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

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past