Award-winning actress and producer Naomi Ackie plays R&B pop legend Whitney Houston in the new biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which is out in theaters now. Most recently, she was seen starring in season 3 of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None on which she also serves as an executive producer. She will soon be seen in Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho’s next film, based on the novel Mickey 7, alongside Robert Pattinson, Toni Collette and Mark Ruffalo, and in Zoe Kravitz’s directorial debut, Pussy Island, in which Naomi stars opposite Channing Tatum. Naomi’s breakthrough role was Anna in Lady Macbeth. She also starred in the second season of Netflix’s End Of The F***ing World, which won her a BAFTA TV Award for Best Supporting Actress, and played Jannah in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, alongside Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and John Boyega. (Photo by Marcus Olsson / Lucasfilm Ltd.)
I came to Severance blind. The show came out in early 2022, but I only had the time to watch it recently on one of my days off. When I read the blurb about it and the concept of splitting your consciousness into two separate parts, I thought, “Oh, that sounds pretty good.” I found the reality of spending all of your time at work, and that being a perpetual hell, absolutely terrifying, but I think the best thing was introducing the idea of religion through the book the characters find in the office that was smuggled in by accident. The writing and the performances are incredible, the music is great, and I was blown away by Ben Stiller’s directing. I watched it all in one day and then I started talking about it to everyone.
The next day at work, I was very bossy, telling people, “You have to watch it. You have to watch it.” I was trying to retell the story too, which I did very badly. No one’s come back to me and said they’ve watched it yet – I’m giving them until the end of the year and then I’m just going to have to start making some house calls!
I get really fixated on books, too. I was obsessed with Harry Potter when I was a kid; I would read the books, especially the later ones, in 24 hours. When I start, I just can’t stop. I have to know the ending or else it causes me physical pain. With a TV show, I will wait until the full season is out – or even wait two or three years until the whole series is done – and then I’ll indulge and watch all of it. I can be really impatient too, though. If I find a book I love, sometimes I can’t take it and I’ll skip to the end, so I know the ending. Then I can go back to where I was, not knowing how we get to the ending, but knowing whether the character I love will be alive or dead.
An example of this that felt tragic at the time (but is now funny) is when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published. I think I got it on a Sunday, a day or so after it came out, but I couldn’t finish it because I had to sleep before going to school. Other people had finished it, though, and I remember someone at school running up the stairs toward me. (I won’t mention her name, but I do remember it and I will never forget her!) She pushed past everyone, stopped by my ear and said, [spoiler alert] “Dumbledore dies at the end,” and then kept running up the stairs. I was in shock. That was a difficult moment for me.
My dad introduced me to sci-fi, magic realism and mystery from a very young age, so I’m drawn to shows like Severance from a storytelling perspective. There’s something really special when a show has an interesting concept, doesn’t reveal everything straight away and has characters that are truly complex. We live in a time of instant gratification and information on demand, so it was interesting to be so taken in by a show where, for the first time in a long time, I was fully comfortable with letting the story reveal itself slowly.
I connected a lot thematically to Severance due to some of my personal experiences. The grief and loss that the main character goes through at the start of the show Severance is something I know all too well. And the idea of wanting to just be able to shut off the pain in a convenient manner, when it gets to be too much, is something I wish I could have done in certain moments of my life. I also spend a lot of time working and I’ve been trying to get a better sense of how to balance my life and my work, to make each as enriching as I can. The idea that we are two separate selves when we’re in work or home mode feels true, but it’s doubly so for me, as my work is acting. Sometimes it’s easier: I go in, I play a role, I come back and I’m Naomi again, and it feels simple. But sometimes I compartmentalize, which can be very dangerous, like if I’m trying to avoid something, or prove something. Severance was scary because I love my job so much, but it showed me that if I had to be at work every single day for the rest of my life, it would be unbearable.
Things go well for me if I’m able to switch off the character at the end of the day, but that’s almost impossible if there’s a scene coming that I haven’t fully figured out yet or if what the character is experiencing is very intense. As an actor, I’m conjuring up emotion and if I don’t ground that emotion and energy somewhere in order to let it go, sometimes it can just stay in my body for a long time. I’ve definitely had moments while filming highly emotional narratives like I Want to Dance with Somebody or End of the F***ing World, where I’m say, “Oh my gosh, why am I feeling so anxious?” And then I realize, “Oh, because I just spent the day doing something intense and, of course, it makes sense that my body is still reacting to the aftershock of doing that because it doesn’t know that it’s only pretend.”
Featured image of Naomi Ackie by by Marcus Olsson / Lucasfilm Ltd.