Ilfenesh Hadera: Spike Lee Alum And DJ School Dropout She's Gotta Have It actor and DJ school dropout Ilfenesh Hadera chats with Ophira Eisenberg about growing up in Harlem, working with Spike Lee, and her new show on Epix, Godfather Of Harlem.
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Ilfenesh Hadera: Spike Lee Alum And DJ School Dropout

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Ilfenesh Hadera: Spike Lee Alum And DJ School Dropout

Ilfenesh Hadera: Spike Lee Alum And DJ School Dropout

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She played Opal in the Netflix series "She's Gotta Have It," and she stars in the new Epix series "Godfather Of Harlem." Please welcome Ilfenesh Hadera.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Ilfenesh, is this your first podcast/radio appearance?

ILFENESH HADERA: This is my first podcast, yes.

EISENBERG: Really?

HADERA: Yes.

EISENBERG: This is it?

HADERA: You are my very first.

EISENBERG: OK, well, that is quite an honor.

HADERA: Thank you...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: ...For having me.

EISENBERG: Now, you are a graduate of the performing arts school LaGuardia High School...

HADERA: I am.

EISENBERG: ...Also known as "Fame," but you also got your start acting at an after-school program in middle school.

HADERA: Yeah, Harlem School of the Arts - amazing place. That's where I started. During the summer, my mom wanted to keep me out of trouble.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: And it was either summer camp or Harlem School of the Arts, so I reluctantly chose the theater program there.

EISENBERG: Reluctantly.

HADERA: I really - I was like, I did not like attention. I still do not like attention or being in the spotlight. So I chose that, and it was the best thing that ever happened.

EISENBERG: And you are in Spike Lee's oeuvre. I mean, you're in four of his projects at this point. How did you and Spike Lee connect?

HADERA: God. I had a manager who I actually met at my LaGuardia senior year showcase.

EISENBERG: OK.

HADERA: So he was sending me out for primarily commercial work.

EISENBERG: Sure.

HADERA: But I got an email, and it was kind of someone I didn't take seriously because he wasn't sending me out for the things that I thought he should be sending me out for. And I think it's going to be another just, you know, thing that I don't want to go on, and it's like, HBO pilot "Da Brick," director Spike Lee. And I was like, oh, I should probably go.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: I should probably go. And then the dread sets in because you're like, oh, God, Spike is going to be in the room. I was like, well, I know enough to know that this isn't how it usually works. This is the first audition, so why is he going to be in the room? So now I'm like, oh, God. So I auditioned. He wasn't there. He sees the footage, and then I get the appointment for the callback. And now I'm nervous...

EISENBERG: Right.

HADERA: ...Because now I'm like, oh, this is within reach.

EISENBERG: And he's there for that, I imagine.

HADERA: They said he was going to be there for that. He was not there for that either.

EISENBERG: Elusive.

HADERA: I know. I was - but I was so relieved.

EISENBERG: Right. OK, so then you work with him on that project.

HADERA: And that's how I met Spike and - just, you know, through a regular audition.

EISENBERG: And the subsequent projects - did you audition or at that point...

HADERA: I did. Spike has made me audition for every single part I've ever gotten from him, and, you know, I think a lot of actors - they get to a certain point, and they don't - they get offers.

EISENBERG: Sure.

HADERA: And I'm sure Spike is not making Denzel audition, but I think he's someone who has worked really hard for everything he's gotten and is not a fan of handouts, and I respect that.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: And I think it is part of your job as an actor to audition.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: It's like, there's no ego there. It's what - it's just part of what you do.

EISENBERG: Right. So you have a new show coming out on Epix called "Godfather Of Harlem."

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: It's based on true events, starring yourself, Forest Whitaker, Vincent D'Onofrio...

HADERA: Giancarlo Esposito - I just - as a big fan, I've got to...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: Pretty serious.

EISENBERG: So this show is a prequel of the 2007 film "American Gangster," and it tells the story of crime boss Bumpy Johnson and his return to the streets of Harlem in the early '60s.

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: And you portray his wife Mayme Johnson...

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Who was a real person.

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: She passed away in 2009.

HADERA: I think so, yeah.

EISENBERG: Did you go to whatever source material was available?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean, she did, before she passed - Mayme Johnson, who I'm playing - write a book called "Harlem Godfather," so I turned to that, you know? She really had an issue with the portrayal of the relationship between Nicky Barnes and Bumpy Johnson in "American Gangster" because it made it seem like, you know, Nicky Barnes came up under Bumpy Johnson and that he was his right-hand man. And she's, like, really vocal about saying, like, this is not so. Like, Nicky Barnes drove my man around, like, once before he was fired. Like, basically...

EISENBERG: I got it.

HADERA: ...Like, he was not good enough to hang with Bumpy.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: OK, so when you were part of the "Baywatch" film...

