Her name may not ring a bell in this clime, but US-based Nigerian actress, Sope Aluko, has set the nation’s flag flying high in Hollywood with her acting skills. Recently, she landed a role in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe to play the role of Shaman in the upcoming, already commercially acclaimed comic movie, ‘Black Panther’.
Already making impressive strides in American television series like ‘Bloodline’, Law & Order SVU’ and having had recurring roles in ‘Army Wives’ and ‘Graceland’, Aluko is poised for greater heights in her acting career, as she is starring in a Marvel film scheduled for release later this year.
In an engaging chat with the movie star, she reveals a lot about her selection as Shaman, the representation of Africans in Hollywood stories, her challenges as a black woman in America and interest in Nollywood. She equally discusses marriage and family.
Enjoy the read.
I like to know what it felt like working on such project of this magnitude; how you think it would influence your career.
It feels phenomenal; it feels wonderful. We all knew it was something special when we were filming, but we did not realise it was going to be this big. And when I say ‘we’, I’m talking about cast and crew members; this to me is the first opportunity for Hollywood to try and showcase Africa in the best positive light. I believe Marvel has done a great job by doing that. I also like the fact that Marvel has honoured representation in ensuring that there was a 90% black cast and of which we had true Africans that were represented in roles.
To top it all, it’s basically a wonderful, magnificent project that I feel is able for me to honour my African and Nigerian heritage; which is why it’s so important for me to wear a Nigerian designer to the premiere, because I wanted them to know that is what I am coming here for – I’m here to represent Nigeria with a Nigerian designer, Deola Sagoe.
You said that you tried out the role for like four times and finally got to play a smaller part, how does it feel trying out and failing, what kept you going through those times?
I actually didn’t try out the same role four times. I tried out four different roles and it was basically… The way I looked at it then, it was kind of a little heartbreaking, because obviously they kept on calling me back. But looking back at it in retrospect, it was just the fact that casting really wanted me badly. They just kept on asking me to take different roles and what ended up happening was that the director obviously liked me so much that they created this role in effect for me. So, it was something that was totally of God’s doing. I am a Christian and I believe that everything happens according to His purpose and I am just glad that I got this role, and this is the role I get to show everybody.
Your role as Shaman is basically a medium between two worlds, the physical and the metaphysical. How does it feel playing such a character? Did you feel in charge and do you feel your role is a strong one that would have recurring appearances in subsequent installations of ‘Black Panther?’
Yes, I played the role of Shaman and it’s a critical role. Forest Whitaker plays King Shaman and it’s a very important role. If you have read any of the ‘Black Panther’ comics, you will understand the roles of the Shaman and you will absolutely connect. I don’t want to share anything, because I cannot, until you see the movie but it is… There is an opportunity for me to come back absolutely, so it’s all up to my Nigerian people to push for that. You know, it’s all about social media and obviously everybody wanting to see more of (my) character, and since I am representing my nation, Nigeria, I would love to come back in the next ‘Black Panther’ in my role. So, yes, it’s a very critical and wonderful role and I can’t wait for you to see it.
Black Panther is about an African prince who finally comes back to his homeland; what impact do you think this has to play on the African culture and how the Africans see themselves?
‘Black Panther’ is really about the African king. You know, from ‘Infinity War’ you see that Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) dies and then now this film is really about him going back to his African country and what kind of king is he going to be? What kind of legacy is he going to leave? And this basically mimics what we have in Africa culturally. We are faced with when kings and queens pass on, whoever is going to take over will obviously have their footprints… and how they are going to be ruler for that nation. What Marvel has done so well is being able to glean from different African countries; they’ve done their research and how we can put all that together in the form of a nation that is called Wakanda – a made-up nation – to showcase how things are done in Africa. So, it absolutely puts us on the map in terms of how we run our nations and what the implications are. I can’t wait for you to see the film, and then we will have further discussions because there are some messages there.
Working with the likes of Lupita Nyongo, an Oscar winning actress and Michael B. Jordan, one of the lead actors, did you feel any pressures to give in so much, or you just rolled along and gave what you could?
Yes, I worked with Lupita, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Forest Whitaker, an Oscar winning actor directly, and Angela Bassett. To me, it didn’t feel like I was working with celebrities or Oscar nominated actors with all those tags and things like that; obviously they are. It felt like I was working with my peers, because that’s essentially what they are. We are all actors and we are here to do our jobs, but beside that, it just felt very familiar, very kind and embracing environment. We all wanted to succeed and honour the African continent properly; so I think that movie was the focus versus any kind of ego. There was no ego whatsoever; it was really about us working together as a team.
Nollywood movies are now internationally recognised, would you want to come back to Nollywood now, or is it something you plan to do in the future? Also, when people talk about Nollywood in Hollywood, what kind of reaction do you get from them?
I would love to be part of Nollywood but I have never been approached. I have put it out there in many of my interviews; I absolutely love Nollywood movies. I live in Miami, and in Miami there is a huge Haitian population and they are all over Nollywood movies, so I’m a huge fan. I am very proud of my country that we have a huge field, entertainment universe of Nollywood, and I will like to be part of it in any way, shape or form.
You said when people talk about Nollywood, what’s the reaction? Living in Miami, the reaction is very positive. Nollywood stars are highly regarded, it’s all very positive and it’s something to be very proud of. So, I would love to see more of collaboration with Nollywood and Hollywood, and hopefully I think we are at that time; the whole entertainment industry is changing, we see more representation of different people and cultures. I am hoping that there will be some sort of merger.
