Published in February 2017. In Print February 2017.
In the shadows of Nigeria’s rich history lurks the struggle of an ongoing cold war between its tribes. Actress and rising star, Pepi Sonuga is full Nigerian but the blood that races through her veins might be considered tainted by her ancestors. Her mother is of the Igbo tribe, her father, of the Yoruba. Theirs was a star-cross’d love story, powerful but fast-burning. Their marriage would not culminate into any notion of forever despite the sacrifices made, divorce papers were eventually signed as they split at different forks in the road. Instead, their legacy lives on through Pepi. The product of a fierce, yet defiant commitment, Pepi, now 23, resides in LA. She’s dreamt of being on the big screen since she was nine years old and is quickly making her mark on the industry. She can be seen this fall on the second season of ASH VS. EVIL DEAD and in the spring on the FREEFORM show FAMOUS IN LOVE. One day she hopes to play Queen Nefertiti for reasons obvious (she was an African queen), and not so obvious, instead we’ll call it manifest destiny. Learning how to intertwine these multiple, sometimes conflicting, parts of her identity into a most radiant version of her self, here we talk to Pepi about how she is going to do just that.
Lindsey: Jumping right in, I know you moved to LA at a young age from Nigeria and essentially started off with pageants and a modeling career, so you’ve worked your way through the ranks over the years per se.
Pepi: I was never really a pageant girl but we one day got a random letter in the mail to do this pageant for fun! That was the first pageant I ever did and I ended up winning, that was the thing that really thrusted me into this world. The prizes were like a certificate for an acting school, headshots and things like that. That really helped me out but it only got me so far. On the radio one day I heard one of those things like, “do you want to be on the Disney channel? Come down and be with us!” I saved up all my money, went in for this thing and got my first agent that way so I definitely have worked my way through the ranks. One thing I would note is that for me, the struggle was not even knowing where to start. I came to a completely new country, no friends, no family.
L: As a young person with influence looking at the state of the world, can you comment on how you emotionally deal with all that is our reality?
P: It really breaks my heart, it really does and that’s such an understatement. I grew up seeing poverty, seeing people with no legs. That’s normal in my country. I’m older now and my upbringing gives me a sense of purpose in everything that I’m doing. My dreams aren’t just to rally and to petition, I believe that we can change the world and we will. I think our generation is really the only generation looking at the world with clear eyes. We’re the first generation that knows that you can go to college, work hard and you still might not get the job, you still might be homeless, you still might have to work three jobs. You’re telling me that I’m supposed to be okay with wanting to grow up? Hell no, I don’t want to adult. We’re being mocked because we all want to be creatives in a sense, but that’s just because we’re the first generation that doesn’t romanticize the American dream. But I’m just taking it all in, dude, it’s such a blessing. I’m getting to do what I love, to act, and there’s a whole team of people whose job is to make sure that my dreams keep coming true. I have chills just thinking about it!
L: Honestly, you just seem very genuine and that’s so refreshing. You’re living your dreams whilst knowing just how special that is today. What are some things that have given you a reality check along the way? We have all these perceived notions of Hollywood and fame.
P: People think that it’s all glitz and it’s glam, but seeing it in front of me, it’s not nearly as glamorous as it looks. You can’t try to keep up with it. People want fame for the wrong reasons, “oh I want to be famous so people will love me.” Maybe I thought that I just wanted to share my talent with people and maybe, my heart will be fuller? No, it doesn’t take any sadness or emptiness you feel away at all. This whole year really has been the universe telling me, whoa, whatever you feel that you’re not comfortable with, you need to immediately fix it because as soon as you’re thrust into whatever is about to happen after these shows air, it’s not going to go away, it’ll get amplified. I’m preparing myself for what’s about to happen and that means being the best me that I can be. An acting coach of mine, who sadly past away, told me that the only way you can get what you want is through pure honesty. I told her, “I don’t want to be a bitch.” She said, “Pepi, you’re never gonna be a bitch if you’re honest from your heart.”
L: Talking more deeply about film, what in your experience is the power of film?
P: Film has a way of pulling people out of their realities but showing them exactly what their reality is, shouting it at them. When I went to the movie theatre for the first time, I remember I fell in love with the music and moment when you knew the movie was about to start. When I say film, I really mean the film experience, seeing it in the movie theater, not on your laptop or on the plane or whatever. I really believe that I have something inside of me that I want to share with the world. I’m not sure what it is yet, but for now, I really believe that film is the only way that I can show my heart and share that with people, really hug people you know.
