Sky Cheema is an actor and director who is an exciting new talent based in London and Birmingham in England. He has a BA in acting from the Performing Arts Program at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s, as well as experience studying at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. During his time in America, he also visited New York and Atlanta to gain more experience of the film industry. He has credits on previous shorts which include Olive, The Soldier’s Post and On In 15 and has skills across the art department, camera and electrical department and as an actor. He has now opened his own film studio GBS Studios and a production company Double Drama Productions. He has co-directed and starred in his debut film, The Sikh Soldier, which was funded by the BFI network.
You have said that you were a shy person growing up. Can you describe a bit about your upbringing, and were you interested in acting and filmmaking from an early age?
I would say that I was shy when I was growing up. I was the shy one in the class because I was the one who wasn’t like everyone else, embracing my roots and culture coming from an Indian heritage and background. I was the only south Asian in my class, so it was hard to connect with my peers at school. Honestly, the one thing that did take me out of my comfort zone was the fact that my mother wanted me to take part in after school activities. The one that caught her eye was speech and drama which was an after school class that introduced me to the world of performance to poetry. The class evolved each session to scenes of drama. That was my first introduction and interest in the performing arts, and during this time, I think my teachers noticed, as well as my parents, that I started to open up more as a child around others. When I was at home I was anything but shy, and a completely different person. I would pretend to be a T-Rex after watching Jurassic Park or imagine myself as Christopher Reeves’ Superman – and at times dress up as my favorite characters back then. I even used to make costumes or lightsabers out of what was lying around. I wanted to be creative and left in my own little world, making up my own elaborate stories, and I think this was due to my hyper-imagination and love for the movies I grew up with.
Can you tell us about the performances, and the actors, that made you want to become an actor yourself / continue to inspire you?
Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly was a big inspiration for me when I was growing up. Singin’ in the Rain is the earliest film that I can remember. I watched that with my grandad on those giant box TV’s with the VHS tape underneath. Watching that film at a very young age was incredible, the fact that Gene Kelly could do all those things – dance, sing, acrobatics. Actors of that generation were so multitalented. As a teen, Johnny Depp was someone to keep an eye on because he was such a great character actor. The fact that he could change his appearance and be a completely different person in any film was astonishing, and the fact he was willing to take the steps to change, making that less about him and more about the character, made me understand he wasn’t a typecast actor. He wanted to break the mold. I also admired the great Nicolas Cage. Because it’s Nicolas freaking Cage!
What led you to your decision to study acting at University of Wales Trinity Saint David?
They were the only University that let me into an acting program. It’s as simple as that, because I had very poor grades. I have no excuses for that but I was someone who wanted to explore and just do things as a teen. Looking back now, I would say my focus wasn’t there when it came to my grades, because I was really good at doing things, artistic things. I was good at art, design and technology, and drama class. I was moving around exploring my imagination creating things. Every other class I was just bored, sitting around either looking at a computer, looking at some kind of textbook, or a teacher on the white board. I wanted to have fun. And I got to express myself in my first meeting with the great Dr. Jim McCarthy. I learned a monologue over night before I met him, felt totally unprepared, and performed it. He told me to do it in different ways. After what was supposed to be a short audition / test to see if I got into the BA acting program, we literally spent 2 hours just chatting to each other about what I wanted. That’s something none of my teachers asked me at school, and for the first time I got treated like an adult. What was my aim? What did I want to achieve? Why do I want to train as an actor? And to this day, that is the longest and most memorable conversation I’ve ever had with a fantastic educator that saw me. I didn’t want to let him down. I owe my entry to that University because of that one man. He gave me a chance when no one else would let me in.
How would you describe your transition from theatre acting to film acting? What are some of the differences often overlooked between the two types of performances?
