Currently, Grace Saif is performing at The Yard Theatre in Grace Gummer’s production of Athena, playing the role of Mary Wallace, with the show having a run until the 23rd of this month. Grace has previously played Monica Douglas in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Donmar Warehouse and, during the pandemic, Grace was part of Jermyn Street Theatre’s The Sonnet Project and, earlier this year, she was a guest at the Right Here Festival in Crawley. On screen, Grace joined the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why as new regular Ani Achola in Series 3 and continued in the role for the final series the following year, and she has worked on short films The Visit and Night Out, and had her first guest role in Doctors. Also having voiceover experience, Grace voiced the role of Abby Lewis in the video game World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth in 2018. Catching up with Grace, she talks to us about her current role in Athena at The Yard Theatre, voicing the role of Abby for the World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth video game and her time in the cast of 13 Reasons Why as Ani Achola.
What was it like joining the cast of 13 Reasons Why and how did you find the experience on set?
The cast was extremely welcoming right off the bat. I couldn’t have wished for a better group of people to act with. As it was my first major TV role, I felt like I had a lot to learn very quickly. I am immensely grateful to everyone, from my fellow actors to the DOPs – who took the time to teach me the ropes and to create space for me. So many of the actors on the show have been acting in TV shows for such a long time, so I felt like acting in scenes with them was like a mini-workshop in itself. I tried to take as much as I could from what they were giving me.
How much did you know about the show before booking your role and how was it working on a Netflix series?
I had actually been watching the show myself on Netflix before I’d even been sent the audition for the role. I was part way through Season 2, and I remember thinking at the time that I hadn’t seen such a hard-hitting show, specifically aimed at young people in a really long time. I thought the actors’ performances were really nuanced and beautiful and found Hannah’s and Jessica’s stories so painful to see unfold.
Can you tell us about your character Ani Achola and what was she like to play?
Ani Achola is the new girl at the school. She’s from overseas and is essentially a new pair of eyes for the audience. She’s an outsider, but quite quickly finds herself involved quite deeply in the lives of the other characters, partly because her mother is working for Bryce Walker’s family. I think the biggest challenge of playing this character was trying to understand the motivations for her choices and her actions. I think she means well but I think she also has a motto of hearing people out fully before she makes up her mind about them. In some ways that can be admirable, but in other ways that can lead to some morally grey areas too. All of that aside, regardless of how I personally felt about the character, it was my job to come up with some convincing reasons for what she does and play them as sincerely as possible. In drama school, we once had a guest speaker describing acting as similar to being a lawyer. It’s not our job to judge our client but to defend them to our best ability.
Do you have any favourite memories from your time filming 13 Reasons Why?
There was a dystopian sequence with cyborgs that we filmed and the entire experience felt like a fever dream. We were filming at quite odd hours and at around four in the morning I remember wandering around and catching glimpses of people in their make-up and costume, and slightly feeling like I was at some Halloween flash mob/horror maze event. There were fires and explosions and motorbikes… and I really had to keep asking myself if we were still filming 13 Reasons Why. I had such a laugh with people on set that day. It was so fun.
Is there anything you can tell us about the short film The Visit in which you play Nneka?
The Visit is a short film written and directed by Ebele Tate. It’s a story about a young girl reconnecting with her estranged mother and all the difficulties that come with that. Reading the script, I felt I could sense the struggle that Nneka was going through to reconcile her expectations and the reality. There’s the mum that she imagined in her head – the one she sorely needed growing up, and the woman that she actually is.
How was it playing Shabs in Night Out and what was the short film like to be part of?
Night Out will always have a very special place in my heart. In this industry you’re almost always working with complete strangers and they quickly become a huge part of your life. You then finish the project, part ways, and sometimes you might not see those people ever again. After filming Night Out, I felt like I’d gained two sisters.
