Ilfenesh Hadera is back on our TV screens as Mayme Johnson, wife to notorious gangster Bumpy Johnson (played by Forest Whitaker), as EPIX's hit show Godfather of Harlem has returned for season two. Fans of the show tune in for the never-ending American fairytale of the drug and crime bosses of old but stay for the master performances of an all-star cast who leaves nothing on the table.
Hadera, whose turn in She's Gotta Have It as Nola Darling's lover Opal Gilstrap cemented her as one to watch, dazzles with ease. She is the perfect breeze to the fire of the aforementioned Whitaker and legends Giancarlo Esposito, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Chazz Palminteri, providing a steady heartbeat that flows through every scene. Mayme is a woman who has learned the art of calculated silence, surgical in her approach to every situation thrown in her path, and Ilfenesh Hadera is the skilled hand controlling the scalpel.
Iman Milner: Who is Ilfenesh? As a woman and as an artist?
Ilfenesh Hadera: It's hard for me to think about myself without thinking about the people I come from. Daughter of Asfaha Hadera, a refugee from Ethiopia. Much like Mayme, a community organizer and activist, my mom is Kim Nichols from Vermont. She grew up with feet in dirt and hands in the soil. So much of me is them. I'm a New Yorker, a Harlem girl. I grew up here. I'm a lover of all things positive, kind, and gentle in the world. That's one side, and then there's the horrible diva side of me too.
IM: Of course! We all have that side.
IH: (laughs) I save that only for people who deserve it.
IM: Your work lives in this very pure and honest sweet spot that is hard to pull off. How have you settled in as an actress to be comfortable with simplicity?
IH: Thank you for that because our work as actors is, to tell the truth. And the truth is simple. Obviously, some scenes call for more than others but more in a grounded and real way. Sometimes you can feel like people don't get it or like the less is more technique is a cop-out, so I'm glad it's not coming across that way.
IM: What was your journey to this place in your career?
IH: As far as my journey, so much of it is based on my experience growing up in New York. And exposure which is so important to kids—to have exposure to the arts, in particular. My folks had me at Dance Theater of Harlem, but I hated ballet, so I stopped going there. Then they had me at City Sports doing basketball, but I hated basketball, so I stopped doing that. But then they sent me to Harlem School of the Arts for theater, and it stuck. I went to college for theater and then on to grad school—so I know what I wanted to do—and that made it a lot easier to navigate my way than if I had come into my adulthood having no clue what I wanted. I think if you know your path, all you have to do is execute.
IM: Let's talk about Godfather of Harlem, these are some amazing actor partners, and you guys do incredible work together. What is it like working with these giants of the screen in Forest Whitaker and Giancarlo Esposito?
IH: It started being fun as soon as I knew I had the role. Before that? Doing chemistry read with Forest Whitaker? I was a deer in headlights. But after that, the nerves fell away. And they're such generous actors and so giving. Forest is communicative and gentle. There's always positive reinforcement in the scene, which is so lovely. And a lot of actors don't do that because they're focused on their work. That's cool, but when both actors are feeling food, everybody wins. I was probably more intimidated working with Giancarlo because he's such a personality. If you don't know him, you kinda shrink a little bit because you're like, 'Oh my God, this is Giancarlo Esposito,' but they're both so great, and they play so much in a scene. It's a masterclass to sit back and watch.
IM: What are you most excited for fans of the show to see this season?
IH: Everybody's evolution on the show. In the first season, you're setting the foundation for the show—introducing characters and plotlines. You take time to do that, so you can't really go in-depth about everyone. This season you're really getting to know Mayme and Bumpy. You learn more about Elise, and Malcolm X has Betty this season which is amazing; Grace Porter, she's born for the role.
You're just really going to be able to explore their worlds. One of the positive things about shooting during COVID was that so much of our work was done on a stage to keep things safe and contained. There are the car chase scenes and the gunfights, but when you're shooting on a stage, without all the extras, you can take time to really explore character. And the writers did explore, fundamentally, who these people are.