By: Amrie Cunningham [My Take on TV]
Lifetime is good to me. They recently sent over a preview copy of their latest inspirational movie called RACING FOR TIME. It’s inspired by the true story of a male prison guard who pulls together a track program for tough and violent female offenders at a juvenile facility. Charles S. Dutton (Emmy award winning actor and director) is fabulous, both as an actor and a director, in the main role. He is joined on screen by Elizabeth Pena and an up and coming young actress named Yaya Da Costa (some of you might recognize her from America’s Next Top Model). I had an opportunity to chat with her for a bit about working with “Roc” (Charles S. Dutton), why she wanted to be an actress, and who she admires.
Great film, I think it’s really in the vein of what Lifetime tries to do. It’s inspirational.
YaYa: I’m glad you watched it! It was controversial at first, but it is inspirational.
You’re right, it is controversial, but I think people will understand it, and you’re great in this.
Brings me to the first question – what made you interested in this role?
I just thought it was a great role. Any role, honestly for a young actor, is work, so that’s always good. It’s great to be excited when you’re going into an audition about the prospect of playing someone. Different from yourself. It makes it more. I just the different code of behavior and the different thought process that you use. My first instinct as a person in conflict resolution is to find the right words. But Vanessa’s is physical confrontation, so that was fun to explore.
For people that are going to watch, just give a little background on the character and the story of the “bad girl” you play, named Vanessa.
Vanessa is 17. She’s still young, she’s still growing. I don’t know that she’s necessarily destined to be a bad girl, but she’s gotten herself into a lot of trouble. This is not her first time in [the detention center]. This time is different. It’s the longest time she’s been in there. It’s also not her fault. She’s taking, stupidly, heat for her boyfriend. Her time there this time is even harder to accept because it’s compounded with that. Because she thought she was being faithful in the sense of protecting each other. Actually Celeste, the counselor, asks her a really great question at one point in the movie, ya know, would he do this for you? And I think she realizes what the answer is, which also gives her the fuel to grow and make something of her life. Instead of being stuck with a silly boy who maybe buys her stuff but doesn’t really care about her.
How was it working with Charles Dutton?
Excellent. He is so much fun; he is so great to learn from. Watch, act, and direct at the same time. Also, this is my first time being directed by an actor and there’s a different kind of language and intensity and excitement and he knows what he wants. It was great. I learned a lot.
He seems like the kind of actor that by just watching, you could get so much from him.
Oh my goodness, yes. Definitely. He has so much experience in theatre also. It’s great to see someone carry that over to film. Not everyone can, by the way. Some actors can’t do both. He’s an example of someone who does both well. It’s just great to watch that.
Did you always want to be an actress, or is it something that came up because of America’s Next Top Model (I don’t mean to make it sound like you had more opportunity because of the show)?
That’s a perfectly normal question. It’s so ironic actually. I’ve been acting on and off since I was 11, doing educational films. My very first acting coach I did plays with back in junior high school would send me out on these auditions. I came from a very educational background.
Oh I know, I could tell by reading your bio – it’s like, oh wow, you’re so smart!
I mean please, I still only have an undergrad. I don’t mean only because obviously, school is not for everyone. I just always loved school, and I did plays at the same time. And just growing up, I knew that I was going to be studying academics and doing art on the side. It was just something to do after school, and during the summer. I actually auditioned and got into La Guardia Professional Performing Arts School, which is like THE school to go to if you’re from NY and you want to do anything, any performing arts. All my friends who didn’t get in were so furious of me when I didn’t go. I just thought, others schools have acting programs, it was always on the side. Finally, when I finished school, I was so excited to be able focus, and spend as much time and energy as possible on this craft that I’ve always loved so much. I was 11 and I played a 104 year old woman, I was like, oh this is great, you get to play a completely different person, I love it. Things have changed since then, every opportunity for different reasons. It’s hard to really know what’s related and what’s not. I believe everything in the world is connected so you can’t knock one experience.
[About America’s Next Top Model] At the same time, it was always crazy for me. It’s happened a couple of times. On the set of Take the Lead, on the set of Honeydripper, after everything is said and done, afterwards, the director would come up to me and say “someone over there just said you were on a television show.” At first it was shocking to me that they didn’t know. You kind of feel it’s a big sign on your forehead, like I was on TV, but I realized it’s not. It’s surprising. Reality TV is just this massive monster that’s taking over television. On one hand, it’s fun to watch, but really for people in the business writers, directors, producers. It makes their job more difficult because there’s less air time for their shows and movies and art. When I realized, oh of course they didn’t know about it. People in the business don’t take that seriously. I don’t bring it up unless someone asks. And then it’s like, oh that was 4 years ago, that was fun. When someone who has hired you to a job reminds you, I mean, granted, not to knock anything, it was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot and things I didn’t think I was going to learn. At the same time, it doesn’t have anything to do with the path I’m on now. I mean, when I’m modeling, yeah, it’s fun to talk about, but acting-world, it’s just not necessarily related. I feel really lucky to get opportunities where people hire me and say “oh she can act,” like they really didn’t know.
It’s probably nice to feel that you were hired for your talent. I’m sure it’s validating.
It’s validating. It’s like, “I know I had a good audition, but I mean, I really had a good audition and it doesn’t have to do with anything else.” And that just feels really good because I’m taking classes all the time and working hard. Honestly, no matter what you’ve done, even though people on the street might want to talk about it, people in the business don’t want to talk about it. It’s nice to have your hard work pay off, and know that it’s the work it’s like, everyone, singers, are all getting in movies so it’s kind of like, makes our job even harder.
