Noma Dumezweni on Her Big Year + Finally Learning to Say: ‘Well, Fuck It’

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

“Fiffany, for fuck’s sake,” Noma Dumezweni exclaims of her character’s name on “Made for Love.” That name alone was enough to entice Dumezweni, a Tony nominee for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” into joining the HBO Max series. The pitch-black comedy, airing new episodes on Thursdays, is the second of her standout roles this year, following her ruthless attorney on “The Undoing.” Busy as could be, Dumezweni hopped on the phone with Backstage to discuss her breakout year on the small screen, outside-in character-building, and how she finally learned to say “fuck it” and find joy in her acting.  

“Made for Love” is, in a word, weird. What drew you to it? 
I hadn’t seen anything like it before. Even in the reading of it, originally, I’m going, “What is this?” I remember reading a couple of excerpts and saying, “What on earth?” And to be honest, I’m realizing that that’s a lot of how I choose work. If I go, “What is this? How will that unfold?” the actual process is what I’m curious about. How are we gonna make this thing? And also, just [my character’s name,] Fiffany, for fuck’s sake. Because we automatically want to say Tiffany. Why is this scientist woman called Fiffany? What’s her story? 

Along with your role on “The Undoing,” where you played the attorney Haley, “Made for Love” is your second time this year playing someone very different from yourself. Is that a draw for you, generally? 
I think I am drawn to them because they are so different. Fiffany, she’s a marine biologist. I thought, Well, I have no fucking idea what that is. The privilege of doing this job is that you do get to learn about different ways of living, and I’ve met every walk of life through this job. I’m not surprised in the sense that I understand humanity, because I’ve met very, very many shades of it, being an actor. I love that. I fucking love that. Someone says, “Would you like to talk to a Black marine biologist?” and I go, “One exists? There is a Black female marine biologist? That’s fucking amazing!” 

“It shouldn’t be a struggle, it shouldn't be pain. Yes, the hard work is there, but enjoy the fears of getting somewhere.”

And then playing Haley on “The Undoing,” even just reading her, it’s like, I don’t know this lawyer. The clothes and how wealthy they all are—which I really enjoy, playing in clothes like that. I’m cheap in that way. But you’re kind of going, Who is this? That’s my curiosity. I’m still trying to hone down, what is my process of acting? It’s a question that’s been brought up recently. I think I do have a process, but I can’t explain it to you. It’s much more of a feeling thing. But, I always say that each job gives me something different to work through. I think what I’ve realized is that my way of acting is going, Wait, how can this vessel of Noma find the Fiffany? Where’s the Fiffany in Noma? And now, how can I expand that? Where’s the Haley in Noma? They’re so different. That’s the excitement, figuring out, How can I meld them together? Even being Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” it’s like, OK, we have an idea of who that young person is, now who’s this grown person that we’re going to be presenting? It’s in the playing of it. 

Since you don’t necessarily put your process into words, can you describe more of the “feeling” you mentioned, when getting to know a character?
I love listening to actors on podcasts just talking or whatever. I used to get stressed going, “Oh, God, I don’t do it like that, oh, no. No wonder they’re amazing. Oh, fuck, they really do write down every note!” That’s not me. That’s not my process. I am in awe of that process, but my head doesn’t work that way. So, OK, let’s feel. What does a word feel like? And then whoever I’m playing with, what do they feel like? Alright, so you have a sense of what the character is. Now, let’s start playing. “Oh, you made me feel that way,” so in this moment, I could go that direction. You work out in the scene what’s needed, so, yes, there is a bit of arcing of where you’re going in that sense. But an actor can change my rhythm. That’s the playing with people. And then there’s also the negotiation sometimes with the director saying, “Can you try that?” And your instinct doesn’t quite feel it, but always be open 100% of the time. So you go, “OK, I’ll try it, see if it works for me.” And if it doesn’t, you say, “Why didn’t it work for me?” and that’s where the investigation comes. It’s finding out what’s missing. 

I am also very cheap in that you put me in costume and I go, “Oh, hello!” Because it starts doing a different thing to how you hold your tummy and how you hold your neck. I’ve just been in a costume fitting right now, and I loved it because I was like, “Oh, my God, this has shifted what I’ve been reading,” if that makes sense. It just added on another layer. I love that shit. 

READ: ‘The Undoing’ Director on Getting
‘Seduced’ by Her Actors

So, would you say you’re an actor who builds a character from the outside in rather than working from the inside and moving outward? 
I definitely lean that way. I do like tapping into my body. I trust my body more than my head, if that makes sense. The ideal, though, is that I listen to my instinct. And as, say, the costume comes on, you go, Oh, yes. Something’s clicking. It is kind of like they’re starting to meld, the inside and the outside. I need the help of the outside to understand what’s inside and why that’s the inside. 

