Interview: Star of Nanny, Anna Diop Talks Artistic Collaboration, Channeling Fear into her Performance and Horror That Hits Close to Home

One of the most talked-about film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), Nanny stars the Senegalese-American actress Anna Diop. The actor is probably best known from her role as Starfire in DC Comics series “Titans” on HBO Max, as well as her brief appearance in Jordan Peele’s Us as the mother of young Adelaide in the film’s opening sequence (opposite another rising star at the time, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). More recently, Diop’s skills are garnering her more prominent roles in such works as last year’s Something About Her and this film, writer/director Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut, about an immigrant woman named Aisha who is struggling to piece together a new life for herself in New York City, where she cares of the daughter (Rose Decker) of an affluent, white Upper East Side couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector).

Using a combination of modern horror touches, culturally specific folklore, and the terrors of immigrants’ stories, especially those coming to America, Jusu has fashioned a film that piles on the overwhelming pressures being put on Aisha and the pain of being away from her own child, turning those anxieties into nightmare fuel heightened by some impressive visual effects that transform her inner turmoil into something that feels very external and unsettling. Even when Aisha finds time for a new romantic interest in her life, Malik (Sinqua Walls), she can never let her guard down, since the rest of her life, with shifting power dynamics at work and increased pressures to earn money to bring her son to New York, is in such a precarious state. Diop’s performance is nuanced and powerful, elevating the already solid film into a top-notch thriller.

With the newest season of “Titans” kicking off recently, admirers will have many opportunities to catch her this month. Nanny begins a limited theatrical run on Wednesday and begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 16. I had the chance to sit down with Diop when she was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, during which she received the Rising Star Award, and we got to discuss her work in and the relevance of Nanny, as well as the nature of her collaboration with filmmaker Jusu. Please enjoy our talk…

One of things I pulled out about your character in this film is that everything is new—new place to live, new job, even a new relationship, and new in terms of living without her family. Was there any part of that you could identify with, and how do you capture that in a performance, that combination of fear and excitement?

Yeah. I’ve always related to the feeling and experience of being alien, because I left Senegal when I was five or six years old and was in a new place and had to learn quickly what it meant to assimilate and survive in a new place. So I’ve always known that experience from a very young age. To be honest, I feel like I’ve been living that way ever since. It’s rare for me to go to a place and feel like I belong there, even Senegal now because I’ve been so far removed from it; I’m hyper-aware of my behavior and movements, the things I’m saying, so I don’t offend anyone or disrespect anyone because it’s culturally different there.

When you said that, the scene that came to mind was when Aisha walks out of the elevator and meets Malik’s son at his place of work and says “They allow you to bring him here?” And he’s like, “Allow me? Shit happens.” I so related to that because I’m always watching my Ps and Qs as part of my survival mechanism to make sure I stay within the lines. You don’t want to stand out, especially Aisha because she’s undocumented, so she’s very careful. When she’s at Amy and Adam’s apartment, the choice I made was that she never calls home from there, because this is her work space, and she doesn’t want to get into any trouble. She doesn’t want any issues, so she stays present. That’s why she has so much anxiety and angst about Amy coming home, then she can’t call her son because it’s too late and he’s sleeping.

And it doesn’t help that the family keeps asking her to work longer and longer hours, which only makes that worse.

Exactly.

Your filmmaker has then taken those anxieties and put them in a horror-movie framework. How did you feel about using that framework and horror visuals in a story that is very intimate and personal and not your typical setup for a horror film?

That’s such a great question. Let me just say, Nikyatu Jusu is the bee’s knees. I think she’s so brilliant; I could listen to her talk all day. She’s one of the most exquisite, intelligent people. She graduated the top of her class at NYU, and she’s just intellectually that brilliant. With people that intelligent, it can be a very painful experience, and I know she’s experienced a lot of pain and leans into horror because it’s a way for her to articulate the horrors that she witnesses and understands because she’s that intelligent. It’s interesting because Nanny is a story that’s very personal to me be because my mother immigrated to the the states to create a better life for me, just like Aisha does. The immigrant experience means a lot to me, and to have it in this space of horror is, in many ways, accurate. It’s a terrifying thing to leave your home and be that lonely.

Anything that penetrates your brain that deeply is ripe for horror.

