Apr 252015

Note to readers: This interview took place via email. I have taken a couple of liberties to make it seem more “chatty.”

Sola Bamis is someone the Basket knows and loves for her portrayal of Mad Men‘s Shirley, admin par excellence at SC&P. Shirley and Dawn are the first African-American employees at the agency, providing viewers several uncomfortable and enlightening moments as we see them struggle to overcome what we would now call a series of “micro-aggressions” as they fight to find recognition and acceptance in the workplace.

Sola Bamis: Behold

Sola Bamis: Behold

Sola grew up in Florida and attended the University of Miami, where she was named Miss University of Miami in 2007. She started out pre-med, following the wishes of her parents, who emigrated from Nigeria with high expectations for their children. Sola tried the med school path until the call of acting proved too strong.

In addition to acting, Sola is active on Twitter. She participates in many Mad Men threads and is consistently accessible, friendly, and supportive of the show’s fans, including me and the wife. Sola provides an intelligent and outspoken voice on the topics that resonate with her (see the insightful interview on her advocacy and voice at The Visibility Project.). One day I mentioned to Sola how cool it would be to give Basketcases a chance to know her better via an interview. She thought that was an “amazing” idea; this is the result.

White T Jim B: Thank you for agreeing to give this a shot. Our blog, Basket of Kisses, is regularly mentioned among the top Mad Men-focused sites around. Roberta and Deb, the sisters who run it, have become friendly with show-runner Matt Weiner, as well as much of the cast. My wife Anne B is one of the featured writers on the blog, and we are both huge fans of yours. It’s our pleasure to welcome you to the Basket.

SB: Thank you so much for choosing to interview me for Basket of Kisses.

WTJB: Did you read or watch anything to prepare for the role of Shirley on Mad Men? If so, what did you choose?

SB: I put some work into figuring out where Shirley fit into this particular setting, which, as I’m sure you noticed, isn’t all that diverse in terms of race and gender. As I watched previous episodes (becoming a huge fan of the show in the meantime), I wanted to get a good idea of the relationships in the office: Who holds the status? Who provides the insight/humor? Whose approval is sought the most? Finding the answers to those questions in previous episodes gave me a good idea of what Shirley’s place is in the office, and how she’d react in certain situations.

Suffering racist secretary-draughts … Shirley (Sola Bamis) and Dawn (Teyonah Parris).WTJB: Mad Men viewers love your character, especially her wardrobe. Do you have a favorite outfit, and if so, can you say why?

SB: I’m also a huge fan of Shirley’s wardrobe. Shirley’s look is bold, colorful, and defiant, just like her personality. I wish I could describe my favorite Shirley outfit for you, but the episode hasn’t aired yet. Stay tuned! On its airdate, I’ll most definitely tweet a pic.

WTJB: You are still starting out in your acting career, would you agree? Shirley is just starting out in a new job herself, and in an alien environment; how do you feel your lives are similar, and how are they different?

SB: I think where I am in my career now is similar to where Shirley is, career-wise, at SC&P. She’s not new to secretarial work and she’s great at her job, but she’s new to this particular environment and just has to figure her way around the office, learn the politics, and find out who’s boss. Like me, she learns as she goes, but still works to stay one step ahead.

There’s a saying in our industry: ‘It takes ten years to become an overnight success.’ I’ve been acting for almost fifteen years, but in Hollywood for only four. So far, Shirley has been my biggest role onscreen, and I’m relatively young in the industry, but I don’t consider myself as just starting out. Since I earned my MFA in Acting from CalArts in 2011, I’ve been working steadily. I’ve co-starred on Jane By Design (ABC Family), Perception (TNT), and Mistresses (ABC), guest starred on Killer Women (ABC), recurred on Mad Men, of course, and I’ve done voiceover work, and some commercial spots. Also, I have a recurring role on a new show called Stitchers, premiering this summer on ABC Family. So, I’ve definitely put some work in! Maybe six years from now, I’ll be just getting my “novice” label – LOL.

WTJB: If Shirley and Dawn ever decided to call in sick on the same day, how would they spend their day off?

SB: They would go shopping! Maybe Shirley could convince Dawn to add a mini-skirt or two to her wardrobe.

