Interview: Sola Bamis

The garden party hearts selfies because they let the subject frame their own image! Sola on selfies: I literally take a selfie every day–mirrors are no longer enough

Sola Bamis played Shirley on Mad Men and received a SAG award nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (she stunned on the red carpet in a marigold Lola Wusu dress). She currently plays Ayo on ABC Family/Freeform’s Stitchers, which returns for a second season on March 22nd. Sola will also be appearing in Office Hour by Julia Cho at South Coast Repertory, opening April 10th.
I know Sola because we were classmates in the graduate acting program at CalArts, where we spent three years together “exploring our pool of vibrations” (yes, this is an actual acting term and also a strange and wonderful bonding experience). When I asked Sola if she would do an interview for GP, and explained that the site compares the entertainment industry to a house and suggests that the garden partiers might steal cookies from the house  (full description here), she responded, I’m not just stealing cookies, I’m stealing silverware right now and by the time I’m done, I want them to look around at a gutted mansion with a look on their faces as forlorn and empty as the space. Let’s do this!

SALLIE MERKEL: First off, congratulations on your SAG Award nomination!

SOLA BAMIS: Thank you. Thank you.

SM: Let’s talk about Shirley. I’m curious, what do you feel like you learned from playing her?

SB: You know, Shirley and I are very similar, I think.

SM: Mmhmm. Down to the wardrobe.

SB: Oh yeah. It’s all totally something that I would wear. Even Shirley having an afro. When I went in for the make-up test I showed up with my hair as it is, so it was easy for the hair stylist, Theraesa Rivers, to consider that look for the character. And so the more I came in with myself, the more I found Shirley.

SM: That is such great advice. To bring your authentic self to every space—

SB: —and that’s what I’m learning about acting, like crazy. The less you bog yourself down with like, well, the character says this or what’s prescribed, the less you will just be. And that’s what, for me, acting is: just being.

SM: That’s what I’m finding too: if I don’t think about how a character should—I think those are the two most dangerous words—say or do something and instead I’m just like, okay those are the words, but let the impulses be my own, that’s when the most interesting work happens and there’s something liberating in embodying the words with your own body and not your idea of the character’s body.

SB: It can be an especially liberating process when you get to tie it into who you are. And I feel like you find the character through who you are and you find yourself through the character.

SM: A paradox of acting is that you are pretending to be another person but, at the same time, you cannot run away from yourself. You are always being seen as yourself. So when you have the opportunity to really reveal your truth, that is liberation.

SB: Absolutely. And you know, for me, as a woman, as a woman of color, it’s been a journey. I remember my auditions for graduate school, Yale was my first stop and on my way out I went to the bookstore and they had The Ground on Which I Stand [by August Wilson]. I read it on the plane on the way home and I remember being like, Oh MY GOSH, about his thoughts on colorblind casting. And I was looking through my graduate school program booklets and some of them talked about colorblind casting and I was like, let’s talk about colorblind casting, why are we blind to color? Why? And that was the beginning of a journey for me towards full expression of myself as a black woman onstage or in performance.

As a woman of color, my experience is that of who you are is a mistake and it’s something that needs to be tweaked in order to fit the standard.

When we were at CalArts I sometimes had to do things that I didn’t feel were culturally relevant, which is okay, but when I couldn’t get the chance to make it culturally relevant for me as a black body playing that character, that became a problematic struggle for me with many of the texts that we were studying.

I remember, we had a conversation in speech class about “speech neutrality,” and it was like—I mean, when a standard has been set and it’s a historical standard, it’s a professional standard, it is what it is—but let’s not act like it’s actually standard. With my speech people were always like, “take that edge off” and “put those consonants there” and I was like, what if she is like this? What if I’m doing this on purpose? As a woman and as a woman of color, my experience is that of who you are is a mistake and it’s something that needs to be tweaked in order to fit the standard. And the reality is there is no standard of acting, just like there is no standard of behavior. There’s no one way to eat a piece of bread or drink… I mean, of course you don’t wanna hold the cup upside down, but there is no one way to do it, and for people to be boxed in to one way… Being liberated as a performer, being liberated as a black woman and coming as myself and being like, this is the way she’s going to say something, has been really important for me.

SM: I wonder if there are any other specific moments or realizations that you’ve had, of like, oh, I don’t need that. Or oh, I don’t have to do it that way.

