Zephani Idoko Talks 'Nanny,' 'Gossip Girl,' and Making Horror Films
The Nigerian actress is building her resume of playing roles in notable productions, like Nikyatu Jusu's award-winning film, which releases on Prime Video this weekend.
At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in January, the film Nanny began its spectacular run this year by winning the Grand Jury Prize, making it the first time a horror film has ever received this honor. It was a win for Sierra Leonean American director Nikyatu Jusu and for the cast of this intimate and haunting tale, and signaled the kind of acclaim the film would go on to achieve as the year progressed.
In the film, Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant, struggles to build a new life in New York while longing to reunite with the child she left behind. As the caretaker of a little girl, she immerses herself in the tasks required of her, while trying not to confront a harsh reality that threatens to destroy her American dream.
Zephani Idoko plays the supporting role of Sallay, a hairstylist and best friend to Aisha. The Lagos-born actress trained under Diane Baker at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, where she earned a BFA in Acting for Stage and Screen, and began her professional career. Since then, she’s played Abena on The Unsettling, a psychological horror film, and has been on the Starz show Power Book II: Ghost, where she plays the role of Stephanie. She's also due to be seen in the current season of the Gossip Girl reboot.
Idoko talks to OkayAfrica about her role in Nanny and the importance of films like it in mainstream Hollywood.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
In Nanny, you play Sallay, a character who is an essential grounding force for Aisha. Tell us a little about her.
Sallay is one of the joy centers for Aisha in the film. She is Aisha’s closest friend, who cares deeply about her. The moments they have together are the times when Aisha comes out from under the weight of all the stuff that’s going on in her life. There’s a strong sisterhood between them, and that was a joy to play.
There were some changes to Sallay made for you?
Sallay wasn’t nailed down as Nigerian when I did the audition. Nikyatu was sure that she wanted her to be West African because it’s based on a real person from her life who is Sierra Leonean. But I made her Nigerian, and Nikyatu decided to keep that authenticity.
Nanny is unapologetically African, there are a lot of cultural references, from the food to the music and more. There aren’t a lot of projects in mainstream Hollywood that get this right.
I continue to be so excited and grateful to have gotten to be a part of this because it made history on so many levels. What you see there with the authenticity and references being spot-on comes from intentionality. Nikyatu is Sierra Leonean American and she is the daughter of immigrant parents.
There’s a difference between filmmakers who borrow from the culture and try to do it justice, and those who know what they're portraying first-hand and are very deliberate about it. That's definitely what's coming across for you in the genuineness of those moments.
I know that making sure that the right actors were cast was a priority for Nikyatu so she was very hands-on about that. She was also very much an actor’s director. We would get on set sometimes and she would ask what feels most natural for us to say at the moment, and if it felt more true to the vibe or the character, she’d let us tweak the lines a bit. That helped with the flow and the authenticity of those moments.
Zephani Idoko [L] and Anna Diop [R] in 'Nanny,’
Photo: Prime Video
This also brings me to a broader question about African representation in Hollywood. How do you feel about what is being done right now?
I think that Nanny is the first bit of Hollywood cinema that I've seen that portrays an African lead and does an amazing job of it. I want to see more of that. I think it's not done nearly enough yet, but we're heading in the right direction; Hollywood as a whole, in terms of telling African stories authentically. This is just an amazing example of that.
There's a whole lot in this film. It tells an important immigrant and domestic worker story. But there's a lot more in there, too -- sisterhood, romance, and multicultural Black love. The nuances of that are explored beautifully. All in all, it’s just really exciting to see a film like this on the big screen.
You had worked on The Unsettling, another horror film and now Nanny. Is horror a passion of yours?
I haven't specifically sought out and chosen to do horror films these last two times, but it has happened that way as a very happy coincidence. I am a horror fan, particularly supernatural horror, so I’m thankful to have gotten to work on unique scripts. I also really appreciate the new wave of horror films that we’re getting that are not just your typical horror with the classic tropes and the scares. These new films are also relevant, character-driven and poignant. I think Nanny and The Unsettling are both great examples of that.
Horror films like 'The Unsettling,' in which she plays Abena, are a favorite of Zephani Idoko's.
Photo: Still from the film
What would you like people to take away from Nanny when they watch it?
I know that one of the intentions behind this is to centre a dark-skinned African Black woman lead because that's not something that's done often enough in Hollywood. I want people to see Anna Diop playing Aisha and feel represented in the mainstream, and feel the love and intention behind it. I hope that it builds empathy when people watch it, and it gives some view into the immigrant story and their experiences. Most importantly, I hope that people enjoy it, because I absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed this film, right from the script to the finished work.
You have been cast in the second season of the Gossip Girl reboot. What can we expect from your character?
My character is called Ashley, and there’s very little I can say about her yet, because she comes in on the sixth episode, which doesn’t air till December 29. But I was on vacation when I got the audition and ended up having to do a really weird setup in my hotel room to shoot it, moving all the furniture around to get enough light and setting my camera up on a random shelf and all. I did it and forgot about it. Three days later, I got an email saying I’d been cast. It's crazy 'cause I was pretty into the original Gossip Girl as a teenager before I even knew I wanted to be an actor, and now I get to be on the new one, and be part of its improvement on the diversity of the original. I’m excited for everyone to meet Ashley in a couple of weeks.
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