Faith Alabi On Exploring Her Heritage In We Are Who We Are

The new drama from Luca Guadagnino is debuting this weekend.

Faith Alabi

by grazia |
Updated on

What did you do with your lockdown? Some wrote novels, made quilts, launched businesses, got fit. Others sat on the sofa, ate banana bread, watched 264 episodes of Murder She Wrote. There is no right answer, no successful lockdown versus an unsuccessful one. But one thing that seems fruitful is a look inward, with many of us using these difficult months to address how we feel, why we feel it, and what to do about it. For Faith Alabi, whose new drama We Are Who We Are makes its BBC debut this weekend, it’s been a definite silver lining.

‘I've always been really interested in mental health and wellbeing, and especially in how it applies to performers specifically,’ Faith tells me over Zoom call. ‘You have sports psychology, but it's not there yet when it comes to us. So I got a diploma in cognitive behavioral therapy, and then I started doing workshops for performers. Because in those moments – I say ‘when the carrot’s not dangling’ - when you don't have an audition to focus on, or a job that's coming up, or an accent that you have to learn, what do you do as a performer?

Faith, for her part, has had plenty of carrots. She’s appeared in Cold Feet, Grantchester, BBC staple Doctors, and gave acclaimed stage performances in the Donmar Warehouse’s Belleville and in Eclipsed, opposite Letitia Wright. But We Who We Are is undoubtedly her highest profile role to date. Created by Luca Guadagnino, best known for directing Call Me By Your Name, the eight-part series follows a disparate community on a US military base in Italy. Faith plays Jenny, a woman struggling to connect with her husband and her sense of herself. Faith was fascinated by the script from the get-go.

‘Originally, Jenny on the page was written as Korean woman,’ she explains. ‘And so I just had to make it my own. So, for example, one of the lines was like about kimchi, and I replaced that with jollof rice. I just made her Nigerian, because that's my heritage, and made Jenny my own. I think it probably worked in my favour.’

From there, developing Jenny became a collaborative process, with Faith able to educate Luca on Nigerian culture, history and politics to aid his writing of the character. But she was also drawn to Jenny’s desire to reject these origins and her longing for the American Dream. ‘I guess she is getting rid of her own truth in order to assimilate’, Faith suggests. ‘That story really spoke to me as well. As a child of immigrants – and a lot of my friends who are children of immigrants too – we’re very familiar with that “assimilate or die” mentality. I really recognise that with her.’

This recognition is key for Faith: she seeks a grain of truth or relatability in even the most extreme roles, to aid her performance. ‘I think it's my job to try and find parallels,’ she says. ‘If I'm playing a murderer, while I may not have murdered someone, I have definitely felt murderous.. So it's my job to justify why they do the things they do ,and why they are the way they are. And the more parallels I can find with myself, the better.’

Shot last year on location in Italy, it was imperative that the large, international cast bonded. ‘It was an absolute dream job,’ she says with a smile. ‘We were flown out for a month of prep - Luca really wanted us to bond and get to know each other – so there were a lot of game nights, dinners and trips to Venice.’ Thanks to Jenny’s housewife status, though, she was spared the more gruelling aspects of training. ‘Everybody else was getting up at like the crack of dawn to do military drills, and I got to just saunter in and learn how to like icing on a cake.’

With any luck, 2021 holds great things in store for Faith, with film sets reopening and theatres making plans for new runs. Beyond that, she has her eye on cinema.

‘I’d love to do a feature film, as I haven’t done that yet. I'd love to do action, where I’m really using my body, and I really enjoy playing villains as well: I just find it really interesting', she says. 'And then, long-term, I just want to keep creating art where people feel seen. That is super important to me: for people to feel that they are seen, that they matter, that they’re represented.’

A boxset of We Are Who We Are will be available to stream on BBC Three via iPlayer from Sunday 22 November

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

READ MORE: Lisa McGee And Saoirse-Monica Jackson On The Return Of Derry Girls

READ MORE: Vanessa Kirby's Greatest Performances

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us