EXCLUSIVE: Yaya Alafia on Playing an Activist in ‘The Butler,’ Working with Lee Daniels, and Preparing to Welcome a Baby
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

This is turning out to be a momentous year for model-turned-actress Yaya Alafia, formerly Yaya DaCosta. She’s starring in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and two other films (Big Words and Mother of George), celebrating her one-year wedding anniversary with filmmaker Joshua Alafia, and expecting her first child. For her turn as student activist Carol Hammie in The Butler, Alafia says she didn’t have to reach far into her playbook to imagine the character because both her parents are lifelong activists who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. Alafia chatted with ESSENCE.com about unleashing her inner activist for the role, preparing herself for reenacting sit-ins, and why she wasn’t geeked out about working with the likes of Oprah and Forest Whitaker.

ESSENCE.com: Your character in The Butler is a passionate participant in the Civil Right Movement. She also joins the Black Panthers. Do you think you could have been that woman during that time?

YAYA ALAFIA: I wouldn’t have been Carol. I wouldn’t have necessarily have made the specific choices she had made but yes, my personal history is very much one of activism. My parents were very active in the Civil Rights Movement. My father was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker; my mother was a secretary with the Panthers. I definitely come from that. I grew up going to marches and protests, so that’s just part of how I was raised. Still, it’s hard to say. It was a very different time and people sacrificed not only their comfort, but also at times their lives. So it’s easy to say in 2013, yes I’d be one because it’s just not the same.

ESSENCE.com: We kind of idolize those in the Civil Rights Movement as though those young people were different from us. But here we see they were just regular people who had enough.

ALAFIA: Exactly. Regular people who had enough and didn’t necessarily think they were doing something extreme or changing the world. They just felt the need to do something.

ESSENCE.com: The film also shows how those young people prepared themselves psychologically for what they would face during sit-ins. You had to actually going through that during filming.

ALAFIA: It was intense. There were times where it was very emotional. There’s a scene where actors in Klu Klux Klan outfits were shaking a bus we were on and screaming the N-word. When the director called cut it was so loud that they didn’t hear it, so it went on and on. It was very intense. The bridge that the bus parked on was the go-to place for lynching in this town that we were shooting at. And the energy of that was very palpable. It’s recent history. It wasn’t that long ago, so sometimes it did feel very real and uncomfortable but then you remind yourself that it’s only a movie and we can go back to our hotel rooms after this. The real freedom fighters went back day after day and kept sitting in, kept riding the buses and sometimes didn’t make it out alive, much less be able to shake it off afterwards. So it really encouraged even more gratitude for these heroes than we already had.

ESSENCE.com: David Oyelowo tells this hilarious story about calling his Nigerian mom and saying ‘I’m in a movie with Oprah’ and she’s like ‘Finally!’ Did you have a moment you called your mom and said ‘I’m in this movie with Oprah and Forest!’?

ALAFIA: I actually called my father after my first audition. I did my research as an actress, but I felt so lucky to have had heard so many stories growing up. To have really looked through pictures and seen newspaper clippings of my father and uncle Alex after they’d been arrested was eye-opening. So I wasn’t studying the movement as an outsider, I was slipping on shoes and walking around the house like a toddler does. It wasn’t the same amount of excitement because when I got the call for the role, I was in the airport on the way to pick up my older brother’s things who had just passed away in another country. It was like, ‘Ok, I got a job, great.’ I also wasn’t raised to see celebrities as other than human, so I didn’t go through the whole getting geeked out about working with someone thing. I never felt like, ‘Wow, now I’ve arrived.’ No one came to set with any entourages, no one came with any attitudes. It was really just a group of actors, many of whom happen to be very well known.

ESSENCE.com: This is a great year for you. You’re in three films, and you’re having a baby.

ALAFIA: I’m really grateful for every opportunity that I’ve been afforded thus far in life and I feel like life is amazing. With losses come gains. We had already planned my wedding when my brother passed away in 2012. When you’re grieving you don’t necessarily want to think about something like that, but my brother told me that he wanted me to so we went ahead and did it. It’s very common for new spirits to enter the Earth right after someone has passed in the family and I just feel so blessed to have so much love in my life, to have found my husband and to just continue doing what I love to do.