Actress Deborah Ayorinde was praying for a role that would allow her the freedom to show what she could do as a performer, a role that would mean something. Upon reading the script for Little Marvin’s Amazon Prime Video series, “THEM,” Ayorinde was simultaneously terrified and blown away, the perfect combination for her to pursue the role of Lucky Emory.
During an hourlong conversation with Marvin, Ayorinde opened up to the creator about how she saw the role. “I’m usually shy with people that I’ve met for the first time. I just felt so comfortable with him immediately; it was like word vomit,” Ayorinde told IndieWire. “I just started to ramble about all the things that I thought about Lucky… and all the things that I personally experienced that I felt could help me relate to her.”
Learning that she got the role brought the actress to tears. “I just knew from the moment that I read [it] it would mean something and it was an answer to a prayer,” she said. However, she had no idea the role would stick to her (and audiences) in the way it has. “THEM” is the unflinching look at a Black family who move to the all-white city of Compton, only to face racism and a supernatural entity.
Despite the series’ connections to the past, and creator Marvin’s comments that the series was an opportunity to subvert Old Hollywood tropes by placing Black actors in the era, Ayorinde didn’t want to draw on performances from Black classic film actresses of the past — though she said she has been inspired by actress Dorothy Dandridge and loves “Carmen Jones.” In preparation for “THEM,” Ayorinde looked at her own experiences, watched a lot of documentaries, and talked to people she knew.
Drawing on these real-life moments helped Ayorinde play off Alison Pill, who plays neighborhood racist Betty Wendell. Ayorinde said her and Pill had met prior to shooting and naturally took to each other, compelling Ayorinde to keep her distance from Pill to enhance their performances. “I was like, ‘during this process I’m going to have to keep my distance because I like this person and I can’t be close to [them],” she said. Once the pair got into costume it wasn’t hard for them to slip into their roles.
No matter the amount of research, Ayorinde considers “Them” to be one of the most intense roles of her career. “I was representing open feelings, or unexpressed feelings, of many people who have experienced what Lucky felt. I felt the weight of that in those moments [opposite Pill],” Ayorinde said. Both actresses had a desire to be authentic and that sometimes went to extremes. In one sequence, Ayorinde’s Lucky slaps Pill’s Betty across the face. “She [Pill] actually wanted me to slap her and I had to tell her, ‘Alison, I’m not doing that,” she said.
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
The filming of Episode 5 was a defining moment for both the show and its leading lady. Told in flashback, the audience sees what brought the Emorys to Compton in the first place: Lucky’s rape and the murder of their baby by a gang of racists. “It was a very heavy day, to say the least,” Ayorinde said. Director Janicza Bravo had all the actors involved in the episode rehearse the weekend prior to filming as a means of getting the beats and blocking down, while familiarizing the actors with each other.
“That rehearsal was so, so helpful,” Ayorinde said. On the day of filming she came to Bravo and told her she’d only do the traumatic sequence from top to bottom a few times. The pair agreed on five times, all the way through. “We literally sat down [and] made a plan, top to bottom five times at the top of the day, and then anything after that would literally be bits and pieces,” said Ayorinde. The set was completely closed with only the necessary cast and crew in attendance as well as an on-set therapist. “She’d come to set [be there] if anyone wanted to talk with her,” Ayorinde said.
Discussing the scene still gives Ayorinde the chills, especially as she recalls how the crew outside and surrounding the set, who weren’t there, could hear her screams. “Craft services just came up to me and hugged me, they just showed me so much love,” she said. After filming concluded Ayorinde said both she and the male actors in the scene would go off to separate areas and break down.
Having the therapist on set was a huge benefit, according to Ayorinde who ended up calling the therapist at the end of the day. “Your body doesn’t know whether you’re telling the truth or acting,” she said. “Every bit of fear, the fight or flight, every bit that I imagined someone going through I actually felt.” Ayorinde said she also ended up entering therapy outside of what was provided on the set.
“Lucky required a lot of experiences in me that I’d hidden, that I was so comfortable leaving swept under the rug,” she said. “She [Lucky] tore that rug up!” Ayorinde said it also took some time for Lucky to leave her. “Speaking to my family, they will tell you I was not me during that process,” she said. The actress said now that the series is over she’s been able to shed the character and return fully to herself.
That being said, she has no hesitation towards working with Marvin again: “I will be wherever he is!”
“THEM” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.