Ghanaian British actress, Rhoda Ofori-Attah spoke to Jemimah Wright about a career in the spotlight, and how her church prayer group has been such a support as she navigates the ups and downs of the industry
Tell us about your background, where were you born and brought up?
I was born in Ghana, but my parents came to the UK when I was around two. They went to Glasgow first, because my dad got a scholarship to study at Strathclyde University.
We were there until I was about eight; they had my brother and sister up there. Then my dad studied theology at Cambridge. He became a Methodist minister and we ended up moving to Yorkshire. I spent most of my formative years in Leeds and then Bradford.
What was your faith journey like?
As a child of a minister, you have no choice but to go to church every Sunday! I enjoyed it, but as I got older, and when I went to university, I didn’t go to church. I never stopping believing in God; I just didn’t really practise my faith. I didn’t lead a bad life at all, but God wasn’t at the centre.
When did faith become more real to you?
It was around 2010 when I was living in London, and had had a relationship breakup. I was really sad, and my friend Yvonne, a fellow actress, saw I was down. She invited me to church at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone.
Yvonne had discovered her faith a few years earlier and was quite established in that church. I really liked it, especially the worship music. I was living with some dear friends in Islington, but I’d go on the number 30 bus all the way to Marylebone to go to church every Sunday.
Through church I started to realise what was important in life. I’d always put trying to make it as an actress first, but I realised I needed to put God first. That was the beginning of the journey.
When did you first want to be an actress?
I always had quite an active imagination. I would make up plays and try and involve my siblings, but they weren’t that bothered, so I would make up storylines for imaginary people.
I would talk to myself and act it all out. I know this sounds nuts, but I really feel that God told me that I was going to be an actor: I used to stay up and watch the Oscars from about the age of eight, get my duvet and camp in the living room when they were on.
As I watched, I felt God saying: “This is where you belong.” Even though there weren’t very many people that looked like me in the audience I was fascinated, and wondered how I could do what they did.
Did you start acting at school?
Oh, that was another beast! In secondary school in Leeds, I would audition for plays and never get picked. I used to think: “I’m not that bad am I?” I do think there was a racial element to it. I was the only black girl in my school at the time.
I was sad when I wasn’t chosen, but by the age of twelve I was going to Leeds library to borrow French films. I think my parents thought I was a bit weird!
You studied Pharmacy at Nottingham University – why did you end up studying sciences?
My parents are very traditional African, so, as far as they’re concerned, no money can be made out of creative jobs! I was academic, so by process of elimination, I came to Pharmacy, because I was too squeamish for medicine. I hate blood.
It’s funny as my sister is a consultant psychiatrist, but she is also a scriptwriter, and her first show is now filming in Leeds. It’s a medical show called Malpractice. My brother’s a dentist, but now he’s gone off to study film directing!
It was at university that I auditioned for theatre shows and finally got cast. I couldn’t believe it! Our theatre society at Nottingham has produced some really successful people in the industry. Two friends from that time, Ruth Wilson and Carrie Cracknell, are both very successful as an actress and director now.
The first play that I got cast in as the lead, I realised I could be funny when people in the audience started laughing. So I did a postgraduate course at the Oxford School of Drama, and I paid my way through by being a locum in a pharmacy.
I don’t come from a wealthy family, and I was never going to expect my parents to pay for the school.
How has God helped you in your work?
I have an amazing small group at KXC Church who pray for me. First we prayed I would get a better agent, and that happened, and now I am starting to see a shift in the roles I am getting. This year so far has been amazing, and I know that is down to God.
Have you ever thought of going to Hollywood?
I’ve been to LA a few times, and I liked it. But now you can do an audition from home – there’s a thing called ‘self-tapes’, so you don’t necessarily have to be in a room and meet the casting directors or directors or producers.
Self-tapes were coming in before COVID, and they just make the process easier, because you can do your audition several times until you’re happy with it. Because of that I can go up for American films and TV, and don’t necessarily have to be there.
Have you ever refused a script because of your faith?
Yes, I had one that was just a weird horror. My character was a nun, and it had some religious stuff in it that I was not sure about it. I don’t like when they link mental breakdowns to religion. So I said: “No, I’m not doing that.”
What would be your dreams for the future in your acting profession?
I would love a lead part in something where it’s not bitty. Where the character has a prominent, significant role in a series, and it’s a meaty character. I love stage work because of that.
You get great roles on stage, and that wonderful rehearsal process where you can really get into it. Nothing beats being on stage with a live audience.
How has your faith helped your acting?
I have been a jobbing actress for over 20 years now, and it’s not easy! It can be so discouraging when I go for role after role and don’t get them. That’s why I am so grateful for my KXC Church prayer group; it’s run by two friends I knew from university.
The support is just incredible. We have been praying for breakthroughs for all of us in our lives. For me, it’s been a breakthrough in acting work. I can see God working in my life. He’s opened the door for me to meet certain people, and who knows where those relationships will lead to.
This year has been incredible, probably my best year. I am in a show called Shadow and Bone for Netflix, and I’m doing Great Expectations at the moment for BBC.
I believe that what is for you will not pass by you, but that’s hard too, because I’ll go up for so much and be like: “Oh, come on God, what is going on?” I was in a very difficult place last year.
I began to question if I was any good, but then I get very good feedback. When I am discouraged, God always says: “No, this is where you belong, keep going.” I’m doing what I love, and it’s not about Hollywood, or accolades or stuff like that. It’s just the journey.
Rhoda Ofori-Attah trained at the Oxford School of Drama and her credits include: The Bill (ITV), Coronation Street (ITV), Silent Witness (BBC), Cold Feet (ITV) and Informer (BBC).
She plays Miss Griffiths in the BAFTA-nominated show Top Boy (Netflix). In 2019 she was selected for the prestigious BAFTA Elevate Program, designed to support people from under-represented groups in TV and film progress in their careers.
Follow Rhoda on rhoda.oforiattah