The Library Bar Interview: YAYA DACOSTA (Big Words) (Lee Daniels' The Butler)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In my We're the Millers post, I talked about the coincidence of the same things crossing your path from different places.  I feel that way when it comes to this beautiful America's Next Top Model turned actress, who is steadily making a name for herself in the biz - Yaya Alafia - although that name has changed from DaCosta to Alafia with her marriage to filmmaker Joshua Bee Alafia last June.  The couple is happily expecting their first child.

I first took note of Yaya in my post on the movie The Kids Are All Right (2010). And although she'd been in Take the Lead with Alfre Woodard prior to that, and has worked steadily in TV, film and stage since, with formidable players like - Leslie Uggams, Vanessa Williams and Rubin Santiago Hudson, it wasn't until 2 weeks ago that she came to my notice again - that being Neil Drumming's Big Words, starring opposite Dorian Missick, who was at The BlackStar Film Festival (Aug 1-4) promoting another film; when I brought up Yaya's name to him, his face lit up, saying they go back a good decade as friends.

Also during Blackstar I saw a film by Andrew Dosunmu called Mother of George, guess who has a prominent role in the film? Yaya. Just days prior to that, I go to see Lee Daniels' The Butler where Yaya plays the role of Carol, Civil Rights Freedom Rider, along side my crush David Oyelowo.  Then to top it all off, I get an email asking if I'd like to interview Yaya Alafia while she's in Philadelphia with Lee Daniels for the red carpet screening of The Butler!

T & T: “Big Words” was shown in Philly last Thursday a really funny, well-written character driven movie, and you were terrific in it. writer/director Neil Drumming said you asked to improvise a bit in one scene.  What's your background with improv?

YA: You know, I actually started acting in Junior High School with our teacher Ann Willis Ratray, who I'm still in touch with.  And every class, then and now, in her Master Classes, she starts with warming up and improv. And it's great, because I don't go to class consistently, but whenever I drop in, there's always new people, you don't know anybody's crutches and it's just fresh.  I love comedy, I love improv.  I haven't done a lot of it in public yet, but it's something that in class and in my spare time I do.  It's fun.

T & T: The role you play in “The Butler” is a Freedom Rider turned Black Panther. I saw you also studied Africana Studies and International Relations at Brown, would you consider yourself a political person? Do you think you might have been a civil rights activist if you had been born in the 50's?

YA: Absolutely.  I wouldn't have been a Panther, but I absolutely would have been involved.  It's interesting, because, I mean, I don't know -- you can't really say.  A lot of who I am is because of who my parents are.  And if I had been born then, I may not have been born of them, because they were born then! (laughs).

My father was one of the first SNCC workers (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and bodyguard for Stokely Carmichael (Chair of SNCC). My mother was a secretary with the Panthers.  So, auditioning for this role was exciting because I was like, "Oh!  I know these people!"  I actually talked to my dad before the audition.  Before the first one, and then there were a couple of call backs.  

Today, it actually frustrates me that there isn't that mobility, that sense of urgency, that sense of outrage among young people.  That everyone's complacent in front of Facebook and their gadgets.  People have been kind of numbed to accept things as they are and don't really see opportunities for mobilization and organizing in the way that they did back then, because it's a very different climate today. So, I would hesitate to answer your question "yes" flat out, because I'm not heading an NGO, I'm not on the front lines; but, in my own way, yes, I would say that I am and try to be more involved in any way that I can.

T & T: The first time I saw you on screen was in The Kids Are All Right with Mark Ruffalo. I specifically made mention of you in my review and said I'd hope to see you in bigger parts. How did that role come about? Surely it wasn't written for a female of color?

YA: It was!  Lisa Cholodenko is just a fly writer/director.  And, I saw the script.  Not only was it written for a black woman, it was written for a black woman with a 'fro. Which is never the case. 

