Amita Suman: ‘My first visit to a supermarket in the UK felt like time-travelling to another era’

Despite being only 25, Suman has made a big name for herself on the small screen - Amie Milne
Despite being only 25, Suman has made a big name for herself on the small screen - Amie Milne

It's hard to believe that the glossy Chanel-clad star in front of me was once overawed by a visit to Sainsbury's. But when Amita Suman first landed in Britain from a Nepali village as a young child, it was the bright lights of an English supermarket that blew her mind. 'The first time I saw a road I was excited, but it was the shops that really thrilled me,' she says. 'It was like time-travelling to another era - rows upon rows of food, as if I'd rushed 100 years into the future. I absolutely loved it.'

Suman's life reads like the plot of a rather far-fetched novel. Today this remarkably beautiful young woman sits opposite me in an east London photography studio, wearing a short floral dress, carrying a Chanel bag and chatting away in accentless English. But she was born in a small rural village in southern Nepal and grew up with no education, no indoor plumbing and no electricity, until her family started a new life in Brighton when she was seven.

White gold and diamond earrings, from £1,750, white gold and diamond ring, £4,225, white gold ring, £2,300, white gold and diamond bracelet, £10,250, beige gold and diamond bracelet, £10,000, and poplin jumpsuit, £4,070 - Amie Milne
White gold and diamond earrings, from £1,750, white gold and diamond ring, £4,225, white gold ring, £2,300, white gold and diamond bracelet, £10,250, beige gold and diamond bracelet, £10,000, and poplin jumpsuit, £4,070 - Amie Milne

'I was born in a village with barely any people,' she says. 'My story is so rare that I shouldn't even be here. We lived in a clay house. We used hay for insulation, grew our own food, and ate seeds and drank milk to get through the winter. There were no tractors, no motorbikes - nothing. I was never supposed to get an education or do anything except get married, so the fact that I'm here doing what I love and sharing it with so many people... I have to pinch myself and think, is this really, really happening?'

It really is. Despite being only 25, Suman has made a big name for herself on the small screen. Her most significant role to date has been as Inej Ghafa in the Netflix series Shadow and Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo's bestselling fantasy novels and sometimes described as 'Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones'. Famed for her knife skills, the dagger-wielding, hair-flipping Inej is a spy for the Dregs gang. Competition for the part was stiff, but Suman - who has spent much of 2022 filming season two - has made it her own.

Ironically, she was always worried about being typecast because of her background. 'I assumed that my only route in was through my heritage - playing the typical Muslim girl with an arranged marriage, or a doctor or stuff like that.' However, after leaving the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in Wandsworth, south London, in 2018, she appeared in Doctor Who and then landed the role of Naya, a tavern keeper in The Outpost, yet another fantasy drama. 'I love fantasy,' she says. 'And I love period drama. Both always seemed to be largely shut off to people who looked like me, but that is clearly changing.'

Beige gold earrings, and beige gold and diamond earring, from £1,050 - Amie Milne
Beige gold earrings, and beige gold and diamond earring, from £1,050 - Amie Milne

Suman has worried that her skin colour might prevent her from winning the one role she has always coveted: Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. But a recent move towards colour-blind casting has persuaded her that times are changing enough for her to perhaps one day play Jane Austen's spirited heroine. 'Bridgerton was the turning point for me,' she says. 'It's phenomenal, and when I saw the South Asian storyline, my heart was just so full of happiness. I am so excited about how popular it's been and where it's going to go from there. Hopefully Shonda Rhimes [Bridgerton's producer] and I will work together one day; that would be absolutely amazing. Of course there's been a shift - but I want more.'

There is a hunger to Suman's ambition that explains how the daughter of immigrants has risen to fame in an industry that is often seen as being dominated by Old Etonians and Harrovians and the children of famous actors. She tells me about arriving in Brighton unable to speak English, and of the loneliness that stemmed from being seen as fundamentally different from her classmates. 'I was so introverted and so insecure and so aware of how different I was that I couldn't talk to people, so I found it really hard to make friends. I didn't speak the language very well. I didn't know anything about British culture,' she says.

