Interview: A Conversation With Yetide Badaki on Storytelling, ‘American Gods’, and ‘Wonderland’
In between the filming of the second season of American Gods, actress Yetide Badaki took a few minutes to chat with me about her new project Wonderland, which brings together complex characters and her passion for storytelling. There’s about a seven-hour time difference between her set and my study chair (as well as an entire ocean), but, thanks to modern technology, the transatlantic aspect is nonexistent
Known as the Goddess of Love, ‘Bilquis’, in the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the Nigerian-born actress, whose first role was as a Lost Boy in a school play of Peter Pan, is a self-proclaimed geek who quotes Star Trek: Next Generation at the drop of a hat and draws inspiration from the work and writings of Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey.
Having started her education in environmental sciences, the progression into acting may seem far-fetched. So, of course the first thing we discussed was Badaki’s journey into acting. On catching the acting bug Badaki says, “Acting had always been a passion, I just didn’t know I had access to it. From a very young age, storytelling was everything. I’ve talked a lot about seeing my elders tell stories being touched by that and transported by that…getting to audition for my first school play. I’d always had a passion for it I used to keep a diary and write love you Hollywood see you soon, I didn’t think it was something open to me. It wasn’t a path people understood or believed in, because of that I turned from it not believing I could act I turned to something else of interest, something I thought was good and could change the world but your passion always sneaks through.”
American Gods is set to return with its highly anticipated second season in 2019 and has deeply resonated with fans of the supernatural. A war between mythical Gods is automatically assumed to be a work of pure fiction, but with a deeper look, we can see parallels between the seemingly far removed narratives in the show and human flaws. Badaki says, “[I resonated with] that immigration story we are experiencing on many levels right now. Neil (Gaiman) asked the question what is America and what makes America and yes, he spoke of these fantastical beings and how they were brought here over time in speaking of them he is speaking of the American experience and the tapestry that is built of the threads of all those who come.”
The concept of remembering could draw in so many more themes the show is yet to explore. However, if there is anyone who has explored a plethora of emotions which are complex and contradictory it’s the Goddes of Love herself. The duality of human life is one of them. Expanding on this idea, we discuss what surprised the actress the most about her character. Badaki tells me, “She surprised me in so many ways I didn’t know how much I’d fall in love with her – how her experience did mirror the female experience. The duality of her character between life and death, joy and sorrow, light and dark it’s all in there and that speaks to the female experience. There are universes within us; there is so much complexity we are not just one thing. There are layers and levels and intricacies, even as we shoot now I am discovering new things about her.”
With an upcoming project titled Wonderland set to be directed by Jessica Sherif starring Karen David, Jen Richards and Dom Burgess, the actress takes on the role of writer and producer. The film is set to be a recreation of Alice in Wonderland, a story teller’s dream. We spoke about the personal importance of this new endeavor and how she garnered the amazing people in it.
Excited about her upcoming project, Badaki says, “It’s interesting because I sat down one day after the frustrations of being a woman, a woman of color in the industry. Having conversations with friends and other women what kept on hitting me was the absurdity of the female experience. Its been such a part of our existence that we don’t even see it. When I put pen to paper I hadn’t planned on making it Wonderland, this character started talking, started meeting people and I’m going wait oh my goodness that person is Caterpillar. The power dynamics and absurdities of Alice’s story lent themselves so well to the story I wanted to tell and had written.”
“…the way it happened it was so filled with synchronicities, I would meet up with a good friend of mine, we would just meet up for coffee and talk about where our careers were, we were sharing dreams with each other, which I am a huge proponent of that. I think it is absolutely necessary to discuss what we want, I had mentioned I had written something and I sent it to her and that her is the amazing Jessica Sherif – she is incredible, we both went to McGill, we both were 16 when we started out and have so much in common. we went through several rewrites and she said I want to pass it to a friend of mine and that friend was Karen David and that was the trifecta. Its been an amazing experience working alongside and having a group of passionate and dedicated women infront of and behind the scenes.”
Our conversation continues and significant topics including creation, access, and storytelling all come up, as they do when you’re given the opportunity to speak with a passionate individual, who is in love with their craft. Access is rarely synonymous with opportunities in conversations. As a champion of storytelling in her personal life, which has translated into her art, we speak about why she was drawn into storytelling through writing and producing. Badaki says, “I had spoken a lot about wanting the room to be more diversified and inclusive and I realized I kept asking that of others and I said why not be the room, why not then build a bigger table and invite inclusively to all those seats. Producing writing and creating in all those ways, creating stories I want to hear and see.”
Naturally, my next query would be the perfect story to tell or role to play. Badaki reveals, “There’s two. One that I have to write I guess, but one everyone knows Storm. I would love to play Storm; there would be no better time than now. I want to see her as powerful and fierce women that she is. I want to see people cower and fear her, be in awe of her beauty, strength, and intellect.”
As a whole-hearted advocate for women’s rights and diversity in the workplace and industry, Badaki works with numerous organizations with the hope to join bodies like the United Nations in making a change. The actress is part of the line-up heading to South Africa for Africa’s first Comic-Con! The event runs from September 14-16, 2018.
If you are in attendance, stop by and say I sent you.
*The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.