Working with Amelia Hashemi was such a blessing. As I was still quite new to screen work I was quite nervous. She had such an easeful way of bringing out the best of us and keeping us in high spirits (even when we were out in the streets of Shoreditch in -3 degree weather in high heels and bodycon dresses…). I love the story Amelia wrote – I think it beautifully captured those awkward moments and awakenings some of us go through as teenagers.
What do you remember most from booking your first guest role in a TV series of Angel Hurley in Doctors?
This was around the time I had just graduated from drama school and so I was pretty much allergic to film cameras. The thing I remember the most about Doctors was how quickly everything moved. Shows like Doctors can be filming up to thirty pages a day (in comparison, other shows might be filming between five to ten pages a day, for example). In between setups, I often found myself watching the older actors as they juggled their multiple scenes for that day, just in awe of them. The crew and the director were extremely supportive and welcoming and made my first TV experience a non-terrifying one.
Do you have any favourite TV shows and films to watch and have you seen any recently you would recommend?
There are two shows that are currently burnt into my brain since having watched them, and I’ve probably driven everyone around me mad by repeatedly checking if they’ve watched them yet. The first one is Dark (Netflix) – set in a sleepy town in Germany and I really don’t want to say anything more than that because you really should go into it blind. And the other is Hibana: Sparks (Netflix) which is a show about a manzai comedy duo trying to catch their break in Tokyo. Both of these shows are so beautifully acted, and both stories have stayed with me for completely different reasons.
You played Monica Douglas in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Donmar Warehouse, can you say more about it?
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (originally a book, and then later a film) is quite iconic for a lot of people, and it felt like Polly Findlay’s production was partly about putting that aside and finding something newer and darker.
There’s a kind of ruthlessness between the Brodie girls at times which I really enjoyed playing. I think Monica Douglas is a lot more headstrong than I am so it was a fun challenge to get into that mindset.
Was there anything you enjoyed most about playing the character and being in the production?
I found out later in the casting process that I’d be working alongside Kit Young, who was playing the young journalist in the play. It was my first time working with a fellow graduate from drama school and it was really comforting and exciting to act with a classmate again. We spend three years training together, getting to know each other and we get to see how much we’ve grown and honed our strengths. Even though we didn’t have direct scenes together, sharing the stage again was a really special experience for me.
Can you tell us about some of the other stage appearances you’ve made?
During my time at drama school I had the opportunity to play the part of Alix in Robert Icke’s production Mary Stuart (Almeida Theatre). I had already seen Lia Williams in The Oresteia a couple of years before and had also seen a lot of Juliet Stevenson’s work. It was truly an honour and invaluable learning experience to simply observe the way these two actresses rehearse and bring those two characters to life. It was a wonderful company of experienced actors and they were all so welcoming. I felt like I’d come away having learned so much about acting from that production.
During the pandemic, you took part in Jermyn Street Theatre’s The Sonnet Project, what was it like to do?
When I was approached to participate in this event, I was slightly nervous as it had been a number of years since I’d last worked with any Shakespearean text. However, after diving back into it, I rediscovered how beautiful Shakespeare’s writing is. Especially with the sonnets, he has a way of capturing universal and timeless emotions and experiences. To a lot of actors, Shakespeare can sometimes feel like a wall to us: inaccessible or complicated. I think the key is putting the text into our own words first. Connecting with that, and then relating it back to the original words. To me, we share the same plights, insecurities, pleasures and dreams as our ancestors. All that has changed are the language and expressions for those feelings. I feel like this is what helps me the most when doing classical text.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
I had always loved films and TV shows ever since I was very little, but never really understood the concept of ‘actors’, they were simply people on my TV screen. I first got introduced to acting when I came to secondary school. In Year 7, I had my first ever drama class. Our teacher threw us straight into an hour-long improvisation class which was very subtly a class in teaching us about real world issues. Over the next couple of years, our drama classes were consistently about taking classical texts and merging them with real life events. He never once was condescending or tried to make things easy to understand for ‘kids’, he encouraged us to reflect and explore – and I really started to enjoy what I came to learn was called ‘acting’. After that, I participated in drama trips and school musical productions. In my last year of sixth form, another drama teacher encouraged me to apply to drama schools. I had never heard of drama schools before that point, she helped me find a couple of monologues, and at the very last minute I decided to apply for a few drama schools alongside my university applications. I was almost 99% sure I wasn’t going to get into any drama schools so I went into my auditions just trying to enjoy and learn from the experience. After finding out that I had been offered a place at drama school, I asked my mum whether I should go to university or to drama school. My mum, who was a mature university student at the time, told me I could go back to university at any time in my life if I really wanted to. I decided to go to drama school.