SB: Mmhmm. Definitely. There definitely have been.… I mean, with my hair! I had taken headshots with a wig, ‘cause it was like, just in case. And now I’m like, no just in case. No just in case.

SM: When did you do away with those?

SB: I still have so many. I used it when I booked Jane by Design, which was my first television gig. That was the only time I ever booked a job with it. I had used it some other times because I would get the note of this role is expected to be sexy. Think about wearing your wig. OH MY GOD! Hair is a big thing. And there have been some jobs, even after I had done away with the wig, where I’ve gotten the note they don’t wanna bring you in because they don’t feel like you’re hot enough. But my agent was like, I want you to do this self-tape so that you can show them. And I had to be like, no, if they don’t want to see me, that’s on them. Obviously they’re looking for someone else. It’s worth it to me to say no.

SM: No can be very empowering.

SB: Yes.

SM: I think all that relates to this question of beauty. And, I know that you are a pageant winner. You were Miss Miami, right?

SB: Miss University of Miami.

SM: Right, Miss University of Miami. And then the first runner up…

SB: Yeah, first runner up for Miss Florida.

SM: Wow.

SB: Which took me by surprise. You know, Miss University of Miami was my first pageant ever and it was like, you know, I might be able to win some money and also like, this might be a great experience, this might be cool. And then I won that and I didn’t even know it was a qualifier for Miss Florida. I didn’t know any of that. I don’t know if I had been more aware of that process, whether I would have jumped in. I mean, a girl, when I got first runner up, she was like Wow, Sola, you’re the dark horse of this pageant! But I was! Because I did a monologue, which is something that is rarely ever done. I really came in as much as myself as possible. And it’s one of those things where it’s like, when you don’t know what you’re doing… you know, the fool triumphant, that’s what happened.

Reading casting breakdowns are an awakening. Because it’s the system, rolled into one concentrated thing and spouted out in the most insensitive ways on this place where people go to find their dreams…

I think aesthetics and beauty as an idea it has its function. Toni Morrison is my favorite writer, and without beauty reading her work wouldn’t be as much of a hallucination as it is. It heightens you, it gives that euphoria, so I get it, it has its function. But physical beauty confers no other worth outside of the quality of itself. Just because a person is pretty, doesn’t mean they’re smart, doesn’t mean they’re happy, it doesn’t mean they’re nice, it doesn’t mean anything outside of, that person’s just pretty. What is unfortunate is the fact that people make it [confer other worth]. And then, for standards of beauty to be tied into white supremacy and all of those things is just another layer of what makes ideas about beauty so problematic. You know?

SM: It sounds like there are two things that the word beauty means. That there is a beauty that is something that genuinely catches your breath and makes you feel alive and feeds the senses in some way—that does something transcendent. And then there is this other thing that we use the word beauty for, but that means like, how well something fits into things that have been repeated and repeated and repeated to become cultural norms, and then that feeds into how good of a product something is. How good of a product a person is.

SB: Absolutely. The nail on the head. Nail on the head. And not saying that looking at a person can’t take your breath away, but is it because of that actual quality that you’re seeing? Or is it because it’s in the body of a white, blonde, female. Or whatever that is, in whatever culture.

SM: The aim of this site is very much in line with the tradition of consciousness raising, and that by sharing our experiences we can see what is actually systemic, and not just like, oh well, he’s a weird old guy, who is like, out of touch.

SB: Right.

SM: So are there any experiences that you’ve had, that you feel like you’d like our readers to be awoken to?

SB: I mean, reading casting breakdowns is an awakening. It’s one of the most amazing activities ever. Because you gain so much insight. Because it’s the system, rolled into one concentrated thing and spouted out in the most insensitive ways on this place where people go to find their dreams and see where they can fit in. It’s not a singular experience, but the casting notice for Straight Outta Compton and the language that they used to rank the women as “A Girls, B Girls, C Girls and D Girls”… the language was sooo specific and so dangerous. But reading those casting breakdowns—and the gift of discernment—is good because it gives you practice for when you read casting breakdowns that aren’t as obvious.

SM: Yeah, it’s almost like learning a different language, or learning to decode something. Like, if you read the most egregious things, that’s like reading the most basic sentence in another language, so that then you get better at…

SB: The nuance.

