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Earlier this year, actress, writer and director Nana Mensah heard John Krasinski on a podcast discussing his first year in New York City as an aspiring actor. Mensah — a Connecticut native and University of Pennsylvania alum whose Ghana-born parents were adamant that she pursue law — noted some similarities between her trajectory and Krasinski’s. “He went to Brown and his parents didn’t want him to [act], but they were like, ‘We’ll give you one year,’ ” Mensah says. “My parents said the same: ‘We’ll give you one year, and then you’ll apply to law school.’ ”
Eventually, she and Krazinski’s stories diverged; he landed The Office his eleventh month in NYC. “That was not my eleventh month,” Mensah laughs. “There were no auditions for The Office or anything remotely resembling the pedigree of The Office. I was lucky if I could get a laxative commercial,” she says with a laugh. But she was undeterred, and with time, the roles started to come: A part in the popular YouTube series An African City; a starring role in the 2016 Obie Award-winning play I’ll Never Love Again; a turn in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island.
Now Mensah appears alongside Sandra Oh in the new Netflix dramedy The Chair, created by Amanda Peet. She filmed that after writing, directing and starring in the film Queen of Glory (which will screen at several film fests this fall). The story of a Ghanaian American woman laden with familial responsibilities after the death of her mother, it debuted at Tribeca in June.
“This film started out as something that we really needed,” she says, noting that much of the cast was looking for other work when filming began. “Luckily, in the course of trying to make it, we didn’t need it anymore because we started getting work. But we finished it, and I’m really, really, really, really grateful that we did. [When] we got into Tribeca, I cried my eyes out.” THR‘s review called it a “tightly conceived, witty and compassionate dark comedy.”
Currently based in London, Mensah talked to The Hollywood Reporter about casting Queen of Glory, working with Sandra Oh, and her Vogue-approved red carpet looks.
What was it like to write, produce, direct and star in a film?
It was a lot, and I will never do it again.
How did you go about casting the film?
We had a casting consultant, but for the most part I was like, “I know exactly who I want for this part, I know exactly who I want for this part.” Oberon [K.A. Adjepong], the man who played my father, we did a reading of a play together. Meeko [Gattuso], I saw him in Gimme the Loot, the Adam Leo film. Anya [Migdal], we met in an acting class and were having the same frustrations about the roles we were being offered. For me it was crackhead number four, for her it was Eastern Block prostitute number four. We were like, “There’s got to be more than that.” So that was how she got involved.
What aspects of the immigrant experience did you want to capture in the film?
A lot of times, films that concern the African experience are so fraught. And even though my parents struggled when they first came to this country — it’s impossible not to — there was still a lot of joy. I wanted to show this indomitable sense of humor and spirit that exists in my culture and the Ashanti culture; being able to laugh when things are really, really hard, and that getting you through. Even though the film is centered around a funeral and a really tremendous loss, there are still moments for joy, and that was what I wanted to show.
How did your role in The Chair come about?
This is “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” but for the theater. I did a Tracy Letts play called Man From Nebraska, and Tracy used to date Sarah Paulson. Sarah Paulson is best friends with Amanda Peet. Amanda Peet came to see Man From Nebraska and really loved my performance. Fast-forward to this past fall and I sent in a tape and [Peet] was like, “That girl from Man From Nebraska, she absolutely has to be in the show.”
What has it been like working with Sandra Oh?
I thought of her as this titan goddess of TV, which she is, but she also has real roots in the theater. I feel like the vow of poverty and the work ethic that people take when they want to work in theater is really conducive to creating a good atmosphere on a set, and Sandra was so generous. We did a Zoom to run some lines, but the first time I met her in person we were shooting a scene from jump. We had to be people who knew each other for a really long time when we didn’t have a chance to get into that at all. But again, she was so generous, and we just locked in and did it.
What have you seen recently and loved?
I have to shout out Zola. We’re so used to seeing ourselves on screen as Black people through the lens of whiteness, and it was so wonderful to see whiteness through the lens of blackness. I thought it was so cleverly done and very artful and beautiful.
Vogue named you one of the best-dressed people at Tribeca. Is fashion something you enjoy, or is your attitude more, “I have an event to go to, I need to look nice”?
I do love fashion, but I came into it begrudgingly. My mom is really well dressed all the time, and I think as the daughter of a really beautiful woman who dresses well, the only thing you can do is rebel — holes in your jeans, rumpled shirts, just absolutely horrible choices. But eventually I came around and was like, “Oh, it’s actually fun to get dressed up.” It’s such a nerdy thing to say, but now I’m weirdly proud of my closet — of the pieces I’ve collected over the years that I feel really good in.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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