“We’re seeing queer characters and Black characters and different races represented on screen now, and that’s great, but behind the scenes it needs to change”
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGES BY DAVID REISS
Isis Davis is a British actress and writer who you need to have on your radar right now.
Most recently Isis had a guest lead role in Silent Witness, and she’s now playing the beloved role of Martha in the brand new adaptation of The Secret Garden, alongside huge names such as Colin Firth and Julie Walters.
Isis is the first Black actress to take on the role in this iconic family drama, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what’s next for her. No stranger to writing herself, she’s even part of the writing team for the next season of Killing Eve. How many dream jobs can one woman achieve in 2020? The limit doesn’t seem to exist for Isis.
We managed to catch-up with Isis for a virtual sit-down ahead of the release of The Secret Garden. Get to know her a bit better below. 🌈
DIVA: How have the past six months been for you, Isis?
ISIS DAVIS: For so many people in the industry lockdown has been so difficult and the arts have really suffered. A lot of actors and a lot of my friends have been in really difficult positions, but I’m really grateful because lockdown has been kind to me. I’ve never worked so much in my writing career so I feel very fortunate.
Can you tell us a bit about your character Martha in The Secret Garden?
Martha is one of the maids at Misselthwaite Manor and she’s the only adult who befriends Mary. Their relationship is really sweet and she tries to show her that she can’t behave the way she’s been behaving to other people, she teaches her to be more independent. Martha is pretty no nonsense so she was fun to play.
Did you read the book as a child? Was that what drew you towards playing Martha?
I read the book as a child and I love the old film version. Martha is just a brilliant character. I used to watch the 1993 film version on repeat and I loved it.
What similarities or differences do you think you and Martha share?
I think my version of Martha is a bit of me. I think I’m caring and no nonsense at the same time. I think I’m encouraging to my children and she’s like a mother hen. In the book, she’s the oldest of 12 kids, she looks after the younger ones and I’ve got a big family too, although I grew up as an only child.
Why do you think it’s so important that Martha is being played by a Black queer woman?
Because it’s about time. It’s an honour to be the first Black Martha. I used to escape into the story when I read it as a kid. The one thing that I found about the film when I was younger was that no one looked like me. Although I loved it, I wanted to see people that look like me on screen. I think it can open a film up to different audiences when young Black kids are able to see Black people on screen.
How do you prepare for a role as big as this?
I was really nervous beforehand because I was working with British screen icons, Colin Firth and Julie Walters. But once we started working it’s just like any other job. Colin and Julie were lovely to work with, the kids were brilliant young people and we all got on so well. Everyone wanted to make an amazing film. It was a dream job!
What did you learn from working on this film?
I think I learned to believe in myself. There were a few times on set where I was like “Oh my god, I’m here on the set of a big feature film with legends, and I’m here in my own right.” Obviously I believe in myself to get this far, but now I know that I can hold my own.
What’s your acting background like, how did you get into the film industry?
I left London when I was 21. I loved living here as a kid and growing up here but I took the wrong path as an adolescent. I got to a point where I just needed to make a break. And that’s what I did! I’d left mainstream education at 13, I didn’t have any qualifications so I resettled in Gloucestershire and re-educated myself.
I got enough qualifications to get onto a Performing Arts degree at the University of Gloucestershire and in my final year I wrote a show in order to get an agent. It got really good reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe and I brought it to London at the Soho Theatre, and I got an agent off the back of it! That started the ball rolling for me.
You also write for Killing Eve, how is that?
I love the show, so to be asked to join the team was a dream come true. The writers that I’m working with and the execs are all amazing and inspiring. I can’t believe I get to be a part of the team.
Do prefer acting or writing now that you’ve had a taste of both?
They’re so different. I get satisfaction from them in different ways. The hardest thing for me with acting is getting the job. Once you’ve got the job and learnt the lines, it’s enjoyable. I love being on set. I love the whole process of rehearsals. I’m in my element.
Whereas with writing, it’s very stressful and it’s quite lonely. It’s great when you’re in a writing team and you get to bounce ideas off each other, but when you’re writing alone it can be lonely and really demanding. I enjoy it once I’ve finished the script, but I don’t really enjoy it in the moment. The process is quite hard.
Writing for Killing Eve makes you a certified queer legend – what are your thoughts on queer representation in the industry right now?
We’re slowly seeing things change, but it’s not quick enough. Behind the camera is a lot worse. We’re seeing queer characters and Black characters and different races represented on screen now, and that’s great, but behind the scenes it needs to change. All of the jobs that I’ve worked on have had a lovely cast and crew but it’s not diverse at all.
Do you think there’s any silver linings that might come out of 2020 for creatives?
I think this industry is really struggling. I don’t know how much longer people can last without work. Not enough money has been pumped into the arts. As a writer it’s the best time because production companies want things written ready for as soon as they can start filming. But as with a lot of actors, makeup artists and runners etc. There are so many who are just at a standstill, and it’s really scary. I don’t know what the silver silver lining may be. I just hope that by next year people can start working again.
Lastly, what can audiences expect from The Secret Garden?
Magic. It’s a feel good family film for the kids and for the adults. It’s beautiful and it’s magical.
The Secret Garden is available to watch in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 23 October.