SM: Right. So, what roles, and these don’t have to be roles that exist in the world and maybe it’s even more interesting if they’re not, but what roles do you want to play?

SB: I want to see someone like me. Obviously there are other successful actresses who fit my type, who I see. But on an emotional level, I’m hungry for something else, something deeper. The Leftovers—I love that show. Last year I experienced what was, for me, a substantial amount of loss. And with that comes a lot of growth. But themes of loss are very emotionally resonant with me. You know, I would love to see something that explored that in my body. And explored it in a way that I’ve experienced and perceived it. Themes about motherhood are also very resonant to me. Especially now. All of my siblings have kids and I’m watching the considerations and negotiations that they have to make as black parents. My oldest niece is three. I took her to the bank and there was a lady who was like, mid-reach, saying, aww, can I touch her hair? And it was like, how do I protect her from that? And how do we reinforce the images that we need to reinforce?

We come from a very culturally positive environment and despite everything, you ask my niece what she likes? Sofia [the First, from the Disney Channel show of the same name], Ariel [from Disney’s The Little Mermaid]… those are the main two. These are images of white girls and white women. There are just so many levels of awareness that we need to have, just as individuals, and then as parents, because you’re like okay, survival of another human being, culturally positive images, gender positive images and not instilling those kinds of boundaries on them in terms of sexuality and gender, keeping them safe, wanting to ensure that they’re perceived as safe… it’s a lot…

SM: This seems like such an important story to tell, especially right now, the experience of black parenthood in America…

SB: I’m so hungry for that! Oh my god, I’m so hungry for that. And, relationships too. Because just like, parenthood isn’t one thing, love isn’t one thing. There’s a saying that when America catches a cold, black people catch pneumonia. Because it’s race and class and more.

SM: Are you thinking about writing this kind of piece that you’re describing? A piece that would depict…

SB: Absolutely. Shorts now, because you know, I have to get my weight up. There’s a lot in them. Like relationships. Relationships with police. Black parenthood. There’s a short that explores all of that. To the point where, the note I get is, figure something out and have a direct stream, because it’s a short. But I can’t do that, because it is all of that.

SM: Can you talk about writing as an actor?

SB: This is the thing that I’m learning: if you want to work, you have to do the other thing. Even just to give yourself a distraction. Because even if you knew for a fact you were going to be famous in five years, those years before, one through five, do something, do something that’s your own, even if it’s not good, just do something because it’s so empowering. Sitting by the phone and waiting is not.

Also, writing is an expression of one’s self, acting is an expression of one’s self, so letting a lot of things out as a writer also helped me as an actor. And then like, the auditions will be there. If they’re there, they’ll be there. If they’re not, this will be there.

SM: Yes! Now that I’m writing my own material, I’m like, god, why haven’t I been doing this all along? Because I remember saying as a child, I want to be an author and an actor when I grow up and then somewhere I got convinced that I didn’t have any stories to tell. And I know that it has to do with me not seeing the type of stories I was interested in telling as a writer.

SB: Same for me.

SM: Is there anything else happening right now culturally that’s exciting to you?

SB: Hmm… I’m excited by new media in general because there are Instagram videos that I watch fifty times in a row, and that’s media! That’s media. I’m excited that I get to see like young boys and girls who look like kids I grew up and went to high school with, who were funny but were always told that they weren’t gonna be anything and shut up and behave and don’t act like yourself, make these funny ass videos, have us be able to relate to them, thousands of likes, thousands of comments, them making money off of it, that’s really exciting to me.

There are a lot of memes now that are like when I was a kid, I did this… or like, black parents are like this… or going to black Thanksgivings and stuff like that—I’m hungry for those really specific things. Like when Rachel Dolezol was in the news, the hashtag #askrachel came up, it was a test for her, to see if she was really black, and there were questions, you know like, it was a picture of a remote control, and it was like: What do you call this?” A. a television remote, B. the control, or C. ‘mote control. ‘Cause we say, gimme the ‘mote control. You know, very specific parts of our culture that we don’t get to see in mainstream media because the strokes are so broad, or they’re done by people who don’t do their research or don’t see the humanity in those little interactions. Getting to see that kind of very specific stuff on Instagram, Twitter, Vine… those things really excite me.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.



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