Multi-talented Joan Iyiola has her eyes firmly on the prize.
From working with the cream of British talent to co-writing, producing, and starring in the BAFTA shortlisted film Dọlápọ̀ is Fine. Fulfilling every Nigerian parent’s dream by reading Law at Cambridge Joan Iyiola was on course to become a barrister, but instead chose a different path. Winning a place at the illustrious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – whose notable alumni include Oscar winners Olivia Coleman, Naomi Harris, and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Iyiola began her career as an actress, garnering rave reviews for her stage performances. Staring in a female-led production of The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC, Iyiola became the first black actress to play the titular role in a major production of the Jacobean tragedy. Later roles include starring opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pauline Lumumba in A Season in the Congo, in the European premiere of Eclipsed directed by The Walking Dead and Black Panther star Danai Gurira and also in the ground-breaking immersive theatrical experience Tree, from Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah.
Not satisfied with wowing theatre audiences, Iyiola’s career took another change of course, with the 2020 release of the thoughtful 15-minute short Dọlápọ̀ is Fine. The film centres on a young girl’s struggle with her natural hair after being told by her mentor (played by Iyiola) to ‘assimilate’ if she’s to secure a job in finance. As also the co-writer and co-producer of Dolapo, the British film industry has marked out Joan Iyiola as a talent to watch, earning her a place as one of Digital Spy’s 30 Black British Stars of Tomorrow.
Following Dolapo’s streaming debut on Netflix we catch-up with the gifted thespian and film-maker...
Please introduce yourself?
My name is Joan Iyiola, I am British Nigerian, and I would describe myself as an artist.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now...
Dọlápọ̀ is Fine centres around a young black girl’s struggle with the pressure to change her Nigerian name and natural hairstyle to assimilate. The film is based on your co-writer and-producer Chibundu Onuzo’s short story SUNITA. Who approached who to work on Dolapo?
I was hired to read SUNITA for Radio 3 a number of years ago. Chibundu and I didn’t know each other then, but when I saw her speak at an Africa Writes invite, I went up to her like a fan-girl, and so began our collaboration. We started turning her debut novel into a screenplay, but realised halfway through that we should start with something smaller. I told Chibundu my thoughts on SUNITA deserving a wider audience, and how much it had resonated with me, and asked for her permission to turn the short story into a short film. From those conversations, Dọlápọ̀ is Fine was born.
You co-produced, co-wrote, and acted in Dọlápọ̀ is Fine. What were some of the struggles in getting the film made?
Producing a film is all about creative problem-solving. Things will almost certainly go wrong, and it is all about the how. How do you solve them? Filming outside, working with a cast and crew of almost 100 people, staying within budget – these were just a few of the struggles that we had to overcome during the shoot.
What moments brought you the greatest sense of joy or accomplishment during bringing this film to the screen?
Watching Doyin Ajiboye, who plays Dọlápọ̀, on set and then seeing how her performance translated on screen in the edit, gave me great joy. Doyin is a huge talent and she has empowered me to keep creating, to keep sharing our stories. It’s not just those that are ahead of us that we can learn from, I have always been inspired by those coming behind me, and to ensure that more opportunities are available for their artistry to shine.
You have achieved the ultimate dream all African or Caribbean parents have for the children by reading Law at Cambridge University. Was there a difficult ‘mum, dad, I’m going to be an actress instead’ conversation, or did they always know that this was a passion you would ultimately follow?
The conversation was difficult oh! My parents are Nigerian. What do you expect? My dad used to say ‘how is the pretending going?’ I had to be sure that this was what I wanted to do, but as they saw my determination, they followed with support.
You’ve worked with some incredible talents in your career already, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Joe Wright in A Season in the Congo at The Young Vic, alongside Letitia Wright in Danai Gurira’s directed Eclipsed and in Tree co-created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba. Are there any directors or actors you would love to work with in the future?
So many. I am working with a couple of collaborators at the moment who are on that wish list, so we keep dreaming. I am a huge fan of Ava DuVernay’s artistry – the wonderful work with ArrayNow, her directing, her authentic voice on our global stage. My husband bought me Ava’s pop figurine, and she sits with me at my desk, bossing me on.
You’re a multi-hyphenate talent as an actress, writer and producer, do you have any desire to direct either for stage or screen?
It could be the role that I take on in later life, but I’m not in a rush. There’s so much learning to be done from the other roles that I am now inhabiting, which will only help me articulate my vision.
At the start of the film, Dolapo meets Daisy, her mentor who makes her question her identity. Do you have a mentor?
I am grateful to have some beautiful mentors who have offered me guidance, perspective, and encouragement to dream bigger. I used to struggle to ask for help, but now realise how important it is, to say your dreams out loud and to articulate your artistry.
You were recently selected for the 2021 BFI X BAFTA Crew, what is the significance and importance of this mentoring and peer collaboration initiative, and what are your personal hopes that it will achieve?
I feel honoured to be on this programme, the peer collaboration is incredibly helpful, particularly when like myself, you haven’t been to film school. We are already helping each other out, sharing resources, experiences and beginning to collaborate on projects.
Dọlápọ̀ is Fine premiered at American Black Film Festival where it won the 2020 HBO Short film competition. Was the spotlight of that win instrumental in getting the film picked up by Netflix or how did that achievement come about?
The HBO Short Film Award was a vibe. Netflix acquired the film after their curated month of films for Black History Month. We had just begun working with our sales distributor, Salaud Morriset when the opportunity came up. The energy behind the film meant that they were willing to invite our short film onto their platform, so perhaps it helped. To have both Netflix and HBO acquire the first film that we have made has been an amazing experience.
What project(s) are you working on next through your company Apatan Productions?
We are working on a few things at the moment: we are currently filming a project with The MonoBox which will be announced later in Spring, we have a few TV Series that are in development, and we are also producing some original work from some exciting new talent.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
- A favourite book you have to have in your collection? The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? UNTITLED (Rise) by SAULT.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Sopranos
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? Cinderella at The HackneyEmpire, meant the world because I saw people that looked like me on stage.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? It was a tough week for women, but I feel so glad to have a close-knit sisterhood.
Dọlápọ̀ is Fine is streaming now on Netflix