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On what feels like day 4563 in the Big Brother house, talking to Pippa Bennett-Warner over the phone daydreaming about sipping a £12 cocktail and even tipping a waiter is a moment of pure escapism from our mutual self-isolation. “Oh my god, I’m getting hot,” Pippa laughs as we discuss this imaginary night out OUT.
It’s a very different vibe to that of Pippa’s latest project, Gangs of London, the new Sky drama that doesn’t just pack a punch, it delivers a knock-out blow. As international gangs compete for power after the head of London’s most powerful crime family is found murdered, Pippa’s character Shannon, alongside her co-star Peaky Blinders‘ Joe Cole, is at the heart of the action.
Here, Pippa talks powerfully about the lessons from her own family, how Gangs of London made her realise she has a maternal side and her refreshing approach to competition…
Gangs of London is brutal, dark and moody. For you watching it and being part of it, what part of the brutality of it shocked you the most?
I literally winced and went, “Ooh, sh*t” is the massive fight in the pub and you see this guy’s neck crack. It’s so brutal, but it’s so genius and it hooks you in. I was hooked and I had to kind of watch it really objectively because I don’t normally watch anything, I’m in, but that opening shot of London upside down is, to me, just so good.
Why do you not like watching yourself back?
Well, I just find it really weird, uncomfortable and awkward. I’m never, in the past, never been happy with what I’ve done, or I’ve thought, “Oh, I thought I was doing something totally different.” Some people say that they like to watch themselves because they can learn from it. But I also feel like I wouldn’t want to take an element of one character and sort of apply it to something else, even though, of course, there are elements of me in everything because it’s me.
What did this character maybe teach you about yourself?
The little boy who played my son taught me about maternal vibes, because he’s so brilliant and also, working with children, there are sort of pros and cons, but he’s such a little star. He is. He’s wonderful. I guess to kind of have a little dude who helps me, I guess, develop Shannon and maybe just realising that I’ve got more maternal instincts than I thought because I don’t have my own children yet. And also, she’s just really cool, Shannon. She’s together. She knows what she’s doing. But also, there’s more to her than meets the eye, which is the really interesting twist which kind of comes in later on in the show.
If you could sit her down and she was on the phone to you right now and she was like, “Hiya, babes,” and you could give her one piece of advice, what would you want to give her, or tell her?
That’s a really good question! I’d probably say something like, “It’s okay to be open. It’s okay to engage with your emotions!”
Everyone struggles with being open at times. How is your own relationship with openness?
I think I’m pretty open. I’ve been raised to be very open and emotionally connected, I guess. I’d say I’m sort of an introverted extrovert, but with some things I don’t get shy, but then I do get cripplingly shy for other things. I’m a sort of a funny mix of open and then being quite closed because I get embarrassed.
What do you get embarrassed by?
I get embarrassed at sort of photo shoots because I’m not the sort of person that’s sort of like, “Ooh, look at me. Aren’t I so great?” It just doesn’t sit well with me, so I always feel a bit embarrassed. I did a shoot a few weeks ago and I’ve kind of had to sort of create some sort of alter-ego to kind of get through it. And Instagram terrifies me – it’s just not my comfort zone.
The essential idea of this show is that family is all powerful and it’s all important. In your own life, how imperative has family been to you in establishing your own identity?
There was never a conversation in the home about not being able to do something because of being black. There was never a dialogue. That was a really good thing because my sister and I were raised to be really comfortable in our skin and be like, “Yeah, we’re black and it’s brilliant. We wouldn’t want to be anything else.”
I was brought up in sort of Oxfordshire / Buckinghamshire borders and we went to this school in the country. This was like early ’90s. We were probably one of the only black families in the area. My mum has the story that she was walking into this school. It was my sister’s first day, and she had me in her arms and holding my sister’s hand. And she said she walked into the country school and all the women turned and looked at her. She was like, “I’ve got two choices here. I either just sort of smile and keep my head down, or I just put my head up and know that I belong here as much as they do.” She had my sister, she had me, and she just put her head high and walked through the hallway of this school. And, of course, they were all looking. Then two years later she was head of the PTA.
She’s quite a character. But it’s those kinds of things that have sort of been instilled in us that you can do whatever you like. So, there wasn’t ever an issue of sort of feeling less than anyone. There was a nice balance of you’ve got to work hard, but anything that you want is achievable and it won’t not be achievable because you’re black, which I think is a really healthy mindset.
That’s such an incredible gift to have been given…
Mm-hmm (affirmative). My parents are really solid. My Mum’s Jamaican and my dad’s from an island called St. Kitts and they both came over when they were sort of 11 years old. They’re just awesome and really normal and chilled and supportive.
Growing up with that instilled in you, was there a time when you came into the entertainment industry and released there were hurdles you had to overcome in terms of prejudice?
Oh my god, for sure. I think when I came to RADA, that was an interesting experience. I mean, I really loved it and I wouldn’t have changed my time there in the world, but leaving RADA, you know, there were certain things that I couldn’t play because I was black. The industry was in a different place as to where it is now. The colourblind casting in period dramas wasn’t really happening in 2010, so it was a different atmosphere in the industry. The thing is I’m very chilled and very zen about work, and I always have been. I’ve been like, “Look, if it’s my job then it’s already decided that it’s my job. And if it’s not my job, the right people got the job and it’s cool.” It’s fine because I can’t be bothered to be stressed out about not getting jobs because so much of the time in this industry, you’re being told no. So, you just sort of have to get with it and go, “Okay, well no is more in the equation than yes.” I realised when I left RADA that I can carve my own path, which I guess I sort of did.
For you, what is the most pressing issue Gangs of London addresses?
Well, I guess, one of the main things that I love about the show is how diverse is. Anybody can watch the show and see a version of themselves, I think that is so important and so valuable. So many shows don’t do that enough. They created a world, created London that actually feels like London. It embodies London. Everybody is there, the international actors are speaking in their mother tongue, you know? If somebody that had never been to London wanted to know what London was like, I mean, forgo all the gang stuff but if they wanted to see the sort of melting pot and the richness and the diversity in our city, you could put them in front of Gangs of London and they’d go, “Ah, cool. Okay.” Everybody’s here and it’s great.
With lockdown are you taking some time to not feel pressure to be driven all the time?
There’s a sort of compare and despair that I don’t engage with. I have this metaphor of sitting in a train carriage and just looking forward, because if you start looking outside, that’s when you start to drive yourself crazy. You don’t gain anything from looking outside, you just gain anxiety. I’m very kind of like, “Look, if the job is yours, you’ll get it. If it’s not yours, someone else will get it.” And also, sometimes I’ll get sent something and I’ll be like, “Oh no, I would be terrible at this. Somebody else will be great,” and I’ll pass on the script. I think I’ve sort of had to train myself to be quite mellow. I can’t really engage with competition in acting because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.