A chat with ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ co-star Yaya Alafia

Yaya Alafia at "Lee Daniels' The Butler" Philadelphia Red Carpet Premiere (photo: Monica Lyons at Sista Pics Photography)
Yaya Alafia at “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” Philadelphia red carpet premiere (photo: Monica Lyons at Sista Pics Photography)

Back in July, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Yaya Alafia, formerly DaCosta, whom faithful reality television viewers may remember as first runner-up from season 3 of America’s Next Top Model (2003).  Since then, the talented actress has been seen in various films and projects, from 2006’s Take the Lead to this year’s breakout independent hit Neil Drumming’s Big Words with actor Dorian Missick. Ms. Alafia was in Philadelphia to promote the film Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which she portrays Carol, a Fisk University student, turned Freedom Rider, turned Black Panther during the tumultuous Civil Rights movement.  We discussed everything from her preparation for her role in the film, to her musical preferences.  Coincidentally, I’d viewed “Big Words” the day before I screened the Daniels’ film, so there was an unexpected (on my part) question that I needed to ask first:

MMT: One of the things that surprised me watching “Big Words” was that you sing!  Is that something you enjoy showcasing or will we see that again on the screen?

YA: It’s not something that I have focused on until this point, so we’ll see.

MMT: Have you trained at all or are you just naturally gifted in that way?

YA:  I am not naturally gifted in that way, it just sounded really good in the movie! (laughs)

MMT: Your character in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” goes from peaceful, protesting Freedom Rider to a more militant character.  Was there a different level of preparation for each?

YA:  I was just with Carol the whole time.  I’ve had experiences where there was that transition, from a more innocent to a more fierce outrage.  And I make choices everyday, (meaning) there is a situation, there’s something that needs to be checked but how do I do it.  And so the earlier Carol was more naïve, maybe more graceful, and the latter was “I’ve had enough” and she was justified. All I had to do was tap into that outrage and there are a lot of opportunities everyday, both in the news and the world, for a person of color (to use).

MMT: This movie has such a large ensemble cast, was it intimidating to share screen time with Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo?

YA: I wouldn’t say intimidating, I would say exciting and inspiring!  I’ve been super blessed from the beginning of my professional career. My first job was with Alfre Woodard and Antonio Banderas (Take the Lead), and then I was on a TV show with Vanessa Williams…

MMT: Which I loved you in Ugly Betty, have to mention that!

YA: Thank you (smiles).  And I’m not going down this list to brag, but to (acknowledge) I’ve been nurtured, in my young career, in the company of all these amazing people.  I did theater with Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Leslie Uggams, so just feeling welcomed and having these stars tell me special things that boost your confidence as a young actor.  At the beginning of my career, I didn’t even call myself an actor.  I was a young person who finished college and was trying lots of different jobs, but acting was always my passion.  To be encouraged to own it and, as one of these (actors) said, “take your seat at our table”  was wonderful.  So when I was cast, I was like this is huge.  Even though I’m not in scenes with Clarence Williams III or Robin Williams, to be in the same film is amazing.  It’s humbling, but it was very inspiring.

MMT: Okay, I’m going to switch gears a bit.  I always ask something for my music fans, so if you could portray any artist/musician, past or present, who would it be and why?

YA: I don’t know if this is the ultimate answer but the first person that comes to mind because of the timing, and the fact that everybody keeps saying I should because of what I look like, is Whitney Houston.   We thought about that before she passed; but after people were anxious wanting to honor her legacy and make a film.  I don’t know if anyone’s doing it, but that’s definitely something other people have told me, and it’s now in my head like “yeah, I could do that.”

The beautiful Ms. Alafia also mentioned that she has a love for older music, including standards, and admires singers from the likes of Sarah Vaughn to Chaka Khan.  Like her versatility in song, she has been multifaceted in the projects she’s carefully chosen.  It is the mark of a woman who stands completely confident in and is aware of her gift, and its social impact.  As a fan, I look forward to continuing to watch her light shine.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens nationwide this Friday, August 16.  Yaya Alafia can also be seen in “Big Words,” currently in limited release (go to official movie website here or AFFRM.com) and in the upcoming film by director Andrew Dosunmu “Mother of George,” which is set to open on September 13.

Check back Wednesday for my interview with director Lee Daniels and star Cuba Gooding Jr. 🙂

Until next thought family, Thomasena


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