Yes! It’s a terrifying experience. It’s the perfect arena for horror, this experience.

I’ve seen interviews the two of you did during Sundance and heard about the eight-year gestation period of the film, going through the Sundance labs, being mentored by Kasi Lemmons and Karyn Kusama. At what point did you finally get involved in this, and what do you remember specially responding to about your character? Or was it terrifying to you and therefore you had to do it?

Yeah yeah, it was mostly that. I certainly wasn’t involved eight years ago. As it is with most actors, I came in very late in the game. But I was aware of Nikyatu because of her short Suicide By Sunlight and because Nanny had been on the 2019 Blacklist, so people were really excited about the script. I’d never had the chance to meet her, but then Nanny was greenlit, and they were looking for Aishas, we finally met on Zoom and I read for her. In typical Nikyatu fashion, she holds he cards really close, and she didn’t even tell me I got the role for weeks [laughs]. But when I read it, I’d already been hearing about it because the industry was so excited about it, so I was curious about it. I have a friend who’s an agent, and he asked “Have you read this script? You need to read this script. This is you.” So I read it, and it was so emotional because it’s my mom’s story, and I love my mom; we’re so close. You talked about immigrant stories recently using genre, but I hadn’t seen a protagonist like this, focused on and having her story fleshed out.

There was a British film recently called His House on Netflix, very different from Nanny but also an immigrants’ story. That was the first time I think I’ve seen the horror take like that. But Nanny is the first I can think of set in America, and this is uniquely American film.

Wow. Yes, it is uniquely American. I’d never seen anything like this, and on top of it, so many parallels to my mother’s life and my own life. I was really moved by it. It was daunting too, because Aisha is in every single scene. I don’t know I’ve even watched many films where the lead is in every single frame of the movie, which is such a specific choice by Nikyatu. And we never never focus our gaze on these individuals, these women. So I was honored, excited, terrified. The first day of filming, I said to Nikyatu, “Don’t let me fuck up your film.” And she said, “Why would you say that?” Because of course she’s nervous too because it’s her first day, and after that, I stopped talking like that; I just had to get it out.

Speaking of being terrified, one of the interviews I watched was with Michelle Monaghan, who said the screenplay made her uncomfortable in all the best ways. That whole family power dynamic changes in almost every scene. Every time we see you in that house, something shifts. By the end, you’re the one in control. How did you and Michelle work out your scenes together?

Nannies play such an intimate part in people’s lives; they’re raising people’s children. My mother was a nanny for many years. Those kids adore her, love her, as Rose begins to love Aisha as well and leans on Aisha more than she does her own mother. On Amy’s part, there’s some jealousy there. To be honest, the story that comes to mind is how Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis are having this issue with their nanny, and the nanny is speaking out about feeling like she’s being thrust in the middle of these two. People having to contend with surviving in this work space while also trying to manage the emotional hellscape of what’s going on. That’s what Aisha is going through; she’s been thrust into this dysfunctional marriage, and that’s not what she signed on for and it’s not what her job description is. On top of surviving this foreign place, she’s trying to survive these people who are absolutely out of their minds. It was exciting to explore that with Michelle because she’s a phenomenal actress and she played all the nuances of Amy’s insanity really well.

I wanted to ask about having Leslie Uggams in this movie because she is a legend. You have a couple scenes with her. What do you learn from someone who is that experienced, both about being an actor and being a good person?

I would chat with her between takes.

How could you not?

I know, right? And she was so gracious about it and so open sharing her stories about the men she’s dated, the trips she’s taken, how she met her husband. She’s talked about the good ol’ days. It was so delicious to be around her because she is so gracious and is a legend; she’s lived so much life and has accomplished so much in this industry, so it was an honor and exciting to be around her. She came in really late in the process because there was some trickiness with the casting of that role, and she just bodied this part. The first take I did with her, I watched her eyes and how deep and dark and piercing they were. She’s like an ocean of experience.

It probably helps that she’s supposed to be able to see things in your character and she has to play that up a bit.

Yes! And she did and immediately clocked into that. She’s very easy and personable, and in those scenes, I could just zero in on her personality.

I hope this is the beginning of a long creative partnership with you and Nikyatu.

As long as she’ll tolerate me, I’d love that too.

Best of luck with this. Thank you so much.

It was lovely meeting you. Thanks.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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