American actress Femi Emiola, who was introduced to Lucire readers in a campaign for Toyota, talks about her life growing up in the Philippines and Nigeria, her work on US TV including The Practice, and the New Zealand connection in her wedding vows
by Jack Yan
questions by Sheena Curtin
photographed by Olesja Mueller
make-up by Megumi Wakabayashi
IN 2008, Lucire ran a series of advertisements for the Toyota Camry. While the Camry is a solid seller for Toyota, readers of the print title might have noticed that it’s never been covered in the motoring column.
The problem is, while it’s a solid, dependable car, the Camry does not excite. And knowing this, Toyota Motor Sales in the US embarked on a campaign, If Looks Could Kill, that combined fashion and espionage, fronted by actress Femi Emiola.
We didn’t know Ms Emiola and Lucire shared a mutual friend, Ladybrille’s Uduak Oduok, who contributed to the magazine in 2006. And when the connection was made, we were fans of Emiola already—and became more impressed by her résumé as we learned more.
Born in Iowa into an academic household, Emiola has a Filipino–Nigerian heritage. She grew up in her mother’s homeland, the Philippines, for ﬁve years, centred in Manila; then lived in ‘several places in Nigeria’ for ten and has been in Los Angeles since 2001. She has lived in various places in the US.
She has held a dream of becoming an actress from her youth, but also recognized the need to have a formal qualiﬁcation outside of the acting profession.
She was exposed to the movies at an early age, as she recalls her uncle and his friends letting her watch black-and-white ﬁlms in the Philippines. ‘I would get up for a glass of water—I must have been three years old at the time—and he would let me sit on the couch and watch TV with them,’ she recalls.
Her acting bug was there early. ‘I was in kindergarten in Manila when I acted in my ﬁrst play. I played Angel Gabriel, and it was so great to wear the big wings!
‘Nigeria and the Philippines … prize the value of higher education and see it as the ideal and preferred way to build a good life,’ she tells Lucire. ‘When I was younger and dreaming about becoming an actress, I knew it really not something that my Mom or Dad would have supported wholeheartedly as a career path for me. So getting a degree in a ﬁeld other than drama was pretty much deﬁned very early in my life.
‘However, by the time I received my bachelor’s degree (in journalism and mass communications), my parents were divorced, and I was accountable only to my mother. She was satisﬁed that I had received a good education and would always have what she deemed as useful and sellable skills in case acting didn’t work out, and so she was completely ﬁne with me taking off for New York City and pursuing my acting dream.’
Emiola recalls that her mother had seen most of her university plays and had ‘some conﬁdence that I was not completely untalented!’
She is close to her mother’s side of the family. In her earliest years, while her mother taught at the University of the Philippines, her maternal grandmother looked after her. ‘I loved living with my Grandma! She ended up caring for most of her grandchildren while our parents worked, and we lived and played in the community surrounding the apartment we lived in.
‘Even though I was quite young, I recall quite a bit about our life there. I’ve experienced the ﬂooding that comes with the typhoons and because I was so young, I remembered thinking it was great fun. I realize now that that was because my uncle made it so. I remember bobbing up and down in the streets on something long and ﬂat that ﬂoated on the ﬂoodwaters, while my uncle Roger pulled it around and made what was probably a very bad time good for us kids. And I loved the big meals my grandmother would make for everybody, and my mother hand-feeding me ﬁsh after she had picked out all the bones.’
Her time in Nigeria has many ‘milestones’, as she puts it: ‘my ﬁrst crush, my ﬁrst kiss, boarding school, my ﬁrst big school dance. I went on road trips across the country with my father, and those experiences really started the insatiable curiosity about the world and a thirst for travel that I still have now. Some of my best friendships were formed in Nigeria, and I am still friends with many of those people today. Life wasn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.’
She attended university in the US, and remembers it as the country in which she had her ﬁrst love, her initial forays into professional acting, many friends, and ‘the career, marriage and life I have now. …
‘It’s always been the company I keep and the people I share adventures with that deﬁne the best of times for me.’
Her ﬁrst speaking lines on a network TV show was on As the World Turns, a daytime soap on CBS. Emiola, playing a stewardess, recalls that she had about three lines. ‘My mother went home from work just to watch it because she didn’t know how to program her VCR, and she called me afterwards, very proud of my tiny 10-second stint. She knew how hard it had been for me to get there; and it was a big deal to me that she thought it important enough to go home in the middle of the day to watch it.’
