An interview with actress and writer Sharma Walfall
Best known for the popular soaps Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and TV Series Lol, Sharma Walfall talks to Mandy News about her experiences as a writer and actress so far and how she balances her schedule.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you got involved in the TV and film industry?
I started acting years ago. I went to university to study a BA in media and performance. I met somebody whose agent was looking for another actress, I went down and had an audition and got an agent. From there I’ve just been auditioning and getting the parts here and there. I also started to writing a few years and I’ve been lucky enough to get a TV credit on Hollyoaks, I won a Northern Writers Award and made it on to TriForce Incubator.
So acting came before the writing?
Yes, I wanted to act since I was about five. Before I really knew what acting was. I always loved performing, I always loved watching people on TV and always thought that’s going to be me one day. From an early age, I always used to tell stories and write monologues but didn’t know I was writing monologues funnily enough! Acting definitely came first though.
When did you decide to make the transition to writing?
To be fair, I still class myself as a writer/actor. I used to write monologues and when I used to go for auditions I used to devise and write stuff in college. When I was in university in my last year, I did a half an hour drama that I wrote, directed and was in. It was part of my final year and I had to do a question on whether an actor could do that. I got a first for it and it was the first time I had loads of people buzzing about me as a writer and I enjoyed it.
From then on, I started writing short films. I always wanted to write and direct and be in dramas and then the opportunity came up to enter the Northern Writers Award and I was lucky enough to be the winner.
Tell us about the award and how you found out about it.
It was my aunty, she’s a novelist. She sent me the link telling me that they were looking for productions - I thought Hollyoaks would be perfect. They were looking for people who hadn’t had any experience but had an ability to write dialogue. I thought this was probably something that I could do so I went to the roadshow. There was a roadshow in Manchester and other different towns and cities. I went to one in the Contact Theatre but I was working there at the time so it was quite funny. It was wicked and I remember Cam from Red Production saying that if I want to be a TV writer then the best way to learn is on a soap.
I loved Hollyoaks before so I definitely wanted it. I really wanted it and I felt like I could win it and I gave it my all. I entered my the storyline - which was something like 15 pages. I got through to the next stage which was a workshop day. I’m kind of shy sometimes and I don’t like to talk about myself so I noticed that everyone else was more confident than I was. The nice thing was that the producer was really encouraging, she really liked my drama and asked my questions and I came out of my shell. We did a story on the session of the day, we had to write a storyline for Hollyoaks after learning their house style for storylines.
I found out a few weeks later that I had won it so I had a placement there. I was the first winner, there was never a guarantee for anyone to write on Hollyoaks. It was actually just for somebody to learn how a soap works. You got to learn quite a lot of stuff. I was blessed enough to get a trial script - at the end and from the trial script I was offered a commission which was amazing because I had no TV experience prior.
How does the writing process of working on something with a quick turnaround like Hollyoaks work for you?
It was incredible. I’d been there for a year on and off, I still had my day job and stuff and I went there around that. I never knew it was such a machine. Nobody understands that. I have respect for anybody that works on a soap - anybody. From a runner, to a writer to the producer to the actors - I’ve got the highest respect because it’s a team, it’s a machine and it’s not about you, it’s about the show. It’s definitely something that was daunting at first because it’s so fast-paced. When I first got my deadline, I’d been used to having deadlines in a sense where I had a mentor and I’d been given little exercises where I had to meet deadlines beforehand but they weren’t strict deadlines. I was used to that but not deadlines in general because I write for myself.
I found it hard but I also kind of like pressure I noticed. I like to be told this needs to be in at a certain point. It is difficult for anyone going in to soaps, well for anyone but it was a massive learning curve for me. I actually enjoyed it to be honest but it was intense.
What was the time schedule?
In the whole process from getting a commission to the final episode it was four months. It all depends - it depends on each draft. Each draft had its own deadline. I think every show is probably different. You get a bit more time on the first draft and then less time on each draft and then when you’re coming towards the end you’ve got a few days to do extra. It’s quite tight.
Now that you’re working as an actor and a writer, how do you split that on a daily/weekly/monthly basis?
At the moment, the writing is ahead of the acting. My acting agent knows that I do writing and I write down the days in my diary that I definitely can’t devote to acting - whether it’s a meeting or a workshop. Other than that, if an audition comes up the that takes priority. In all honesty, it’s not that hard at the moment as I don’t have an acting job. I know others actors/writers say that it can get harder if it just so happens that you have an acting for the week/month and a writing job with deadlines. Each job I’ve had so far hasn’t really crossed with my writing so it’s all been fine.
Did you say you had different agents for acting and writing?
Yes, I have an acting agent and I’m currently in the process of seeking representation for my writing too so helpfully in the next few weeks, I’ll have one.
What was the process of getting your acting agent? How does the process work in getting a writing agent too?
I have had an acting agent since I was in university. I have known my current agent, Jane Hollowood, for a long time. I had her for a few years when I was younger but then I left to take a few years out of acting and concentrate on my writing. When I was ready to dip back into acting, I went back to Jane again.
In terms of writing, I didn’t realise they were so different from an acting agent and it’s very hard to get one. They want to see that you already have something behind you, people that can vouch for you and that you’re proactive - whether it’s credits or a play. If you haven’t got that the I feel you’re not going to be able to approach an agent. I feel very blessed and lucky to have a fair amount on my CV such as awards, TCN Writers Incubator, TV commission, the Sky TV table read for Out Of Bounds, a play that I did with some TV writers in Leeds.
So I have enough behind me now for agents to be interested and I do have a few agents looking at work right now - which is amazing and I’m really happy about. However, it’s a very different process to getting an acting agent.
Tell us a little bit about the table read for Out Of Bounds, how did it go?
It was incredible! I’ve got a development commission with TriForce Productions and I’m also on the writers team. They informed me I had been picked to do a table read of my drama which I was absolutely buzzing about as I knew they would be a lot of industry there to watch it. I also found out that I had to do a different version of my drama - a version that was easier for the audience to listen to and shorter. I had to lose at least 15 pages which was extremely difficult and I only had 4 weeks to do it in as well! All my amendments done, new draft, ready to go and perform.
Very difficult but a great experience. It taught me how to shorten my script but still able keep the action, the story and the warmth without the ending, basically.
Lastly, what’s next for you in 2018 and beyond?
I’ve got some really interesting agents looking at my work. I’ve been lucky enough to have been approached by some production companies so I have some meetings with the representatives from them. I have other things in the pipeline which I can’t really speak about right now but I have some other great opportunities that will hopefully come to pass in the next few months - they are all writing-related.
Some of them could include me acting but I’m not quite sure yet. Some of them came off the back of the Out Of Bounds table read and others actually came about just before the reading - I’m quite happy about that and I’m very lucky.