Monaco Life, in partnership with the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, is proud to present a monthly series highlighting the lives and artistic work of the Princess Grace Foundation-USA’s illustrious Award winners. In this month’s exclusive interview, Princess Grace Foundation-USA’s Director of Programming Diana Kemppainen catches up with Princess Grace Award winner James Udom (Theater 2017).
James is a classically trained actor known for his roles in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Sandman, Judas and the Black Messiah. On stage, he was most recently seen in The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Deborah Ann Wolf, directed by Shana Cooper (2010 Princess Grace Award). He received his Princess Grace Award in 2017 while he was at the Yale School of Drama (now David Geffen School of Drama).
A rising star on both the stage and screen, James shares his love of Shakespeare, what it was like to work with Denzel Washington, and his choice to take a pause on a successful acting career to attend Yale School of Drama.
Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to become an actor?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an actor. Growing up as an only child, I used my imagination a lot. I wasn’t the best at sports, but I was really good at using my imagination – and often to get out of things.
I remember the first time I realised acting was a thing; I was seven-years-old and I went to see Titanic in theatres with my aunt. I was devastated when Jack died, actually inconsolable, and my aunt had to sit me down and explain that was acting. When she explained it to me, it unlocked my world and I knew I needed to do that.
When I did my first show, there was a sense of community and belonging. It felt like home and it was so addictive.
I come from a strict Nigerian family; being an actor is not a reality unless you get to a certain level. I was their worst nightmare because I dropped out of undergrad to pursue acting and it wasn’t until I got into Yale School of Drama (they have a non-degree program) that they felt like I made it.
I remember your letter of nomination from James Bundy (Director of Yale School of Drama). He said you were the most obvious choice to nominate for the Princess Grace Award in almost 20 years, and he also noted that you had already seen success as an actor. What made you choose to go to Yale?
First and foremost, it was the longing to just be really good at this. I love storytelling and transformation, and I just want to be really good at it. That was the catalyst underneath, and there were a few things that put me on the path.
I was doing a show in Massachusetts, and Lupita (Nyong’o) had just won her Oscar. Watching an African woman win an Oscar for going to a school that I didn’t even know had an acting program was incredible. I was working in Massachusetts at the same place where Yale’s Head of Acting was working. He saw the show I was in and encouraged me to audition. But my career was picking up, and I was already working with some amazing talent.
I went to see a show that John Douglas Thompson was in (Obie and Drama Desk Award winner, Tony Nominee), and – he transformed in this way I’d never seen a black man transform on stage. I waited 45 minutes in the cold to meet him and we chatted for a bit. Two weeks later, I received a call that he submitted my name to be in his show and I joined the cast. One day we went out for lunch and I offhandedly mentioned Yale. I mentioned my hesitancy because my career was picking up, and he stopped me in my tracks and said – “if you have the opportunity to go to Yale, go to Yale. You’ll sacrifice three years, but you’ll jump 10 years ahead because of the experience.”
And my dad said the same thing. It was a combination of those three things that made me choose to go to Yale.
Do you feel like your choice paid off?
Yes! It’s hard to know what my other multi-versal self would be doing. The opportunity with Princess Grace was life changing if I’m honest.
What draws you to a role?
First and foremost, it’s the question, “Do I love the story?” It has a lot to do with the message of the story; do I believe in it and what is it saying? Even if the character I’m playing is a bad person, can I shine a light that shifts a pendulum? Also is it different than what I’ve done before?
Once you’ve landed the role, what is your process to develop the character?
I’m a huge empath, so as soon as I sign on to a role, that person is me. While I’m not a method actor, the character holds a place in my heart. I constantly think about them non-stop; about how they would handle an experience, and how they would navigate the world.
If I’m on the street and I get a pebble in my shoe, I think about how my character would handle a pebble in their shoe. Would it change the way the character walks, and can I sustain that in my performance?
A lot of it also comes through rehearsing and what I get from my scene partner.
You’ve been seen in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Judas and the Black Messiah, and now The Sandman – those are very different genres of storytelling – classic Shakespeare, historical crime drama, fantasy. How does your approach shift when working in different in those different genres?
I did have a different approach for all three but I don’t know if it was a different approach based on the type of drama; it was more based on the character and the people I was working with.
For Judas and the Black Messiah, I did a lot of research. I wanted to honour Chairman Fred and the people I was working with. I didn’t know much at the start and getting to dive in and embody a gentleman who was there, I needed to do justice to this person.
The Sandman was the height of Covid; it was one of the first productions that went back to work. You had to fly and quarantine in a hotel room. It was psychologically taxing but also fantastic because I had two weeks alone in a hotel room with the characters. I struggle portraying questionable gentleman. Thankfully I had amazing co-stars and there was trust. Jamie, the director, was fantastic and watching that episode was the first experience where I was watching the art itself. I was able to separate myself and not critique my performance.