HADERA: Oh, yes - that film.

EISENBERG: ...With Dwayne...

OPHIRA EISENBERG AND ILFENESH HADERA: ..."The Rock" Johnson...

EISENBERG: ...He described you as tougher than new rope.

HADERA: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: What is he referring to?

HADERA: I don't know.

EISENBERG: What do you mean, you don't know?

HADERA: I mean, I'll be very honest.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: We hadn't even met when he wrote that.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Really?

HADERA: So I guess he was just looking at me and thinking, she looks really tough, which is fine...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: ...I guess. Or maybe he'd seen the tape and he just thought, like, oh, that woman - she's got a deep voice and she's 5'11", so she's got to be tough.

EISENBERG: Tough.

HADERA: Tougher than new rope.

EISENBERG: Tougher than new rope. And then you obviously met him...

HADERA: At work.

EISENBERG: ...At work. Did you know that he has said this? So you were aware of it?

HADERA: Oh, yeah. He did this - like, I was on set for this Hulu show, "Difficult People."

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: I was away from my phone, and then I came back to this, like, influx of new followers and messages. And I was like, what is going on? Did I upload a photo by mistake or something crazy? And it was this Instagram post of Dwayne Johnson's that was, like, a photo of mine announcing the casting of "Baywatch." And I think I got, like, 20,000 new followers that day.

EISENBERG: Are you kidding?

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So it was great in weird way.

HADERA: It was great.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: But it was so strange.

EISENBERG: Yeah. All right. So I read that you had aspirations to be professional DJ...

HADERA: I did.

EISENBERG: ...And even went to DJ school.

HADERA: I did go to DJ school.

EISENBERG: OK. First of all, where is DJ school?

HADERA: It was...

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: It was on - there are many of them.

EISENBERG: What?

HADERA: So there's Scratch Academy, which I looked at.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Not real - that's not real.

HADERA: Real - Scratch Academy - I think it's still open. My alma mater, Dubspot, is no longer.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Oh (laughter), I love Dubspot.

HADERA: Dubspot.

EISENBERG: Great.

HADERA: But it was a great place. I just - it was at a time also that I don't even think I'd done "Da Brick" with Spike yet. You know, I was, like, still miserable in the restaurants. And I was like, I got to figure out something else. Like, acting is not happening. There's got to be something else I could do. And then I was like, I know. I'll just be a DJ. I love music...

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: ...Because what else do you need? So I went for it. My parents paid for my...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: ...DJ school, put me through it.

EISENBERG: How long did it take?

HADERA: This is what happened.

EISENBERG: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: So it was, like, a four-month program - very intensive...

EISENBERG: OK.

HADERA: ...Right? It was only two days a week, but it was three hours per class. And I was really loving it. And then we had this really hard-ass DJ teacher. I forget her name.

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: DJ.

EISENBERG: It's - the stakes that you are trying to set up here are hilarious.

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: I'm trying. I'm trying. But the first guy was so relaxed. He was like, yeah, you know, you got to go home and come back with these mixes. You can present them and share them with the class if you want.

And I was like, all right - cool. So I'd go in there on my own time. And I'd perfect these mixes. And then she's like, you're going to come back next week. And you're going to get up and present your mix to the class whether or not you're ready.

And that, for me, is, like, the way to ensure that I never come back to DJing school. It was supposed to be this fun thing that could earn me lots of money...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: ...That I could love doing. And then she ruined it...

EISENBERG: Right.

HADERA: ...Because she just made it, like, scary.

EISENBERG: This high-pressure thing...

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...That you were, like, this is not what I...

HADERA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Signed up for. So you just never came back?

HADERA: I never went back.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Wow. All right. Wasn't - that wasn't...

HADERA: I feel like that says a lot about me.

EISENBERG: Yeah. You didn't get your Ph. DJ (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: That was good.

EISENBERG: I don't know.

HADERA: That was good. But no, I didn't. And now I feel like a loser...

EISENBERG: No.

HADERA: ...For admitting that out loud (laughter).

EISENBERG: No. It's OK. You can go back to Scratch...

HADERA: Yeah, Scratch Academy.

EISENBERG: ...Anytime, anytime.

HADERA: Scratch, will you have me?

EISENBERG: (Laughter) I think it worked out.

HADERA: Yeah. It's - we're OK.

EISENBERG: So we have a game for you.

HADERA: Oh, no.

EISENBERG: It's common in hip-hop and rap for artists to sample pieces of other songs. So your game is called Sample Sampler. We're going to play a hip-hop or rap song that samples another older song.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: For each clip, you can name either the songs or the artist. Basically, just tell us anything...

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: OK, anything.

EISENBERG: ...About the songs...