WTJB: You’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare. Do you have a favorite character? Have you played him or her yet?

SB: One day, I hope to play any one of the daughters from King Lear. As a matter of fact, I want to play all of Lear’s daughters; maybe in a production where the three actresses rotate roles… just to be difficult. I love sister trios in art and literature and if I had to choose, I’d pick Cordelia, but I’d really love to bring all three women to life. Did I say I love sister trios?

WTJB: If films, television, and theater productions all paid the same, which would you choose to do most, and why?

SB: I love the stage! The preparation, rehearsal process, connection with the cast and crew, the energy I feel from audience—it’s an experience like no other. Now, I do like that with TV and film, I get to see the finished product, but, pay being equal, I’d have to choose theatre as my favorite medium of performance.

WTJB: Which fictional woman is your role model?

SB: Sula from Sula by Toni Morrison. She was free in ways no one could understand.

WTJB: Your skin is beautiful. What’s your secret? Eating crushed opals? Catching lightning bugs and extracting their light? All the shea butter? What?!

SB: Sunscreen, lots of water, and good genes…Okay okay, maybe a crushed opal every now and then 🙂

WTJB: You cite Shabba Ranks as one of your influences. Do you agree with the sentiments expressed in his song, “Twice My Age”? (“I’m in love with a man, nearly twice my age …”) How old would twice your age be? Asking for a friend who is in his fifties but everyone says looks fortyish.

SB: Ha! In that case, just for the record, let’s just say that twice my playable age range is 40-64 *wink*

WTJB: Just between us: Don, Roger, or Joan?

SB: Don. Definitely Don.

"Get me some coffee." "No. YOU get ME some coffee."

“Get me some coffee.”
“No. YOU get ME some coffee.”

WTJB: If Shirley could make one person in the SC&P office go get her a cup of coffee, who would it be?

SB: Two words: PEG-GY!

WTJB: Does anyone in the cast make you feel star struck?

SB: Jon Hamm. I think that he’s a talented and versatile actor, and I have a lot of respect for him. He was also very professional and always treated me kindly, which I really appreciated.

WTJB: Who on the show is the most fun, goofy, or different from what we think?

SB: Seriously, everyone in the cast is really funny. I’d have to say that I most enjoyed shooting scenes with Kevin [Rahm, who plays Ted Chaouououaugh – ed.], Vincent [Kartheiser], and John Slattery, though. They are absolutely hilarious. Like, gut-busting funny.

WTJB: What’s your favorite line or scene from the series and why?

SB: Part of the conversation between Pete and Trudy in “In Care Of” (Season 6, Episode 13)—

Trudy: It’s going to take you a moment to realize where you are. You’re free. Free of her, you’re free of them. You’re free of everything.
Pete: Well, it’s not the way I wanted it.
Trudy: Now you know that.

Pete took his family for granted, and didn’t realize it (because men never do) until it was too late. What I loved most about the dialogue, though, is that Trudy wasn’t portrayed as the bitter, cruel ex-wife in letting him know that he messed up. In fact, she used reverse psychology on him to get him to admit it himself! Brilliant.

WTJB: I have to ask you about the scene with you, Elisabeth Moss, and the bouquet of roses. Do you think that is your character’s biggest scene (so far at least)? For me that was the one that stuck in my memory, the way it was written and the way you played it. It’s so much about the things Shirley feels she can’t say, like she is looking for the minimum amount to say while keeping her roses out of the trash. And then Shirley’s facial expression when Peggy flips out. I think all of us in the audience get it then, how hard it is to be that character in that office. Any recollections of that scene, from reading the script to performing it?

SB: I think that the ‘Hello Dawn’-‘Hello Shirley’ scene has gotten more attention than the Peggy-Shirley scene because it was the first of its kind–two Black employees having a conversation in the office–but the Peggy-Shirley scene was very memorable, as well, because Peggy’s unnecessarily harsh treatment of Shirley, coupled with Lou’s treatment of Dawn, really shed light on the issues facing Black women in corporate America. The scene was very alive from the day of the table read, and wasn’t too much of a challenge to shoot because it was done in such a supportive environment, with the director, Mike Uppendahl, giving such clear direction and Elisabeth being an amazing partner.

