Posted 27 July 2023
Interview by Creative Lives in Progress

“Follow your intuition”: Multimedia storyteller Noah Lei Underwood on landing work that resonates with you

Sheffield-based Noah Lei Underwood never originally anticipated working in the screen industries. Knowing that they wanted to pursue a creative career, they managed to secure an internship with the Birmingham-based Fierce Festival during the final year of their undergraduate degree. While organising a project featuring LGBTQIA+ creatives from across the Commonwealth, their desire to “tell stories that remain unheard” was solidified. Despite a lack of formal experience, their passion and honesty led to landing a production gig at Oxygen Film through a diversity scheme funded by Screen Industries Growth Network. Here, Noah tells us about their drag performance act Them Fatale, and how following your intuition can help you seek out authentic work that resonates with you.

Noah Lei Underwood as Them Fatale for their act, This Exotic Body

Noah Lei Underwood

Job Title

Multimedia Storyteller and Artist



Selected clients

Fierce Festival, Oxygen Films, Leeds 2023, Transforming Film

Place of Study

BA Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Birmingham (2017-2022)

Immersive Digital Accelerator, XR Stories x BRiGHTBLACK (November 2022 - February 2023)

Fundamentals of Virtual Production, SIGN x LightForge (January-July 2023)

Directors Training, Film Hub North x National Film and Television School (July 2023)

Previous Employment

Life Model, Anomaly Life Drawing (March-Present)
Production Designer, Props & Stylist, Sea Glass, Vidaveo
(March-Apr 2023)


Social Media

Them Fatale Instagram

What I do

How would you describe what you do as a multimedia storyteller and artist?
Put simply, I tell stories. Currently I’d boil my practice down to three central tenets: screen, performance and immersive.

I have amassed experience on film sets by working as a production designer on small-budget shorts. I’m interested in writing and directing my own projects, and am in the process of developing a couple of ideas. As well as this, I work in drag and performance art as drag creature, Them Fatale. This has involved considerable conceptual work and research, in addition to teaching myself to sew and create period garments.

“As a multimedia storyteller and artist, I’d boil my practice down to three central tenets: screen, performance and immersive.”

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Noah’s debut as Them Fatale at Wharf Chambers in Leeds

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I’m also throwing myself into immersive and interactive storytelling, learning about Unreal Engine and virtual production on a funded course. As part of this process, I have been working on a personal project experimenting with blurring the lines between storytelling through traditional film and the more interactive elements of game design.

At the heart of my practice is my passion for diversity and representation in media, as well as audience-creator interactions, telling and connecting through stories, and doing so in new and interesting ways. I want to challenge and disrupt the existing homogeneity of our largely white, neurotypical, able-bodied, and heteronormative media landscape. I want to create queerer and more accessible fictional spaces for marginalised audiences, thus expanding the mainstream imagination.

“At the heart of my practice is my passion for diversity and representation in media, as well as audience-creator interactions.”

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Noah on the set of Electric Love with lead actor, Nat Farah

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I’m interested in striking and distinctive visual language, utilising lighting, colour and production design in order to craft a highly sensory world within which each story unfolds. I’m a lover of traditional period pieces, returning regularly to Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma however, I think that history merits revisiting and reimagining through allohistorical [alternate history] or revisionist means, particularly its role as intentional narrative. I thoroughly enjoy the usage of surrealist elements paired with heavily character-driven storytelling, as seen in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks.

I’m also currently spending a lot of time with both Dario Argento and Guadagnino’s renditions of Suspiria; I think that genre storytelling, particularly horror, offers such an expansive vehicle for communicating queer and intersectional realities.

I’ve just finished shooting my first short film as a writer-director with my friends, cinematographer Jacob Ceris Gandy and composer Nat Blakesley, which responds to many of these influences; I plan to submit it to the BFI Film Academy’s DIY Filmmaking Challenge, as well as some upcoming film festivals.

