BGB Actor Portrait: YETIDE BADAKI
Yetide Badaki came to class as a gorgeous, deep feeling, super smart woman, with a brilliant light and an enigmatic darkness, both powerful but untapped. Hidden in some ways. I remember seeing her for the first time on camera; I gasped. Somehow the lens caught what I felt. Deep magic.
Over time her talent and her power emerged more and more, as her belief in herself grew and as she did the work of self-realization. It was clear that she was/is one of those magical souls that would shine once the role and the opportunity presented itself. And it did. She is one of the stars of American Gods, the much anticipated Neil Gaiman series on Starz, adapted from his book. Yetide plays Bilquis, the Goddess of Love.
And that’s what she is, a Goddess of love. She brings that power into her work and into the lives of those she touches. It’s wild and stunning and spirited. We are so excited for Yetide, and deeply appreciative to know and work with her. Here’s more from Yetide… goddess of many things.
Interview with Yetide:
What was your moment that told you that acting was your calling? What was your journey to acting?
Growing up in Nigeria, my fondest memories are of elders telling stories by the fire. As a child I was lifted and elevated by these tales as they were expertly woven by people whom I loved and respected. I remember experiencing that spark of discovery as my father, first son of the first wife of the chief of Kabba, would transport all those seated by the fire to ancient lands and magical realities. I knew that I wanted to do what these elders did so beautifully: my 6 year old self had no clear idea how that would unfold but I knew that I needed to be a part of that Magic.
Not long after this recognition, I had my first audition and as I went up on stage to try out for one of the Lost Boys in our elementary school’s rendition of Peter Pan. I again felt that spark and understood as only a 6 year old could that the magic by the fire and the lore of the stage were inextricably connected.
And in that, what is your “why?” What about acting lifts, soothes, satisfies, challenges? What does acting do for your life? Why do you pursue it even though it’s not always easy?
I truly believe that acting, performance, art in general is something that is a basic need for human survival. Things that we instinctually know but might not quite understand are brought to the forefront through our art. I see it as a means to challenge our limiting beliefs and as a tool to encourage our humanity to evolve and grow. I perform because I believe that is my way of entering the conversation of who we are, where we came from, and the endless possibilities of where we can go.
It is not always easy but the fact is, it is not about me, it is about something larger that continually finds ways to be voiced. I think artists are just more sensitive to that beautiful noise, and even though we may sometimes try, we cannot ignore it. Acting helps me make sense of our gorgeously, intricate existence.
What happened to you, your acting, your career when you got American Gods? What changed? What stayed the same? Anything surprising? And what brought you to the place where you were ready for the job?
I think as actors we believe that when a job is booked, all fears of inadequacy fly out the window, that somehow everything becomes right in the world and there is never again a problem to be faced. While some big things have changed, what is surprising is that things very much feel the same. Even more surprising is that though I feel the same, many view me through the lens of this new experience. Surprisingly or maybe unsurprisingly, right before booking the job, I had experienced something that had really shaken my core.
This event made me question my view of the world, my place in it, and my centering beliefs. I had to do the work of fully seeing myself and then choosing to embrace all that I saw, including every perceived flaw. I began to trust in myself and found I was capable of a lot more than I had previously believed. It was incredibly fascinating that in the midst of this journey of self discovery, I booked my biggest job to date.
What was it like to jump onto the set early days? What was challenging? How did you manage your feelings (and what were they?) What saved you?
My early days on set involved shooting a scene that came with a fair amount of pressure. To be completely honest, I experienced utter and complete fear. It is funny now because as I speak with more actors, many or all seem to share a fear of being fired in the early days as though being hired was too good to be true in the first place.
What saved me was the ability to check in, to understand what I was feeling, and where it came from. The work had all previously been done, and now the only demon to battle was within myself. When I took a moment, I remembered firstly that it was not about me but also realized that everybody there was experiencing their own fear. That realization took pressure off the self and made the whole experience about the other, which in the end was a lot more freeing and joyful than ego could ever have allowed.
What is it like playing a Goddess? What do you love about Bilquis, The Goddess of Love, and how this reflects you… where she/this lives in you?
It is surprisingly freeing to play a Goddess. This role has been a chance to explore the incredibly large feelings, the huge wants and needs that exist in all of us, and what resonated most from very early on was Bilquis’ search for human connection. I could very much identify with that as I think we all can in this new age of emails, Tinder, and alternative truths.
What would you say is unique and special about you?
You have said this time and again in class and I am finding that it continues to ring true. We are all, each and every one of us, a product of our unique experiences and circumstances. Though we may share ideas, values etc in common, no one person has ever experienced the world in quite the same way as the next. What I love about what you share in class is the fact that we don’t have to fight to be unique as we already are just by virtue of existing. Thank you for pointing out that we are all universally specific.
What is your dream job or role- now or later on- other than American Gods?
It has been no secret that as a dark skinned woman of African descent, I would love to play STORM. So the Dream role that I unabashedly long for with no reservation, is that of Ororo Munroe.
How has it been for you being an actor of color in Hollywood? How has that changed for you over the past few years, if it has? And in that, what it’s like to be an African woman in this industry? Are there roles you’ve been told you’re too “exotic” for, or other such reasons?
I cant remember who, but someone once said to me, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” At the time I was quite perplexed, but have now come to really appreciate that sentiment. To say that perceptions of color and gender do not influence the business would not only be untrue but a disservice to actively approaching the conversation. That said, I was never going to allow other people’s limitations to define me. I began to focus on courage and to see it all around.
There is courage in representatives who push for clients to be seen in previously inaccessible roles, there is courage in the casting director who brings those people in, there is courage on the part of the executives when they take a moment to think outside the previously established box, there is courage from the network that choses to embrace change and there is courage from the public when we begin to explore views that possibly differ from our own. Once I began to follow the courage that everyone around me was exhibiting, that which was once an obstacle became a gift.
You have a strong and incredibly articulate voice and point of view in how you see diversity being handled in art, in scripts, in Hollywood… How are you voicing that? And what is it? #Hollywoodsowhite / whitewashed TV shows and movies – what does this mean to you? Is it changing? How do we deal with that effectively? What is our responsibility?
Often as actors we tell ourselves stories of powerlessness. Current events have highlighted the fact that we no longer have the luxury to hide behind those tales. The public has shown their dissatisfaction with whitewashing and underrepresentation by taking en masse to social media; they are doing there part. More and more I am finding that the biggest threat to inclusion is not outright racism but what I’ve come to call the blind spot.
Our industry is filled with many well intentioned individuals who because of their background and upbringing may only see through a certain lens. It seems that as we all discover our unique voices, the responsibility follows to widen that lens by whatever means possible. If we are able, I think it is a duty to shine a light with compassion on the blind spots that exist within us all.
What lessons have you learned so far that you keep learning?
The major lesson that I continue to learn is to have faith in the work. When all else fails, the work remains the steadfast lighthouse in storm tossed seas.
What is your advice for other black actors/actresses? Especially those who are young, not having their voices fully formed yet? Feeling like there are mountains to climb…
Focus on each individual step in front of you, whether it’s class, that hobby you’ve always wanted to pick up or that book you’ve always wanted to read, something, anything that feeds you. Sometimes seeing the vastness of the mountain can be overwhelming but pulling that focus back and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other has time and again led to greater heights than ever imagined. Be fully and unapologetically you because no matter what else, that in itself is incredibly gratifying.