like her childhood hobbies and how they became a part of her life and helped in bringing her this far in her career as a Black African woman in the United Kingdom.
What is the Eastenders soap opera all about?
It’s a popular British soap opera which has been on British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC television for 30 years, we celebrated 30 years of Eastenders last year. Like most successful soap operas, it’s based on a large number of diverse families whose lives evolve around the fictional Albert Square, in East London.
Tell us a little about growing up?
I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I relocated to the UK after my father was recruited by the Royal Air Force to train as an accountant. Initially, he was stationed in Germany and later the UK, and that time he realized he wanted his whole family to be together and he sent for me and my siblings to join him. We were living with our grandmother at that time.
What was childhood like for you both in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom?
In Sierra Leone, it was the usual African upbringing, lived with my grandparents. I was one of about six grandchildren living in the house and it was very much the same like any other West African country. The big difference was when I went to England in the 60s and that was a shock, a cultural shock (laughs), big one. But as a young girl, you get used to it very quickly…but there were challenges. First, the weather was a challenge, I arrived the UK in August. I thought it was cold, but everybody around me didn’t think so. This is summer and it’s warm, but I was freezing cold. So, everything was just different, especially the school system. In Sierra Leone, we had respect for older people, but in the UK, there was little respect for older people. Initially, my sister and I were the only Black pupils in the whole school.
How did you cope with racism?
At that time, I never knew it was racism. Some pupils and teachers would say things like: so, did you grow up in a mud hut? I told them I grew up in a beautiful house, my grandfather had a farm and we had a car, and house help. After all, my grandfather was a government inspector, but they didn’t understand all that. They thought I was making it all up. One of the teachers had to call my mother to ask if I was telling the truth and my mother told her that was the truth. Back in the 60’s they really had that perception that Africa was a jungle just like in the movies and I had to put them straight.
Was acting your childhood ambition?
Acting came because one of the things my mother put in place was that on Saturdays after doing your chores just like in Africa, we must have a hobby. What is a hobby? She said something that you do for fun and you enjoy yourself without any pressure. So, my siblings and I could choose from athletics, classical ballet, piano lessons, tap dance, art, painting and music. I chose ballet, and I loved it, dancing on my toes, the music, etc. And not long after I started ballet classes, my teacher asked my parents if I wanted to make a career out of it, I could because I was good at it. I was overjoyed that I could actually get paid for doing what I loved. But having African parents, they insisted I had to stay in school and graduate with good grades before I could consider becoming a professional ballet dancer. I did as I was told, finished school with excellent grades after which I enrolled at one of UK’s most prestigious ballet schools and three years after I finished I auditioned to join a ballet company. They told me they can’t employ two Black dancers at a time, that I would have to wait for the other dancer to leave before they could employ me. I was not prepared to wait , so I focused on getting my degree which allowed me to teach classical ballet. I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to entertain. I wanted to be a performer on stage, on television and movies. Luckily, the first job I got, they needed an actress who could also dance to play the lead role in the stage play Salome. So, I auditioned and won the role as Princess Salome.
What kind of man are you attracted to?
Ghanaian men (laughs), they are some of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen, especially the tall ones. I mean, typically tall, dark handsome men. There are many of them in Ghana (laughs). But seriously, I love intelligent men who read books, love to have fun and can make me laugh. He doesn’t necessarily have to have a lot of money, but must be intelligent.
Don’t you get pressure about getting married and starting a family of your own coming from an African background?
No, no pressure from that area at all. Like I said, I’ve nieces and nephews and I am enjoying a good relationship with all of them.
How is it like for Africans in the UK who want to be in the limelight?
It is tough. There is still a lot of racism in the entertainment industry. More of us need to tell our own stories. We need more trained writers, directors, actors and actresses.
What other plans do you have aside acting?
I’m hoping to work with Shirley Frimpong Manso, one of Ghana’s most prestigious filmmakers. We hope to co-produce a feature length documentary in 2016. It will take place in Ghana, UK and Nigeria.
