Judi Shekoni: From EastEnders to Twilight

The actress has struggled to crack Hollywood, so she’s thrilled to have finally got her big break in the new Twilight film, she tells Guy Adams

It’s an old Hollywood cliché: the up-and-coming British soap star who emigrates to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune only to end up waiting tables, pulling pints, and schlepping from one unsuccessful audition to another until their work visa runs out and they fly home, economy class, with their tail firmly between their legs.

Judi Shekoni certainly knows this drill. For the past six years, the former EastEnders actress has been its living embodiment: scraping  together a living on the grizzled underbelly of Tinseltown, while her twenties drifted by and career doors seemed to open a crack, only to be slammed in her face.

She kept plugging away, though. And on 12 November, Shekoni will get her just rewards. That’s when she will stride a red carpet outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, to a chorus of high-pitched screams and a wall of flashlights, for the world premiere of Breaking Dawn: Part 2, the fifth and final instalment in the stupendously successful Twilight franchise.

To call it a big break would represent an understatement on a par with calling Robert Pattinson, the movie’s leading man, an eligible bachelor. And at her local café in West Hollywood the other day, Shekoni could barely contain her excitement about her impending fame. “As an actor, it’s like winning some sort of a golden ticket,” she declared.  “I feel like I got the last chocolate bar.”

Shekoni, who is 30, plays Zafrina, the leader of a feral tribe of vampires from the Amazon basin, which joins the film’s young protagonists, Bella and Edward, in an internecine battle against a coalition of rivals. During the course of the movie, she develops a close relationship with the couple’s fictional daughter, Renesmee. High drama ensues.

She landed the role in a quaintly-parochial fashion: “I saw it advertised in the industry press, and sent emails to my agent and manager saying, ‘Will you submit me for it?’ But by that stage, they were kind-of ignoring me, so didn’t even reply. So the next day, I decided to fire them both.” She telephoned a manager she’d worked with previously. “He made some calls and managed to get me in the room. And after one audition,  I booked the part.”

It was a much-needed turnaround for Shekoni, who hails originally from Gorton in Manchester, and got her start in the entertainment business as a teenage fashion model on daytime TV show This Morning, which filmed in Liverpool in the late 1990s.

After a string of minor TV jobs, she landed a recurring role in EastEnders as Precious, the troubled girlfriend of a gangster called Angel, who was played by the musician turned actor, Goldie. They wrote her character out of the show in 2002, so she kept herself afloat by starring in barrel-scraping reality TV shows, including Celebrity Love Island in which, she recalls: “I didn’t make out with anyone and I didn’t take my top off, so I was obviously the first contestant the public voted off.”

Shekoni moved to Los Angeles in her early twenties, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Martine McCutcheon. But she found that Hollywood can be a heartbreaking nut to crack. She made TV pilots that never aired, took roles in indy movies that went straight to DVD, and booked movie roles that ended up on the cutting room floor.

In 2008, she suffered the cruellest setback of all, after the makers of American Idol flew her to Fiji for three months to front a new reality show called When Women Ruled the World. “Twelve episodes were filmed,” she says. “It was going to go on Fox straight after Idol. And then someone  decided to cancel the show.” Not a single episode was ever broadcast.

Not long afterwards, Shekoni decided to quit entertainment. To pay her rent, while in Los Angeles, she had founded a couple of businesses: a firm selling hair extensions online, and a consultancy helping actors relocate to Hollywood called Make it America. Since they were working out better than her movie career, she enrolled at Westminster University in London to study for an MBA.

“I told everyone that acting’s for losers and I needed to get an education,” she says. “But something kept telling me to give it one last chance. In the end, I lasted a month on the MBA and then decided to quit, come back to LA, and try again.” She returned in late 2009 and a few months later booked the role in Breaking Dawn.

“I’d actually read the Twilight books and seen the movies, and I was a fan. So I’d done my Christian Bale research,” she says. “I was a bit of a Twi-hard.” Within hours of her casting being announced, she boasted 21,000 followers on Twitter and had been forced to change her name on Facebook.

The movie’s fanbase can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the franchise’s spectacular financial success Breaking Dawn: Part 1, which is also directed by Bill Condon, made $700m, against a budget of $110m, lends a certain freedom to the film-making process. “You know this film’s going to get to number one,” Shekoni says. “You’re not wondering, ‘Will it get released?’ You know it’s going to make money whatever.”

On the other hand, the glare of publicity has proven tricky for the movie’s biggest stars. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were at the centre of the summer’s most publicised celebrity split. Though reports suggest they have reconciled, the headline-prone couple must now embark on an awkward  global PR tour. “The production company will hopefully have a handle on it,” says Shekoni, who last saw the couple at the wrap party in Squamish, just outside Vancouver.

For now, she’s more concerned about booking her next movie role. “I’m not sat here with my Oscar, or going home to a house in Malibu. So hold off on the rags-to-riches story,” she warns. “But at least I’ve made a start.”

‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn  (Part Two)’ opens on 16 November

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star