Robert Kojder chats with Nanny star Anna Diop…
Writer/director Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny has been a hit on the festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The drama/horror hybrid weaving together the exploitation of a Senegalese immigrant nanny at the hands of an upper-class family and African folklore continues to pop up, recently having played at the Chicago International Film Festival. Star Anna Diop (also a regular on DC show Titans and having also worked with Jordan Peele on Us) was also in town for that screening also the recipient of the Rising Star Award. I had the opportunity to speak with Anna Diop in person about the film and honors, so please enjoy below:
How does it feel to receive the Rising Star Award, in addition to appearing as a special guest at the festival on behalf of this terrific film?
It’s such an honor! First of all, I love Chicago. Every time I come here, I have such a great time. I love the people, the energy, and the food. So when they told me that I was getting an award in the city, I was just really excited about that, and it’s an honor that the festival in and of itself is also very reputable.
One scene I can’t quite get out of my head is where Michelle Monaghan’s Amy notices that your character Aisha has been feeding Rose Senegalese food and knocks it to the floor, which came across with underlying racism to it, perhaps because of how overblown her reaction was. So I’m curious how you interpreted that. What it was like to act out that intense scene?
I think you’re right. There is underlying racism and cruelty there. She feels as if the food isn’t good enough for her child. Amy is a woman who exists in a world where she’s so centered, whether she’s aware of it or not, She’s a white woman that makes a certain income and looks a certain way and she’s just used to being centered in life. And so to have someone come in and to have her child gravitate towards something that isn’t hers and so different is a very uncomfortable, uneasy, unsettling thing for her. She’s very confronting at that moment, especially.
The follow-up where you get to let off steam into her is fantastic.
Was the last scene you two shot together as to, build up that anger and get to the breaking point?
[Thinking out loud] Was it the last scene? You know what, it was. You’re right. That was the last scene we shot together. And you’re right, we had a chance to plant the seeds and to start building a relationship and tension. Then it all blows up in that scene. I remember when we were filming it, Michelle said this is that moment in life where you meet somebody, and you’re all playing very nicely, to begin with, and then, you carry that on for as long as you can. And at some point, all of the masks and facades come off, and you’re just dirty and raw. This is that moment.
There’s plenty of traditional horror during the third act. But I would say the true horror comes from the way Aisha is taken for granted and exploited by this upper-class family. So do you agree that that’s where plenty of the true horror comes from?
I completely agree. From the first time I read the script, what resonated with me and confronted me so much wasn’t these moments of actual horror that Aisha is experiencing but the terror, confusion, loneliness, depression, and tremendous pain that comes from these decisions that she’s having to make, and to leave a place that’s no longer good for her, that’s no longer good for her child to come to a new place, to be alone and to have to navigate a world that isn’t kind to her. For me, that was always what stood out as the true horror of her experience.
The connection between you and Rose (Rose Decker) is also sweet and lovely. Did you speak to actual nannies or do anything specific to prepare for that aspect of the role?
My mother was a nanny. For years I watched her take care of other people’s children. These children adored my mother. They loved my mother. She has very warm energy around her. I always say she was born to be a grandmother. She just had grandma energy. So I grew up watching my mother take care of these children, see how they respond to her, and also try and understand why it is they love her so much, but it’s her strength, warmth, and being so unjudgmental. I’ve always recognized that in her, and I certainly did pull on that.
There’s also a deep sense of love from you towards Lamine, but that seems trickier to pull off since it’s all digital conversations. What was it like getting down that aspect? I’m presuming you never met Jahleel Kamara while shooting.
I did meet him! Oh my gosh, I hope everyone meets Jahleel. He’s such a bright, spunky kid. He walks in and has all this swag [mimics his swagger] and is so funny. I fell in love with him and used that adoration that I had for him when I was relegated to only speaking to him virtually. That longing is a small microcosm of what is going through Aisha. I read somewhere that this woman was talking about how she feels jealous that other people get to experience her child because she knows how awesome and beautiful her child is. And her child was going off to school, so she was jealous all these people get to hang out with her child all the time. That’s how Jahleel was. You want to be around him.
Going back to Senegalese food, do you have any favorite dishes that you can recommend our readers try out?
Absolutely! The national dish of Senegal is called Thieboudienne, and it’s actually what Rose is eating in the scenes. My mom was visiting at the time and made actual Thieboudienne. It’s chef’s kiss, you cannot go wrong. It’s very, very, very good!
Since you are from Senegal, I’m curious about how coming over to America further shaped playing this role. Is that something you drew on?
I did. I’ve understood loneliness quite intimately because when we left Senegal, we went to Houston, and we knew no one. It was such a stark contrast from being in a culture and a community where you’re surrounded by family all the time. To go into a place where there’s just no one around besides my mom and me. So I understand loneliness very well, missing family, longing, and the kind of depression really that comes from that and feeling alien like you just don’t fit in. Aisha is experiencing that as well as she’s trying to navigate this new land and being so far away from her son. I did draw emotionally from those aspects of myself and the character. But also the aspects of being Senegalese, of dressing a certain way, or speaking a certain way. Those are all things too that I was able to draw on.
There are depictions of African folklore, such as Mami Wata and Anansi the Spider. Did you have any prior connection to these stories? And is there any other African folk tale you would like to see implemented into a dramatic horror would be.
Oh my gosh, that’s such a brilliant question for Nikyatu. She is well-read about African folklore, and it’s something she’s very passionate about. I myself wasn’t actually that familiar with Anansi and Mami Wata, and I didn’t take too much time to do a lot of research on them because Aisha wasn’t familiar with them. So I allowed myself to learn about them as I should learn about them. They’re both symbols of resistance and rebellion and when they start invading Aisha’s reality, you can see the manifestation of her behavior change. Aisha becomes less apologetic. She becomes more demanding. As you mentioned earlier, she confronts Amy, and she stands up for herself. Those were themes that Nikyatu feels very strongly about, and she explored that through these spiritual symbols that have existed for a long time in West African mythology. I didn’t know much about it. I just allowed myself to discover it as Aisha did. It felt like the most honest thing.
What about Nikyatu Jusu’s vision for the film convinced you to come aboard the project?
Everything! She was centering a protagonist that we’re not used to seeing; a poor black undocumented immigrant woman. We’re not used to focusing our gaze on these individuals. That was very exciting for me. I’d been familiar with her work through Suicide by Sunlight, which is a stunning short that she did So I trusted her also as a storyteller to execute a film that was going to be really something special. Every single aspect of who she is and what she’s created excited me.
You got to work with Jordan Peele on Us. How did that help you grow as an actor?
It gave me a lot of confidence. Similar to Nikyatu, he’s also very open to your thoughts, ideas, and your perspective. That’s really rare. I don’t know if it’s cause I’ve been doing TV for so long, but you’re not very stifled in television as far as the freedom to kind of make your own choices about any given moment. So, yeah, it just gave me a lot of confidence and made me really excited to hopefully continue working with filmmakers that work that way.
I hope you get to continue working with filmmakers too. This is a great movie and I am happy I got to talk to you.
Same! It was nice to meet you.
Likewise, and thank you for your time!
Many thanks to Anna Diop for taking the time for this interview.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com