Industry star Myha’la Herrold: ‘Black women have to be undeniable otherwise we’ll be overlooked’

The breakout star of horny banker drama Industry is a refreshing force, both on and offscreen. She gets frank with Ellie Harrison about imposter syndrome, shooting with Lena Dunham and being up for sex scenes

t was a huge deal for me,” says Industry star Myha’la Herrold, recalling the first time she ever left the US. “Going out of the country hadn’t really been an option for my family. It’s expensive as s***.”  

The California native’s first stamp on her brand new passport was for the UK, when she flew over to do a screen test for the hit HBO and BBC co-production in 2019. She got the part, and has subsequently become one of the most exciting newcomers of 2020 with a lead role in the one of the year’s cleverest and most addictive series.  

Industry follows a group of horny, hard-working and even harder-playing graduates competing for a job at an investment bank. It’s been described as a millennial Mad Men, a cross between Skins and Billions and, so said the director of its first episode, Lena Dunham, Melrose Place meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Written by two former bankers, Londoners Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, the show is a damning portrait of how the industry chews up and spits out its young employees, and a thrilling, sometimes unsettling, insight into the hedonism a City salary can afford.

At the centre of it all is the astute, sharp-elbowed Harper Stern, played by Herrold with a spiky brittleness. As a biracial American from humble beginnings, Harper is a fish out of water at Pierpoint & Co, an office full of white, wealthy Oxbridge grads who think she is a token hire. Herrold – who is, by contrast, warm and breezy company – strongly relates to Harper’s misplaced self-doubt.  

“What I imagined her feeling, because it’s what I feel, is that the world has never been for us,” says the 24-year-old over Zoom from New York, where she lives with her pet cat, Salad. “We feel imposter syndrome from day one. My entire life has been fighting the feeling that I don’t belong here, even though I know I’m qualified. Harper comes in so hardened, so obviously overcompensating and way too sure of herself because we, as Black women, have to enter these rooms like there is nobody better than us for the job. We have to be undeniable otherwise we’ll be overlooked.”

In episode four of Industry, Harper tells Robert, a white male grad played by the brilliant Harry Lawtey: “I’m not allowed to make any mistakes. People like you are allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes are a privilege.” Herrold – who seems to vibrate through the screen every time she appears, her voice cracking at just the right moment, her eyes betraying just the right amount of inner-torment – says that line “hit close to home”.  “As Black women, we know that there’s an expectation of us to fail in some way,” she says. “So we have to work a thousand times harder all the time. I’ve noticed that if a peer of mine makes a mistake, there are all kinds of excuses made for them, which is f***ing irritating because I’m over here working so hard. Failure is not an option for me.”

In the show, her character’s desperation to secure a job at the bank and her fear of failure manifests as arrogance and a coldness towards her contemporaries. Like in Succession, none of the characters in Industry are just “nice”. Harper’s line manager Daria (Skins alum Freya Mavor) is the personification of passive aggression. Gus (David Jonsson) is a pompous Etonian. Yasmin (Marisa Abela) is a nepotistic rich girl. Robert (Lawtey) is a womaniser. But somehow we’re rooting for all of them. “There’s no such thing as a perfect person,” says Herrold. “Especially not in this environment.”

Herrold, an only child, was raised by her mother in San Jose, California. The first time she acted was in the local community theatre, aged six, in a show with top hats, canes and tap shoes. She studied drama and musical theatre at Carnegie Mellon and had always thought she’d end up on Broadway, having starred in a tour of The Book of Mormon aged 21. After graduating in 2018, Herrold landed small roles in the indie film Premature and an episode of Amazon’s Modern Love opposite Julia Garner, but she was getting a lot of rejections, too.  

“At the time I had a shaved head,” she says. “I was super bald and super androgynous and very vibey. I thought, ‘Ugh, okay, maybe I’m going to have to sacrifice myself a little bit and make myself more palatable for this industry’.” She had “a bit of a crisis”, started growing her hair out, and then the Industry creators came knocking.  

The series stands out in a TV landscape that is saturated with shows that revolve around teenagers and people in their mid-late 20s, but is crying out for dramas about that chaotic in-between stage. The central characters in Industry are all living in those precious years when they are finally earning their own money and have autonomy, but are not yet lumped with grown-up responsibilities.