Rising star Florence Kasumba takes the time out of her day to chat about working on such a huge set, preparing for the physically demanding role, and future plans.
The Marvel film universe seems to be growing bigger by the day. Much like the actual universe, it seems that it is ever expanding, gaining new space and properties with each passing day. Joining that continually swelling world is the highly anticipated Black Panther. Telling the story of the eponymous superhero as he returns home to his native Wakanda after helping Captain America and the team in Captain America: Civil War only to find that there is a conspiracy afoot that could set in motion the destruction of the entire world.
That’s where Florence Kasumba’s character Ayo steps in. Part of the covert and highly trained badass group, Dora Milaje, Ayo is one of the few individuals in the special forces group. With the help of Ayo and others, Black Panther (or King T’Challa as he is known to Wakandians) must overcome the mounting threat and save not only his native Wakanda but the entire world. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with Kasumba during her time at the The Schomburg Center’s sixth annual Black Comic Book Festival. to discuss her time working on the film, growing accustomed to working on giant budget films, and more. Check out what she had to say below.
Black Panther is of course one of the most anticipated movies of the year. What was some of the energy that you’re seeing at the Schomburg Festival as far as the reception of things like trailer so far?
Florence Kasumba: I haven’t been to the festival yet, I will go there after these interviews, but, I mean, everybody’s so excited, and I have people writing me like “oh my gosh. The movie’s coming out. We can’t wait. It’s this Monday, we’re going out and buying our tickets.” And I’m doing something that I’ve never done before. I mean, I’m an actress, you know that you will watch the movie premiere or that will watch some other performance. But even I said to my husband, “oh my gosh, I have to go out and I have to buy tickets for the whole family and for friends and, and, you know, like I really want to invest money so that everybody knows like okay go out, watch the movie, you will have so much fun watching it. And it’s a movie for everyone.
With Hollywood and television beginning to take a greater interest in superheroes of color–you got Black Lightning on the CW, Luke Cage on Netflix, and of course, Black Panther, which we’re all excited about–what do you see as the future of leading roles of heroes of color in the movies and on television? What are your hopes for that or where do you see it going?
Kasumba: Well, I hope that everybody can say like “well, I have the feeling that I’m represented out there. Again, that in my case, for example, I waited for Luke Cage, and I waited for this movie, and I thought like “wow, maybe I could be part of something like that, because most of the time- I don’t say my appearance is difficult, but a lot of the time people say like that “oh, but if we cast her, is that going to be a problem?” And now times are changing. And I want to see Asian superheroes, and- I mean, basically, I want to see superheroes. It doesn’t matter where they come from; where everybody can say like “wow, that could be me out there.”
What was it like working Ryan Coogler? He’s a renowned director, who has pretty much never released a bad movie. So save even for the fact that this is such a big release, this is also the first predominantly African American cast of a Marvel movie. People have high expectations with Coogler’s follow up to Creed and before that Fruitvale Station. I was wondering, how was it working with Coogler on set, but did he transition easily into this big-budget director role?
Kasumba: Well personally, I just found it amazing working with him as an actress, you have to imagine he must be under so much pressure making this movie, but he is so calm, and, I mean, for example, you know, when you do something wrong, normally people will be like “uh, don’t do this or try this, and change that.” And he would always come to you, and he’s very quiet, like he would ask a question where nobody could ask you- listen to, like, “ why are you doing this? Or, you know, what is your point of view?” And then sometimes it would be like “ah, okay, I understand.” You know, like very respectful. Very calm. Or other moments, for example, when we’re filming and we’re cold, he would never walk around with a jacket you ask him like “why isn’t he cold?” and then you find out that he doesn’t wear a jacket because he knows that we are freezing, so that’s the kind of person he is.
What is your perspective being of Ugandan-German decent, watching the excitement and hyped-up reaction of African Americans to the film and to these fictional African characters, specifically, the representation of these amazing black women?
Kasumba: Well it is a little overwhelming. Because you know, when I was filming it, I was just very focused and you want to look that part, you want to play it correctly, but then when you listen to how people talk about it, like in my case, I didn’t grow up in Uganda, but I have a lot of fans from Uganda that contact me and just say “oh my gosh, you’re representing us” and these are things that yes, I thought about them when we were on set and you look around and you ask all these people like “where do you come from?” And you hear all these stories, and there was an understanding, there was, you know, like people understand what it means to be somewhere and normally I don’t say where you being there is not okay, but all of a sudden you’re in this movie, where we thought like “wow. This was a given. We had to look the way we look in order to be in this movie” and that is very overwhelming. Like when you go somewhere and you think wow this is okay, and my look is okay and having no hair, which I by the way, that’s a choice. It’s not that I don’t have hair, but I don’t like wearing long hair but then all of a sudden I’m in this movie that they require you to shave your hair, and it was difficult for some women, because you know how it is with our hair, you know? You don’t want to just shave it off, but you need to in order to play Dora, you know?
