“Only when we question received knowledge can we move forward, and I think it’s vitally important we do. By doing so, we can free ourselves of dusty and archaic definitions of our being, and just be who we are in the moment.”
We can all resonate with Faith Alabi’s words at this moment. Even if you haven’t had the chance to watch We Are Who We Are yet, this year has us living out the parallel themes from the show in real life—namely shaking social stigmas, reshaping conventional notions about identity, and rearranging priorities. And with the show being referred to as “coming-of-age poetry” we wanted the scoop on Jenny, played by London-native, Faith Alabi. Not only did the actress give us the exclusive on her character, but she dished all the details on life lately and how she has been coping with the year’s challenges.
Sandy: Tell us about yourself and where you grew up.
Faith: I’m an actress from London. I spent most of my childhood in an area in East London called Shoreditch, Hackney.
Sandy: How did you get into acting?
Faith: I did a summer youth theater course with Talawa theater company, a British, Black-led theater company based in London, and after it finished, they encouraged me to apply for drama schools. I hadn’t really heard of any and they told me which ones to apply to. I made a deal with myself that if I was offered a place, then it was a sign I had enough talent and potential to make a go of acting professionally. Typically, around 3000 applicants audition for roughly 25 places at each school. I was offered a scholarship and trained at Guildhall, a conservatoire in London, for 3 years. I signed with an agent at the beginning of my final year, and started auditioning and working from there.
Sandy: Have you always wanted to be an actress?
Faith: Hmm, secretly. Growing up, it was always a private wild fantasy of mine that I harbored quietly. I didn’t know anyone in the profession and as a Black British girl growing up, I never really saw loads of examples of it being a viable option for myself. Little did I know, I’d actually get to live out the fantasy one day. I’m extremely grateful I get to fulfil my dream and live in my purpose.
Sandy: If you weren’t acting, what do you think you would want to be doing instead?
Faith: Something where I’m moving through my body, like a dancer or an athlete. I was a pretty speedy hurdler and I played netball competitively in my teens. Or, a human rights lawyer/activist, although I’d have to get really good at remaining emotionally detached enough to do a good job! I get so invested—I’m highly empathetic—and can often get a visceral reaction to others pain. That’s great for an actress feeling for their character—not so helpful if you need to form a coherent case where someone’s or a group of people’s lives are dependent on it. I am surprisingly calm and sharp under high pressure though, considering I can barely sit through some charity commercials with a dry eye.
Sandy: How would you describe yourself in three words?
Faith: I’m a witch.
Sandy: Let’s talk about We Are Who We Are. How would you describe this show in your own words?
Faith: We Are Who We Are is a story about two American adolescents, Caitlin and Fraser, who live on a U.S. military base in Italy. It’s a cinematic and immersive exploration of friendship, first-love, and identity. We follow Caitlin and Fraser, along with their families and friends, on a journey navigating the highs and lows of exploring sexual identity and orientation. Each of the characters has an awareness of, or preoccupation with how others perceive them and juggles with the identity/expected role of a parent, child, spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, friend, man, woman, adult, minor, etc. The series offers the idea that our identities are not bound to fit a mold, and that people can continue to discover themselves throughout life, not just during adolescence.
Sandy: You are Jenny in the show. Tell us how you relate or don’t relate to Jenny in real life.
Faith: I’m not really like Jenny at all, which is why it’s so exciting and interesting for me to play her. I think my job as an actress is always to try and relate to my character and understand the justifications for their choices, traits and behaviors—so much so that given your characters’ circumstances, you would be and do the exact same. The more parallels you can draw with your own lived experience, the easier it can be to relate. I can relate to feeling like a foreigner in a different culture. As a Black British woman, I can relate to times growing up and certain environments where there’s a desire to assimilate as a means of survival, at the expense of abandoning my origins and truth, as Jenny does with America. I can relate to having a deep, complicated, and often painful history which isn’t evident to people when first meeting me, as with Jenny behind her smile and warm, cheery disposition. I’m not conservative in the slightest, though I can relate to finding safety and comfort in some traditions or rituals—mine are just less conventional than Jenny’s.
Sandy: How is this character different from the other roles you have played?
Faith: Jenny’s more conservative, repressed and submissive than the other characters I’ve played. She idolizes America and being American eschewing her realness to an extent, and the other characters I’ve played have all been pretty true to themselves—even if they put on the occasional front.
Sandy: What is it like working alongside Oscar-nominated director, Luca Guadagnino?
Faith: Amazing. I was really spoiled with WAWWA. Luca was generous enough to write into the script some ideas I had from personal experiences I’d discussed with him, and my heritage. His direction is poetic, he will find succinct words to describe exactly what he wants from you like a Shakespearean sonnet. He allows plenty of room for your choices and it feels very collaborative. He involves you in much more decision making with your character than a typical director does, which allows so much creative freedom. He’d ask me which cake I think Jenny would make on this occasion; or if I think Jenny would be tearful at this moment; or I’d say I think hibiscus is more Nigerian than cardamon. He has so much artistic integrity that we wouldn’t do the scene until we had the exact right muffins with dried hibiscus, even though they were only featured for a flash of a second in the background of a scene.
