We speak to actress Stephanie-Levi John about building self belief, her promising journey in the industry so far and her role in the Starz series ‘The Spanish Princess’.
After a visit to the National Theatre at the tender age of 8 years old, Stephanie Levi-John was greeted with the profound realisation that acting could be a career for someone who looked like her. She went on to pursue this calling by studying script writing at Brunel University and attending evening acting classes at Identity Acting School, with previous alumni including Damson Idris, Lettitia Wright and John Boyega. From the North London estates, she quickly grew a name for herself, securing roles on prestigious theatre stages and soon landing her first role on screen in the Irish legal drama ‘Striking Out’.
Her recent endeavour that we are most excited about is the role she plays in Starz’s ‘The Spanish Princess’, which follows the story of Catherine of Aragon as a strong-willed young woman, who is promised in marriage to young Prince Arthur of England. Levi-John plays the role of Lina De Cardonnes, who serves as Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting. There are a catalogue of period dramas where people of colour are seen but barely heard, almost as though their stories hold no weight. But this isn’t the case, it’s a period drama where their stories are brought into focus, rather than overlooked. Where their significance is made clear as the narrative unfolds and relationships are built, dismantled and put to the test. To celebrate the release of season 2, we had the chance to chat with Stephanie Levi-John about her role as Lina, the portrayal of black women in period dramas and she shares some of the best advice she has been given so far.
NW: What pushed you to pursue a career in acting?
SLJ: I knew that I wanted to pursue acting as a career from a very young age after watching a friend of mine grace the stage. The realisation was profound and instantaneous. I remember rifling through the yellow pages to find drama classes and begged my dad to pay for them even though we didn't have a lot of money. It has always been my first love and passion however I lost a lot of confidence and self-belief after a particularly difficult experience auditioning for a drama school. I decided that acting wasn't for me and that I wanted to work in post-production instead. I went to university and then lived and worked in Spain for 9 months but was left unfulfilled. After a lot of soul searching I made the decision to pursue acting wholeheartedly because I knew that if I didn't give it a try I would live with regret. It's the best decision I've ever made.
NW: What are some misconceptions that you may have had about the acting industry starting out?
SLJ: I thought that everyone's journey into the acting industry was the same. I somehow fooled myself into thinking that I wouldn't fit in because I never went to drama school and I thought that people would look down on me because of this. After talking to fellow actors, I realised that many people felt the same as me, regardless of whether they went to drama school or not. You never stop learning in this industry and everyone is just trying to do what they love. It took years to shake off my imposter syndrome but I can safely say that I have found my feet in this industry and I intend to remain grounded and grateful.
NW: What is your process when picking what you choose to audition for?
SLJ: I like to remain open-minded when it comes to choosing roles. I don't want to put myself into a box and I'm always up for a challenge. There's something so wonderful about sinking my teeth into a character who is completely different to who I am as a person.
NW: What stands out to you when reading new scripts?
SLJ: Characterisation is a very important factor. I fall in love with characters who are multifaceted and have a clear objective within the piece. I love scripts that are loaded with subtext as it allows me to read between the lines and strengthens the way in which I play the scene. Well written dialogue is almost like poetry to me as it easily rolls off the tongue. A well written script always has a way of capturing my imagination.
NW: Congrats on your role in ‘The Spanish Princess’, you play Lina, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Can you tell us a bit about how you landed this role?
SLJ: My agent put me forward for the role of Lina and sent me the breakdown of the character as well as the scripts for the first two episodes. I felt such a deep connection to Lina after reading the first three pages and I knew that I wanted to play her. I went in for an audition and then I was called back to have a chemistry read, which is when I met the actor who plays my on screen husband, Aaron Cobham. Finding out that I got the role a couple of days later was one of the best moments of my life so far.
NW: Could you already speak Spanish beforehand or did you have to learn it for the role?