So your character in the Black Panther movie, Ayo, made a really quick, yet impactful entrance in Captain America: Civil War with the phrase, “move or you will be moved,” which by the way is one of my favorite parts of that movie. Tell us a little bit about the character as a whole and what–I know you mentioned something about, you know, being on set, and having to fit in–but what was required of you to kind of learn and to kind of fit into that character?
Kasumba: Well, we all had to be physically very, very strong because you know there’s one thing to look the part and to get into the costume, but I mean we fought sometimes the whole day, so you need to be able- yeah, you need to be able to run around the whole day to have a condition mentally also you know to know that you will have to do this move like a hundred times. And yeah, I mean, but we were prepared. What people maybe don’t know is they didn’t just choose random people. They chose athletes. And I have a dance background, for example, I studied dancing and I also do Martial Arts. I do Tai Chi, Muay Thai and Kung Fu, and when I came to work it’s not like that it was like oh my gosh I have to move around; it’s what I’ve been trained to do. I’ve been trained to sing and dance and act at the same time whether it’s singing and dancing or acting and fighting, that doesn’t make it different. My challenge was just like okay you’re going to be in a movie, where you’re not going to tell a story for 3 hours, you [every day] have to move around for 5 months every day and still function, you know, and that was the challenge. But you know we train. We even trained on days when we just were filming normal scenes, not even the fight scenes. You were basically training all the time.
So you have a role in Wonder Woman as Senator Acantha. And that was part of being involved in another empowering film, you know, the first female superhero being highlighted on the big screen. How did that experience measure up to your experience with Black Panther?
Kasumba: Well, I don’t want to compare these two, because at the end of the day, again, I was allowed to play a strong character like a senator. There’s someone that maybe doesn’t [fight] at that stage anymore, but is someone that was trained to do that. And again, they also chose women that are able to do this and I’m just very proud that I, first of all, have the chance now in ‘17, ‘18 to play these characters, you know, that people are looking out for women that are strong and that can function in a movie like that, because you know, you don’t film this in three weeks. You- It takes months to create- yeah months to create these movie, and it’s hard work. And not a glamorous- we were crawling on the floors, and doing things that- so it’s hard work.
The design of this movie, I think, is probably what separates it from a lot of the other Marvel movies. It has a very unique one that I think elevates it a lot higher. How did it feel working on such a cool set?
Kasumba: Well, it’s amazing because you talked about what’s going to happen, you know, when you get ready for the scene, but then you actually walk on set and you have the feeling that you at that place. I mean like all these scenes, I would end up after weeks writing like guys, greetings from Wakanda. Because I spent a lot of time you know. Yeah, it’s something – you know I’m happy that we’re allowed to see it first. That we were allowed to experience it, to walk through these streets, so it’s just amazing and it’s something -I don’t know, you can’t even explain it you have to watch the movie to understand what I’m talking about.
I’m curious from a comic book aspect. Do you read comic books, and did you read the World of Wakanda comic book that featured your character? And did that influence anything that you were doing on the set?
Kasumba: Well, I didn’t read comic books, and I wasn’t interested in them, and I actually didn’t watch Marvel movies when I did Captain America. When I did it, and I understood that people were like “oh my gosh. You’re playing Dora Milaje and how is this?” I started thinking “hm, what is that?” But then again, when we started filming Black Panther, I don’t say I didn’t want to be influenced by something. The book was very, very clear, you know, like reading through the script and that was the only thing that was important at that point because I am not creating anything that was written before. I take the information out of the screenplay or the book that I have in front of me. And only towards the end I started reading World of Wakanda and it’s interesting because that’s when I realized “wow” like the instinct that I had are very, very similar to what I read in the comics.
Without telling us too much of course, which aspect of this movie do you think fans are going to enjoy the most?
Kasumba: There is no aspect. You will love the whole thing. Look, I’m telling you before I was never a fan, I wasn’t interested in these movies, but this story… this is for everyone. This is a movie for young people, for old people, for people that are interested comic books, for fans of the Marvel universe, anyway, and I can just say, you will cry, you will laugh. You will have a lot of moments where you’re like “oh my gosh! They did not just do this?” And this is what I just found amazing and you get going to the movies, watching these movies nowadays, that’s an event.
