Toks Olagundoye plays Jackie Joyner-Kersee—the first lady of a group of aliens living in a gated golf-course community in New Jersey, all of them named for famous athletes—on ABC’s new sitcom The Neighbors. And she’s my choice for breakout comedian of the season. The New York Times also recognized her quirky charm, naming her one of “the most memorable scene stealers of this fall’s new series.”
She spoke with Slate by telephone from Los Angeles.
Slate: I know you’re half-Nigerian and half-Norwegian, but can you tell me a little more about your biography?
Toks Olagundoye: I was born and raised in Nigeria. We lived in England when I was 3 and 4, and I would go to summer school every year in Switzerland. I went to the American School in Nigeria, then high school in England. When we had time off, we would go to England or Norway.
Slate: Then you went to Smith College, an old-school women’s college. That must’ve been a culture shock.
Olagundoye: It’s very feminist and forward-thinking. It’s not as stodgy as you might think, which was unfortunate for me, because I was used to stodgy.
Slate: The Neighbors is partly about people finding places that most of us consider dull and boring to be strange and exotic. I’ve visited Lagos, which seems like the craziest place in the world, and I can’t imagine anything seeming strange after that.
Olagundoye: Well, it’s all relative: What’s normal to you is normal to you. I identified very closely with the episode in which we went to a mall. I’d never really seen anything quite like an American mall.
Slate: Was your peripatetic background part of what got you the job playing Jackie Joyner-Kersee, do you think?
Olagundoye: Honestly, I think it’s just because I’m an oddball, and I revel in it. I really didn’t think I was going to book the job. I was going in for a first meeting with [The Neighbors and Happy Endings casting director] Susan Vash. I thought she would maybe call me in for a guest spot on Happy Endings—it’s one of my favorite shows on TV, so I was happy to be seen by her. I really didn’t think it was going to pan out the way it did. I think that’s probably a good thing, because I wasn’t very careful with my audition. I was very well-prepared, but I was not about to hold anything back, because I really wanted her to see what I could do
Slate: The Neighbors seems like your big break.
Olagundoye: If you had asked me to put down on a piece of paper what my ideal job was, this is it. I get to be goofy and quirky and sweet at the same time—to play a likable character who also has her strange unlikable things. I just love the character.
I would like to say it’s my big break. I’ve several times had jobs that I thought were going to be my big break, and it didn’t pan out. I would be very happy doing this for several years, and I’m legitimately having the time of my life.
Slate: One of things that I imagine was a little tough at first was that the critical reaction to the pilot wasn’t good. Was it hard to deal with that initial response?
Olagundoye: Yes and no. In a way it was difficult to deal with, but I also thought, “Listen, it’s a sci-fi sitcom. It’s not for everyone.” I was proud of the pilot, and I had a good feeling that it would gain a solid following of devoted viewers. I’m hoping that’s what’s happening.
Slate: It is a sci-fi sitcom, but it also deals with the difficulty of figuring new things out and how new people can bring other perspectives.
Olagundoye: I think it’s relatable for anybody who has changed schools or moved to a different neighborhood or a new job.
Slate: You’re using your real accent in the show.
Olagundoye: Well, yes and no. My accent has changed my whole life. When I was younger it was very Nigerian, then when we went to England it was very British. I think I have a very strange, hybrid accent, and I’ve worked very hard to get a solid American accent, which is what I use most of the time. When I’m just walking around, I swap between the British and the American, and when I’m with my family I’m with my Nigerian accent.
Slate: So Jackie Joyner-Kersee is a specific accent that you’re doing?
Olagundoye: It is. My British accent’s somewhere between St. John’s Wood and Surrey. It is a bit posh, but it’s not quite as posh as Jackie’s is.
Slate: Is acting in an accent more difficult, or does it help you get into character?
Olagundoye: Accents are very easy for me. With me, it’s clothing and makeup and hair and all that stuff that inform how the character moves and feels.
Slate: So putting on the golf clothes helps you find Jackie Joyner-Kersee?
Olagundoye: Yes, there’s a sort of sweetness to Jackie that I found through the clothes. They remind me of what I wore in boarding school—very proper. But at the same time, I try to keep a ’50s sensibility. I have a little bit of difficulty holding on to her when they dress me differently—like for the Jersey wives episode. When I’m in heels—and I live in heels—I take on a different posture, a different attitude, different energy. So once they take the flats away from me and put me in heels, I have to pull myself back a little bit.
Slate: Has comedy always been your thing?
Olagundoye: It’s always been something I love, but for some reason—probably because of the British accent—I’ve always been pushed toward more period work.
Slate: Have you ever thought of changing your name?
Olagundoye: I’ve not. I’ve been counseled to change it a couple of times, as recently as last year. But my name is very specific to my family. I’m very proud of being Nigerian. I understand that most people can’t pronounce it, but that’s OK.
This interview has been condensed and edited.