It's Time to Bet on Yaya DaCosta
"Betting on myself is really ... all I've been able to do," says Yaya DaCosta, choosing her words carefully. The actress, who stars as Angela Vaughn in Fox's Our Kind of People, has just wrapped a glamorous InStyle photoshoot. But despite her immense talent and ability to draw you in with a single, whisper-like sentence — both on and off-screen — DaCosta's climb to the top hasn't been as easy or effortless as she makes it look.
"I had a director who, at the wrap party after filming a movie, asked me, 'Oh, is it true? Someone said that you were on some kind of modeling show?'" she tells us, reflecting on the series that initially put her on the map, America's Next Top Model, where she came in as runner-up on season three in 2004. "I was embarrassed. And he was like, 'Wow, you know, if I had known that, I probably wouldn't have even auditioned you.'"
The truth is, DaCosta has always been an actress first and foremost — despite what the bottom half of her resume may suggest — and taken her career seriously since childhood. She had the same acting coach, the late Ann Ratray, for years, took acting classes, and plotted her rise. It's that kind of drive that eventually led her to the role of April Sexton, whom she played on Chicago Med for six seasons. And it's also what makes her so well-suited to portray Our Kind of People's Angela Vaughn, a hairstylist and haircare entrepreneur who not only struggles to fit in with the wealthy Black elite of Martha's Vineyard, but to gain their respect.
"I wasn't given chances," DaCosta continues, drawing parallels between her character's and her own career path. "I heard a lot of 'no's. Someone who looks one way — like a model — you're 'too this' or 'too that.' Sometimes people want to put you in a box. And I'm like, that's such a small part of who I am."
"The only reason I was able to get as far as I have is because of the support of people who believed in me," she adds, "and they were actually following my lead because I was betting on myself. And because I believed in myself, they could believe in me, too."
DaCosta isn't the type who forgets easily — in fact, she's more than willing to bring those very same supportive people up to the top with her. She even recruited her own hairstylist, Chioma Valcourt, to create Angela's elaborate and eye-catching styles, and also worked with her on set for InStyle's shoot, designing a gravity-defying floral look.
Ahead, we dive deeper into DaCosta's role on the drama-filled show — which airs every Tuesday at 9/8c — as well as her thoughts on the diversification of Hollywood and the actress she was most star struck to meet (three separate times).
After being part of an ensemble cast on Chicago Med, how does it feel to now be one of the lead actresses of your own series?
It feels very big and also very right on time. It's definitely a different experience. Spending six seasons on a show, where fans were constantly writing in my comments or DM-ing me saying, "We want to see more of you. We want to see more of you" — to feel that support from viewers was really wonderful. Now they get to see more of me in a completely different role, in a completely different setting, with a different energy. April Sexton, I think, would probably be uncomfortable with Angela Vaughn as a patient.
I love that. I'm imagining that in my head right now.
[Angela] seems really sweet, but at any moment she could pop off. April Sexton is just like "La, la, la, medicine, medicine, medicine. Boys, boys, boys." Angela Vaughn has huge aspirations and drive. I think if April had that drive, she'd have been a doctor by now.
As April on Chicago Med, you were wearing a lot of scrubs and medical gear, but with Angela, there's a lot more in terms of fashion and, of course, the hair. How does that feel? And was there any collaboration with the makeup and hair department when creating Angela's style?
We are still in the early stages of really finding and solidifying [Angela's] style. Let's just say there are multiple people that I've been able to have conversations with, kind of finding Angela's clothing style.
When it comes to hair — which I think is really her thing, because Angela is a hairstylist, a haircare entrepreneur, and really uses her own hair, her own crown, as a billboard — she loves to style her hair. And it's so fun having a role where my character actually gets to express herself through her hair just as much as I do in real life.
I think my last hairstyle on Chicago Med was the same every day, every episode, for the whole season, for one season or maybe two. So, Our Kind of People is very different, and what a blessing it is that my masterful stylist agreed to join me on this project and bring her expertise to this particular role. She's someone that I've collaborated with since about 2007 — she did my weave for Ugly Betty. She created hair pieces for so many different roles.
Wait, that was a weave in Ugly Betty? It looks so good.