Sandy: The show explores identity and has been called “coming-of-age poetry”—why and how do you think the discussion of identity is important in this day and age?
Faith: Discussion stimulates personal and intellectual growth by listening to other views and opening ourselves up to opportunities to correct important mistakes. I think it’s vital to continuously challenge the status quo in order to know why something aligns or does not align with you in society today. We’re at such an exciting time now, with younger generations expressing their genders and sexual identities in ways that make sense for them in the moment. We’ve accepted labeled identity for so long without challenging it, and only through having discourse can we widen our lens and progress. Why is it necessary for my passport to say male or female on it?—why do you need to know which genitals I was born with to pass through an airport? Why and when is gender or gender expression vital? Similarly, why is my marital status with Miss/Ms/Mrs only relevant because I don’t happen to be male? Why and when is it relevant at all? Identity has so often through history been used essentially as a marker for people to know how much to oppress you by or discriminate against you. White supremacist patriarchal systems used categorization of humans in order to justify abhorrently prejudiced treatment and this has somehow trickled down into what we now hold onto as ‘identity politics’ today. Humans are so heavily preoccupied in differentiating and creating tribal culture rather than identifying our commonalities. Only when we question received knowledge can we move forward, and I think it’s vitally important we do. By doing so, we can free ourselves of dusty and archaic definitions of our being, and just be who we are in the moment.
Sandy: What do you hope people take away from this show?
Faith: I hope people feel seen. And experience something which moves them in some way. I hope it broadens their world view somewhat and opens up some questions for them. I hope they experience something which transports them into a completely different space and time. And perhaps they’re challenged on some level in a healthy way. For anyone currently questioning or struggling with their identity—I hope they feel comforted that that’s okay, and they don’t need to rush into confining themselves to any narrow, reductive definition, and that they allow themselves to just be who they are.
Sandy: Of all your recent roles—Jenny, Amber, Melanie, Eliza—which was your favorite to play and why?
Faith: Jenny because she’s the furthest from me and makes some wild choices, which were challenging and interesting and exciting to find justifications for. I stan a complex queen.
Sandy: What type of acting roles would you like to pursue next?
Faith: Ooooo, I’d love to do some action! I really enjoy martial arts and using my body so action, or maybe playing a dancer or athlete or something like that. I’d definitely love to kick some ass! Stunts excite me. Even better if it’s as a villain. I love getting behind the psychology of people whose morals are so different to mine, it’s a great exercise in practicing compassion.
Sandy: Who is someone you would like to work alongside next—could be director, producer, actor/actress, etc.?
Faith: There are so many! I worked with Danai Gurira on her play Eclipsed and I’d love to work with her again. I’d love to work with Steve McQueen. Daniel Kaluuya too—I could go on and on.
Sandy: Tell us something fans may not know about you.
Faith: I have a BA Hons Degree in Art History.
Sandy: Undoubtedly, 2020 has been a challenging year. Tell us how you have been feeling and coping with the year’s challenges.
Faith: I’ve always been germophobic and that was amplified, as I’m clinically vulnerable—my immune system often has a hard time fighting infection. I had to do shielding during lockdown where I wasn’t allowed outside not even to put garbage out. I was getting texts from my doctor and the government telling me to pack a hospital bag ready in case, so I was inevitably fearful and anxious. Bonus was people were bathing and leaving me alone though. But real talk, it got intense, particularly during BLM protests—I really wanted to be involved so I had to adapt the ways I could participate in activism. I’m online and using my phone way more now to connect with people. I’ve never felt so connected to my loved ones around the world as I’ve been this year, and it really put my healthy relationships in the spotlight. I’m blessed and grateful. I experienced agoraphobia for the first time, fearing illness and racist society outside. I overcame that with help from a badass therapist and incredible support from my loved ones. Now I’m gallivanting no end and it’s reignited my lust for travel again. I completed and passed a diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and felt proud —I ran free wellbeing workshops for performers, black people, and trans people. I coped with challenges such as disappointments with work (this would have been my first time at Cannes Film Festival where WAWWA was due to premiere before it got cancelled!) by nurturing more home-based mindfulness activities and skills, ranging from crocheting 2,984,654,856 bags (do you want a bag???) to learning how to do my hair from the magic YouTube girls and installing 26” long locks. I deepened my spiritual practice. Used aromatherapy and meditation a lot. And continued practicing radical self-love, care, and compassion. I read a lot, and basically completed all the streaming platforms. We watched the Marvel movies in order of release, like nerds. We had time! Right now, with everything going on with Nigeria, it’s particularly challenging, and I’m fiercely practicing hope as a discipline. I’m finding joy and pleasure each day, against all odds. As tough as it is to find at times, I see my joy as a revolutionary act of resistance against the power structures that seek to ensure I don’t enjoy or value my life.
Sandy: Can you tell us what else you are working on?
Faith: I can’t reveal much at the moment, as it’s all very hush-hush, but I’m currently gagging on COVID tests all the time for filming a Netflix series.
We Are Who We Are is available now on HBO and HBO Max.
Check out Faith Alabi’s full feature in The Eternal Issue of MOD Magazine.