“I think that genre storytelling, particularly horror, offers such an expansive vehicle for communicating queer and intersectional realities.”

One of the sets on short film Sea Glass

More influences include theorists such as Sara Ahmed and her work in queer phenomenology or Mary Douglas and her theory on dirt as “matter out of place”, which lends a lot to my understanding of how people other intersectional identities.

I’m incredibly inspired by artists like FKA Twigs, who places such an emphasis on learning and movement in her creative practice, whether with her pole dancing or wushu; her album Magdalene is one of my favourites. Rina Sawayama is also endlessly inspiring to me as a fellow queer British East Asian artist who is so bold with her creative choices. I still remember how visceral my reaction was when I heard and felt heard by her song Dynasty for the first time; her album Sawayama was a statement about identity and diasporic belonging, and I love it for that.

I can’t not mention Christine and the Queens, whose approach to his projects is clearly primarily informed by the creative demands of the art rather than industry expectations. The multimedia nature of his and Twigs’ work is particularly appealing to me, as I firmly believe that some ideas stretch beyond singular mediums. Seeing him live at the Southbank Centre in London was an incredibly moving experience for me and resonated deeply with me as a trans person.

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
Honestly, probably my drag.

I’ve loved getting to have creative ownership over a project, and see it through from concept to live performance. It’s been so rewarding to create and conceive of a world through sound, costume and spoken word.

But more importantly, it’s been an opportunity for me to reflect upon and process challenging emotions surrounding discrimination, micro-aggressions and insecurities with regards to my mixed heritage. Doing so through a performative medium has felt both healing and freeing, bringing with it an unexpected emotional release with each new performance.

I didn’t anticipate the power of not only accepting but unabashedly claiming the entirety of my identity and self on stage in front of a room full of strangers.

“It has been so rewarding to create and conceive of a world through sound, costume and spoken word when doing drag.”

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
It takes no training at all to create. The tricky part is securing yourself an audience, or a microphone for that matter. I firmly believe that had it not been for diversity schemes such as my six-month placement with Oxygen Films, funded by the Screen Industries Growth Network, I wouldn’t be in the film industry at all.

I think that the trick is to figure out how whatever experience or training you do have can be applicable to your creative pursuits. For instance, my training in interdisciplinary thinking across my undergraduate degree has been invaluable in informing the way that I consider nuances and disparities in storytelling capacity.

With regards to industry-specific skills and knowledge, having been thrown in at the deep end of art directing on low-budget shorts, I do think that you acquire a great deal of experience and knowledge whilst on the job.

“It takes no training at all to create. The tricky part is securing yourself an audience, or a microphone for that matter.”

Noah on a field trip as part of their Virtual Production course

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
It’s been an interesting one, partially because I never anticipated working in the screen industries. I knew that a creative career appealed to me and secured an internship with transgressive live arts festival, Fierce, in Birmingham during the final year of my undergraduate degree.

I’ve thrown myself into seeking out and seizing opportunities since then, but I’ve definitely found it tricky, with jobs being sporadic and rejection an integral part of the process. I wouldn’t say that I adopted a particularly tactical approach but followed my intuition more than anything else.

By pursuing opportunities that resonated with my values and interests, I feel as though I’ve arrived somewhere I hadn’t expected. By remaining open to novel experiences and pushing through my own insecurities, I’ve happened across skills that I didn’t know I had and begun to develop a clearer picture of my own creative ambitions and goals.

“By pursuing opportunities that resonated with my values and interests, I feel as though I’ve arrived somewhere I hadn’t expected.”

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Behind the scenes of Sea Glass

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How did you land the job at Oxygen Films?
I was anticipating taking up a place at the University of Sheffield studying a masters in creative writing, when an opportunity for a six-month placement as a creative producer at a non-profit production company came into my inbox.

The role immediately jumped out to me, as an opportunity to gain experience in an industry I had previously considered entirely inaccessible. What’s more, it was with a non-profit working on a queer dystopian sci-fi about sex work and identity.