Oh yeah, girl. Chioma Valcourt is a beast. If you remember on Ugly Betty, it was really long and textured. It looked like I had just blow dried my hair. I didn't want to have to cheat on my real hair, but she created this look and got this textured hair that was perfect. Any time I had a little ponytail or a little extra volume in any role, that was her. Then I would show up to set and have whoever was in the hair trailer just kind of tweak it, not do much, but get the credit.
That's the story, I think, with a lot of actresses, historically, who have textured hair. Not necessarily knowing that whoever's there on set will know how to do it, or how to keep our hair healthy in the process of creating a look. It's a powerful thing for me to able to bring [Valcourt] from the shadows into the light and say, "No, this is the master behind it." We've always loved to play and now we get to play so much. It really adds a lot to Angela's character and gives a lot of authenticity to the things that are in the script about hair, and her philosophy, and her mission statement. All the characters' hair on the show is nice, and it will only continue to improve as they start coming to my salon.
You have some very heated exchanges with your rival, played by Nadine Ellis. How do you prepare for those scenes and tap into that mean girl? And what's the working relationship like with Nadine Ellis?
Nadine Ellis is a dream to work with. She is someone who, no matter how feisty or angry or intense our scenes are, when we're done, it's like, "Whew, girl. Yes! Thank you! Thank you for giving me all of that to work with. I love it!" I can't wait to work with her more and more and just see how our relationship evolves on- and off-screen.
I think if you look back at my entire career from 2005 — you know, I was acting as a kid, but at least things that people can really see — I don't think I've played a character this dynamic. I've asked for this, without knowing what it would look like specifically. This is a place where I can play, and where I can tap into parts of myself that are not necessarily active in my day-to-day life. All characters that come to me, I believe, come to me because they already live within me and I have to pull them out. In doing so with Angela, I've gotten headaches and lumps in my throat and really fast heartbeats. I just notice these subtle changes in my body because we literally lend our vessels to these fictional characters to make them real. Sometimes that can be really taxing, and Angela taps into a level of rage that I haven't necessarily experienced or expressed in real life, and have definitely not witnessed outside of masculinity. It's really actually quite fun for me to explore other sides of what it means to be a woman who is unafraid to express her herself.
How do you feel opportunities have evolved or devolved for darker skin actresses like yourself? Do you feel like there's still more work that needs to be done?
It feels very touchy. As it pertains to Our Kind of People, I think that on the surface, one would expect the cast, especially as people who vacation regularly in Martha's Vineyard, to have lighter skin because, historically, that was a very real prerequisite. There is such thing as the brown paper bag test, and it's one of the most shameful things in our history. I think recently, both in real life and on TV, there has been a diversification of that. But it wasn't a myth. It was real, and it has begun to evolve. I'm not someone who knows that world very intimately, so I can only speak so much on it. But I will say that I think it's really refreshing to see such variations in our cast and to see the diversity, not only in our communities, but also our families. Sometimes two people get together and you think you know how the kid's going to look and you don't. They could be a surprising shade because we carry so much in our DNA. There are so many ancestors who want to pop their faces up in our children. Like chocolate skin with hazel eyes, because great-great so-and-so had — boom, boom, boom. Our DNA is, especially in this country, is so rich. It's definitely nice to see. It's comforting. And it's empowering to see darker skinned actors on TV telling these stories and not being limited by real or imagined colorism.
What do you consider to be your love language?
[Laughs] That's a personal question! No, no — mine are definitely physical touch and quality time.
Can you recall your worst audition or worst audition story?
My worst audition was one where I had to sing, but the character had an affected voice because of cigarette smoking and all kinds of drug abuse. I decided that her voice should sound a certain way. I remember rehearsing in my parents' living room and a family member said "Um, the point of singing is to make a beautiful sound." And I was like, "ouch! But also, you haven't read the script, you don't know the story. I take my roles really seriously and I'm giving this character an edge, so it makes sense." I was really confident in that choice.
Then when I got to the audition room, I was completely thrown off because a man in the room — and this was before #MeToo — he was objectifying me in a way where I just lost all confidence. Nothing made sense. It wasn't a beautiful sound, it wasn't very clear what drugs this character was on, it was just chaotic. And then I heard after the audition that he told another man, who he didn't even know that I was friends with, that during the audition he couldn't stop staring at my hands. I speak with my hands a lot, and he said something like, "I can just imagine what she can do with those hands." And I was like, wow. Like I felt that energy in the room and it completely just disabled my performance.
