Toks Olagundoye Interview: Newcomer Lands Starring Role as Alien Matriarch in ABC's 'The Neighbors'
Image attributed to Toks Olagundoye
Toks Olagundoye is an actress, writer and producer who plays matriarch alien Jackie Joyner-Kersee on ABC’s science fiction sitcom The Neighbors. The series premiered on September 26, 2012 after Modern Family and revolves around a family that has relocated to a gated townhouse community in New Jersey only to discover that the entire community is populated by aliens. The Neighbors can be seen in its regular time slot on Wednesday nights at 8:30/7:30c.
This is the Nigerian native’s breakout role, having guest starred on several television shows including NCIS, CSI: NY, Law & Order and Ugly Betty. She stars as Meghan Oliver in the film Democracy at Work to be released in theaters November 2.
"We have an episode called “Fifty Shades of Green” coming up. It’s an amazing season for the aliens. We also have an episode where we learn about death because we as aliens don’t die which is why all aliens don’t have children. Only certain aliens have children because they don’t want to overpopulate. To learn about death is rather eye opening for us and very interesting in the way we learn about it. There’s a lot of stuff coming up."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Toks, are you enjoying your role as Jackie Joyner-Kersee on The Neighbors?
Toks Olagundoye: Oh, absolutely! I’m having the time of my life, actually. It’s a lot of fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you audition for the role?
Toks Olagundoye: I went in and auditioned, and it was the first time I had met the casting director, so I don’t know that they really knew what they were getting into because they had seen all drama on my reel. I hadn’t done a lot of comedy, so I think she was a little fearful to have me in an audition. But I auditioned with many, many, many other people who were sitting in the waiting room. She liked me and brought me back for the producers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some of Jackie’s characteristics?
Toks Olagundoye: My character is quite lovely but also quite complex because she’s incredibly sweet and incredibly generous, thoughtful and caring. She wants everyone to be happy and tries to make sure everyone is happy. At the same time, she does have quite a temper, and if she loses her temper, then nobody’s happy (laughs). She gets frustrated easily with people not understanding what she’s trying to do.
Jackie gets frustrated with the fact that she’s trying to do everything right but no one is really understanding that because there is so much push and pull between the human family and her husband and children and what they want and what they think should be right and wrong and what the others want. I think she’s really the one who’s always caught in the middle between the human family and her family in trying to make sure everyone is happy while maintaining a balance. She’s the “quintessential” perfect mother and wife, trying to make everyone happy, but at the same time she’s really conflicted and tired, very tired because she’s always trying to please everyone (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds somewhat like June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver.
Toks Olagundoye: Absolutely. That’s actually who I based the idea of the character on when I went in to audition because I was thinking that Jackie actually would’ve been the perfect human wife but maybe she didn’t get the new stuff (laughs). She maybe got the old stuff.
When I went in to audition, everyone else was wearing skinny jeans and button up t-shirts, and I went in wearing a structured dress, my hair was up with a bow in the back and I was wearing these high-heeled Mary Janes and looking very proper, you know? I walked in, and everyone looked at me like, “What are you auditioning for?” I was like, “Well, this is my take on it.” She’s trying to be the perfect woman, wife and mother, but she’s just stuck in the wrong era.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the show’s message that people should embrace each other’s differences?
Toks Olagundoye: I think it’s quite the opposite. It is more trying to show the similarities between them as opposed to the differences. I think it’s a really clever thing that Dan Fogelman did having one alien family coming into a human community instead of one human family coming into an alien community. It’s very relatable to Simon Templeman (who plays my husband Larry Bird) and myself because we’re both foreigners. Even though we both have lived in the United States for quite a while, we both remember coming here and having things be so completely different. So, it’s very relatable because everybody is a human being, and it’s still earth, but you’re moving to a completely different country where the culture, food, language and customs are different.
There are just all these differences and yet you do learn how to get along with everybody because of the similarities. You do learn how to appreciate the differences and learn from the differences. I think that’s what the show is really trying to pinpoint that there are so many different people in the world, and we sometimes struggle because of those differences, but at the end we all try our best to make other people comfortable and compromise so that we can live together. I think that’s what it is really about, and that is the really relatable thing. Everyone has had a neighbor who was so different but at the same time you were drawn to them, learned from them and clung to each other because of the similarities you share. That is the sweet part of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you keep from cracking up when the green stuff oozes out of your ears?
Toks Olagundoye: It’s actually more disgusting than anything else (laughs). It’s a really odd feeling. We really don’t have much of an opportunity to laugh because we kind of just want to get it over and done with (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wouldn’t want to prolong that feeling (laughs).
Toks Olagundoye: Exactly. It’s a little bit disgusting (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What happens in the next few episodes?
Toks Olagundoye: I always wonder how they will keep coming up with things that are not going to be cheesy. But every episode gets better and funnier. The next episode my character decides she wants to learn how to be a real housewife of New Jersey, and she does some inaccurate research. Let that take your mind where it will (laughs). But we are talking about pop culture, so it’s something else. It’s really funny.
The kids go to school in a future episode, and they learn how to get along with the human kids. One of our kids may expose himself, if you know what I mean. That causes a little bit of trouble. We’ve got an amazing Halloween episode! It is really hilarious. There is so much that goes on in that episode. Ian Patrick who plays my son, Dick Butkus, kind of steals the show in that one. He is such a little genius. All the kids are. They floor me every single day. Their instincts are so incredible. The kids do a really great job in that one.