So my transition from theatre to film was a little short film that I made with my co-director, Joseph Archer called ON IN 15. What was great about it was the fact that that film is like a theatre performance, thanks to the fact it was a 15 minute film done with only one take. ON IN 15 is about a band that has to get on stage in 15 minutes even though its front man has been knocked out. It’s a 90’s based comedy, with great music, and now it has a drinking game. My role was front man Ryland within that film. This film introduced me to filmmaking and the comparison was as clear as day the more times we did it. A theatre performance is a trial by fire method and revolves around your nerves. Film is energy. In theatre you’re exposed, your full body is out in the open, it feels like you’re naked on stage and there is nowhere to hide. It really teaches you to get a grip and stick to your guns. With film it’s a different feeling, and that’s a key word, feeling. It’s not over the top for the guy at the back of the theatre, it’s condensed through expression and experience. You’re manifesting that character through you, being there and reacting in sync as one. It’s a different type of pressure too. Acting for screen is acting a thousand experiences in one lifetime for that one shot. You can see that when you watch the Hollywood greats in your favorite movie. It feels like you are watching someone else.
How was your experience studying abroad in the USA and how did this improve your film performance?
Personal opinion – you come across one of three people. The calm collective individuals who know what they are doing and don’t fuss. They are the ones who are professional in my opinion. They have mastered the art and conserve the energy for the scene. The ones who take it way too seriously, that they turn into a diva and think everything revolves around them. And finally the ones who don’t take it so seriously and just want to have a good time. This was my experience in the USA and because of this I like to keep the calm and fun aspect alive when on set. In terms of the theatre I saw, it’s not bad, but not great either. However they know film. I think watching as a runner was the best education I got when on set in the USA.
What motivated you to tell the story of The Sikh Soldier? Why is it such an important story?
The Sikh Soldier is an important story because it shows World War I from a different angle. There were also different people in the war like the Commonwealth nations. To hear these forgotten voices and experiences, is something that we should be proud to hear and watch. A big factor for me in the schools was not being taught the explanation of what people, like myself, did to help in the war effort. I didn’t get the opportunity to talk about what India did in World War I because my teacher said they didn’t do much. Which, as we know, isn’t true. If it wasn’t for India’s involvement, and quick deployment, we would have lost the war. But you know teachers, they have their own scripts to follow. Even though it’s called the world war, there are children that still get excluded from the event due to heritage. We don’t get to hear the other aspects of the war, so the inclusivity of people like me, gets missed out in education. This film is something that needed to be made because it’s promoting South Asians in films. I’ve felt for a while the south Asian community is being left out of the spotlight, especially Sikhs within the industry in the west. We come across as the Inbetweeners, outsiders, the threat in western media. There is rich history and stories that can be adapted within our culture. I feel this film, The Sikh Soldier, is definitely a start in the right direction.
In The Sikh Soldier, what emotions did you want to communicate through the character of Mohinder? How did you prepare for the role?
In terms of emotion, I wanted a strong representation as a Sikh, pride for heritage is something you can’t take away. As a Sikh we have many mighty warriors, both men and women in our culture. We understand our duty to protect and fight for injustice. However, for this character I wanted to show the ongoing battle of what was right and wrong for him, his doubt, his conflicting emotions of his upbringing, and his fear of an unachievable goal of autonomy and freedom. Unfortunately, this character can be seen in a Greek tragedy, all of his sacrifice, everything that he thought had meaning, his hopes, dreams, moments of happiness, can’t change the fate of what was to happen. Preparing for the role was a different aspect all together. We did so much research for this film, and I understand why quite a few people would quit, but we didn’t. We spoke to dozens of historians on this topic. And I’m talking experts from India, the UK and even North America as well. There’s so much history and knowledge waiting to be found on this topic, and it took Joseph and myself three years to research properly. It’s just incredible to see where it all expanded out to. We read loads of books, including Forgotten Voices of the Great War, which contains the handwritten letters that didn’t get sent back to India during WWI and WW2. I actually took a personal journey of looking back at my own heritage and family tree thanks to my family. For me, it was a honor to name my character after my grandfather Mohinder who was in WW2.
What was it like co-directing your debut film, The Sikh Soldier? What has the experience of stepping into directing been like?