I was glad not to get the job and not have to work with him. But yeah, that was my worst audition. I'm highly sensitive, so I can pick up on energies, whether I want to or not. I've worked on protecting myself from that as I've gotten older, but that was something where I realized, when I go into a room, no matter what they're feeding me, I have to do some extra work to shield my energy field and really stay in character, no matter what's going on around me.
What are your favorite go-tos when it comes to protective styling for your natural hair?
When I had more time — when I wasn't the lead of a show — I would make my own gel. With flaxseed, add some marshmallow root or slippery elm — anything that's slick. I love perfecting it so that it wouldn't flake. I love twists and twist outs, and I love wrapping my head. Like I said, I'm sensitive. So sometimes, if I just feel the need to kind of protect my head, my crown, I tend to use a lot of fabric and come up with different ways to style it.
What's the one book that you could read over and over again?
Even when I don't have time to really sink my teeth into really grown-up work, I love to get inspired by Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss. I'm aware of his past — I don't be reminded, you know. But he's an example of someone who I learned to believe in reform and forgiveness through. I think some of his works are really, really still great, so I still read that. Also Sacred Woman by Queen Afua. The Artist's Way [by Julia Cameron]. A Course in Miracles.
Do you have a red carpet disaster story?
I don't think I've had a dress malfunction, but there's one picture that if it comes up anywhere, I'm just like, "Oh my god." It was the beginning of me figuring out how to wear wigs, and I had seen somebody on YouTube put makeup on the lace and the part. I was rushing to get out and I didn't want to do my hair, so I just plopped on this wig. When I tell you, the way that makeup and the part reflected the light — it was so gross, and obviously fake and so not me. I was like, "I don't know who that girl is, this is not me."
Which celebrity were you most star struck to meet?
I remember being a kid in the aisle of a theater — my uncle composes music for musical theater — and I was like, "Oh my god, that's Angela Bassett! Sitting there!" And he was like "You want to say hi?" He took me over to say hi and I couldn't really speak as a kid. Then, when I was older, I was in Lloyd Richards's acting class in New York before he passed — Lloyd Richards used to direct all of August Wilson's plays — and Angela Bassett was an old student of his. She would sometimes just go and sit in on his classes in New York. I was like in the middle of a scene and she just walks in the room, casually, and sits down. Again, I'm like, "Ahh ... OK …" And then continued and finished the scene. Then years later, she's directing me in Whitney. So I don't know if it was really a star struck thing, but it was definitely a moment of pause and me figuring out how to speak to people. I think a lot of it has to do with me trying to get into their minds and think, "Well, how do they want to be spoken to? I don't want to interrupt. I don't want to offend. What do I say?" I am sensitive to people not really knowing how to speak to you and just expecting you to just take whatever they dish.
Do you have a circle of Black actresses who are also in the business? And if so, how do they affirm you or lift you up?
There are a few who I used to run into at auditions who have become my friends. I haven't spent as much time living in Los Angeles, so I haven't really been in the social scene. I know a lot of the same people that they know, but I'm not at the parties, I'm not on the boats or whatever, just because I've been on my grind. Not that everyone hasn't been on their grind, but I haven't made a choice to live in L.A. at this point, although I will. So there is a sisterhood, but it's not one that I felt super, super connected to outside of the Instagram comments and the occasional phone calls to check in with the few that I do consider actual friends. But I see that it's strengthening.
I think the industry is realizing that there's room for everyone, and it frees us up to be that much more of our true selves. Not plagued with the lies of the patriarchy when it comes to competition or, you know, me over you. Or "If you get this, I can't get …" I've gotten so much love in my DMs from a lot of fellow actresses, and we have definitely applauded each other. I think it's just the beginning of me kind of entering into the general world of Black Hollywood. I guess it's not too dissimilar from my experience in school as well. Everybody kind of knew who I was, but I wasn't always at the center. I never had a clique. It'll be interesting to see if anything changes, but it's really beautiful to see people unabashedly, unapologetically feeling free to give love and praise. We just support each other in even the most subtle ways. Those comments really can go a long way.
Interview by Rebecca Theodore-Vachon.
Photographs by Joanna Pacchioli. Hair Styling by Chioma Valcourt. Makeup by Ashunta Sheriff. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves and Erin Lukas. Bodysuit by Commando. Creative direction and production by Erin Glover.