Had you always wanted to train at RADA and how was your time there?
I had never even heard of RADA before I attended. My drama teacher at the time introduced me to a number of drama schools and drama courses at different universities. I took my time researching each school and learning as much as I could about them. During my audition process, a member of the panel encouraged me to see some of the RADA’s productions that were currently on. After saying that I couldn’t afford it at the time, the panelist offered me a free ticket. I am so grateful for that because the production I ended up seeing was a one-woman show of debbie tucker green’s random starring a recent graduate Ronke Adekoluejo. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I had ever watched, and Ronke was breathtaking. The moment the show finished, I told myself that however that actress learned how to do that, I wanted to learn that too – that where she trained is where I wanted to train.
My time at RADA was a rollercoaster. I felt like I had so much to learn and not enough time in which to learn it. I felt my year group was a very special year. Each person had their own strengths and weaknesses and we were all so different from each other. I remember spending so much time just furiously taking notes in every class – to the point that my teachers started telling me I wasn’t going to learn anything with my head constantly down in my book. I desperately didn’t want to forget anything that I had been introduced to. In some ways, I don’t regret it as I’m still constantly diving into my notes to this day!
We understand you voiced the role of Abby in World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, how was the experience voicing a video game?
First and foremost, I love playing video games – even if I don’t get as much time to do it these days. Often the voice acting in games isn’t immediately at the forefront of our minds when we’re playing video games. We’re immersed in the story, the graphics and the challenges – yet I’m sure we all have at least one character’s voice from a game that we still remember to this day, or performances that feel iconic. It was such an honour to step into that responsibility for the first time. I had so much fun in the studio, and my director was very encouraging and supportive. My character Abby Lewis is a somewhat mysterious little girl that players can find in a sidequest in the game. I won’t say too much, but let’s just say… I hope you like tea parties…
Earlier this year, you were involved with Right Here Festival in Crawley, how was this?
It was great to get to reconnect with my beginnings in acting, and after living in Crawley for nearly ten years, it’s a big part of my life. I really want to continue encouraging young people from Crawley to pursue their passion for the arts and Crawley-based organisations are so proactive in finding and creating spaces where that can happen. If those resources hadn’t been there when I was a teenager I certainly wouldn’t be an actor today.
Do you have any upcoming roles you can tell us about and what are you most looking forward to now the industry is returning?
I’m currently in Grace Gummer’s production of Athena, written by Gracie Gardner at The Yard Theatre. I am acting alongside two spectacular actresses Millicent Wong and Amaia Naima Aguinaga. The play is about two high school fencers, and how the competition between them in such an intense and aggressive sport affects them and their friendship. It is an extremely physical production to be in, and we had three weeks of fencing workshops to prepare for it. We have a live twelve-minute fencing match in the play, which always has my heart racing each night. It is my first time in front of a live audience in two years, and it feels amazing to be just in a room with people again after theatres closed during the pandemic. Theatre is the heartbeat of the UK entertainment industry. It’s one of few forms of acting where you get instant feedback – whether that’s positive or negative. The audience is the third character of the play, and that connection can be electric. Each night is another opportunity to deepen the role, to find something new – and the audience can teach you something about the play you didn’t notice before. I hope our audiences are enjoying the shows! We are open until the last week of October and we have a range of ticket prices to be as accessible as possible to everyone.
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