Sticking with that line of thought, how do you get out of your head and into your body?
It doesn’t have to be such hard work. It really doesn't. What do I mean by that? It shouldn’t be a struggle. That’s what I’m trying to say. It shouldn’t be a struggle; it shouldn't be pain. Yes, the hard work is there, but enjoy the fears of getting somewhere you’re really on a journey to discover. That’s what I love about acting and characters: going, “I see.” Because now, even talking to you, I’m thinking in my head about, physically, my Hermione, my Haley, and my Fiffany. And I’m going, Oh, great, they are different. I can see them physically as totally different entities. Yet it’s the same body.

Switching gears, what is one performance every actor should see and why? 
Too many amazing performances. That’s a horrible question! I will tell you the most recent one I absolutely fell in love with: the woman who played the grandmother in “The Farewell” with Awkwafina—Shuzhen Zhao. I had to start Googling her, and, of course, you realize she’s kind of Chinese royalty in terms of theater and acting. It was—I understood every second of her, if that makes sense. 

“I went, ‘Fuck it, OK, here we go, I’m not acting, I’m not putting on face, I’m not masking, I’m actually interested and I’m actually listening.’ ”

Taking a walk down memory lane, do you have an audition horror story you can share?
Oh, my God. Too many. But there is absolutely one, and I think it’s gonna traumatize me to tell. In the early, early days, I was asked by an agent, “You can do some singing, right? You’ll be fine.” The audition was for the musical “Once on This Island,” which, ironically, I finally saw [the 2018 revival of] when I got to Broadway. But this was, like, over 20 years ago. I didn’t know anything about that musical. I think I was going in for the mum or the tree? I don’t know. It was that lack of confidence of me going, Alright, maybe if I take a couple of lessons with a friend who’s a singer, I can just kind of talk-sing my way through it. I realized afterward that this is what musical auditions are: a panel of a minimum of seven people looking at me, with a piano player next to me. Basically, [here’s] what I did in the audition: “Uh, OK, yes, hi. I’m nervous as fuck. I don’t know what I’m doing at a musical audition. This is my body telling me I shouldn’t be here.” I’m blaming the agent now. And they go, “Please, when you’re ready.” [The accompanist] started playing, and then I started moving my body and my shoulders, and I’m looking at him, because I can’t quite remember when to come in. And literally in that moment, I felt the air turn cold, because I lost all confidence. That was the worst audition, and I’ve never gone for another musical since then.

On a possibly more uplifting note, what is the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a job?
In a psychological way, the wildest thing I’ve ever done to get a job is to trust myself. I know it sounds odd, but in my youth, I would kind of think, Oh, maybe I should act like this when I go in there. One’s not doing oneself, you’re not doing you, I wasn’t doing me. And then the moment I invested in myself, and went, “Well, fuck it. I know I’ve gone in there and done the best that I can,”—I would say that was in my early 30s—I started [booking jobs]. Because I was a late starter, like my mid-20s. My bottom line is I’ve realized that—I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, I don’t think it does—but I’ve realized, I am a bit of a unicorn. I realized I was trying to fit into different molds of what I thought people wanted to see. So I went, “Fuck it, OK, here we go, I’m not acting, I’m not putting on face, I’m not masking, I’m actually interested and I’m actually listening. I’m not talking ’til I’m ready to jump in, I’m actually listening.”

And you’re freeing yourself up to just be present in the moment.
Yes, and that’s good. I do try to say that to young actors. I say, “You can ask the questions. Listen. There’s nothing to prove. You’ve done your work.” I was clearly trying to prove, “I’m worth it, I’m worth it.” And that’s desperate, that fucking energy, mate. It’s horrible.  

What job got you to join Equity?
I love that question, because I remember it very well. It was a theater-in-education job in Britain, it was a company in Bristol. And it was a traveling live theater company, and I tell you why I always remember it: because this was the job that was going to get me my Equity card. The director, who is still a great friend of mine, she gave me that job, knowing that I hadn’t got an Equity card. It was that whole chicken-and-egg thing. I auditioned, I just went on this open call, they only had a few Equity cards to give out, and I can’t remember what the deal was, but she had to fight for me to be in the company because of that card situation. I’ll always remember ringing her up, like six months after I’d finished the job. I remember that day: It was October 1992. I remember being in bed, listening to the post go “clunk,” and waking up and then just opening up this envelope, reading over it going, “Yes! I have an Eq card!” Because you’ve joined the club you wanted to join.

We’ve touched on this a bit, but as a final thought: What advice would you give your younger self? 
Oh, yes, we kind of have touched on that in a way. But I would say, just trust yourself. There’s nothing to prove. Do your work that you are happy with and be present.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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