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“There was one day I thought I was going to be fired,” recalls Noma Dumezweni of her stint as Hayley Fitzgerald, a tough-as-nails lawyer hired to represent Hugh Grant’s Jonathan Fraser, on HBO’s The Undoing. While shooting the limited series in 2019, Dumezweni — a veteran stage performer with two Olivier awards for her work on the West End — found herself among an intimidating cast of A-listers: not just Grant, but also Nicole Kidman and Donald Sutherland.
But it wasn’t her famous scene partners who were holding Dumezweni back on set that day — it was herself. “I was given a note and got really stuck in it. I went down a rabbit hole and was like, ‘Fuck me, what I am doing here?’ ” Dumezweni remembers going home that day, where her former partner (with whom she co-parents her daughter, Qeiva) was ready to listen to her unload. And unload she did. “I told him about our director, Susanne Bier, who had done all these amazing things: The Night Manager, Bird Box … He went, ‘Oh my God, Noma. Step up your fucking game. Stop this.’ ”
It’s difficult to imagine the intimidating Hayley Fitzgerald experiencing such a bout of impostor syndrome. But once Dumezweni realized what she was dealing with — and snapped out of it — she had an immediate sense that the attorney likely encountered her own inner saboteur at some point in her life. “Hayley knows how to hold that thing at bay, and she’s not going to let it get in her way,” says Dumezweni. “But Noma is still learning. I was leaning on the character to give me that strength to hold on.”
The Swaziland-born Dumezweni, 51, first discovered the power of playing another person at 13. Her South African parents had fled apartheid, and as refugees the family lived in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda before her mother brought 7-year-old Dumezweni and her sister to England. It took a few years of living in Suffolk, where Dumezweni struggled to fit in at school, before she discovered a youth program at the New Wolsey theater in Ipswich. “It felt like I found my tribe,” she says, “this group who wanted to dress up and have a laugh. I wasn’t thinking about being an actor at the age of 13, but I really liked those people.”
Dumezweni says her mother taught her and her sister to be self-sufficient, which meant that a paycheck was more important than creative fulfillment. Failed attempts to enter drama school also kept her from becoming an actor by trade, but she still took swings at the career when she found the opportunity, such as when she was laid off from an office job at 23. It was then that she met her mentor, acting coach Tony Singleton, whom she credits with giving her the confidence to follow that dream. “He told me I could do it,” she says. “I just needed guidance” — which he provided, helping her land the job that earned her an Equity card.
“I wouldn’t change any of that,” Dumezweni says of the early days of her career — the jobs she didn’t book, the small parts in small shows she did book. “If you asked me 10, 15 years ago, I would have wanted to change it all. It felt so hard. But now I look back on it and, oh, I needed all those struggles.”
Her star began to rise after she won her first Olivier for a supporting turn in a production of A Raisin in the Sun in 2006. Dumezweni continued building her theater résumé (and landed the occasional TV part, including two episodes on Doctor Who). But nothing could have prepared her for the job that changed everything: the role of the adult Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which premiered at London’s Palace Theatre in July 2016. It earned Dumezweni a second Olivier the following year, and she joined the principal cast in New York for the Broadway production, earning a Tony nomination in 2018.
The recognition on both sides of the Atlantic led to bigger roles. The year Dumezweni earned her Tony nom, she also appeared in Black Earth Rising with John Goodman and Michaela Coel. There was a small role in Mary Poppins Returns, and she’ll appear in director Rob Marshall’s live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid. But while American audiences may have first seen Dumezweni onstage in New York, that was a minor crowd compared to those who watched The Undoing. Hayley Fitzgerald’s appearance at the end of the third episode was an immediate game-changer for the series, which until then was a domestic whodunit. Once Dumezweni entered the picture, the limited series took a turn into a legal drama — one in which Dumezweni, despite her nerves at the beginning of filming, would ultimately command with her formidable presence.
