After continuously circling back to the fascinating, yet ever-evolving, entertainment industry realm, Tahirah Sharif describes that the gravitational pull was just too strong, as her heart will always be with the artistry of acting. She graciously explains that if acting is something that burns within you, then you need to do it and you need to see it through. After reluctantly taking her own advice some years ago, Tahirah Sharif now stars in the hit Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, proving to herself that acting can be a viable, yet fulfilling, career path. In this exclusive interview, we had the opportunity to chat with the charming and equally witty starlet to discuss her newest role in The Haunting of Bly Manor, an overview of her past in the entertainment industry, and how her onscreen character, Rebecca Jessel, influenced her personal style.
Megan Morgante: Did anything/anyone, in particular, inspire you to enter the entertainment industry?
Tahirah Sharif: Two things. I did a school play and I was the only six-year-old involved. I took it so seriously, I was obsessed with learning my lines and I would never giggle while on stage. I just remember enjoying my time during that play and embodying the character. I was always an avid reader growing up and that brought forth a lot of my imagination. My mom wasn’t massive on television or computer games. She was an English teacher, so she always encouraged us to read. So, I just loved imagining things, and that’s what initially sparked my love for acting. There was also a film back from the ‘80s called, The NeverEnding Story, and I would pester my mom to watch that film again and again. Still, I know every single word from it and I would act out the scenes. I would tell my tiny self, “Tahirah, there’s not actually a dragon there.” I was a weird kid, I would act out all of the scenes and drive my family insane.
MM: Can you give an overview of your past in the entertainment industry and how it led you to where you are now?
TS: I went to the Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology here in London when I was sixteen-years-old. I left school and I didn't pursue any type of acting until many years later. I knew I didn't want to go to an accredited drama school for three years because I just thought, “...It’s just so much money and there's no guarantee of a job afterward.” No one in my family or my inner circle at that point was in the entertainment industry, so no one knew anything about agents or how to make this an actual career. So, it was initially encouraged that I maybe pick something a bit more realistic, so I worked behind the cameras for a few years. My heart was always in acting, so when I got a bit older I started going to acting classes in the evenings at the Identity School of Acting. It was there that I rediscovered my love for acting and I just enjoyed being surrounded by fellow creatives. I took a few classes there and then I signed to an agency. It took me a while to sign because I was working a full-time job and I was just enjoying acting, I still didn't think it could be a career. Eventually, I started to get professional jobs and I kind of proved to my family and myself that you can earn money from doing this. Over here [London], we have a couple of shows that every single British actor will have probably done, so you cut your teeth on those and then you build a body of work. I've done those shows and have performed in theatre, and eventually, you want to break into the American side of things. For me, that came with A Christmas Prince in 2017. Fast forward three years and here we are.
MM: The new Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, recently premiered on Netflix… congratulations! What can we expect to see from your character, Rebecca Jessel, in the newest Netflix series?
TS: Rebecca is the previous nanny to the children of Bly Manor. We find out fairly early on that Rebecca is no longer with us, and eventually, we find out more about her life and her relationship with Peter Quint through a series of flashbacks throughout the series. She's a nanny, but she has ambitions, dreams, and goals of becoming a barrister [lawyer], which is why she works for these very wealthy, influential families. So, she goes to the Manor with an open heart and she's a very generous, trusting, and loving character.
MM: Was there anything, in particular, your character, Rebecca, taught you throughout the storyline?
TS: I’m not the most patient person in the world, so it was interesting when we were filming certain scenes because she’s a lot more reserved and much more patient than I am. There were certain situations in which we were filming where the Tahirah in me would come out and the directors would say, “...Um, I don’t think Rebecca would react like that.” So, I had to constantly remind myself that this is a character and not all personalities are going to be so defensive. I think she taught me to be a lot more calm and very graceful. I have also taken a lot of inspiration from her wardrobe, I’ve got to say.
MM: What was your experience like filming this project and working with the cast?
TS: It was really cool, onset we were a family of sorts because we all lived within this manor and took care of the children. We’re not related by blood, but offset it was essentially the same thing. Most of us are not from Vancouver, which is where we filmed, so when you're away from home working together you do actually become very close and spend quite a lot of time together. I adore those children, Amelie [Flora Wingrave] and Ben [Miles Wingrave], they are wonderful, joyful little human beings. I also worked closely with Olly [Peter Quint], and he was lovely to work with. We were really collaborative with one another and it was just very easy with him.