On prime-time, Emiola ﬁrst appeared in The Practice and she still regards it as her favourite television role. It came about in an unusual fashion.
‘I went in for a last-minute casting and they asked me to stick around and read for the producers (several hours) later that day. It was going to shoot the very next day, and because of the time crunch, they were going to make the decision minutes after auditions were over. Whoever got it had to go immediately to wardrobe for ﬁttings.
‘So it was a long day, waiting anxiously for my second appointment time, fretting and rehearsing in my car … Finally the time came and I went in and auditioned for about twelve people: the director, producers and writers of the show sitting in a conference room. When it was all done, all the actresses sat around waiting to be told if we could go home.
‘We waited in silence, and then the casting associate came out. She said, “Will Femi Emiola please stay?” I was absolutely convinced it wasn’t over, and that she would call out a couple of other names and we would have to go in and do it again so they could pick from the newly narrowed pool. So my face was completely blank, as I sat waiting, silently steeling myself for another round of auditioning. But she said nothing else, and stood waiting while the other actresses began gathering their stuff to leave.
‘At this point, I hadn’t yet identiﬁed myself and I just sort of sat there. One girl must have ﬁgured out it hadn’t sunk in for me, so she turned to me and smiled, saying, “You’re Femi, aren’t you?”
‘Suddenly, it hit me like an electric shock. I was stunned. No pun intended! The casting associate waited patiently while I phoned my manager and stammered and cried and blubbered that I had gotten the job before she sent me off to wardrobe to get ﬁtted.’
Emiola shot the next day with Bill Smitrovich, whom she describes as ‘incredibly kind and gracious. The director, Rod Hardy, was wonderful and patient with me, and the crew was very friendly and accommodating. I met Camryn Manheim and Steve Harris who are absolutely consummate professionals. I couldn’t have wished for a better ﬁrst experience on the set of a great show.’
In June 2008, Emiola became the face of the Toyota Camry, which she found similar to her TV work. Although the campaign included interactive web elements, online gaming and a prize draw, ‘shooting the job was not that different at all!’ The production values, she says, were high, and given that it was for Toyota, there was a ‘car handler’ to look after the Camry used for shooting. ‘He kept the windshield sparkling, the paint gleaming, and the windows ﬁngerprint-free.’
With the fast driving in some of the instalments, Emiola was grateful to have done a precision driving course two years ago, but she admits she scratched one wheel rim.
The campaign had a positive effect. ‘I heard a lot that the show was unique because it featured an African-American woman in a dynamic and sexy role as the lead. I hadn’t thought about that when I was shooting, but it is very true that that is rare for most shows in the US.’
Aside from being the professional actress and traveller, Emiola is a big fan of photography. As with many in her profession, she gets irritable when she is not doing something creative. ‘I love taking journalistic-style photographs. I was always too poor to learn how to shoot properly with an SLR ﬁlm camera so for years, I made images by drawing and painting with acrylics instead. Then I got caught up in learning to play around in Photoshop on my Mac.
‘Last year, I ﬁnally worked up the nerve to buy a digital SLR camera, and it has opened up a whole new world for me! I shoot a lot of scenery and people in my life, as well as ﬂora and fauna. I really love shooting street scenes, but I’m not great at pointing the camera at strangers on the street and shooting pictures of them but I try to sneak a few in here and there, much to the chagrin of some of my friends.
‘I almost got mugged with my best friend last year in downtown San Diego because I was trying to photograph a couple of street-dwellers who were all done up in this crazy camouﬂage make-up … I saw these guys across the street and I turned my lens towards them. Guess they didn t like that, and they started hollering and waving at us, so my buddy and I high-tailed it down the street as fast as possible. I try to be more discreet now!’
Among Emiola’s creative pursuits is cooking. Seafood paella is one of her specialities, as is chicken adobo, a recipe she learned from her mother. ‘Or if I’m going with a Nigerian menu, then I make a mean jollof rice and fried plantains.’
Emiola has not been Down Under yet, but would love to visit. Her husband had spent nine months in Australasia prior to their meeting and travelling there is in her plans. ‘Don’t laugh, but we actually worked going ﬂy-ﬁshing at Lake Taupo into our wedding vows! …
‘And let’s not forget I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so you know, that makes visiting even more exciting. I’ve put it on my bucket list! Even if I don’t shoot in New Zealand, I’m deﬁnitely visiting one day, it is so beautiful.’ •