A Google search for the star of the CBS comedy “Bob Hearts Abishola,” Folake Olowofoyeku, will result in video interviews like this one, in which the American interviewer struggles to pronounce the Nigerian actress and musician’s last name. But she’s never considered changing it. If she did, she certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji; Natalie Portman was Neta-Lee Hershlag; and musician Bruno Mars was Peter Gene Hernandez. And in her “defiance,” Olowofoyeku is forcing the industry to meet her on her own terms — although she admits that she has been pressured.
“There have been a couple of agents when I was in New York who suggested or advised that I change my name,” she said. “There was an agent that I was with who I liked, so she was the only one whose opinion could have possibly swayed me. But her approach was kind of like, ‘I’m just curious. I’m not saying you should, but have you ever considered it?’ And I’m grateful for that because it was never mandatory. She still represented me after that.”
In the Detroit-set “Bob Hearts Abishola”, Olowofoyeku plays Abishola, a Nigerian cardiac nurse who meets a compression sock businessman named Bob (Billy Gardell). The comedic examination of immigrant life in America, created by Chuck Lorre (“Mike & Molly,” “The Big Bang Theory”), Eddie Gorodetsky, Al Higgins, and British-Nigerian comedian Gina Yashere — who also plays a supporting role on the show — is billed as a love story about a middle-aged white salesman who unexpectedly falls for his nurse, a Nigerian immigrant, while recovering from a heart attack. He then sets his sights on winning her over, undaunted by her lack of initial interest or the vast differences in their backgrounds.
It is noted as being the first American sitcom on a major network to feature a Nigerian family, and also groundbreaking because its cast members speak in the Yoruba language. For Olowofoyeku, it’s all still quite surreal.
“Sometimes I try to imagine myself not involved with the project, but as an audience member, watching this on American television,” she said. “And I wonder, how I would take a show like this coming out. And on CBS? It just blows my mind. It’s amazing and so beautiful, and very timely.”
The series certainly arrives at an opportune moment, given the escalation in anti-immigrant sentiment that the outgoing president has stoked over the last four years. And on the surface, given CBS’ core demo as well as criticism the network has received over the years for its lack of a diverse programming lineup, the series may have seemed like a risky bet, telling a story about what American audiences would likely perceive as a kind of unconventional relationship. But Bob and Abishola are a couple that viewers can’t help but root for.
“They see themselves in each other, and then they see what they’re lacking and how the other creates balance in their lives,” Olowofoyeku said. “They’re the caregivers of their families. They both give so much of themselves emotionally and financially. So Bob comes into her life and says, ‘Hey, chill out a little. Let’s have some fun.’ And then Abishola comes into his life and says, ‘For someone in my position, it’s not a lot of fun.’ So I think they create balance in each other, while also still allowing room for them to still be themselves.”
Born in Nigeria, Olowofoyeku calls Los Angeles her “work home” and Nigeria her “home, home.” She emigrated to the United States in 2001 when she was 18 years old, studying theater at the City College of New York. Her screen career officially begun in 2004, appearing in guest starring roles on series like “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “30 Rock,” and “Modern Family,” all before landing the female lead opposite Gardell in “Bob Hearts Abishola” in late 2018.
Olowofoyeku wasn’t intimately familiar with Lorre’s previous work, and so didn’t understand the pomp and circumstance that came with the announcement of the project. “I started hearing from people after I got the part: ‘Oh, it’s a Chuck Lorre show, and it means this and that’,” she said. “I just focused on the work, and didn’t pay attention to things I couldn’t control. I’ve been acting for about 20 years, and I’ve always just had a tunnel-like vision about my career.”
The second season is underway, and the series is currently filming despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, like most productions, extreme caution is being taken. “We get tested every day, and some days we get tested twice a day,” Olowofoyeku said. “Warner Brothers and the producers of the show — a Chuck Lorre production — they’re taking very, very good care of us. Very strict instructions regarding wearing masks and the zoning as well. I feel very safe.”
But there are no plans to incorporate the pandemic, or continuing racial justice protests into the series. “I think Chuck wants the show to be sort of an escape from what’s going on in the real world,” the actress said.
Michael Yarish/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
The new season, which premiered on November 16, begins with Bob proposing to Abishola. Typically, a series like this tends to maintain a certain amount of romantic tension between the lovers and marriage wouldn’t be on the table so soon. But to say more would be to ruin the first two episodes for those who have yet to watch them — and Olowofoyeku was mum on plot details for the rest of the season.
“The beautiful thing is that we actually don’t know much of what’s going to happen from one episode to the next, because we get our scripts a few weeks before the audience watches, and I think it’s brilliant because we’re not spending too much energy on worrying on what happens next,” she said. “That allows us to actually focus on what the character’s experiencing in that particular moment.”
She did promise that fans will be surprised as the season unfolds. It’ll get really dramatic, and even suspenseful. “That’s the beauty of our show, because it’s not just the comedy, and it infuses a lot of like real life, authentic emotions,” the actress said.
Olowofoyeku contributes to that authenticity by bringing her own real-life experiences as a Nigerian in America — down to her very specific accent — to the character she portrays. Nigerians, specifically Yoruba people — which Abishola and Olowofoyeku are members of — will likely recognize some of their own family members in the cast of her intergenerational family and the various scenarios depicted. “We have African voices in the writers room, and they’re all great at what they do, but there are times when I’d say, ‘I’m not quite sure if this is realistic and I’m don’t think she would react this or that way,” she said. “So we do have discussions, and Al and Chuck are always open to have discussions, but at the end of the day, of course, they have the final say.”
Ultimately, the universality of the series’ message of love is especially welcome at a time of increased intolerance globally, as viewers tune in to see how the title characters from very different backgrounds find ways to connect with each other. And Olowofoyeku hopes it runs for as long as other Lorre-created series. “I’m very fortunate to be on the show, and I want to do this for a very long time,” she said. “I feel like I’m always trying to breaks records. ‘Big Bang Theory’ went on for something like 12 seasons. It would be nice if we went for 13.”
“Bob Hearts Abishola” airs at 8:30 p.m. ET on Mondays on CBS.