Now that you are familiar with the comic book background of your character, how faithful do you feel this adaptation is to the source material? And do you think that the hardcore comic book fans are going to be happy with this film?
Kasumba: You know what, all I have to say is, I mean, you can never go through life with expectations because this is a movie where I have to say, “be open. Go in watching. Have no expectations. And then come out and I don’t know, cry and tell people “oh my gosh this is something that I’ve never seen before.” Because that’s just how it’s going to be. I was able to, again, talk about the movies, watch the other movies, and I see that Wakanda looks different than any place we know. The people are different, the story and yeah, a lot of things are different in this movie and that’s why I’m just saying I don’t want to spoil anything. You have to go out and you have to experience it for yourself, and I’m telling you. You will not be disappointed.
I just wanted to pivot a little bit. You’re also starring in Duncan Jones’ newest film, Mute. It’s been called the spiritual sequel to his first film, Moon, the excellent Moon with Sam Rockwell. I was wondering, could you tell us anything about that and your roll in it?
Kasumba: Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about it because it’s too early to talk about it.
Then I was just wondering then, if I could make a quick question about you’re also starring as Shenzi in the new Lion King from John Fabro. It’s going to be another big-budget performance for you. Are you getting used to the grandiosity of being on such big-budget movies? Or it doesn’t faze you at all?
Kasumba: You know what, maybe if I would live here it would be different, but I live so far away from Hollywood and therefore, I always recognize afterwards like wow again another path that I’m happy or another movie that I’m happy to be part of, but I don’t know. I’ve done big productions, small productions, bigger movies. Like after filming the Black Panther, I went into a German series, which is a small series that a lot of people don’t know, but it doesn’t matter the jobs for me, you know, I always get to tell a story. I always get to play different characters, and therefore, I hope I will be able to continue to doing that. On what level, it doesn’t matter. I don’t find a movie better just because it has a bigger budget. It’s always fun as an actor to be able to play different characters.
Of the American work that you’ve done Captain America: Civil War, Emerald City, Wonder Woman, and now, Black Panther. Because all the roles were different, right, physically exhausting, if you had to pick, not necessarily a favorite, but the most transformative time that you’ve spent on a project, which film would you pick?
Kasumba: Well, definitely the Black Panther, just because it was a long time we were working on that project, you know? And it’s not just, like normally- even if you- I just finished the German series, and it was over 5 months, but the Black Panther it was not just going in and acting, it was like training with my colleagues like, you know, people keep asking me how was it working with Lupita and Danai and Chadwick, and you have to imagine we all show up at 8 in the morning and start running and crawling on stuff and rolling on top of each other and it was so, so hard and when you physically train with people you become like so much closer. You know? Like we all were in pain and it was not just a long period of preparation and working with each other, it was the whole package. And then also the story that we are telling, you know? And knowing that this is something people haven’t seen before. This definitely has a bigger impact. The other thing is also, again I keep talking about the characters that I play, you know, it doesn’t happen a lot that you get a part, in my case, where it’s totally okay the way how I look. Where people don’t say “oh, we might have to give her a wig because she looks too strong, she is too intimidating” you know? This is what’s exactly that was required to play what I am playing in this movie. And all of a sudden you hear people and you see other young people either next year or this year that are going like “oh my gosh, I saw you and that was so much fun and I want to go out and train and yeah.” This movie has a big impact on how I see things, you know? And how I work.
This whole film of course takes place in this country of Wakanda and the actors all come from various parts of the world. Lupita is from Kenya, and Chadwick is American, you are German. Was there a speech coach that you all used so that your accents would be you know this uniform Wakandan accent, or was there any emphasis on the language at all? I mean was that addressed at all? Or what can we expect?
Kasumba: Well, we had a dialect coach that helped us, but again with casting people that have an African background, and in my case, coming from East Africa, or my other colleagues we have family members that speak with an African accent, so you know, you grow up and you only way learn that, you hear that all the time. You go to the apple shop and somebody does your hair and you hear that all the time. We had a dialect coach, because at the end of the day, we’re talking about women coming from different tribes from Wakanda. And that’s why it’s normal that they don’t have the same, but because we’re still all from the same country, there was a coach, a dialect coach worked that with us. And you know, when we had to say our lines, and they would expect me to say the way it was supposed to be, she help us and say no, you need to pronounce it like this. But we also have people- let’s say from South Africa or you know they could also help us.
Black Panther is set to be released everywhere in the US February 16.