Emiola, an angel in Los Angeles
American actress Femi Emiola, who was
introduced to Lucire readers in a campaign for Toyota, talks
about her life growing up in the Philippines and Nigeria, her work
on US TV including The Practice, and the New Zealand connection
in her wedding vows
by Jack Yan
questions by Sheena Curtin
photographed by Olesja Mueller
make-up by Megumi Wakabayashi
Her ﬁrst speaking lines on a network TV show
was on As the World Turns, a daytime soap on CBS. Emiola,
playing a stewardess, recalls that she had about three lines. My
mother went home from work just to watch it because she didnt
know how to program her VCR, and she called me afterwards, very
proud of my tiny 10-second stint. She knew how hard it had been
for me to get there; and it was a big deal to me that she thought
it important enough to go home in the middle of the day to watch
A FEW MONTHS AGO, Lucire ran
a series of advertisements for the Toyota Camry. While the Camry
is a solid seller for Toyota, readers of the print title might have
noticed that its never been covered in the motoring column.
The problem is, while its a solid, dependable
car, the Camry does not excite. And knowing this, Toyota Motor Sales
in the US embarked on a campaign,
If Looks Could Kill, that combined fashion and espionage,
fronted by actress Femi Emiola.
We didnt know Ms Emiola and Lucire
shared a mutual friend, Ladybrilles
Uduak Oduok, who contributed to the magazine in 2006. And when
the connection was made, we were fans of Emiola alreadyand
became more impressed by her résumé as we learned
Born in Iowa into an academic household, Emiola
has a FilipinoNigerian heritage. She grew up in her mothers
homeland, the Philippines, for five years, centred in Manila; then
lived in several places in Nigeria for ten and has been
in Los Angeles since 2001. She has lived in various places in the
She has held a dream of becoming an actress from
her youth, but also recognized the need to have a formal qualification
outside of the acting profession.
She was exposed to the movies at an early age,
as she recalls her uncle and his friends letting her watch black-and-white
films in the Philippines. I would get up for a glass of waterI
must have been three years old at the timeand he would let
me sit on the couch and watch TV with
them, she recalls.
Her acting bug was there early. I was in
kindergarten in Manila when I acted in my first play. I played Angel
Gabriel, and it was so great to wear the big wings!
Nigeria and the Philippines
the value of higher education and see it as the ideal and preferred
way to build a good life, she tells Lucire. When
I was younger and dreaming about becoming an actress, I knew it
really not something that my Mom or Dad would have supported wholeheartedly
as a career path for me. So getting a degree in a field other than
drama was pretty much defined very early in my life.
However, by the time I received my bachelors
degree (in journalism and mass communications), my parents were
divorced, and I was accountable only to my mother. She was satisfied
that I had received a good education and would always have what
she deemed as useful and sellable skills in case acting didnt
work out, and so she was completely fine with me taking off for
New York City and pursuing my acting dream.
Emiola recalls that her mother had seen most
of her university plays and had some confidence that I was
not completely untalented!
She is close to her mothers side of the
family. In her earliest years, while her mother taught at the University
of the Philippines, her maternal grandmother looked after her. I
loved living with my Grandma! She ended up caring for most of her
grandchildren while our parents worked, and we lived and played
in the community surrounding the apartment we lived in.
Even though I was quite young, I recall
quite a bit about our life there. Ive experienced the flooding
that comes with the typhoons and because I was so young, I remembered
thinking it was great fun. I realize now that that was because my
uncle made it so. I remember bobbing up and down in the streets
on something long and flat that floated on the floodwaters, while
my uncle Roger pulled it around and made what was probably a very
bad time good for us kids. And I loved the big meals my grandmother
would make for everybody, and my mother hand-feeding me fish after
she had picked out all the bones.
Her time in Nigeria has many milestones,
as she puts it: my first crush, my first kiss, boarding school,
my first big school dance. I went on road trips across the country
with my father, and those experiences really started the insatiable
curiosity about the world and a thirst for travel that I still have
now. Some of my best friendships were formed in Nigeria, and I am
still friends with many of those people today. Life wasnt
always easy, but I wouldnt trade those times for anything.
She attended university in the US,
and remembers it as the country in which she had her first love,
her initial forays into professional acting, many friends, and the
career, marriage and life I have now.
Its always been the company I keep
and the people I share adventures with that deﬁne the best
of times for me.
Her first speaking lines on a network TV
show was on As the World Turns, a daytime soap on CBS.
Emiola, playing a stewardess, recalls that she had about three lines.
My mother went home from work just to watch it because she
didnt know how to program her VCR,
and she called me afterwards, very proud of my tiny 10-second stint.
