Amita Suman’s jet-black hair must be almost a metre long. It reaches way past her hips and flies behind her when she walks. It gets trapped in doors. Her family, she says, are constantly complaining about finding strands of the stuff all over their house. Has she ever had it cut? “Oh my God, yes, of course,” she says. “I used to have a bob. And a pixie cut!” – until her sister’s long hair garnered so many compliments when they were teenagers that Suman decided to grow hers too. And when Amita Suman decides to do something, it tends to happen in spectacular style.
“Luck”, she calls it, when it comes to the way things work out for her. “I’m honestly a really lucky person.” Or maybe it’s karma, because she’s a big believer in that too. She was born in southern Nepal and carries the philosophical aspects of that culture, which she says are with her every day, everywhere. But whatever you call it, something’s working. Because Suman’s star just keeps on rising.
At 24 and not long out of drama school, Suman has made her name as Inej Ghafa, one of the dynamic leads in Netflix hit fantasy series Shadow and Bone (garnering almost half a million followers on Instagram in the process). Ghafa is a one-off. She’s a fierce spy and an acrobat who has a killer way with knives, but that’s not why Suman loves her. “I think it’s her ability to still see the good inside, still see the good in life,” she says. “She’s had so many bad things happen to her and it can be very easy to become bitter in that situation. I’m not saying that after being traumatised you have to be bitter, but she just sees the positive things in life and hasn’t lost her faith.”
Suman’s one of those people who is good with other people. In the studio in Whitechapel, where the 10+ cover shoot is taking place, she’s the friendly, magnetic personality in the middle of the room, unfailingly polite and cheery, even when blinking away tears in the make-up seat as she adjusts to the odd sensation of wearing false eyelashes for the very first time. When she puts out her hand to show Robbie, the manicurist, her long, strong nails (this girl has healthy keratin levels) she apologises for a tremor. “I’ve had four cups of coffee already today!” It’s 9.30am. Her appetites are big. She claims to have eaten “at least ten cakes a day” while on the set of Shadow and Bone, which she’ll be returning to in January to film the next series.
Last night, she flew in from France where she says she’s been “literally eating cheese and bread every single day” while on holiday with her boyfriend – in his family’s chateau, no less. Nice work. Is he a prince? “He looks like a prince,” she shoots back. “He looks like a knight in shining armour.” Alas, the prince must stay anonymous, she won’t tell me his name, but it looks like love to me.
When Suman first read the script for Shadow and Bone she felt a connection to Ghafa that was unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. She was growing accustomed to reading slightly depressing storylines and characters for brown-skinned girls. “I just found, time and time again, that I was going for generic, stereotypical roles and I was thinking, maybe this is going to be my future? I was really disheartened by that.”
Ghafa was different. When she realised that the character had been forcibly moved “from a completely different place” and forced to start again, something clicked. “I don’t mean this in a big-headed way,” she says, “but it just felt wrong for somebody else to do this. It felt like it had to be me.”
There’s a reason. It’s hard to believe on meeting this garrulous 24-year-old who’s been acting on British TV since her teens – hello, Casualty; hello, Doctor Who – but Suman was born in a tiny, remote village in Nepal with no electricity and buildings made from clay. “It took ten minutes to walk from one side of the village to the other,” she says. “We could see the mountains when it was clear and we played outside in the monsoon season. Just played in the river or the soil, with the fish and the vegetables. An Amazon delivery would never get to my village. I tried to find it on Google Maps a few years ago and I couldn’t.”
Aged seven, Suman’s tiny world was turned upside down when she was taken away from the innocence and isolation of this little community as the family followed her father to a new job in the UK. They rocked up in Brighton. Remote Nepalese village to one of Britain’s liveliest, most progressive cities? Cue: huge cultural and personal shock for Suman and her entire family.
“It was a massive change,” Suman says. “We didn’t know anything. Being on a plane for the first time… I’d never even seen a plane flying. We started primary school and didn’t know the language, so we had to learn everything from scratch.” Everything. “It was so cold, I hated the weather. And I remember not liking the food; I missed the spices.” Going to the supermarket was an experience she will never forget – and a chastening one to hear about. “Just seeing a wall of food where you could choose anything. We grew our own food in Nepal. We had rice and dal every single day – lunch and dinner. If we wanted sugar, that was a luxury and we would take a bag of rice in exchange for a small packet of sugar. Here, it’s cheaper to eat sugar than it is to eat fresh organic vegetables. And now I’m addicted to sugar. I’m a sugar monster!”
Strangely, though, the acting bug didn’t come to her as a result of arriving in the UK and suddenly discovering Hollyoaks. It had already been acquired back in Nepal, when she was only three. During a festival in the village, she saw a black and white television for the first time. “I was completely baffled and I genuinely thought, oh my God, there are people living in this box. I went up to the TV and was like, ‘No, this is magic.’ I saw this completely different new world and I prayed to God that day and said, ‘That is freedom and that is the opportunity I want.’”
Her primary school may have been tough for a seven-year-old immigrant, but it was there that she found that opportunity. “I was so shy. I was so insecure with who I was at the time. There was a lot of stigma about being Asian, so even if people would ask me for my name, I would get very defensive,” she says. “I guess it was my insecurity because we were in a very difficult situation.” But one day she had a drama lesson and was given a script and told to play a character. “I did it and I was just a completely different person. I was a person that could talk to people. I was everything I wasn’t. It was a way of exploring who you could be and realising that this was a safe space where you could do that. And through that I realised maybe I’ve got the talent for it.”
It was determination, though, that got her to drama school (ALRA – the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts – in Wandsworth, though she had three offers from different colleges), despite her parents having strong doubts. A part in Casualty led to an agent, then to small roles in Ackley Bridge and Doctor Who. And then her breakthrough, Shadow and Bone, a place where she not only met her “sisters”, co-stars Jessie Mei Lei and Sujaya Dasgupta – “Oh my goodness, you have no idea. We are so close.” – but where she also met her great love, Inej Ghafa, a role she is so excited to reprise in 2022 that you can almost feel the buzz of her excitement at the prospect. “You know, I was not expecting a part like this, on a platform like this, for another 10 years,” she says. But then that’s the luck of Amita Suman.
10+ Issue 4 – BACK TO LIFE – is out now. Order your copy here.
CHANEL: FANTASY WORLD
Photographer Rob Rusling
Fashion Editor Sophia Neophitou
Text Kate Finnigan
Hair Massimo Di Stefano
Make-up Andrew Gallimore at Of Substance using Chanel
Talent Amita Suman, care of Joel Keating at United
Nail technician Robbie Tomkins at Premier
Photographer’s assistants Stef Ebelewicz and Adam Roberts
Fashion assistants Brittany Newman and Francesca Ciavarella
Retouching Studio Rusling
Digital operator Matt Aland
Production Fabio Mayor at Mayor Productions
All clothing throughout Chanel Cruise 2021/22 Collection. Eyeglasses available at Chanel.com