You have a degree in Engineering and Master’s degree in Marketing, why did you choose acting and what factors drove you into it?
I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I know it’s the whole cliché, everybody says that, but I literally wanted to be an actor ever since I was born. My father was an ambassador, my mother went to school and she had brothers and sisters who were doctors. So, obviously, coming from a family like that, education was key. Approaching my parents that I wanted to be an actor? They didn’t feel that would sustain me in life. I was one of four girls and they felt I just needed to attach myself to something that was much more solid and that’s why I went on to do Engineering. Actually, they wanted me to be a doctor, but I said no, I don’t want to be a doctor, but I do like my sciences – Maths, Chemistry and I was good at it. So, I focused on being an engineer and during my second to final year in Engineering, I did this circumvent out to a company and had this experience of working in different departments and one of which was in marketing. This to me was the closest form of expressing myself in the world of acting; it was in commercial advertising. That element drew me and I felt since I couldn’t be an actor then I would somehow try and morph into this world, and at least try and get some kind of happiness and joy. So, that’s why I pursued a degree in Marketing and worked in corporate America for many years. Unfortunately, my parents both passed away, almost back-to-back, and during that time, I went through soul searching experience, but it never stopped my joy and passion for acting. Even when I was working in corporate America, people knew me, I was taking (acting) classes, I was still studying and basically feeding my craft and when both my parents passed away, I just felt it was time. I wanted to approach acting and see if it’s really something I will be good at. And that was what I did and I knew I had to literally jump. Steve Harvey talks about jumping and the parachute, I literally didn’t have no parachute, I had nothing, I just said I had to do it and then I will give myself whenever God tells me or remove the desire from me; which He never did.
Recently, Rose McGowan wrote a book, Brave, which centers around the Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of her. She is a white woman in Hollywood and you are a black woman, basically a minority. How do you relate to that story as a black woman who is also in Hollywood?
There’s been a lot going on right now in Hollywood about the #metoo movement and female sexual harassment in Hollywood, but it’s not really about… I think the #metoo movement isn’t really about Hollywood. Okay, that’s kind of bringing it more to light for everybody, but it’s really about women in all forms of profession that have been experiencing sexual harassment from some powerful male figures, and that’s really the message as opposed to just Hollywood. For me, as a black person, as a Nigerian, as an African, I cannot tell a lie; I have always experienced racism even from schooling in the UK, I’ve experienced harassments of all kinds. I can’t frame the question of just sexual harassment, I have to frame it from a perspective that I’ve always been accosted to prejudicial situations in my life and there are still some instances that happen in this profession as well, where as a woman, I’m probably not taken as seriously as my male counterparts. So, it’s good that we are finally opening the conversation about this, but we still have a long way to go and I always think of myself as a triple minority, because not only am I a woman, I’m also black, an African at that; then also I’m a mum and a wife and there are also prejudices about everything; being a certain weight, a certain look, a certain this, a certain that and one cannot afford to focus on that. I honestly try to focus on my faith in God to sustain me through.
You’ve travelled a lot and speak four languages, how often do you visit Nigeria?
Yes, I speak four languages. Actually, I picked that up from my father. My father was a diplomat, an ambassador; he represented Nigeria in various countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia and Tanzania, we’ve travelled different places. One of the things my father said to us was that ‘the best way of embracing a new culture, a new relationship of somebody from a different culture, environment or country is to try and learn just a few words from their language’. It disarms them, it disarms them to a kindness and the fact that you’ve honoured them by just making that extra effort; and that has always stayed with me. My father spoke over eight languages. I specialised in multicultural marketing and again that was God’s way of sprinkling his dust all over me. It meant that I had to understand the Hispanic culture and as a result I picked up the language. I had to make sure I took classes and learned Spanish, I’ve always used that even if I don’t have to learn a language completely, at least let me learn how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and just show that at least I’ve made an effort. I have used that train of thought as a mantra to always try and embrace different cultures and environments, and I guess that’s how it manifested in me, picking up languages.
Running a busy schedule and having a family of four, how do you cope with married life and acting?
I’m so glad you asked that question. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I do cope. To me, it’s very important to have a very happy marriage, with my husband and also my children. I have two boys, 15 and 12, and I am a very involved parent. In fact, sometimes I call myself ‘helicopter parent’ and I want to make sure that my children in this short time that I’m with them, that I have instilled some certain values. My husband and I have talked about this, and one of which was that we made sure we took them back home. The last time I was home was two Christmases ago. We took our entire family to my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday and it was a huge celebration. We want to try and do that more often so that my kids can grow up with their cousins and know family members, and also know their cultural heritage, that’s really important for family to be grounded in our culture.
Did you get married to a Nigerian?
Absolutely, I’m married to a Nigerian. My husband is full blown Nigerian, he grew up and studied here in the United States but he’s from Ilesha, and you can imagine, he’s an Ijesha man, so he is absolutely Nigerian. So, our children have got a strong foundation of the Nigerian heritage and Yoruba heritage to grow up with.
How did you meet the love of your life?
I will say it’s all God, we were meant to meet. Ironically, I came to visit my uncle who lived in Miami for holiday and I happened to go for a dinner party and my husband was there and we just met and fell in love. It was very quick, and within a month I guess, he kind of made his intentions very clear; he didn’t want me to go back to England from where I was visiting and I never went back, seriously. We got married. We have been happily married; we will be 21 years (as husband and wife) in August of this year. So, I’m blessed and grateful that I have a wonderful, kind, loving, giving and very supportive man for my career, and for everything that I do.