MM: Is there anything that you particularly look for when reading news scripts?
TS: Firstly, you read the script to get a sense of the character, and you want to see different layers. You want to see a depth to them and reasons as to why they are the way they are. Otherwise, it's a bit thin if there's no reason behind their actions. For Rebecca, she comes to this manner, takes on this job, and falls in love with this man, and if that was it for her storyline, then that would be a bit boring. But, because of the way that Mike Flanagan and his team of writers work, they added so many layers to the story and each character, that it makes it so interesting. That’s what you want, you want this woman to meet this man and fall in love, but you want to understand the why behind her actions. Why does she fall in love with this man? Why does she take this job? Rebecca takes this nanny job because she has much farther and higher goals in mind. She falls in love with this man, this supposed bad boy, not just because he's charming and good looking, but because she's been missing something within her own life that she hasn't found until she meets him. I always try to look for multifaceted characters and a lot of layers.
MM: If you could give a piece of advice to someone looking to enter the entertainment industry, what would it be?
TS: I would say, “Don’t do it,” (laugh-out-loud)! No, I would say firstly, if you are genuinely passionate and enthusiastic about entering into this industry, and it’s something that burns within you, then you need to do it and you need to see that through. But, if you are entering this industry because you think it looks fun or because you just want to see yourself on the TV, then don’t. I would also say to just learn your craft, that’s so important.
MM: Besides The Haunting of Bly Manor, do you have any new or exciting upcoming projects?
TS: Yes, a month ago I just finished shooting a film called, Escape the Field. The character that I played was such a stark contrast to Rebecca Jessel because this character was not bothered about her appearance and was a bit of a geek. I had such a fun time playing that role and doing that project, essentially, we were just running around in a cornfield for about ten hours a day. It was just so much fun and I loved everyone in the cast and the crew. It was also just very freeing being able to get dirty and not worry about your appearance all the time because that was my character’s dynamic. Essentially, it’s about these six strangers who wake up in a cornfield with very different items on them, they don’t know one another, they don’t know how they got there, and it’s about everything that ensues after they wake up.
MM: Have you ever experienced any notable challenges throughout your career?
TS: Many, many, many. I would say more ongoing challenges, rather than notable challenges. Rejection is a huge one, you can audition for twenty different projects and get called back for two of them. For the other eighteen, you just have to think, “...Oh well, those projects just weren't for me,” but that’s much easier said than done. It's taken me a while to not take the rejection personally because you know 95% of the time that you don't get a job, it doesn't have anything to do with you. At the same time, when you're in it, you can’t help but take things personally. You begin to question yourself constantly as to why you didn't book a project, so that's been quite a big challenge to be able to overcome.
MM: Do you feel you have a social responsibility with your growing platform?
TS: That’s a difficult question to answer and I'll tell you why. My platform has grown very quickly over the past ten days and I'm genuinely trying to wrap my head around it. I think I’m realizing that I have quite a few people watching my social media. I do like Instagram and enjoy having fun with it, and I’m beginning to realize that maybe not every single thing needs to be shown on there.
MM: What would you say your personal style is like?
TS: I have bought a few pieces inspired by Rebecca Jessel, which are smarter pieces, such as a suit that I can wear with either heels or a pair of trainers. I would say my style is fairly casual. I love a high-waisted pair of jeans, a cool t-shirt tied up, and then a nice little block heel because I’m all about comfort. I do love sneakers, really good quality coats, or a really good quality bag. I'm not scared to spend a bit of money on a good bag.
MM: Who is your ultimate style icon?
TS: You know what, as I’ve gotten older, it's kind of my mom! I think when you’re younger, you don’t realize how cool your parents are. As I’ve got older, I’m dressing more and more like her. I’ll go to hers and she has tons and tons of clothes, so when I go to her wardrobe, I want to take something every time. Everything that I wear is hers and everyone always says, “...Oh that’s so cool,” and I’m like yes, it’s my mom's (laugh-out-loud). She doesn’t really throw anything away, and with fashion, everything is coming back. It’s amazing going through her clothes because everything is genuine vintage. Her style is very relaxed and effortlessly cool. I remember when I was a teenager and she came to one of the PTA meetings at my school. She had a shaved head, dyed it blonde, and was wearing this long, fur coat with buffalo boots. I just remember being mortified, and everyone saying, “...Oh my gosh, is that your mom? She’s so beautiful!” But, now I can appreciate that. She’s epic.
Photography by: Krystena Patton