White gold, beige gold and diamond ear cuff, £4,125, white gold and diamond earring, £5,800 for pair, white gold, yellow gold and diamond ring, £9,500, and glittered tulle top, £3,215 - Amie Milne
White gold, beige gold and diamond ear cuff, £4,125, white gold and diamond earring, £5,800 for pair, white gold, yellow gold and diamond ring, £9,500, and glittered tulle top, £3,215 - Amie Milne

Drama classes provided a respite from all this, allowing her to take on a role that wasn't herself. 'I was besotted straight away,' she says. 'I must have been about 10, and every time I was playing a bloody tree or a fricking paper bag, but suddenly it wasn't about me or where I had come from, but about whatever I was pretending to be at that moment. There was a freedom to it that I found intoxicating, and I knew that instead of university I wanted to apply to drama school.'

She credits her tutors with helping someone with no prior understanding of the industry to break into such a competitive field. Looking back, she can see how naive she was: she assumed that sheer talent would be enough, but at drama school she learnt that success was largely determined by agents and casting directors, by how you look, and by what the trend is for actors at any given moment. She clearly had the right face and the right skills - because she was an almost overnight success. 'Even four years ago, the industry was a very different place for young brown Asian actresses,' she says. 'I was never expecting to get my first lead role when I did. I thought maybe when I was 29 or 30 or something like that, but not 21.'

Working with Chanel was another happy surprise. Suman is now a jewellery ambassador for the illustrious Parisian house and has worked on a number of campaigns with them. 'I mean, it's wonderful that they're really interested. But I just didn't think I was at that level yet to capture the attention of one of the most iconic brands - and a brand that's been such a powerhouse from the very beginning. I was in shock. I am in shock.'

Gold, white gold and diamond earrings, £5,800, white gold and diamond necklace, £4,725, and cotton tweed jacket, £6,735 - Amie Milne
Gold, white gold and diamond earrings, £5,800, white gold and diamond necklace, £4,725, and cotton tweed jacket, £6,735 - Amie Milne

Suman currently lives with her family on the south coast but is planning to move to London. As for what her parents make of their daughter's world of haute couture and global television stardom, there was no need for me to ask: her mother came to the Telegraph shoot in east London. Small and smiley and dressed in a long printed skirt and puffer jacket, she looks like her daughter while bearing the markers of having lived an entirely different life. She didn't speak much, but I watched her eyes light up as Amita walked into the room ready for her close-up, wearing gold jewellery and a bandeau top, and again as the actor stopped to chat to every single person working on the shoot, before breaking into her native tongue to talk to her mother.

To ensure more young girls like her realise their ambitions, Suman is now working with Unicef. She hopes to travel to Nepal with the charity next year. It will be her first return visit since she left the country at the age of seven. 'I think back on my childhood in Nepal as being a very happy time, filled with colour and fun,' she says. 'But I know it's a difficult place to be ambitious. Now, I don't know any Nepalese actors in the industry at all. I'm the first in my family. I've had a lot of influence from British culture and American TV and film, and it's made me forward-thinking, but at the same time, not having anyone to relate to with my heritage has been a bit confusing.'

When I suggest that perhaps she might be a person to inspire a new generation of young actors, she beams. 'Well, that would be a dream,' she says. For Suman, dreams seem to have a happy habit of coming true.

Jewellery and clothing throughout all Chanel Fine Jewellery and Chanel

Hair: Pål Berdahl, using Oribe. Make-up: Victoria Bond, using Chanel Tone-On-Tone, No 1 de Chanel Essence and Body Serum-In-Mist. 

Nails: Edyta Betka at @agencyofsubstance, using Chanel Le Vernis in 959 Infinité and Chanel La Crème Main