I applied on a bit of a whim, with the mindset that I didn’t really have anything to lose, I landed an interview and approached it honestly. I was candid about my lack of previous experience but honest about my ambition to tell stories that remain unheard, pointing to my previous work with Fierce on Healing Gardens of Bab, which was an artistic response to ideas around empire and queerness.

It sounds really cliché but particularly with creative work, my advice really is to approach interviews by being yourself; I ended up talking about my dissertation, which I’d done on Harry Potter fan fiction and queer phenomenology. If you go in being yourself, whatever the outcome you can walk away knowing that if it’s the right opportunity for you, in a place where your identity isn’t a factor in their decision-making, things will work out.

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Pinterest is perhaps one of the most useful tools for me. As a visual thinker, I use it to think through and flesh out new ideas and concepts, whether that’s just establishing a feeling or tone that I want to communicate or sparking ideas for story elements.

Figuring out my work style and how and where I work best has been incredibly important in ensuring that I am as productive as possible. The process of creating my access rider [a document detailing access needs] has forced me to think about the things that I might need to request from employers to make work more accessible for me.

I’ve been reading Writing For Games by Hannah Nicklin, which has been really helpful, informing the way that I’m approaching my project for my course from a storytelling standpoint, in addition to fleshing out my understanding of the games design process and production pipeline.

“As a visual thinker, I use Pinterest to think through and flesh out new ideas and concepts.”

Noah’s Pinterest boards

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I think that the main thing that I’ve learned is. that, particularly when starting out, it isn’t feasible to support yourself solely through creative projects, unless you’ve got a regular income and contractually scheduled hours.

Supplementary work has been invaluable for me, I’m currently working part-time at a local restaurant. I work there as an events assistant, when they hire out the space — we’ll be hosting events throughout Sheffield DocFest, which is coming up. I also have regular weekly shifts, usually at weekends. I’m able to fit this work around my creative projects, and am lucky enough to have an understanding manager, who is willing to accommodate.

I’ve had a handful of other more administrative work gigs as well, like working as a project assistant for producer Cat Marshall, helping to support the delivery of her and training consultant Nim Ralph’s training on how to better support trans professionals in the industry, geared towards producers and production companies. I helped to develop their website for launch of their new training and consultancy business, Transforming Film.

I also occasionally life model for Anomaly Life Drawing classes, which I find extremely meditative. I’d been meaning to get into modelling for life drawing for a while, having attended classes throughout uni as an artist, and it’s a lovely way to unplug and sit with myself and my body for a couple of hours a month.

Lead actor of Electric Love, Nat Farah, on the set of Electric Love

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
I think that the thing that has rung true from many conversations I’ve had with others is to pursue authenticity. Seek out those with the same core values as you and you’re likely to create meaningful work together.

Know your rights and what you’re entitled to and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, particularly in an industry that can be as exploitative as film. Try to unlearn the notion that you’re “lucky” to be offered a job or position, this is a mindset that employers will take advantage of to underpay or not pay you at all.

Also, if you don’t have an access rider and find creative work inaccessible in anyway, create one.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
To anyone else looking to freelance creatively, in whatever capacity, I would first ensure that you’re in a position where you have some form of regular income, flexible if possible, which is easier said than done given the employment landscape that we’re currently in.

But turn your focus first to pursuing a more secure financial position before beginning to create. In any free time that you do have, when you’re able, take advantage of free trials of software, funded training courses, etc.

Another thing I would recommend is researching grants and bursaries in your region, especially if you aren’t based in London. Screenskills offer bursaries year-round, which can be put towards driving lessons (invaluable if you’re looking
to work in film), short courses and training, software and hardware.

Seek out and pursue the opportunities that most excite you, and don’t be afraid to go for something your imposter syndrome thinks you’re not quite experienced enough for.

Interview by Creative Lives in Progress