If you’re not yet familiar with Deborah Ayorinde‘s work, you are about to be. At 31, her career spans more than a decade, but it was her roles in Netflix’s Luke Cage and 2017 box office hit Girls Trip that really put Ayorinde on the global map. Born in the English capital but raised in California, it’s glaringly obvious to see how the Nigerian actress brings her own idiosyncracies to the table in any project she embarks on. 2019 might have just begun, but Ayorinde is already winning viewers over with her performance as Becca Hays in the third season of HBO’s highly-acclaimed series True Detective — once again alongside Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali — and you’ll be seeing a lot more from her in the upcoming weeks. But, apart from Hays, this year will also see Ayorinde in the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet. As her first projects of the years start unveiling, we catch up with the artist to discuss how acting chose her, stepping behind the scene, colourism and her hopes to give black women across the diaspora a louder voice.
You started acting when you were just seven at drama school in London. Did you know there and then it was something you were going to pursue professionally?
I always say acting is something that chose me because that’s really how it was. I have really always known that I would be a professional artist. I was actually aware of that before drama school. How I was going to go about it and have the courage to really go for it was what I had to actually decide on, but it has always been in me.
Your passion for film goes beyond acting, having gained a BA in Film Production from Howard University. Why did you decide to take your love for the seventh art the academic route?
Because I knew that I eventually wanted to be in the position to create content and create stories. I wanted to be prepared to expand my career in that way when the time came. There are so many stories that I can’t wait to tell based on my experiences and the experiences of others. I think now is an amazing time for women, women of colour, and black women across the diaspora to be able to tell their own stories from their perspectives and I always knew I wanted to be a part of that movement. The way I also reasoned getting that specific degree in my head was that I’d also be in class with future directors, writers and producers so being able to network laterally that early in my career with my classmates who were also beginning their careers was a huge reason why I chose to get my degree in film production.
What did your degree teach you that has proven invaluable applied to your professional experience?
One of the most helpful things in getting that degree has taught me is to be an actor who looks at the big picture when I’m involved in or auditioning for a project. When I read scripts as an actor I read them with the producer, director, writer, cinematographer, etcetera in mind. It has been so helpful to understand, at least on a very basic level, the vision they might have in mind. It makes for a smoother collaboration. So when I come onto a project I’m able to approach it honouring my perspective of the story while also honouring their visions as well.
You also write and direct. Is this something you’d like to explore further professionally or are you settled in acting for the time being?
Absolutely. Sometimes, as an actor, the best role for you is the one you create yourself. So the answer to that is YES.
You are Nigerian-British but you’ve been in the States for a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from Britain to America whilst remaining faithful to your roots? Did you move to ultimately pursue The American Dream?
My mother moved my sisters and me to the states when we were kids to, in essence, pursue the American dream. She and my father separated and she wanted a change for herself and for us. The cards fell into place and, without much, she successfully moved herself, my sisters and I to San José, California. Adjusting was very hard for me at first. I had a very thick British accent and was very shy. I missed London. I missed my family and friends there. I remember at my first elementary school in America, I didn’t make any friends and would eat lunch in the bathroom. I would fake stomach aches so my mom would take me home from school. My mom caught on to my game and moved me to another elementary school closer to our apartment where I felt more comfortable and finally made friends. To fit in my sisters and I watched American television shows and taught ourselves to speak with American accents. For years I purposely spoke like the people around me so I wouldn’t stick out and feel like I felt at my first American elementary school. I later learned to embrace being different. Now, although my accent is naturally American, sometimes my British accent comes out in conversations depending on who I’m talking to. Now, I let it hang out. I don’t care. It’s me. It’s who I am. I’ve since learned to be bold and embrace every part of myself and to not pressure myself to assimilate as much as I did as many others who move to America often do as well. My parents are really responsible for keeping us connected to our Nigerian roots no matter where we lived. My dad taught me about our lineage, Nigerian history and kept us abreast of current events in Nigeria. My mom is a living, breathing example of the beauty and richness of my culture. She has tribal marks on her face and I’ve always been proud to tell people who don’t know about the story behind her marks. I’ve also been proud to tell others about the history of them from my father and maternal grandmother. Between my mother, father, and maternal grandmother and the community of aunts and uncles (some blood-related and some not) who had hands in raising me as well, I learned to be proud to be Nigerian no matter what space I’m in.
In the past, you’ve openly discussed colourism, especially in the US, and your journey to self-love. If you could give advice to your younger self and others, what would you say?
I would tell myself that my true power lies in me unapologetically being myself. I would also make sure my younger self was fully aware of how terribly ignorant and void of self love anyone who ascribes to a colourist, racist, and any kind of prejudice point of view truly is. People like that should’ve never had any say on how I saw myself. I know that now but I wish I realized that sooner.
