Humans fall under a great many categories, good, bad, fun, boring, cool, nerd… For most of my life, my choices and interests have led to me being categorised as a nerd. It should come as no surprise then, that the announcement of Marvel’s Black Panther felt like a pivotal moment in my life because it meant that a comic book that I loved as a child was being brought to life. I am a nerd – for all intents and purposes.
The crase has been going on for months, and I thought it had reached fever pitch. That was, until I got an email from a lady informing me of Sope Aluko, an actress who stars in Black Panther and whom she’d like for me to interview. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to get insider information. I googled Sope and realised that her resume was colourful. She has worked with an incredible actors such as Sam Rockwell, Dame Judi Dench, Sterling K. Brown to name a few. She was no small fry and her role in Black Panther is under such security that I know she’s no small fry in this movie either.
Over Skype on a late weekday evening (She was in Atlanta, I, in Lagos) she was warm and candid and funny and above all, she was so excited for the film she was promoting. Not often do I speak with actors who believe this much in their product. It was infectious. I thought I was excited for Black Panther before; this may have pushed me over the edge.
– SONIA IRABOR
You went to two drama schools, which is something I find really interesting as getting through one is quite a feat. Was it a strategic choice going to both RADA and LAMDA?
To be honest, LAMDA is where I did the most work from the dramatic side of things. RADA is where I wanted to do dance. At the time, I wanted to do dance, I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that I wanted to do something in the arts. I did a couple of classes in RADA, but is where I did voice training, action and movement, Shakespeare work. I didn’t go to the school per se. I took classes. I told my parents I wanted to be an actor and their reaction pretty much said “you’re in boarding school for a reason. You’re going to do this and do that.” That’s why I did this underground. I did the classes so I could go through drama school. I did my undergraduate in Nottingham University, studied Engineering but all the while pursuing acting underground. I worked in London for a while. Then I moved to the U.S and worked in corporate America for a while. I gave up corporate America in 2006 after my dad died. I decided to pursue and see if I’m any good at it. That’s the story of my acting career in a nutshell.
It’s quite interesting that you went left in terms of studying Engineering, taking acting classes, then working in corporate….
It’s so bizarre. I have this left brain – right brain thing. I love math… I have two sons and they say “Mom, you know algebra?” I respond ” I know, I love it.” I did want to pursue Engineering at one point because I think I was trying to please my family and my parents. I did my A-Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry because I was good at it. I pursued that, but I had this artistic side of me that really wanted to flourish. When I did my M.B.A, I specialised in Marketing. I think that’s the link to that world [of acting].
Leaving the structure and security of the corporate world is kind of like free falling, isn’t it? What was the most frightening part of putting corporate America behind you?
At that point, I had lost my parents back-to-back. I lost my dad during the tail end of my corporate career. I was in an executive position, earning lots of money. My mom was diagnosed with cancer after we buried my father. So I spent two and a half years taking care of her. Sometime around then, I left and I told myself “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do corporate anymore. I’m done, I just need to follow something else.” I’m very spiritual and I really had a moment. I said, “you know what God, if I don’t try, I will never know.” Luckily, I’m married, so my husband supported me for a bit. I made the decsion and told him afterwards. I thought it was going to be a hobby and it ended up being a career. I just felt that was what made me happy. That was my joy. I had to pursue it. I learned from the ground up. I did everything from working as background to see how everything worked. I worked on my resume and tried to get as much experience as possible. I grew up in the theater and wanted to pursue TV and film. You’re right, it was a leap of faith. It still is. It’s training yourself. You don’t have a steady paycheck, so you have to be lean at all times. It’s also a humbling experience. I’m really glad for all the experiences in my journey. That’s just helped make me a better actor
With the sudden rise in political awareness and gender equality in terms of the Time’s Up and the #MeToo movements, there have been a lot of talk about this being a great time ot be a women. But as black women, there is still the issue of not being able to see yourself on screen and having someone speak to you..
Especially with our colour of skin, my colour of skin. I am dark-skinned. For so long, I would see lighter colour skinned [women] on TV. I would got to auditions and they would also specifically say, “oh, we’re looking for someone with lighter coloured skin, ethnically ambiguous.” Growing up, I was the darkest of four sisters. I remember when I went to someone’s house with my sisters and they thought I was the servant. I remember thinking “I am one of them too.” I had so many situations like that, I’m sure everyone has their stories too. All of the actors I knew were lighter, with porcelain skin. Viola was the first one who was the opposite. This is the time for people like us. That was ten years ago when Doubt came out. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of different actors and storylines being whitewashed. But I think there’s also a consciousness now.
In terms of Hollywood, do you feel the cause of gender equality includes women of color as it should?
I think it depends. Obviously Hollywood is run by some of the big movie houses, Paramount, Warner Bros, etc. Marvel is refreshing and that is one of the reasons I am excited to be on Black Panther. Marvel is all about inclusion and representation. I am very strategic in the things that I do and I choose. I want to align myself with production companies that appreciate [people of colour]. We are still seeing issues that are happening. Not just with African Americans or blacks, we see it with Asians and Latinos as well. I think the conversation has started. Nobody can avoid it anymore. Gone are the days when my agent would say that “they’re not really looking for African Americans for this role.” and I would say “I don’t care, submit me and see if they’ll see me. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” Now you’re seeing roles saying “All ethnicities.” I auditioned to be the mother of a white character. I asked “they do know I’m black, right?”. She’ll say “Yeah, they do.” Now they’re thinking outside the box. They ended up casting a white person. But the fact that the conversations are happening now is really refreshing.