Can you tell us about your co actress that was murdered by her boyfriend?
When she was acting in Eastenders, I wasn’t working with her directly, but outside Eastenders I worked with her. We did a play together at the theatre by a group of young writers, and she was really lovely, just talented and beautiful and can’t imagine the horror of what happened to her, because she was such a sweet girl and the alleged murderer ran to Ghana. And with those two beautiful children it just breaks your heart. I don’t know what she could have done for someone to take the life of a mother and her children. It’s just unthinkable. And I think the police got to the bottom of it.
What is your advice for up and coming actresses?
Don’t take no for an answer. If you feel passionate about your career, then do it. I was talking to some journalists recently and they said, a lot of young people today just want the fame and fortune. They try to be like the celebrities that they admire, but my advice is don’t try to be like someone else, be you. You are unique, you are special. When I was starting, I did my home work and research. Go online or Google and read how to make it as an actress or actor. It won’t just happen overnight, you have to do the work, but unfortunately, a lot of people are not prepared to work. So, be prepared to work hard and to train, because the challenges I found in Africa is lack of training. So, you have to train to be whatever you want to be good at. Don’t sit down and say I can’t do it, of course you can. If those at the top could do it, you can also do it. The difference between you and them is that they put their minds to it and they did what was necessary to make them a success, there is no short cut.
But do you have the issue of sexual harassment in the industry as well?
Yeah, of course. In the United States it is called the casting couch. And no, no, no, I don’t do that and in the UK it’s the same. I don’t really subscribe to that at all, and that is, if you don’t really get to do a good job, that means you have to sleep with all the directors and producers you come across. So, do it the proper way, but if you are offered to do that, say no. When I was much younger, I had the opportunity of going to Nigeria except that the producer told me to come to his hotel room at midnight to collect my tickets. I was clever enough to say; ‘I don’t think so” coming to your hotel room at midnight, aren’t no tickets I’m coming for and excuse me, no thank you. If you want to meet with me during the day over lunch and give me my tickets, then that’s fine. So, if you get such offers just say no, thank you, I don’t do that. It’s not part of why I am in this business.
What are your hobbies?
Photography is one and I want to get into film directing, so I’ve got to do a course and get some training and also let the people that know teach me how to do it properly. And I also want to start writing scripts for movies, so I have to take a course on creative writing.
What is the principle that guides you?
God first, absolutely in everything. I pray a lot as well. I always say that prayer is when you speak to God and meditation is when you listen to what God has to say to you. So, you have to stop and just listen because God speaks in whispers. So, you have to be quiet and silent during meditation for you to hear Him. And I’m a great believer of do it yourself, don’t wait for someone to do it for you. Get up and do it, don’t be lazy.
Who are your favourite acts in Ghana and in Nigeria?
Jocelyn Dumas, Ama. K. Abebrese, good young actress. In Nigeria, Omotola, Genevieve, Rita Dominic, I like her work and I’m a big fan of Joke Silva. I like Ramsey Nouah’s works as well, Olu Jacobs and Richard Mofe Damijo. These are the quality actors. I like their works and their movies. Those are the people I admire in the African movie industry.
What won’t you be caught doing?
I wouldn’t be caught doing something that will make my parents or family be ashamed. I wouldn’t take my clothes off on screen. I won’t do anything on screen that degrades the African woman, totally unacceptable. I wouldn’t do it, no amount of money can make me do that.
What are the qualities of a good actress?
Must be a good listener, and must be able to watch people and understand them as well. When you go to drama school, one of the things you learn is how to listen, hear people and know how to reply on stage or on screen. And they read books, read biographies, and how people became successful and some of the challenges they over came to be in the position that makes you admire them and you will find out that a lot of them started in the same circumstances as you. Looking at someone like Oprah Winfrey, her background was very basic just like you and me and yeah, she has made it. So, be inspired by that.