Nigerian actress, Sope Aluko has been working in Hollywood for a number of years now, scoring recurring roles in television series like Army Wives and Graceland. She scored her biggest audience this month with Black Panther, the Marvel film that is currently breaking box office records and inspiring countless think pieces across the globe.
YNaija spoke with Aluko on the cultural significance of Black Panther, her journey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the relevance of the #MeToo movement.
Enjoy excerpts from the conversation.
YNaija: Congratulations on landing the role of Shaman in Black Panther. What does the film mean to you, first as an African and then as a woman?
Sope Aluko: As an African, it means a lot. Right now as you can imagine there have been a lot of derogatory comments made against the African continent overall and I feel the timing of this film is perfect because it highlights the positives and the incredible texture of the African continent and this is depicted in a way that will shine across the world to every generation and every country. It really puts us in a positive light even though it is a fictitious country but the things that the director and the producers have been able to portray is to glean all the different aspects and cultural and positive aspects in this one movie and it is actually wonderful.
As a woman, now that you have seen the movie you see that although it is Black Panther, the force behind Black Panther are the women. So there are a lot of positive strong female characters in the movie. Also behind the camera as well, we had Ruth E. Carter who is the costume designer and has done an incredible job. Also, Rachel Morrison who has been nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography. We had the first assistant director who was a female person and believe you me we rarely have that in this industry. As a woman, it is just beautiful to see that there are opportunities and possibilities for us in this industry.
YNaija: Black Panther had an opening weekend second only to The Avengers in 2012. Do you pinch yourself sometimes and wonder if it is really happening?
Sope Aluko: Oh! Yes, I am still pinching myself. We all felt there was something incredible when we were on set. We knew we were doing something that was above and beyond ourselves so there was this mutual feeling of respect and giving honour to what we were doing. However, I don’t believe anyone of us knew it was going to be a phenomenon, knew that it was going to go down in history, knew this was going to be an iconic product so it is still baffling all of us and in a very, very good way.
YNaija: Do you think that Black Panther will change the landscape for mainstream black entertainment in Hollywood or is it yet another outlier?
Sope Aluko: I hope Black Panther will change the landscape for black film projects in Hollywood I really do. We are going through a moment of change and resurgence right now in terms of how content is consumed, particularly with the likes of Netflix and Hulu. With that comes more opportunities. It is helping change the landscape in that black people are able to produce, direct and act in their own projects. We have seen that with Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta and there’s gonna be more. It is my hope that Black Panther changes the entire landscape and not just for film, but also for television and also in front and behind the cameras so there are more opportunities for us all of us.
YNaija: Half of Black Hollywood appears in the film. What was the set like and did you build any bonds with the actors or any of the crew members? Kindly share your experience.
Sope Aluko: I find it so is funny that you say half of black Hollywood was in the film, actually half of Black Hollywood if not the whole, was at the premiere. For the film, there was an immediate need to get it done right and I think that Ryan Coogler wanted to make sure that not only did he write the story correctly and do the necessary research, but everything from the fabric, the look, the structure and texture of the movie was authentic.
To get the right attention globally, we had to make sure we had the right cast. As a result, we had African stars like Lupita Nyong’o who is an Oscar winner, Daniel Kaluuya, and Danai Gurira from The Walking Dead. We had iconic African American legends like Forest Whitaker and Angela Basset, South African legends like John Kani, Connie Chiume. Although everybody was big in their own right, there were still no egos. It felt more like I was with a family that wanted to get this project done properly.
One time, I was talking to the Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé, who plays one of the elders and because he had to wear the lip plate, he had to be placed on a liquid diet and he lost a lot of weight as a result and I felt terrible for him. We were just talking about his love for Nigerian food- he loves eba- and I promised to find a Nigerian restaurant for us to go and eat once filming wrapped. Lupita overheard our conversation and asked ‘’Did I just hear eba? I am coming oh’’ and before I knew it we had over 35 people including Winston Duke, Danai, Angela Bassett, in this Nigerian restaurant which luckily, also catered other African food items and we had a blast. That was a kind of the unofficial wrap party and we took the pictures that you see online because we weren’t allowed to take pictures on set in our costumes.
YNaija: The first trailer of Venom recently hit the Internet. You are rumoured to be in it. Do you play the same role in Black Panther and what is the extent of your involvement?
Sope Aluko: I cannot accept or deny that I am in Venom until there is an official announcement and once that is made I will be more than happy to share with you as much as I can. Because with Marvel everything is hush hush.
YNaija: You speak so many languages and have travelled round the world. Which cultures do you relate to the most and what is your favourite city in the world?
Sope Aluko: I am a daughter of a diplomat, my father was an ambassador and he was stationed in many countries, as a result, I picked up the languages. He spoke over eight languages and one of the things he imparted to us as children was that the best way to embrace a culture is to try and learn their language, at least a greeting. My favourite city in the world is obviously Lagos. Everything that goes on, the hustle and bustle, the aggression but also the warmth which is lovely. It makes me feel very vibrant and at home and I have family there, so I feel settled.
YNaija: Kindly walk us through your journey into acting. How has the process been for you?
Sope Aluko: My journey to acting is very different from the average. I wanted to be an actor from a very young age however my parents did not feel that it would provide me a sustaining income and wanted to equip me with the right education so I did study Manufactured Engineering in England for four years and I went on to do a Masters in Marketing and Product Management and worked in brand marketing in corporate America for a number of years. However all the while, I was still taking acting classes. I could just never let it go because I initially trained in theatre acting in the UK so I kept on trying to tap into the industry. Years later my father first passed away and my mum shortly after him, and it made me try to readdress things in my life. I decided to make that one leap, give up my corporate career and pursue acting to see if I was any good at it.
How does a lady with Nigerian heritage get to join one of the most profitable film franchises in cinema?
Sope Aluko: I have to say it is God. I am a proud Christian because I have always wanted to be part of the Marvel family. My kids and I watched every single Marvel film and as a result, I picked up on all the history, also from the comics that my kids sent me. It was on my vision board and it manifested itself in Black Panther and I am very grateful and hope to be part of it for many years.
YNaija: Hollywood is buzzing with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. What has been your experience with harassment in the movie business and do you think that the ground is shifting fast enough. Will meaningful progress be made?
Sope Aluko: I know a lot of people are talking about #MeToo campaign in relation to the Hollywood and film industry however we must not forget that #MeToo cuts across all other industries. I was in corporate America and I know the kind of harassment I experienced, not just sexual but also racial. So to say that it is just a Hollywood thing, it isn’t, and it transcends itself along other industries. There is a lot of work being done and I really hope that that is going to create a real shift. I am not sure that we can quantify that shift yet. Because of my marketing background, I always deal in facts and figures so I really want to see structural things set in place and that is what will determine progress. What rules, regulations are companies setting in place from a diversity standpoint in terms of new hires? Because it is one thing to say #MeToo but there are different facets to it. We really have to look at it closely and develop something concrete for me to see that there is any shift happening.
YNaija: How often do you visit Nigeria and do you still feel connected?
Sope Aluko: I am Nigerian through and through. I was in last two years ago for my mother-in-law’s 80th. My husband goes back more often, at least every year. We are very much connected to our culture and heritage and we speak to the family back home on a daily basis.
YNaija: Marvel or DC?
Sope Aluko: We are a Marvel family definitely and very proud of it. No offence to DC.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.