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: And we will give you points.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, listener Ryan Lerman (ph) from Coral Springs, Fla., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: Let's give it a shot. All right. So this song is from 1997.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: It samples a song from 1983.

HADERA: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE MISSING YOU")

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) When it's real, feelings hard to conceal.

HADERA: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE MISSING YOU")

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) Can't imagine all the pain that I feel - give anything to hear half your breath...

HADERA: It's The Police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE MISSING YOU")

FAITH EVANS: (Singing) Every step I take...

HADERA: Right?

EISENBERG: All right.

HADERA: Is that Puffy sampling The Police?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HADERA: Right?

EISENBERG: There you go.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: That's all we need.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Diddy featuring - well, now Diddy featuring Faith Evans.

HADERA: Faith Evans - yeah.

EISENBERG: "I'll Be Missing You"...

HADERA: "I'll Be Missing You."

EISENBERG: ...Sampling The Police...

HADERA: The Police.

EISENBERG: ..."Every Breath You Take."

HADERA: Yes.

EISENBERG: Let's hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Every breath you take...

HADERA: There you go. They're both great songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) ...Every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you.

HADERA: (Singing) I'll be missing you.

Watching, not missing.

EISENBERG: I know. That's OK, too.

HADERA: OK. I got it.

EISENBERG: I think missing is better. Watching is...

HADERA: Watching is creepy.

EISENBERG: ...Is where that song gets creepy. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: It's a little bit problematic. All right.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: Let's see what you think about this next one.

HADERA: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOLIO'S "GANGSTA'S PARADISE")

HADERA: Oh.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTA'S PARADISE")

COOLIO: (Rapping) As I walk through the valley...

HADERA: (Rapping) Of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there's nothing left.

OK. So I know Coolio.

EISENBERG: Yes.

HADERA: Obviously, "Gangsta's Paradise."

EISENBERG: You're right.

HADERA: I don't know...

EISENBERG: The sample.

HADERA: ...The sample.

EISENBERG: You know what?

HADERA: What if I said Weird Al Yankovic because...

(LAUGHTER)

HADERA: Can I do that?

EISENBERG: I'm going to give you a half-point for that.

HADERA: Thank you.

EISENBERG: I'm going to give you a half-point for that.

HADERA: All right.

EISENBERG: So...

HADERA: That's generous of you. I appreciate it.

EISENBERG: So you know what? Let's hear what the sample is from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PASTIME PARADISE")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Been spending most their lives living in the pastime paradise.

HADERA: I still don't know.

EISENBERG: That's Stevie Wonder.

HADERA: Is that? I mean...

EISENBERG: Yeah. That's 1976 Stevie Wonder.

HADERA: I'm sorry. I'm sure...

EISENBERG: No.

HADERA: ...Everybody knew that but me.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: No. Everyone just learned.

HADERA: Oh, you didn't know?

EISENBERG: They were excited. Look at all these white people saying no.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK. Here is your last one.

HADERA: OK.

EISENBERG: This 1997 song samples a song from 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RAIN (SUPA DUPA FLY)")

MISSY ELLIOTT: (Rapping) Look like it's 'bout to rain - what a shame.

HADERA: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RAIN (SUPA DUPA FLY)")

ELLIOTT: (Rapping) I got the Armor-All to shine up the stain. Oh, Missy, try to maintain. (Vocalizing, singing) I can't stand the rain.

HADERA: So obviously know the Missy version.

EISENBERG: Yup. That's good.

HADERA: Don't know who she sampled - I can't stand the rain.

EISENBERG: Missy Elliott.

HADERA: I just watched her at the VMAs.

EISENBERG: Wait a second. What did you just say?

HADERA: I can't stand the rain.

EISENBERG: OK. Well, that is...

HADERA: Oh, all I need to know is the song name.

EISENBERG: That's right.

HADERA: Yes.

EISENBERG: "I Can't Stand The Rain" is the other song name.

HADERA: Yes - victory. All right, cool.

EISENBERG: And the artist of the other song is Ann Peebles. Do you want to hear that? Let's hear that.

HADERA: Yeah. Sure. I would love to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANN PEEBLES' "I CAN'T STAND THE RAIN")

HADERA: Oh, yeah. I know this - God.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T STAND THE RAIN")

ANN PEEBLES: (Singing) I can't stand the rain.

HADERA: What a great sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T STAND THE RAIN")

PEEBLES: (Singing) Against my window bringing back sweet memories. Hey, windowpane...

EISENBERG: Congratulations. You did it. You and listener Ryan Lerman won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

HADERA: We did it, Ryan.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Ilfenesh stars on the "Godfather Of Harlem" on Epix starting September 29. Check it out. And thank you so much.

HADERA: Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much.

EISENBERG: Ilfenesh Hadera, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

HADERA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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