WTJB: You seem really accessible and real on Twitter, talking with your fans and such. Is that part of having a regular life for you?

SB: I am so grateful to the viewers who love Shirley, and it’s really a joy to connect with people who love the show. I couldn’t imagine being in my little bubble, rather than engaging with people on the show and other issues that are important to me.

Sola Bamis is a jewel of a person, and was so friendly, approachable, and easy to work with in this interview. I’m not surprised her star is rising, or that she found a home on the best television series ever made. What is a surprise is how she carries it all so lightly and with such grace.

More on Sola:
• Sola talks to RollingOut about the final season, July 30, 2014:
• Nice shoutout on her big break, published by the school where she got her MFA, Posted July 2, 2014 by Ferdinand Botha.


  20 Responses to “Coffee With Shirley: The Sola Bamis Interview”

  1. Shirley is the best thing to happen to Mad Men in a long time. Shirley quickly became one of my favorite characters. I love everything about her.

  2. Believe it or not… I was there the night she was named first runner-up to Miss Florida!!! Back then I knew she had something special!

  3. Medicine’s loss is acting’s huge gain!

    Thanks, Sola Bamis and WhiteTJimB for letting us enjoy this delightful conversation!

  4. As they say, “the pleasure was all on this side of the table” — what a kind, easygoing young woman. And Anne B’s help was considerable, from helping with questions, to edits and finding a good format. I hope everyone enjoys it as a warmup to tonight’s episode.

  5. Shirley and Dawn need their own series!

  6. Cool interview. She’s a good character. I definitely felt for her when Peggy was going off on her (and I usually like Peggy, but this was a true example of her losing her cool)

  7. Cannot wait to see what the future has to offer her!

  8. Jesus, what a spectacularly beautiful, woman.

    • YES, and that’s saying a lot, given Weiner’s proclivity for casting beautiful actresses.

  9. @Jim:

    Great job conducting this interview – email interviews can be the best kind, because they allow leisurely, well-crafted Q’s and A’s.

    This is why, like the constable in Casablanca, I’m shocked that you linked to Seth Stevenson’s Slate piece in the context of Peggy, Shirley, and race relations – which was anything but well-crafted.

    (when you slag Peggy, you better get it right)

    The paragraph in full:

    I’d argue that for the first time in the show’s run, race was the most prominent period theme of an episode. Consider: 1) Peggy steals Shirley’s flowers out of total obliviousness to the fact that Shirley is a person who has a life outside of serving Peggy. 2) Peggy gives the flowers back to Shirley, all the while congratulating herself on the beneficence of this regifting. 3) Peggy gets angry at Shirley for having the temerity to receive any flowers at all. 4) Peggy attempts to demote Shirley out of a roiling rage that stems from … well, Peggy’s not sure, she just knows Shirley’s upset her somehow. The whole sequence seems like a pretty solid metaphor for midcentury American racial relations.

    This is typical of the surface interpretations one gets almost everywhere from the casual observer (and pretty much never gets here).

    Stevenson gets almost all of this wrong:

    1) On the surface Peggy is indeed oblivious (never mind “total”). No one who posts here would fail to add context that informs Peggy’s behavior – that:

    a) she was recently jilted by one for whom she had fallen for hard and,

    b)she was one who (as Stan mentioned in the elevator just a minute before) “has no date on Valentine’s day”.

    2) Again, this is half-right. She WAS smugly self-congratulatory. But also obsessive, pissed, and bitter, about the same jilting. When she gifted the roses, Peggy said something like “you deserve this” (I’m relying on hazy recollection here).

    3) This must be a willful misinterpretation to support the thesis of the paragraph (or if not willful just obtuse).

    Peggy was not merely “angry at Shirley for having the temerity to receive any flowers at all” – here Stevenson goes to his imagined subtext (below the surface) to completely miss the surface point – which was that Peggy was embarrassed as well as having suffered the emotional roller coaster that the flowers and her emerging reactions comprised. In addition, Peggy was right to expect that Shirley should correct the mistake right after that coffee break (Dawn was well-intentioned when misled Shirley about keeping mum).