Ok, so Black Panther! Congratulations, ticket pre-sale numbers are record-breaking. This is the third record that has been broken by Black Panther and the movie is not out yet. There have been lots of jokes by Nigerians about wearing aso-ebi to the cinemas to watch it. Everyone’s treating it like a massive continent-wide celebration. Does this level of interest frighten or excite you?
Both. I want it so much to succeed. It’s super exciting. 90% of the cast is black. No other production I’ve ever known or heard has done all the research to be authentically “African”. The languages spoken are authentic. Something as simple as the sand was researched. You know how we have that red mud sand, they made sure they got the exact same sand as in South Africa. Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer, she is wonderful, incredible, super talented, she should win an Oscar. She clothed everybody including background from specific tribes and areas of the African continent. This woman has even gone to the backstreets of Nigeria to see tailors in action. She’s gone to South Africa. She knows her stuff. This is just to give you the level of detail prior to starting production. They wanted to do it right. This is a testament to Ryan Coogler, the director. He is fantastic, he was the right person for the job. He wanted to honour everything appropriately and correctly, right down to the dialects and accents. He deliberately researched and made sure it was executed properly.
When I auditioned for Ryan, I’m so used to calling myself “So-pee”. It’s actually pronounced “Sho-peh” as you know. [Ryan] asked, “Is that the way it’s pronounced?”. I say “No, but you can’t pronounce it.” He says “try me”. We actually went back and forth for about five minutes. He wanted to get it right. When I got on set everyday, he greeted me “Sope” and made sure everyone called me by my proper name. Something as little as that made me feel like a queen. I walked in everyday as a proud African and Nigerian woman. It was all from the leadership. I shared that experience with my husband and he says “that’s a really good guy.”
You’re a mother to young Nigerian-British-African American kids. This is such a pivotal moment and turn in cinema when this predominantly black cast can not only fill seats but break records before the movie comes out. How important is this to you as a mother and to your kids as young black children?
You don’t even understand. It’s phenomenal. Prior to booking Black Panther, I was on hold for another Marvel film. It crushed me when I didn’t book that role. When Black Panther came out, I couldn’t say anything to my kids, from the audition. I auditioned for four roles before I got selected. I know this was managed by God. Each role was going and I knew production was starting soon. All of a sudden, I got a call to audition for another role. This role was so minor. This is a testament to all actors. Do not feel too big for a role. It was one line. Literally one line. I went there. I just told my agent, “I need to see Ryan Coogler, he was on my vision board.” I had been a fan of his work since Fruitvale Station. I got a completely different role five or six weeks. My agent is like “They must have made up a completely new role for you.” The fact that I had to keep this from my family, there were so many NDAs. I didn’t tell them until production began. [My kids] started tearing up. I couldn’t tell them what my role was until much later. They started screaming, praising God. Then they had to keep it a secret until a certain time. Your question is so important. It’s important for them to see themselves as kings and queens. I have two boys, a fifteen and a twelve year old. One of the things that worries me the most is the world they’re growing in from black-on-black crime to police brutality. As a mother, I am scared.This was such an important gift as a time like this. That their continent is the BOMB. Everyone thinks of Africa as the poor kids and the flies flying around. The fact that Marvel created this world where Africa is the richest continent is incredible. Even as a Nigerian, with the 419 and lots more, you get this chip on your shoulder. People ask where are you from and you reply “West Africa”. Now it’s easy to say Nigeria because we’ve got Yvonne Orji, John Boyega, David Oyelowo, Uzo Azuba and lots more.
Do you see yourself collaborating with established or upcoming filmmakers, actors or actresses in Nollywood?
Absolutely. I love Nollywood. I am a huge Nollywood. I love where we’ve taken it. It’s like the pride that Indians have with Bollywood. I live in Miami and L.A . Mostly, my family lives in Miami. There’s a huge Haitian community in Miami. I’ll walk into the store, they’ll ask “Do you have this film? Do you watch Genevieve (Nnaji)?” I have to tell them, “Listen, you know more about this than I do and I’m Nigerian.” There’s this huge presence here. It makes me so proud that we’ve accomplished this as well. I’m absolutely open to opportunities. In this day and age, where we’re writing and creating our own stories My dream is to work with a Nigerian director, producer and production. I want Nollywood to come to Hollywood and have acclaim here as well. I believe the time is here and now, especially now. I’m pumped for that.
What other upcoming projects do you have that we should look out for in the new year?
I’m actually in the middle of shooting another Marvel film. I’m so ecstatic about that. That’s just another wonderful blessing. I also shot a guest star role in a show on Starz Network called Counterpart. That’s actually a British role. Most of the actors on it are British because it takes place in the U.K and Germany. I am going to be in LA, pilot season is starting out. I am going to hit the ground running this year. Hopefully, I’ll have better news further down the line for you.
I am ending this interview even more excited about Black Panther. I can’t wait to see it.
I hope everybody loves it. I just want everyone to walk out of the theatres thinking “Yep, that’s it. That’s how we roll.” I just want a feeling of pride. I’m going to be at the premiere at the end of this month. I’ve insisted that I want a Nigerian designer. I want to be representing Nigeria.