Where do you see your career going in the next five or ten years?
It’s hard to say. Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve just been focusing on the craft. It’s really interesting, because when I see things that I’ve done, I always have self criticism, and I’m never satisfied with anything. Occasionally in class, I’ll have a cold reading of a monologue and I’m like, yeah that felt good! Generally, I’m constantly trying to make it better. I feel that I’m growing; my goal is just to be in 5 years, 5 years more mature as an actor and just have the hard work pay off. I can be prepared for any opportunities that come up. I can’t really say I’ll do this, and this. You never know what the universe has in store for you. I can definitely put it out there. I’m also a little superstitious in terms of like saying things out loud. I’ll just kind of pray on them, and keep doing my work. You’ll see if it materializes, and we’ll be talking again next year!
Who are some of your favorite actors or actresses?
Oh my goodness…So many. Right now, I’ll just pick one male and one female to keep it short ha. I just revisited a project of Jeffrey Wright’s. I’d seen him off Broadway, too, and like he was in a bunch of movies. He’s not someone that you see all the time on camera. But when you see him, he makes such an impact and I love his process. I would have to say Meryl Streep. It’s so interesting. I’m at the stage in my career where I’m like, how do you chose your roles? It’s like, you don’t chose anything, you audition and hopefully you get stuff haha. There are only a select few that can answer that question – for me on one hand I want to work and do everything. At the same time you look at someone with a career like Meryl Streep whose longevity is just so strong and apparent. And she’s going to be working for her ever. She’s chosen her roles carefully. She’s always done everything that I’ve seen with integrity. Obviously, she’s trained. I have a lot of respect for the trained actor, even though my training is so sporadic, sometimes I take classes here and there. That is an example of a woman for me who has beaten the odds, who has surpassed certain constraints on society of what beauty is or who should play certain roles. She just does everything and she does it well. I’m sure she’s at the point where she’s turned down roles. She seems to stand by something or for something. I just love that. Right now, I’m still young, and I need to work, but it’s nice to look up to someone like that because she shows that it’s possible. Aim to be successful but hold on to values. There are people out there working, making money, who have great houses, and they’re not living in a little hole like me in Manhattan in a crazy neighborhood, but at the same time, it’s like, are those roles taking you to a good place, are you going to let your kids see that movie? Not only is she an amazing actress, just watching her as a career woman.
What are some TV shows that you watch when you get some downtime?
I am really the worst person to ask this question. I don’t watch TV a lot ha. It’s bad because I need to. There are a lot of shows that I do like but I don’t get to see a lot. There’s one, this started up again. It’s kind of taking the place of Friends in a way, but maybe it’s not as popular because it’s about lesbians…do you know that show The L Word?
I love that show!
Yeah, I feel like it’s so well written, so well shot. Hopefully we’re at a place where you can say that and people don’t get all homophobic. It’s actually a really good show. I’m glad that we’ve come to a place in this country that a show like that can be popular and can be so good. I know plenty of people, men, women, homosexuals, married couples that all say oh yeah, that’s a great show. What else? I don’t want to sound like I’m boring. Some old shows are interesting to watch. But usually on a Saturday when I get up in the morning, I watch CNN. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now haha. I really love the news [laughing]. I love being informed, especially because I can’t travel these days. I like watching world news.
What do you do for fun when you’re not shooting?
I think my acting classes are fun. Even though it’s work. I’m so lucky that I can say work is fun. I take dance classes. I crochet, I write a lot. I love creating things. I alter my clothes in my closet a lot, change them up into different things. Making cheap thinks look expensive. I’m not gonna tell you how haha! I hang out with friends, at each others’ houses. I don’t really go out at night. New York is kind of crazy. I have so many older friends and they’re all married with kids. It makes sense. It’s like, maybe we’ll have brunch one day.
Just to get back to the movie to sum up the call – what’s a reason someone should tune into see the movie?
People should tune in because I feel like it’s a story that hasn’t been told before. I feel like it’s uplifting like you said, but in a way that is kind of surprising. It’s not your typical Lifetime movie at all. I think it pulls you in, it also gives an opportunity to see the humanity in people. Even if you don’t know anybody in real life like these girls, I mean there are prisons all over the country. Too many if you ask me. You can see a little bit of their stories and why they’re there. Stuff happens and their lives. When given the right the tools or attention, some people just need a pat on the back and we take for granted that some of us had parents who told us that we were great. It gives us hope that things can change and get better. There are people have spent in prison and gone on to be the most amazing lawyers, or even actors, that we know. There are amazing actors that we know who are just like wow (editor’s note: Charles S. Dutton is an ex-convict who doesn’t shy away from talking about his past). Learning not to judge each other. It’s a good discussion on race, just get people talking. The country is not necessarily as advanced as we think. Everyone says there are no racists, everything’s great, but pay a little bit more attention and you’re like, ooh okay, we have a long way to go. Especially in an institution like prison because it’s all people have to hang on to and have to like stick together, center their lives around whatever they have in common. It’s good to explore a conversation about those things. It’s also fun to watch! You want the girls to get together and win. I think it pulls you in, and you get to rooting and you get inspired and start to run! Go for a jog after wards haha! It’s a good lesson. Lifetime is the women’s channel, typically, but I think everyone can enjoy it. The boys get to see a bunch of cute girls run around. The older women get to agree with the lessons in there.
The half hour flew by – Yaya was great to talk to and I really think her career is poised to take off! Tune into RACING FOR TIME, which premieres Saturday February 16 at 9PM!