“An African City’s” Nana Mensah Talks Diversity, Style, and What it Takes to be an Actor
Working actor” is not a term that many understand. When you say the word “actor,” people picture Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts. But an actor’s success isn’t determined by their level of celebrity, but by the integrity of their work. Many wouldn’t know the names of thousands of working actors that manage to make a living doing commercials, independent films, off and off off Broadway shows, etc. These days, in order to survive as an actor of any tier, you have to create your own opportunities, especially if you’re a minority. I see people like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling writing their own projects in order to address issues that otherwise wouldn’t be talked about. And that’s what we need in order to solve the diversity issue in Hollywood: actors that take action.
One of my favorite gals doing just this, is the badass Nana Mensah. A working actress in NYC, Nana is best known for her role as Sade in “An african City,” now on its second season, streaming on Hulu. As a writer, producer, director, singer and actor, this Ghanaian-American babe embodies the artist of today (or at least what it takes to be one). As you can see in her Ted Talk, Nana knows all too well the struggles of the industry. So to all of our readers trying to make it in New York as performers, Nana shares her insights below.
BAS: Tell us about your latest projects.
NM: “Queen of Glory” is the forthcoming film that I wrote, directed and star in (apparently I’m suicidal). It’s a dark comedy/dramedy about a PhD student who suddenly inherits a Christian bookstore in the Bronx. You can watch the trailer at queenofglory.com. Making art is so much work— I’ve never had to work harder or persevere more than on QoG, so it’s incredibly rewarding during the peaks, but totally devastating in the valleys.
“I’ll Never Love Again” is a wonderful, wonderful play I’m so proud to partake in. It is playing at the Bushwick Starr from now through March 19th. It’s written by my all-time girl crush, OBIE-award winner Clare Barron and it tackles teenage love, sexual discovery and how those early traumas hound us into adulthood. All with amazing music sung by a great choir and some incredible actors. I’m so proud to be a part of this show. INLA is basically ripped from the pages of Clare Barron’s teenage diary. She had suffered her first heartbreak at the ripe age of 15 or 16 and flew to her diary to document every single excruciating detail of the relationship and the fallout. Then, a decade and change later, she turned it into a play. The first act is performed by an army of ‘Clares,’ but then the world splits apart (literally) and in the second half I play Clare at 26 years old, temping in a law firm.
BAS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
NM: These days, it’s a little mantra from the producer of Queen of Glory, Jamund Washington– he always says “There’s good, there’s cheap and there’s fast, pick 2.” At first I thought it applied only to filmmaking, but then I realized it works for everything: food, clothes, love. It’s universal.
BAS: What advice would you give to, say, a family member who was serious about wanting to become an actor in NY?
NM: You should be prepared to toil fruitlessly for years doing humiliating jobs and taking shit from people who are sometimes much younger than you and often not as smart. Be prepared to release your ego and submit to the choppy waters of this industry. Make sure you want to do it for the right reasons – our exposure to actors is in the throes of the glory of performance and/or on the red carpet, both of which are highly contrived, so make sure you love the process more than the result. I guess in all, I would be understanding, but probably very discouraging.
BAS: What do you think is the most important issue in the industry today and why?
NM: I think the most important issue is a pretty unsexy one: it’s our reliance on foreign distribution for films. Basically big budget Hollywood movies recoup 70% their expenditures in foreign markets. What that means is that American studios are bearing in mind more what China or India want to see in terms of plot and content rather than what Americans want to see. Sometimes those things are aligned and sometimes it results in foreign stars getting jobs in American big budget films (see Omar Sy and Irfann Khan in Jurassic World), but often it results in oversimplified dialogue, tropisms, and a lack of three-dimensionality in roles for minorities and women (see Jurassic World).
BAS: What are your thoughts on the Oscars?
NM: The fact that the Oscars have come to define excellence in performance is curious— we’ve placed such a premium on regurgitating what other people say that we forget to formulate our own opinions. There are AMAZING actors who have never so much as set foot in an Academy Awards ceremony because they don’t have the right agent or publicist or studio behind them. The Academy, at the end of the day, consists of largely white, heterosexual, cis males who generally lack exposure to art or opportunities presented by anyone ‘other’. If that’s who we choose to represent the institution, why are surprised at the result? To fault them is like watching Passion of the Christ and hoping for an alternate ending.
BAS: What’s your greatest motivation?
NM: New York is a crazy fierce motivator. Which is to say imminent poverty is a crazy fierce motivator. It’s why you travel to other cities like Austin, TX or certain parts of LA and you realize “oh, you’re making just enough money to pay the rent and buy the weed” and that’s good enough for most people– that’s good enough for the lion share of our country. That is not New York.
BAS: What do you find most difficult to talk about in the US? Is there a certain subject that you find makes people uncomfortable?
NM: I think things are becoming less and less taboo — we now have subway ads that frankly discuss periods (from companies like Dear Kates or THINX), you can now say words like ‘abortion,’ ‘vagina’, ‘gay’, or ‘trans’ in mixed company without flinching, which is a trajectory I can definitely get behind. Given recent current events, I think ‘black’ is still a hard word here in the US. I also think ‘Muslim’ is swiftly becoming a bad word, and that’s a shame to me because we’ve been here before — the point of history is to not repeat it, right?
BAS: I love your style! You always look so uniquely and fabulously you. What’s your inspiration and where do you shop?
NM: I try hard to buy and wear clothes that were produced in developed nations under regulated working conditions, so I hit up MM LaFleur and American Apparel for staples and do a lot of vintage shopping to find signature pieces that aren’t insanely priced. I also steal a lot from Sade’s (my character in An African City) closet— the designers on the show have been very generous about letting us keep some of the pieces. In general, I like pairing couture items like vintage YSL with African inspired modern pieces from designers like Christie Brown, Osei Duro or Totally Ethnik. And a bold lip. I love a bold lip. I think that look very much encapsulates my personality.
BAS: Do you think clothes are important in expressing yourself?
NM: For sure— but not all the time. When life gets crazy and I have deadlines and am holding on by a thread, I find that my attire is the first area to take the hit. So if you see me rolling around the Lower East Side in dirty sweatpants, know that I’m not homeless, just busy.
BAS: Are there any actors that have influenced you?
NM: Of course! Meryl Streep is huge one. I played a soldier in one scene in the Shakespeare in the Park version of Mother Courage— it was my first job after school. Being privy to her rehearsal process was the best education one could have— she worked so damn hard but was also so kind and funny and professional. It was a great introduction of how people behave at the highest level. It also allowed me to put no stock in other actors’ diva behavior: if Meryl Streep can be kind and funny and professional in 90 degree heat while wearing layers of flannel and fatigues, then you can show up to work on time, know your lines, and be kind to the run crew. You know?