The year is 2020, and 51-year-old British actress Noma Dumezweni is making pancakes for her daughter in their New York home. “I will never say 2020 is a shit year,” she tells me, her voice careful but content. At this moment, she has good reason to think 2020 can’t be all bad: She’s busy, but happily so, coming off one of the biggest successes of her career to date.
Flash forward to July 2021, and the show that gained her a television following—HBO’s The Undoing—is nominated for an Emmy, specifically for Hugh Grant’s performance as the secretly murderous Dr. Jonathan Fraser. But some—including this writer—might say the reason Grant’s performance was so engrossing has as much to do with his co-stars as the beloved actor himself. As Haley Fitzgerald, Jonathan’s high-priced defense lawyer, Dumezweni’s piercing eye contact, power suits, and winningly deadpan affect created a perfect foil for Jonathan’s sneering charm. Even as he begged for his wife and lawyer to advocate for his innocence, you could always tell Dumezweni’s Fitzgerald never quite bought his schtick.
Dumezweni, a self-described “child of South African exiles,” grew up in Britain and steadily made her mark in the theater scene; her performance as a middle-aged Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a role she played for three years on Broadway and London’s West End, culminated in a Tony nomination and Laurence Olivier Award. Soon after her final curtain call, to her surprise and the world’s delight, she booked a role in The Undoing, David E. Kelly’s small screen adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known. The dramatic thriller was nominated for four Golden Globes, crowned HBO’s most-watched series of 2020, and, most recently, earned the Emmy nod.
Nicole Kidman and Grant were billed as the marquee stars, but Dumezweni—who appears in four of the six episodes—was the show’s most arresting. Her performance was particularly beloved by powerful Black women like Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who called her “towering.”
“That’s when I went, ‘I’ve arrived,’” Dumezweni says when I mention her growing fan club. “I realized that was the validation I needed. All these Black women I’ve been following on social media who I think are extraordinary, and they’ve got to meet me via Haley.”
The Undoing gave Dumezweni her meatiest and most-watched television role yet, and nailing it has already opened new industry doors for her, including multiple coveted roles: a part in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid; a guest appearance in the final season of Pose; and a role in HBO Max’s darkly comic sci-fi series Made for Love, which debuted in April and is adapted from Alissa Nutting’s novel about a tech billionaire who implants a chip into his wife’s brain without her consent. In Made for Love—which was recently renewed for a second season—Dumezweni plays Dr. Fiffany Hodeck, the chief science officer of the billionaire’s company. Her research with dolphins makes the chip possible, a fact she wrestles with throughout the series. “I think, post-Haley Fitzgerald, people’s expectations [of me] are quite huge,” Dumezweni says.
Over the course of two interviews—a Zoom from her New York home and a call from London, where she was filming The Little Mermaid—Dumezweni and I discussed her rising stardom, overcoming the hurdle of transitioning from theater to television acting, and why she doesn’t like the term “diversity.”
You were so wildly popular in The Undoing that you became a meme. The words used to describe you, “breakout star,” are typically reserved for early-career actors, but you’ve had an illustrious career in theater prior to this role. What’s it like to suddenly find yourself an ingenue at 51?
I fucking love it. There’s a few of us acknowledging that we’ve been working so hard in theater [for years], and it’s Black women especially. Observing Adjoa Andoh and Golda Rosheuvel in Bridgerton—I’ve known them for years and worked with them in different ways—it’s just wonderful seeing [their television careers] happening. In terms of that feeling of “ingenue,” you know, my life has been a long Crock-Pot. It feels like people think it’s a microwave second. All of a sudden, you’re here! And you think, No, actually, I’ve been cooked quite well. At 51, I’m enjoying it. And I’m happier now to enjoy it than I think I would’ve been at 25 or 35.
Earlier this year, you played Fiffany in Made For Love—a name so unique that Google Docs thought it was a typo when I first wrote it. What attracted you to this part?
[Laughs] The madness of the script. When I originally got asked to think about going up for it, I thought, Wow, this is weird and strange. And then going up for it and getting it, that’s fantastic. And that name, “Fiffany,” that’s just funny.