Have you ever had any moments of doubts in pursuing acting? What would you tell to someone going through this?
Yes! Plenty of them! God and the people who love me got me through those moments. I would tell someone going through those moments where they’re pursuing their dreams but are experiencing doubts to embrace their journey and the fact that everyone’s journey is different. I believe everyone’s journey is different because everyone needs to go through different lessons that will serve them and are tailored made for where they’re going in life. So I would tell that person to embrace their journey and their lessons, and to not look over at someone else and wish you had their journey no matter how tempting that thought might be. Everyone who has worked hard and achieved anything significant in life has had a journey that got tough at times; so it’s important that each person embraces their own so when they get to where they’re striving to go they’ll be fully developed and ready to do what they’re called to do. If you skip steps or stay in steps for longer than you’re supposed to you won’t be ready when the time comes. So get a great support system of people who are rooting for you without ulterior motives, GENUINELY support and celebrate the success of others, buckle down, learn as much as you can learn about your craft, stay teachable, pay your dues, and do what you’re supposed to do.
Although your professional career spans more than 10 years, your roles in Netflix’s Luke Cage and Girls Trip really did put you on the global map. How has this experience been? Any pros and cons of the before and after?
It feels amazing to achieve new levels in my career. I’m finally in a place where I can choose roles that I’m passionate about and I don’t take that blessing lightly at all. I’m so grateful that my roles in Luke Cage and Girls Trip (and all the other roles I’ve done) have been so different from one another because I know how easy it is for women, women of colour especially, to be put in boxes. So I’m glad that I keep getting opportunity after opportunity that stretches me and allows me to show what I can do. That is actually the biggest pro. The biggest con is people, and I haven’t experienced many of them, who don’t separate my character from who I am as a person and say things on my social media as if I am the person I played in Girls Trip or Luke Cage and not Deborah. It doesn’t affect me that deeply. I don’t lose any sleep over it but there are times where I think about how nuts it is.
On Girls Trip, you played the antagonist. How was it stepping into the “mean girl” shoes? Would you do it again?
It’s fun to play the villain sometimes. I definitely want to play more heroes than villains but it’s fun to switch it up. I would love to play villains that are complex and multi-dimensional. When I play villains I want people to be confused about which side they’re really on. Those are the types of villains I want to play.
Looking into the future, you’re part of the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet. What can you tell us about your character?
I can’t say much but I can say that my character represents so many. When you see this film you will understand what I mean when I say so many people will be able to relate to her and her decisions.
How’s it been working in this film, giving its social importance?
It was a dream. While we were filming, I knew that we were creating something truly special. I knew that before the first day of filming, but I don’t think the impact that this film will have has fully hit me yet. I’m really grateful and excited for the rest of the world to see it.
Since mid-January, we’ve also seen you in season three of HBO’s crime series True Detective, alongside Mahershala Ali. How’s that been?
That also was awesome. Mahershala and the whole team were so great to work with. He’s someone I really look up to so it was great to work with him again and reuniting after Luke Cage.
Previous seasons of the series have had massive success and expectations are quite high for season three. Did you feel the pressure going into filming? What has been the best part of joining a production of such scale?
To be honest, I didn’t really feel the pressure of trying to live up to previous seasons. I knew going into it that I would be stretched and that I would need to come with my A-game working with such a talented group of actors but that was really the only pressure I felt. That pressure quickly went away when I started filming and had such great chemistry with my cast mates. The best part of joining a production of such scale has been the supporters. They’re really passionate about this show. I like that energy. It’s really motivating.
You play Becca Hayes. Can you tell us a little bit about her and how you prepared for the role?
She is very free-spirited. She’s free-spirited in a way that I think many, including her family members, wish they could be. She explores. The world is her oyster and I can certainly relate to that. Preparing to play her was hard in a sense that it required an openness and a vulnerability that took self-work on my behalf in order to tap into. Once I had that down, playing her flowed.
You’ve virtually done anything from comedy to drama, is there any facet or genre of acting you’d like to explore further in the near future?
I would love to do some action and adventure in the near future. I would love to play a superhero. That’s a goal of mine.
You have a lot of projects in the pipeline, so lot’s to look forward to but what are you most excited about 2019 — personally, professionally or otherwise?
2019 is going to be an amazing year. I can just feel it. It’s already shaping up to be amazing professionally with the projects I have releasing and the projects I can’t disclose yet that I’m working on. It’s also going to be amazing personally. I’m happy and have great people around me. I’m just in a great space.