Hayley’s introduction was a big deal for Dumezweni, too, who was in Los Angeles for work while the show aired on HBO and watched episodes weekly on her friend’s massive projector. When Hayley came onscreen — and on her friend’s wall — Dumezweni saw herself as suddenly larger than life. “I was watching another person,” she says. “Susanne and David [E. Kelley, the show’s creator] set up a perfect shot for me. Until then, it’s all about Nicole Kidman’s Grace. But in that moment, Grace needs help. I was like, ‘I buy that!’ Hayley is so strong, so confident. And when I feel like I’m watching someone who’s not me, that makes me feel like I’ve done my work.”
But if closing out 2020 with a significant supporting role in HBO’s most-watched show of the year wasn’t enough, this year offered two other opportunities to broaden her range onscreen. First there was Hulu’s Made for Love, a wacky and wild adaptation of co-creator Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel. The series stars Cristin Milioti as Hazel, the long-suffering wife of a tech mogul (Billy Magnussen) who has planted a tracking device in her brain. When Hazel breaks free from the smart-home compound in which she’s imprisoned, she returns home to live with her father (Ray Romano) and his sex doll companion.
On top of that? Dumezweni plays a marine biologist named Fiffany.
“Fiffany!” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to see who this Fiffany was.” After getting the part, Dumezweni turned to Nutting’s novel to begin finding her character. “Fiffany in the book is, like, this glamazon. The way I look is not how Fiffany looks in the book. I was already excited about that. They gave me the part. I’m Fiffany.”
The series offered another chance to work with a group of actors that Dumezweni gushes over, including Milioti and Magnussen. She shared most of her scenes with Dan Bakkedahl, whose previous roles she wasn’t familiar with during shooting, but she discovered more of the prolific character actor’s work during the pandemic. “I’ve fallen in love with this man, and then lockdown happens,” Dumezweni remembers. “We’re watching so much TV, and I start to see Dan in everything: ‘Oh, there’s Dan in Trumbo! Oh, there’s Dan in Life in Pieces! Oh my God, Dan in Veep!’ He’s just amazing.”
She also heaps plenty of praise on Romano as Hazel’s hapless father. “I was fangirling for Mr. Romano,” she says. “I didn’t have any scenes with him, so when I finally got to watch the series as it’s come out, I’m like, ‘Fuck me, he is consummate, he’s brilliant.’ I once said to Cristin, ‘He doesn’t know how brilliant he is, does he?’ He’s an actor’s actor, he can do it all.”
Right on the heels of Made for Love came a guest spot on the third and final season of FX’s Pose, in which Dumezweni appears in flashback sequences as the emotionally abusive mother of Dominique Jackson’s Elektra Evangelista. The pair spar in their scenes together, with Dumezweni’s Tasha overpowering Elektra, who, throughout the series’ three seasons, has played the role of antagonist. It’s impressive to watch Dumezweni and the equally commanding Jackson go head-to-head in emotional battle, which ends in Elektra finding the strength to stand up to her mother.
As a fan of the show, Dumezweni said yes to the offer before even reading the script. “I was hoping for a nice bit of glamour” rather than such a heavy role, she says with a laugh. The storyline was inspired by Jackson’s life, adding an additional weight and responsibility. “I think you need nice people to tell horrible stories in a safe environment,” she says. “I was ready to serve the story. On the first day, when we were sitting in the makeup chair, I turned to Dominique and said, ‘I am really nervous. I’m not your mom, but we’re here to act together and I want to make it work.’ That’s the company member in me — I just want to make the story work.”
The work has always been the driving force for Dumezweni, and that plays a part in what connects her to the roles she has played. On stage and screen, Dumezweni flourishes as strong, powerful women. “They’re very good at their jobs,” she says. “I’m still learning to enjoy being good at my job.” When speaking about her career, Dumezweni channels that young girl who found her community in Ipswich many years ago. “I’m much more interested in who I’m working with and where the fun can be.”
Still, a little ego boost is never a bad thing — and the social media reaction to Hayley Fitzgerald was just as much a confidence booster. “To hear from people like Roxane Gay, Kerry Washington, Yvonne Orji … [NAACP Legal Defense Fund president] Sherrilyn Ifill — that was huge!” Dumezweni says. “The character really resonated with African American women, and that makes me say to myself, ‘Yes! I’ve done my job.'”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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