The Neighbors, the quirky ABC comedy about an ordinary family that moves into a gated suburban community taken over by aliens, was dismissed by critics almost immediately after it premiered. Those viewers who've stuck it out have been rewarded by a sweet, intelligent, and offbeat comic gem that has improved by leaps from its debut.
The show stars a number of great actors including Charmed's Simon Templeman and veteran actor Jami Gertz, who has been the brilliant showstopper in nearly everything she's starred in, from Square Pegs in 1982 (opposite Sarah Jessica Parker) to Still Standing (in the early 2000s) opposite Bill Addy. So it's a surprise that the biggest star of The Neighbors is actually one of those extraterrestrials, named Jackie Joyner-Kersee (every member of the alien community is named after a popular figure in American culture, regardless of gender or race). The character, the Zabvronian equivalent of the first lady, is played by Norwegian-Nigerian actress Toks Olagundoye, who The New York Times called “One to Watch” and The Hollywood Reporter dubbed one of “The 100 Fresh Faces of Fall TV.”
Olagundoye shines in tonight's special treat: an all-musical episode of The Neighbors (a show that usually has zero singing). The Advocate caught up with the Hollywood (by way of Nigeria, England, and Switzerland) starlet and discussed playing Jackie, race and humor on TV, working with Gertz, and her other calling, as founder of Unlimited Ceiling, which creates Web series such as Callbacks and AlphaSeries.
The Advocate: I love that your family on The Neighbors is all mixed-race, in part because Toks and her husband are aliens who don’t understand race. Do you think the writers can or do use that humorously to talk about race in America?
Toks Olagundoye: Well, I don't actually think that the idea of the mixed-race family was crafted in order to make a point. During the audition process, casting brought in every kind of person for each of the roles, as, I believe, they were really just trying to get the best actors for the parts — what a concept. I think they allowed themselves more room to do so by allowing the concept of a racially diverse family to come into existence. I was auditioning alongside women of all types, ages, and ethnicities for Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and I am grateful that I was chosen because I was their idea of the best fit for the character. The writers definitely do use the final result to poke fun and make a point here and there — or all the way through our “Back Nine” episode — but I believe that it takes a backseat on the show, making it somewhat incidental. And I prefer it that way, as it allows for the writers to explore the many other things which are open to them and which, I believe, makes our show unique.
You work with one of my favorite actresses, Jami Gertz, who is a seasoned TV vet whose been working since she was a kid. What's it like working with her?
Jami has always been a favorite of mine as well! I was obsessed with her in The Lost Boys and have probably watched Jersey Girl — the original with Dylan McDermott — 50 times. I don't know anyone female from my generation who didn't want her hair. Jami is incredible to work with. She set an amazing tone for the show and our workspace from day one and it has proved an inspiring and open way to work! The first several weeks on the show I can honestly say that I learned from her every day. We are so lucky to have her on the show. She and her character are our anchor.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned while working on The Neighbors?
Honestly? That this job, being a regular on a television show, is so much harder than it appears. It requires an incredible amount of discipline if one wants to consistently have the energy and focus to do one's best. As a result I have learned to genuinely prioritize what is right for me and that saying no to things which are not within that realm is not only all right but necessary.
You're Nigerian and Norwegian, born in Lagos, Nigeria, and grew up partly in England, Switzerland, and Paris, and can speak French and Norwegian and sound faintly British. Does that exotic background get you parts or make you harder to cast?
I was born and, besides two years in London when I was very young, raised in Nigeria. My family still lives there. I was educated in Nigeria, boarding school in England, and in the summers, Switzerland. We spent a great deal of time with my family in Norway and a couple of weeks every summer in England. I came to the U.S. for university. Although I have been to Paris several times starting at a young age and it is my father's favorite city, I was not raised or educated in Paris. Unfortunately, I no longer fluently speak Norwegian or French by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not sure I know the answer to whether or not that makes it easier or harder for me to cast. I consider myself to be quite flexible and versatile as an actor, which I believe means that I am able to do more. However, sometimes when one is not easily typecast or able to fit into a box, it can make it more confusing to know what to do with them. So I suppose the answer is — although my talents were wildly taken advantage of while I was in university earlier on in my career — yes, it was probably more difficult for people to see clearly what to do with me at first. But now what I am capable of doing seems to be more clear. That being said, this is a very competitive career path filled with a plethora of talented people, so I don't ever expect it will be easy. And why should it? Nothing worth actually succeeding in ever is.
Tell me about Unlimited Ceiling and the shows you’ve produced for it? Why a Web series?
Unlimited Ceiling is a small production company I started last year. We have several Web series and a short film in various stages of development, most of them in conjunction with other small production companies. I am also a writer and right now making money off of it is not a major concern. I enjoy getting my things out into the world to share as quickly as possible, and Web series are the easiest and most cost-efficient way of doing that without having to jump through a ridiculous amount of hoops.
You’re a health nut who swears by an organic and preservative-free diet. What’s your favorite dish to cook?
I'm not sure that I would refer to myself as a health nut, but I am definitely health-conscious when it comes to diet and exercise. I do prefer a preservative-free and organic diet, but I have been known to cheat, especially on set, in restaurants, and as a guest in someone else's home. I can't expect everyone else to change their buying, cooking, and eating habits for me. That being said, I do my best to be as healthy as I can when I have a choice in the matter. I love to cook, and although I appreciate suggestions from cookbooks, I tend to come up with my own recipes, usually as a result of what treasures I have found at the grocery store or what I have in my kitchen at the time or what I feel like eating. Therefore I rarely make the exact same thing twice. So my answer would have to be that my favorite dish to cook is something which everyone involved is going to enjoy.
The Neighbors airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30 p.m. Central.