L: Not to sound like a pretentious idiot and quote Shakespeare haha, but he wrote that life is a stage, exploring the idea of life as performance. Do you agree with the latter?
P: No, not at all, not at all. Life is the most real, beautiful, magical experience and that’s why we try so hard to capture it, try so hard to fit it in this bottle of performance. Art, music, film, painting, it’s all just to capture the human experience. You ever walk out of a show and feel like, that was a great show, a great performance, that was a good concert, you did a good job? But then you walk out of something else and you feel like, wow what did I just feel?! What did I just see?! That’s life!!
L: What makes you feel like what you just described? The feeling that something was an experience?
P: Listening to music, listening to live music, gives me chills. I can’t do music, I can’t play any instruments, I can sing but listening to Adele for instance, you feel god in those moments. I love things that make me feel closest to god and I feel that a lot in nature a lot too. In New Zealand I loved it because they take care of the land. At night, you step out of the car and it’s lit up, it’s LIT UP and I cried because I was like, how do people believe that god is not real! What?! What is that?! [referring to the cosmos] That is god! That’s what god means to me. I’m not a religious person, I don’t go to church every Sunday but I have seen god and I see god every day. Humans are frickin magic, everything we need to know is all right here *pointing to her core* but we don’t listen to ourselves.
L: How has taking on and essentially becoming all these other people, real or fictional, affected you as an individual? It seems like it takes a lot of self knowledge.
P: Every single role has added so much to me. I once played a role where the girl was kind of promiscuous let’s say, I wasn’t promiscuous even before the role but I formed an opinion about my body and sex. That’s what acting’s made me do, it’s made me form opinions because I have to ask myself, who am I? Am I like her? Am I not like her? For example, my character right now in Famous in Love: Tangey Turner, she has made me so confident. She is just a boss! When I leave set I ask myself, why am I not?! She’s great. She didn’t start off like that, she started off kind of insecure and finding her way. I think I grew up with her, as the writers were writing her stronger and stronger, by the end of the season I felt stronger. Not that you become your character, but acting makes you question who you are.
L: What does “home” mean to you nowadays?
P: Home is wherever I can find love at that moment. Because I can’t split up my love, I’ve always had to do that. I had to leave Nigeria, leave my friends there, I had to leave my dad. I’ve always had to leave people in all these different parts of the world. The world is one big playground and I have different homes everywhere. I can’t be in New Zealand filming Ash vs. Evil Dead and be stressing about how sad I am that I’m not in LA. There are people there who I genuinely will remember for the rest of my life and they’re in my heart, so how can I not have this moment with these new friends I’ve made because I’m stressing about people who I know I’m going to see?
L: Totally, so how do integrate your race, culture and upbringing into your career?
P: Sometimes it’s hard because they’re all very drastically different from each other. With Nigerian culture, it’s very strict and since things aren’t thriving in the best sense there, people want the best for the children. It’s the best education, the best this and that, you act like a lady, just so many rules, it’s misogynistic to the max. I remember when I first came to the United States and made my first friends, I kept saying, “it’s so free! Everything is so free!” They were saying that this country is not free and listing all the things that make America bad. But I’m like, you guys don’t get it, you guys are so free opposed to other countries. I’ve tried to blend those two parts of me because it would be fake if I were to say that I was all Nigerian, that I believed this and that. But, I would also be fake if I didn’t say that I’m a woman who believes in marriage and that I should be married by this certain age. Because these are things that have been embedded inside of me. Even if I’m in this new world with strong feminist narratives etc., I can’t take those things out of me. It’s not sexist to me, but I want a man who opens the door, pays for dinner, because that’s how I was brought up. It’s not even a sense of me being lower — actually that’s how I even feel higher, that he’s lifting me higher. I try to blend those two parts, like I’m sort of the middle child who’s teaching my two parents how to get along with each other.
L: Yeah you’re learning to accept your identity as being more fluid. That’s been one of the hardest things for me, combining and figuring out who you want to be with what cards you were given.
P: Yes it’s like how do I make me one person? Yes! How do you do that? I’m still figuring it out. Somehow we all become amalgams, beautiful amalgams of who we all are without even trying.