Both Macbeth and The Sandman draw on texts – and while Shakespeare may be more well known, Neil Gaiman has a huge cult following. Can you talk a little about how familiar you were with both works?
I wasn’t familiar with The Sandman at all. When I auditioned, it had a fake name. Once I learned the name, I did research. Neil Gaiman is a great world builder – he’s up there with J.R.R. Tolkien.
I’m a nerd for Shakespeare. Understanding the way he dances with the language, mocking the times, how intelligent the writing is. I was very familiar with Macbeth, as I had done it onstage two times prior.
What was it like to translate Macbeth to film, especially in that beautiful but stark adaptation?
It was really fun. For film, you have to think as the character otherwise it comes off as ingenuine. When you’re acting on stage, you’re aware of different things at the same time; your staging, the audience, etc.
In the film, my character, Seyton, has to go up Macbeth who is now the most powerful person in the nation. He’s a person that characters far above me in station are running from in fear. I took Shakespeare’s language; what’s the subtext and what’s motivating? I thought it was done in a nice way, and the director [Joel Coen] threw me a bone.
What was it like to work with Denzel and be on set?
It was Moses [Ingram] (2018 Princess Grace Award) and me. That was surreal because we did a lot of shows together at school and then we were on a Coen set together with Denzel Washington, and it was nice to have a comrade.
That first rehearsal – I’ve never been starstruck before but I was seeing him [Denzel]. He was the first person in the room, and he asked my name and where I was from, and I just blanked.
I relaxed and I got to see the greats [Denzel, Frances McDormand] at the table read. Afterward, Moses and I approached him and he sat with us for 30 minutes. He’s a man of God, and he offered us sermons and how to be a vessel for humanity. Several times throughout the process, between his takes, he would pull us aside and chat with us.
It empowered us as artists in the room, it gave me permission to think of him as my scene partner. It was so generous of him.
You mentioned working with Moses, and your co-star in Sandman was Emma Duncan (2014 Princess Grace Award). What’s it like when you work with Princess Grace Award winners?
It’s pretty amazing. You always know the talent is going to be there. And they’re just good people. I love Moses, the way she carries herself and her approach. Same with Emma. It was a difficult time going through Covid. We were the only Americans in our episode and we shared a hotel room wall. By the end we were sharing face products; Emma is so kind and so talented. I’d met her before and it was incredible to get to work with her. Through the Princess Grace Foundation, it’s great to mingle with other talent.
What’s next? IMDB lists Echo 3 with Michiel Huisman and Luke Evans as your next project – anything you can share about that series?
I can’t tell you much. It will be on Apple TV. They’re doing amazing shows, and I hope our show will be up there. It comes out later this year, and it has some incredible talent. Mark Boal is the writer; he wrote The Hurt Locker for which he won the Oscar. He’s written this incredible show, it’s very gritty and aligned with his other work. I think it will be phenomenal.
I also did Murder City with Mike Colter (Luke Cage, The Good Wife). It’s a revenge cop drama and very action based. Between that and Echo 3, I’m living out experiences I never thought I would get to do.
You just came back from a road trip across the United States; what inspired you to embark on a road trip and was there a place that surprised you?
A few years ago, I read the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it changed my life. I started having a lot more compassion. It allowed me to really love humans and appreciate us as a collective without dividing. We’re a young species trying to figure it out. I became obsessed with our place in the universe and expanding myself as a human being. I had always wanted to do a road trip; and I had just finished a gig, and I thought why not now? I wanted to be more interesting as a person and not pass judgement on places I’ve never been. I feel like I became more intelligent both intellectually and spiritually.
A few places took my breath away – the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon is famous and as soon as I saw the Canyon – it blew my mind. That we exist in a world where this place exists. And same with Yellowstone, we went to the rim of the volcano, and honestly, I fell to my knees at the beauty.
I travelled with my partner who is a daredevil; she brings me out of my shell in the best possible ways. We were traveling in a small town in Arizona, and she saw that you could kayak through the Canyon. I have a huge fear of being surrounded by massive things, but she booked us the trip, and we ended up kayaking through these massive canyons. At one point she hopped into the water and went for a swim, and I joined her. Kayaking through the canyons and the swim – that was my favourite experience through the trip.
Any last words for the members of our Monaco community?
I hope everyone is safe and happy, and I wish blessings. I could not be more appreciative of everything the Princess Grace Foundation has provided for me. I wear it as a badge of honour to know I’m a member of this community.
Follow James @mr-wungati
The Princess Grace Foundation-USA is dedicated to upholding the legacy of Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco (neé Grace Kelly), and elevating extraordinary emerging artists in theatre, dance and film through career-advancing grants. Follow along at @princessgraceus.