Famous In Love stars Bella Thorne as Paige Townsen, a young, wide-eyed actor forced to navigate her new life in Hollywood after landing a big-time movie role on a whim. For much of its cast, it's a familiar story: Pepi Sonuga, who plays pop star Tangey Turner, moved from Nigeria to Los Angeles at only 11 to pursue her on-screen dreams. Sonuga tells Bustle that the story struck her because it reflected many of her own experiences confronting the often daunting film and television industry.
"[Paige] is sort of a newbie in this world, and I feel a lot like a newbie. You’ll see her struggle with things I struggled with in Hollywood. For example, 'How do I make myself be known [without] losing who I am?'" she says. "I’m definitely Paige in this situation, trying to remain grounded and humble but also have my voice."
And it's true: Sonuga has been acting for years, but in many ways, she's still trying to find her way. You may recognize her from shows such as General Hospital, The Fosters, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, but fittingly, Famous In Love is her biggest gig yet. Her character was initially drawn as a veteran singer who pulls back from the spotlight, but after she was cast in the part, the writers shifted her story arc. Sonuga describes Tangey as a feisty, opinionated woman who's fighting to regain creative control while clinging to a newfound romance.
"You’ll really get to see her fight for what she believes in and try to become more adult while keeping her fanbase intact," Sonuga says. "Before her image was poppy, very fun, teenybopper songs. She was very successful. But now I think she’s trying to show her heart, and I think that comes in because she’s fallen in love and she wants to make music that reflects that. When people fall in love, they really become truthful, and when you’re truthful, no one can stop you from getting your truth heard."
While Sonuga may relate most to Paige, there's plenty of Tangey in her, too. She recalls that when she was in high school, she thought she was going to be a pop star, so she wrote and produced her own studio album. "It was really great until I realized that it wasn’t very good," she says, laughing. "So I'm totally living vicariously through her."
On a more personal level, though, Sonuga and Tangey are both determined, independent women who refuse to let anyone else define them. "Until very recently, I’ve always been told what and who I should be and what I can’t do and the limitations that come with being a black actress in Hollywood," Sonuga says. "It’s definitely been an uphill battle of being like, 'No, that’s not what I’m gonna be. Yes it worked for this person, yes it worked for that person, but this is me, and that’s what I’m gonna do.' So I definitely relate to how headstrong Tangey is. She’s a very smart girl. She knows what’s best for her and she listens to her gut."
And from the sounds of it, so does Sonuga. When Famous In Love premieres on April 18, she'll be proving all those people who told her she "can't" very, very wrong.