    4) Demanding that Shirley be moved off her desk was not Peggy’s best moment. It clearly called to Lou’s petulant moment when he demanded the same of Dawn. But both were squarely within their prerogatives as senior staff members. One would have to understand the years-long e Mad Men portrayal of their office culture to understand this both of those “firings”.

    5) That Stevenson thinks that…

    “The whole sequence seems like a pretty solid metaphor for midcentury American racial relations”

    ….basically reveals his state-of-mind – not so much what the flower drama was actually about. If he’d had the Mad Men context in mind he’d know that any secretary at the firm was subject to such treatment – not just the black secretaries.

    6) Piling on, recall that Peggy had been subjected to similar rough treatment by Lou in the previous episode. There’s plenty of abuse to go around at that office for everyone.

    • Good points. Peggy overreacted for sure, but it wasn’t racially motivated. She probably would have gotten just as irrational and emotional towards Meredith, if Meredith had been her secretary then.

      • The article isn’t about Peggy being racially motivated.

        “The whole sequence seems like a pretty solid metaphor for midcentury American racial relations”

        Metaphor, as always on this show, is happening on a parallel stream to the personal stories. Don is a person, AND a metaphor for the American Dream. Peggy is a person, AND a metaphor for sacrifices women make in the workplace, and so on.

    • Personally I think his analysis was excellent and spot on. Something may have happened whoever the secretary was but race was a heightening factor and she certainly wouldn’t have fired her (only to be overruled) if she were not black and she ASSumed a black woman would get roses in a way she wouldn’t have with a white woman. And Peggy was behaving very irrationally and Shirely had no idea what her issue was and she was worried about upsetting her boss hence not correcting the mistake.

      • Stevenson was part of the 99% who get paid to do pop-culture and phone it in. Look at his thesis statement:

        I’d argue that for the first time in the show’s run, race was the most prominent period theme of an episode

        This makes sense for two up-front, on-the-surface, explicit scenes:

        1) Dawn and Shirley’s break room conversation wherein they allude that they are interchangable to white folk who can’t get past their skin color.

        2) Bert’s instruction that Jaon move Dawn off reception because she’s “colored”.

        He then leaves out those two obvious scenes and tries to go “deep”.

        Why does he fail to check his interpretation of Peggy’s motivations with evidence? I’ll suggest that it’s because he confuses his interpertation for truth – no need for evidence when you know the right answer.

        He may be suitable for Slate but he’s not in the same league as the BoK writers – thus doesn’t deserve mention here.

        • I’d argue that My Old Kentucky Home was prominently about race, but it took until season 7 for African-American characters to have this much agency in the discussion of race.

          • The Roger blackface performance was very prominent – and widely known.

            Off the top of my head, I’d say that “Kentucky” dealt more with class than race.

            Kinsey’s college classmate-cum-dealer, with briefcase under arm, pricked him about being “on scholarship” at ye old alma mater (I suppose Kinsey coudn’t have afforded the tuition otherwise).

            The shindig awkwardly mingled the monied with the not-so-monied. Hilton kept mum about his wealth while gladly accepting Don’s cocktail skills (and made a snide wealth-related comment about the members).

            Even Peggy’s canabis-induced insight about her secretary’s fear sort of highlighted a class-separation (professional/non-professional). “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine.” Actually the fear was gender-based, wasn’t it?

            (OK, checking now)

            Peggy thought Olive was afraid that Peggy might ruin her future with cannabis and all the related implications.

            Doctor rapist argues with Joan over where to seat his superiors. Later we discover he lost a patient that day on the operating table – that foreshadowed a surgeon’s class-divide when we later found out that he has “dumb fingers”.

            The five-dollar domestic drama did include Gene’s accusing looks and Carla’s denial – that touches on race-relations in a low-grade way. For a moment – Grandpa’s radar quickly fixed on Sally. He was lucid when it came to the missing money and his parental instincts.

  10. Jim – excellent work, young man. Thank you for shinning the light on Sola (pun intended!). I do appreciate the humanity she brings to her role instead of the usual cartoon characters we see on broadcast TV.

  11. I am very happy for Sola that her acting career is progressing. Wishing her all the best. And as Sola Bamis’ real life Dad, everyone in the family is happy that she embarks on the profession of her chioce. Sola is a very humble shinning star. More grease to her elbows.

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