We have an episode called “Fifty Shades of Green” coming up. It’s an amazing season for the aliens. We also have an episode where we learn about death because we as aliens don’t die which is why all aliens don’t have children. Only certain aliens have children because they don’t want to overpopulate. To learn about death is rather eye opening for us and very interesting in the way we learn about it. There’s a lot of stuff coming up.
We also have an amazing Thanksgiving episode in which my sisters come to visit, and you will never be able to imagine who the two people – and I said people, not women – are. We have a lot of fun on the show, and although I may not quite be in a laughing mood when the goo is coming out of my ears, for everything else I laugh a lot on set. The writers are amazing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me a little about yourself, Toks.
Toks Olagundoye: I was born in Nigeria where my parents still live. My dad is Nigerian and my mum is from Norway. We lived there, and when I was very little we moved to England for a couple of years, and then we moved back to Nigeria. I went to the American School in Nigeria for a while, and then I went to boarding school in England for high school. I attended Smith College in Massachusetts. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you always interested in acting?
Toks Olagundoye: I was always interested in acting. It was something that really captivated me, but I didn’t get involved in it until I was in high school in England. Even then it just didn’t seem practical to me. My mum owned her own business, and my dad has several degrees in engineering and business, and it just didn’t seem practical. I never really thought that I would go into acting. I just thought of it as a hobby.
When I was in college, I was actually pre law and decided that I would take one theater course as a hobby on the side. The first semester you had to go in quite early to classes because they didn’t allow you to pre-register. So, I went in, being who I am, about an hour early to ensure I’d be the first person to be able to get into the class as a freshman, and that happened to be the one classroom which was adjacent to the theater at the university. I walked out on the stage, looked out into the audience and started crying. I had been in stage plays in high school and all the Christmas and Easter pageants, so it was really a large part of my life. But at that moment, I just could not imagine not having it in my life.
I decided to change my major, but didn’t tell my parents until the end of the semester because I was quite certain they were going to disown me and tell me I’d have to pay for my own education (laughs). It was quite the opposite. My mum’s a fashion designer, but she has to be practical and get a different kind of store where she couldn’t express what she wanted to express through fashion and design.
My dad, and I didn’t know this at the time, had wanted to study French, go live in France, play his guitar and hang out. But he grew up really poor and went to Yale on a scholarship, and it just wasn’t something he could wait on. So, he very much understood it and said, “You do whatever you want. Just make sure you work hard and are doing the best you can. I did this, but my kids can do whatever they want.” I had never seen that side of my dad before. It was a really good memory.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you married, Toks?
Toks Olagundoye: I am very single, and my only child has four legs. She’s my little rescue mutt. I haven’t had a child, so I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t think I could love her more by giving birth to her (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you watch yourself on television?
Toks Olagundoye: I do watch The Neighbors. Up until this show, I didn’t enjoy watching myself on film or TV. I think that the difference was that before I was always a guest star. When you guest star, you get limited takes for one episode and then you go away. When you’re one of the leads, you get more time and you’ve had more time to get to know your character. I feel like I know my character better and know the other characters better.
We are very much a family, so we’re comfortable with each other. I think it’s a very different experience and energy and so I’m very confident in my choices and really enjoy everyone else’s performances as well. I’ve watched each episode twice because I love watching all of us together and remembering the day we shot it and the take where everyone was laughing so hard that we had to stop.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a film coming out next month.
Toks Olagundoye: Yes. It’s called Democracy at Work, which is a very funny film. It’s a satire and rather preposterous, but it’s the funniest thing I ever did before The Neighbors. I fought so hard for the role. They were not looking for me at all. They were looking for a white girl who looked like she was from somewhere in Connecticut and every other girl who was there looked like that.
I had written them a letter when I read the breakdown. I said, “Trust me. This is my role. You have to at least let me audition. Just watch my reel and let me audition.” And they did, but they put me through the ringer. I had to audition three or four times. The two guys I filmed with are now two of my best friends. We really had such a great time on the film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Give me a short synopsis.
Toks Olagundoye: We’re political advisors on this campaign, and we hear there’s an Internet rumor, but we don’t know if it’s a good rumor or a bad rumor. We spend the entire day trying to figure out if we should try to quiet the rumor or push the rumor because we don’t know if it’s going to help our numbers or hinder our numbers. It’s really funny. It’s just a mess of epic proportions, just hilarious. Everyone in the cast is so good. I’m very proud of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you spend your off time?
Toks Olagundoye: These days I work about sixty to eighty hours a week, so I’m always working. Not to be too much of a crazy dog lady, but I really do love spending time with my dog, so we have lots of long walks and hikes and trips to the park. I do enjoy watching TV, probably a bit too much. I love playing my guitar.
I write a lot. I actually have several deadlines. It’s very different when you’re writing for a deadline, as I’m sure you know only too well, as opposed to writing what you want to write. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very freeing and a good stress release for me. I exercise a lot, run and do Pilates. Besides that, I love eating a little too much and love hanging out with my close friends. Rather than going to a nightclub or lounge, I’d rather go to someone’s house or a restaurant and have a nice meal. That’s how I catch up with my people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a vegetarian?
Toks Olagundoye: I’m a peskaterian, so I eat anything from the sea. I don’t mind if other people eat whatever they want though. Whatever restaurant we go to, I just figure it out for myself. I like tasty restaurants. I don’t really care about the décor, as long as the food is really tasty. That can be very simple comfort food to things completely new and innovative to being mixed together, you know? I just love yummy food!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Toks, it has been a pleasure. Good luck with The Neighbors. I’m imagine everyone is on pins and needles to see what the future holds.
Toks Olagundoye: Thanks. So far, so good, but you never know. So far, so good.
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