Based on the best-selling book The Book Of Negroes by author Lawrence Hill, Someone Knows My Name is a poignant and gripping six-part series that follows Aminata Diallo’s, played by Aunjanue Ellis (The Help), incredible journey in 18th Century America. A strong and determined woman, Aminata is resolute to thrive through everything that is thrown at her, and secure her rights and freedom. We were lucky enough to catch up with Aunjanue to discuss her experiences with this breathtaking new drama…
Tell us about the character of Aminata…
Aminata is a woman who very early on is educated and taught to read by her parents and she is kidnapped in Western Africa and taken to the southern USA and becomes a part of this group of people who were listed in this document called the Book of Negroes. They were promised opportunities and land in Nova Scotia by the Brits as a result of the Civil War. So we follow her to that point and then ultimately her becoming a part of the slave trading movement in England. Aminata is a rare woman in that she is educated and she’s an artist. Specifically she’s a writer. She loves her family and she loves her husband and we see her life as it is torn apart by the circumstance of slavery and the slave trade.
What were the biggest challenges in making such a hard-hitting show?
The challenges for me as an actor were making sure that this character had all the emotional coding for someone who is going through she’s going through during this span of time, and staying tough in a way that is not just a wash, not portraying her as someone who is just a sufferer. You can play suffering, but that’s not interesting. That can get real boring real quick! (laughs) So that was a challenge for me. She went through so much; she lost her child, she gets raped… You can’t deny that those things happened, or pretend that they’re not happening, but the way that you experience those as a human being has to echo something in a way that as an actor you can’t just do as someone who goes through it, you have to do it as someone who is portraying that experience for other people through television. You have to do it in a way that you won’t bore people or turn them off, and in that they will still be interested in your story beyond your suffering. You can’t just be crying for five episodes! No one wants to see that! You have to be honest about it, but you have to pick your battles emotionally.
Were you familiar with Hill’s book before you were offered the part?
I read the book before I auditioned. Opportunities like this… I never thought they’d cast me in a million years! It was such a huge role. For the bulk of my career as it is, I’ve played supporting characters, so I didn’t think that it would by any means go in my direction. So when you’re always the underdog, you read the book, you do everything you can! You do what underdogs do!
Off the back of the show, you’ve won a great deal of awards. Having been the “underdog” for so long, how does it feel to be finally getting such positive recognition for your work?
I’m always hungry. For everything that I was nominated for for the series, there were several things that I wasn’t nominated for, and I wanted really badly to be. Not just for me, but because I believed so badly in the series. I believed in this in a way that I had not felt about other things, so that was disappointing to me. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say otherwise. I’m so grateful for it though, because I want the series to have legs, and I want it to be lasting in its appeal. A generational thing where it gets looked back on and more and more appreciated throughout the years. Getting any sort of award or nomination, that helps that possibility.
In the 21st Century, we have many stories focusing on the subject of slavery. What are the difficulties in approaching the subject in the modern day?
One thing that you deal with, particularly as an African American, is fatigue of narratives that are about enslaved people. We got a lot of push-back against the series because of that, just because people are like “why do we need another story about this? Why do we need to hear that?”. I think any narrative, any film, that would be about the slave experience, is met with that now. So if you’re a part of something like that, you will face that. But these people were not just enslaved people; they were people! This one, she was an artist, she was a writer, and she was so very much in love with her husband. She was everything that people who are in love are, which is silly, and jealous, and all those things. We captured a woman’s life, and a life that was not defined by the circumstances that she found herself in, but by her own humanity.
You’re currently in Quantico as well, which is another very dark show. After dealing with such tough characters in your day job, how do you kick back and relax?
(laughs) I don’t know!! It’s funny to me, because definitely towards the end of Someone Knows My Name, it had got to me. Things became far too real to me, and there was a lot of blur between who I was and who I was playing. That got tough. But for the the most part, most of the time it’s all good! We were shooting in South Africa and it was gorgeous! For me, it’s a joy to play someone who is tough. And when I say tough, I don’t mean someone who is strong, I mean someone whose life is not easy. And the fact of the matter is, if you are a human being living in the 21st Century, no one’s life is easy! So for me, that is like getting the opportunity to play an honesty. That’s joy for me. To get up every day and feel like I don’t have to leave life at the door when I play a character; that I can bring all that, all of me, into what I’m doing because I’m playing someone who is honestly living life as a creature who is going through all this. I don’t have to leave any part of me behind in order to play that. That’s joy to me as an actor. Life is harder. When I’m not acting, that’s when life gets tough!
Someone Knows My Name premieres Sunday 17th July at 9pm on FOX