Co-directing was honestly pretty easy. . . no I’m joking. . . it was a challenge. The biggest challenge we faced for this film was making it feel and look like it was 1914. We had to outsource material, build sets, manage the film through the toughest times I’ve ever faced, and in a lot of cases, others have had to face in their lifetime. Covid, strikes, protests and inflation. This film was, hands down, a challenge to get up and running, but through the uncertainty, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a community that believed in us, an institution that motivated us, and friends that drove us to make a film that got made under difficult circumstances. Thanks to this experience, I would say it’s given me confidence for more ambitious things as a director. I honestly feel like I’m ready to push boundaries more in this new role I’ve been placed in.
You have said that you helped build the trench location in The Sikh Soldier along with your family. Why was it so important that this environment and the rest of the film felt authentic?
Authenticity is necessary for a film like this, because It’s a huge topic that needs to be treated with care. If it isn’t seen properly, it would muddy up how people see things. That was exciting and exhausting work, but the sets and costumes were made in one month thanks to team Cheema. So my father (Balbir) was the production designer who built the sets and designed how they would look, using his knowledge of interior design and manufacturing. We made modular sets that could move around and we made them so they could be re-used for other scenes. The set was on wheels giving us the advantage of making space and saving time for the production dates. This design choice gave us more freedom and versatility and saved us for the 5 day shoot. Everything is in the trench’s: wood, sand bags, fake bricks, were all handcrafted and individually painted with nothing more than hard work. As for my mother (Satwant), her responsibility was costumes. Her focus for the film was to make the uniforms for the Sikh soldiers. We knew any of the British uniforms were easy to come across here in the UK. There was a lot of research involved with the right materials and colors to get the right color patent for the film, and she did talk to someone from the military in India to find the right fabric worn by the Sikh soldiers during this time period. After this, she got to work with her team to cut and stitch together all the uniforms. There are even behind the scenes pics of her tying the turbans onto the actors playing the Sikh soldiers. Working with them, and seeing their reactions of what I do for a living, really gave me a good laugh. Honestly the pride they will feel once they see the film is something I’m looking forward to. They really made this passion project a family project.
What was your experience of working with the BFI network on The Sikh Soldier? How did their funding help you make the film possible?
The experience of working with BFI was fantastic. The fact that they are the British film Institute was a very big deal. I could not have been more excited to hear that they were on board with the project. That call was exciting. I think a week on from that call I was also extremely nervous because I knew I had a lot on my plate, as well as being a co-director. Thankfully, the BFI were there to help educate and guide me and Joseph as young filmmakers. I’ve learned more about the film industry working with them, and the legal business side too. Their online classes helped during the pandemic and their public talks really have educated me as a new filmmaker. Thanks to their grant and their belief in the project, we got incredible actors for the project, and it opened new meetings and doors to working with fantastic individuals.
Earlier this year you opened your own film studio GBS Studios and a production company Double Drama Productions. What has that experience been like and what have the main challenges been?
I suppose the cat is out of the bag, but yes, I’m proud to say I own a studio before I’m 30. That’s something. I didn’t expect it to happen till I was 60 at least. So the main focus for the studio is making a hub for old and new filmmakers to feel comfortable and use new and existing sets within the west midland area. We believe in sustainability, we want the Sikh soldiers sets to be reused, and we want it to be an affordable price range as a mid-size studio. We offer set building in our studio and we even want to reach out to students in the area to help them use the space for education. We believe the challenge for any studio is the pricing for any production, and offering a place at affordable prices, can help individuals gain more confidence as filmmakers. Our biggest challenge right now is getting the name out there and reaching those new and independent filmmakers right now. In terms of the production company – Double Drama Productions – the focus will be to make stories that are impactful dramas, that takes on challenging scripts and makes them a reality. I want this to be a company that focuses on narrative storytelling at the heart of the company.
What’s next for you – both as an actor and as a director?
As an actor, to take on bigger roles. I’ve done quite a few shorts now and I think it’s time to take a step into feature films and TV once the strikes are over. I think I’m up for challenging myself, and to have more fun with the process. It’s a craft that I don’t want to leave behind, or get rusty. It’s something I was brought up on. As a director, I have a few projects I’m currently working on right now. I’m looking to make action, dramas, and thrillers. I’ve made it a challenge this year to write five feature films this year alone. I’m already down three – thanks to my schedule of writing at least one to two hours per night. One being a full length feature of The Sikh Solder is in progress.