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 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.
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.
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.