SLJ: Yes. I lived in Spain for 9 months in my early twenties. I moved with the intention of learning the language and when I arrived I couldn't speak or understand a word of Spanish. It can be very isolating when you can't express yourself using the power of words and I really struggled in the beginning to assimilate into society. It was a massive culture shock for me. Soon enough I made some incredible Spanish friends (who didn't speak English) and they forced me to learn at a rapid rate. I am so grateful to them for that. I'm now almost fluent and one of my biggest goals is to speak Spanish like native. I didn't realise at the time that it was preparing me for my future role as Lina in 'The Spanish Princess'. It blows my mind when I think about it like that.
NW: It’s not often that you see people of colour being represented in period dramas and it’s really refreshing to see. What do you hope viewers take away from this story?
SLJ: I hope the characterisation of Lina and Oviedo in 'The Spanish Princess' will inspire people to find out more about the presence of people of colour during periods of time that aren't often associated with us. Lina is not subservient and her place at court is completely valid. She, and many other people of colour during history, has a story to tell and a voice to be heard. It intrigues me to think that there are other people of colour who we know little about that may have had a pivotal role in certain eras of time.
NW: Were there any black British actors you looked up to when growing up?
SLJ: Growing up I remember watching Black British programmes such as 'Desmond's', 'The Real McCoy', 'Chef!' and '3 Non Blondes' in awe. Seeing people who looked like me on tv has always had a profound effect on me, even at a young age. The list of black British actors who inspired me growing up is endless: Sophie Okonedo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lucian Msamati, Idris Elba, Adjoa Andoh, David Harewood, Hugh Quarshie, Jo Martin and Don Warrington are just a few of them. They are all powerhouse and I hope to follow in their footsteps. They are truly inspirational.
NW: What's been your favourite thing about filming the series?
SLJ: There are so many things, I find it difficult to think of just one thing. I love the team work that goes into creating a production like this. I enjoy learning about what each department does and how it makes everything come together. More than anything, I love playing Lina! The best feeling in the world is putting on my costume and stepping onto set to play such a powerful character. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to play her.
NW: What's been your least favourite?
SLJ: Wearing a corset is something that takes a lot of getting used to, especially if you're wearing one for several hours a day. I have so much respect for the women of that era because I genuinely don't know how they managed to get anything done! Saying that, the corsets really did accentuate the beautiful costumes I got to wear, so the discomfort was definitely worth it.
NW: How do you prepare for specific roles?
SLJ: I do a lot of research beforehand. Knowledge is power so the more I know about the time period and the circumstances of the script, the more informed I feel about the character. I also like to read the script as many times as possible. I see a script almost like a blueprint and the more I look at it, the more information I find. Wearing the character's shoes also helps me explore their physicality. I think it's so important to be as calm as possible before stepping onto set, so I like to have a moment of stillness to focus my mind and get ready to act. I find that I do my best when I am coming from a place of peace.
NW: Season two is coming soon, what can we expect?
SLJ: This time around the viewers will get to see Lina's life at home and away from the palace. It will give them greater insight into her inner thoughts and feelings which later informs how she handles her life at the court with Catherine. Her priorities have changed and her quest for a peaceful, simple life is something that she yearns for but often finds difficult to achieve.
NW: What’s the best advice you’ve been given that you would like to pass on?
SLJ: My good friend Chinonyerem Odimba gave me a pearl of wisdom a few years ago which has stuck with me ever since. 'Learn to clap for yourself.' This can be interpreted in many ways but it reminds me to stay true to and celebrate myself. We need to give ourselves more credit for the work we put in to making our dreams a reality! The journey isn't always straightforward and can lead to many trials and tribulations. There may also be naysayers and people who don't believe in your vision but when you learn to clap for yourself, it gives you the drive to keep pushing, striving and achieving more without the validation of others. There is a strength in self-belief - it makes you invincible.
NW: It seems like you are on an upward trajectory in your career right now, what's next for you?
SLJ: My dream is to continue doing what I love! Acting means the world to me and I hope to work consistently on a variety of different projects. I don't want to limit myself and I'm excited to see what the future has in store for me.