It’s a lovely supporting character. If Made For Love goes to the next season, I know I’m looking forward to what Alissa and [showrunner] Christina [Lee] want to do going forward. The book is so different to what the script became. Hazel’s story with Byron, that’s the main thing, that’s the hook in the book, but you’ve got all these other peripheral characters which I found fascinating [in the show]. In the teaser, I just think it’s genius that they’ve got Ray Romano to do [Beyoncé’s] “Crazy in Love.”
I was trying to nail down the tone of the show, and the teaser trailer was unnervingly dry.
Yes! Unnervingly dry. That’s brilliant. It is ultimately about connection. That idea of implanting someone in someone’s brain and going, “I will know you, we will love each other,” that kind of weird desperation. It’s horrific. Byron is like a Mark Zuckerberg/Jack Dorsey kind of character and that’s fascinating to me, that kind of power. That you think because you can’t connect, [implantation is] the only way you can do it.
You’ve shared before that you had a rough transition from stage to screen acting. You’ve even said you worried you’d be fired from The Undoing because you weren’t trusting yourself as an actor. Did you feel more confident on the set of Made for Love?
Oh, my God, absolutely. I look back on that Undoing feeling and I go, “Oh my God, that was a gift that was given to me,” because I got so in my head. I was so in my head because of that jump [from stage to screen]. That actually made me go, “Just be Noma, just be present, don’t judge yourself, because you’ve been invited into the room, for fuck’s sake.”
Post-The Undoing, every job I’ve been to, I go, “Oh, yeah.” Even just going into Normal People for the one episode I did—which had a lovely female director, Hettie Macdonald—was beautiful. Walking into the room now, I’m not scared, because I’ve been invited into the room.
I also read that you don’t like the word “diversity.”
Yes. I like the word “representation.” When “diversity” first started popping about, it made sense. But then you realize it was being used in a lazy way. Whoever was employing would go, “We’ve got to get the diversity ticket. Let’s just get someone in.” You want me for my color, you want me for my culture, you want me but you’re not looking after me. You’re not seeing the individual. That drives me absolutely fucking crazy. The word “diverse” is interesting because we have diverse things to do in the world. I’m not a “diverse” person.
I used to want to fit in so much when I was young because of growing up in a predominantly white place. I’m looking at my mixed-race daughter growing up and trying to navigate her places. I really think of the world as post-George Floyd and pre-George Floyd. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, white people were able to see how other people existed. It’s not about politics. We are diverse humans, in our abilities, but we represent so much more than just “diversity.” Our humanity is the thing.
I bring up that word because I love fantasy and sci-fi, but they are the genres that have been the slowest to diversify their casts. The rapturous response to Teyonah Parris in WandaVision, for instance, shows you that a lot of people have been waiting for this change.
It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? When we talk about imagination and other worlds and possible futures, you kind of go, “But actually, that’s the most magical way to describe representation!” Why is it there’s always not enough Black or brown or South and East Asian people or indigenous peoples in these stories? Even just asking that question you kind of go, “That’s got to shift somehow. It’s got to shift.” I was given Kindred by Octavia Butler as a present; that’s being made into a TV series.
Oh, I haven’t read that one!
I haven’t read it either, and it’s supposed to be brilliant. But that’s being made into a TV series, so that’s interesting to me already. It’s about the makers, the Black filmmakers—I’ve gotta catch up with them.
When I watch TV, I enjoy watching it with my daughter. We’ve just been watching the whole WandaVision thing together, which has been joyous. But it’s interesting, even there you kind of go, Monica Rambeau—there was a promise [of character development], but it didn’t quite go there yet. So where’s her character going to go?
Yeah, I think it’s what you said about Black creators. Black Panther was such an extraordinary success—and it wouldn’t have been as successful without Ryan Coogler as a Black filmmaker behind the camera—I think that was proof of concept in terms of Black fantasy. I think it’s key that there are Black people in the industry who are pushing.
Did you see Franklin Leonard’s tweet? Quite brilliant. It came off that thing of, $10 billion dollars is being lost by not using [Black talent]. He just said, “I can’t believe I have to say this, but I have expertise other than talking about race. The main reason I talk about race is because so many of y’all use it to prevent me and others from doing the stuff we’re ACTUALLY good at. It’s exhausting.” I thought: That’s what it is. It’s a business, and if you want the money, there’s $10 billion you’re losing. You’re being idiots.
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