She knew how hard it had been for me to get there; and it was a
big deal to me that she thought it important enough to go home in
the middle of the day to watch it.
On prime-time, Emiola first appeared in The
Practice and she still regards it as her favourite television
role. It came about in an unusual fashion.
I went in for a last-minute casting and
they asked me to stick around and read for the producers (several
hours) later that day. It was going to shoot the very next day,
and because of the time crunch, they were going to make the decision
minutes after auditions were over. Whoever got it had to go immediately
to wardrobe for fittings.
So it was a long day, waiting anxiously
for my second appointment time, fretting and rehearsing in my car
Finally the time came and I went in and auditioned for about
twelve people: the director, producers and writers of the show sitting
in a conference room. When it was all done, all the actresses sat
around waiting to be told if we could go home.
We waited in silence, and then the casting
associate came out. She said, Will Femi Emiola please stay?
I was absolutely convinced it wasnt over, and that she would
call out a couple of other names and we would have to go in and
do it again so they could pick from the newly narrowed pool. So
my face was completely blank, as I sat waiting, silently steeling
myself for another round of auditioning. But she said nothing else,
and stood waiting while the other actresses began gathering their
stuff to leave.
At this point, I hadnt yet identified
myself and I just sort of sat there. One girl must have figured
out it hadnt sunk in for me, so she turned to me and smiled,
saying, Youre Femi, arent you?
Suddenly, it hit me like an electric shock.
I was stunned. No pun intended! The casting associate waited patiently
while I phoned my manager and stammered and cried and blubbered
that I had gotten the job before she sent me off to wardrobe to
Emiola shot the next day with Bill Smitrovich,
whom she describes as incredibly kind and gracious. The director,
Rod Hardy, was wonderful and patient with me, and the crew was very
friendly and accommodating. I met Camryn Manheim and Steve Harris
who are absolutely consummate professionals. I couldnt have
wished for a better first experience on the set of a great show.
In June 2008, Emiola became the face of the Toyota
Camry, which she found similar to her TV
work. Although the campaign included interactive web elements, online
gaming and a prize draw, shooting the job was not that different
at all! The production values, she says, were high, and given
that it was for Toyota, there was a car handler to look
after the Camry used for shooting. He kept the windshield
sparkling, the paint gleaming, and the windows fingerprint-free.
With the fast driving in some of the instalments,
Emiola was grateful to have done a precision driving course two
years ago, but she admits she scratched one wheel rim.
The campaign had a positive effect. I heard
a lot that the show was unique because it featured an African-American
woman in a dynamic and sexy role as the lead. I hadnt thought
about that when I was shooting, but it is very true that that is
rare for most shows in the US.
Aside from being the professional actress and
traveller, Emiola is a big fan of photography. As with many in her
profession, she gets irritable when she is not doing something creative.
I love taking journalistic-style photographs. I was always
too poor to learn how to shoot properly with an SLR
film camera so for years, I made images by drawing and painting
with acrylics instead. Then I got caught up in learning to play
around in Photoshop on my Mac.
Last year, I finally worked up the nerve
to buy a digital SLR camera, and it
has opened up a whole new world for me! I shoot a lot of scenery
and people in my life, as well as flora and fauna. I really love
shooting street scenes, but Im not great at pointing the camera
at strangers on the street and shooting pictures of them but I try
to sneak a few in here and there, much to the chagrin of some of
I almost got mugged with my best friend
last year in downtown San Diego because I was trying to photograph
a couple of street-dwellers who were all done up in this crazy camouflage
I saw these guys across the street and I turned my
lens towards them. Guess they didn t like that, and they started
hollering and waving at us, so my buddy and I high-tailed it down
the street as fast as possible. I try to be more discreet now!
Among Emiolas creative pursuits is cooking.
Seafood paella is one of her specialities, as is chicken adobo,
a recipe she learned from her mother. Or if Im going
with a Nigerian menu, then I make a mean jollof rice and fried plantains.
Emiola has not been Down Under yet, but would
love to visit. Her husband had spent nine months in Australasia
prior to their meeting and travelling there is in her plans. Dont
laugh, but we actually worked going fly-fishing at Lake Taupo into
our wedding vows!
And lets not forget Im a huge
fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so you know, that makes
visiting even more exciting. Ive put it on my bucket list!
Even if I dont shoot in New Zealand, Im definitely visiting
one day, it is so beautiful.
Also on the list is a chance to work with director
Stephen Frears. She is a fan of Frears Dirty Pretty Things
and The Queen, saying that he excels at bringing out
the best in actors in these character-driven, quiet pieces, and
paints a full and rich picture of the people in his stories.
Jack Yan is founding publisher of Lucire.
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