T&T: With the success of Scandal (Kerry Washington) and the lesser success, but still opportunity for Meagan Good with Deception. Octavia Spencer winning an Oscar, it looks like the tide is finally turning for the black female actress, how does it feel from being on the inside?

Kerry Washington
YA: Well, I'm not really in Hollywood. And it makes a difference.  And I say that because even though I'm technically bi-coastal, I spend most of my time in New York, especially now. There is definitely a new space that's opened up -- but that just means that in a break-down, you'll see "open ethnicity".  But that can mean anything. So you can go to the audition, and there will be Indian women there -- which is great. Because, when do you ever see East Asian actors or Chinese actors or Native American actors?  So, when it says "open ethnicity", you can see anyone in the waiting room. When I go to LA, and I'm in the audition room there, I'm the only one -- I feel like the only one -- without the same weave.  And I do weave my hair for a job, or a wig, but they still are going to want you to conform to a certain look.  And the girls there know that, so there's that physical thing. I can't speak for anyone who's not obviously slim -- I can play the pretty girl or whatever.   There's still so many sub-categories that you can't just say, this is the experience of a black actress.  I don't want to speak for everybody.

T & T: Tinsel & Tine covers film & food, and I have a big crush on David Owyelowo, I'm sure the two of you musta broke bread a few times during filming. What are his favorite foods?

YA: I have no idea.  I mean, we did (break bread), but I wasn't paying attention.  Sorry!  Oh..well, we had dinner at his house one time -- what did he make?  He and his wife -- I forget who cooked.  What did we have?  You know, some beans and rice and chicken ...  string beans -- I don't know.  It was so about the conversation.

 Be sure to catch my interview with Lee Daniels and Cuba Gooding, Jr, also featuring Yaya Alafia - Click HERE for post.


I've bitten off more than I can chew this month and just won't have the time to do a proper review of Big Words, but please take my word for it, it's a very tight script and genuinely funny, it deserves a wide-release.  It's not about rap music, I was afraid of that too when I read the synopsis, that's just a background story element.  It's about friendship, regrets and it's a love story... see below snip-it of great review from NY Times -

As Mr. Drumming’s whip-smart screenplay effects an uncomfortable group reunion, the film’s playlike structure and relaxed rhythms perfectly frame conversations infused with pre-gentrification memories and music industry nostalgia. Throughout, his droll, insightful dialogue has a natural pop and sway that the actors clearly relish — especially Yaya Alafia, magnificent as a coolly self-possessed dancer who sees right through John’s smoke screen of apathy. READ MORE Jeannette Catsoulis The New York Times

Here's a Q & A video (10:16) with writer/director Neil Drumming:

On a side note: and then I promise to finally end this long, but wonderful post - I once read that when you feel overwhelmed, that's a sign that you are not looking for the resources that the Universe is always looking to provide.  Never were these words truer than this week when a friend volunteered to transcribe the audio file for Yaya's interview for me. Thanks again Diane!

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is about discovering what I find pleasing in screening & eating - in case you missed it, the name is a play on Tinseltown using the Tines of a Fork.

Feel free to send me info on a film or new restaurant you'd like me to highlight.

Will there ever be a cap on movie prices?

Will we one day pay $20 a pop?

Why don't we pay on a scale?

A crap movie like everything Adam Sandler has ever done should cost about $4.50.
Big action movies like"Lord of the Rings", "Iron Man," "Transformers" are worth $10.
Woody Allen movie or something like "Silver Linings Playbook" $6-$7.
A chick flick or light comedy $5.75 and most Indie Films $5.25.

You could even do it by seasons - all summer block busters from May to August - $10
Sept - November 15th $3.50 - $4
Back to $10 for Thanksgiving and Christmas etc...

Or you can do it by A Actors ($9 - $10), B Actors ($6 - $7) TV actors on the big screen ($3.50 - $4)

Surely I'm not the first person to realize this makes sense. Has it been voted on in the Motion Picture Industry and then vetoed? If so, why?

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