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

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