There’s a moment in the latest episode of Ted Lasso, which is brilliantly titled “Do the Right-est Thing,” when you’ll defiantly raise your fist in solidarity with Sam Obisanya. No, the AFC Richmond right-back defender (played with a big heart by Toheeb Jimoh) doesn’t score a winning goal. Instead he boldly protests the team’s lead sponsor after learning their parent company is responsible for polluting Nigeria’s water systems. As he places black tape over the fictional Dubai Air on his Richmond team jersey, the scene builds as everyone from his Nigerian teammates to the club owner standing in solidarity with Sam’s cause. (Art would imitate life when Ted Lasso co-creator and star Jason Sudeikis supported Black British footballers Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho who received racist attacks after losing the European Championship final last month.)
Toheeb Jimoh carries the weight of the episode with grit and grace (we’re proclaiming his 2022 Emmy win for outstanding performance). The rising actor won praise across the pond for playing Anthony Walker, a British man killed in a racially motivated attack in 2005, in the BBC film Anthony. Here, Jimoh talks about activism and art and the importance of allies behind-the-scenes.
ESSENCE: In previewing the new season, I’m really excited about, the “Do the Right-est Thing” episode. Your character Sam is really going to have a breakout moment. Please tell me your reactions when you read your character was going to become an activist.
TOHEEB JIMOH: Oh man.
ESSENCE: Especially in light of everything going on in the world right now with race relations. I thought it was beautifully done.
TOHEEB JIMOH: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I was over the moon. I couldn’t wait to start. Jason Sudeikis and Joe Kelly, one of our lead writers, had messaged me beforehand to let me know that something was coming, I didn’t know exactly what. But they were like, “Sam’s going to make a stand. If anything doesn’t seem right, let us know, let’s talk.” So we were already in collaboration. When I read it, I loved the idea of it. And it’s something that’s really close to my heart. I really believe that athletes and artists, or anybody who’s public facing who can speak up for their community, should do that. And they have a responsibility to do that. And so I’m glad Sam got to show that.
There are so many people who are going to watch this show now, and they might have otherwise been afraid of speaking out about something that affected them or affected their community because people might not support them or whatever. Maybe they’ll watch this and they’ll find a little bit of courage and they’ll take some of that from Sam. They’ll take some of the courage from the fact that the team really get behind him. And maybe it’ll encourage other people to speak out.
ESSENCE: Was there something special that day you were filming? In the scene with Ted, where he says, “I’m going to let Sam take the mic, I don’t want to tell this story with someone who looks like me.” I thought that was just so powerful.
TOHEEB JIMOH: It’s so funny because there are so many parallels between the characters and us in real life. Because at that moment it’s Ted giving Sam the reigns and giving him the opportunity and the platform to speak. But at that moment, it was also Jason Sudeikis, the lead of the show putting me in the big seat and going “All right, cool, this is your moment, knock them out.” That was touching. There were those moments where I had to catch myself and I was like, “All right, cool. This is happening. He trusts me and let’s go.” Also, this is massively important. I have so many people who messaged me from Nigeria and there’s been so many protests and riots that have been happening recently. It means a lot for them to see…
ESSENCE: Yeah, Nigeria had banned Twitter.
TOHEEB JIMOH: Yeah, Twitter has been banned. We had the whole SARS thing happening. Even oil companies, it’s an ongoing battle that people have been facing. I feel like there’s a lot of support coming from overseas. People who are a part of the diaspora everywhere are really starting to get back in touch with what’s going on in Nigeria and in African countries. I’m just glad I get to be a part of that. I’m glad that we can shine out that beacon like “we’re looking, we’re watching, we’re supporting you. We’re a part of you.” I might be in the U.K., but I’m still Nigerian.
ESSENCE: Another moment I thought was really poignant was in the first season when Ted is trying to give you a little military figurine and you say, “Do you mind if I don’t keep this? I don’t have the same fondness for the American military that you do… Imperialism.” It was so subtle, and again, brilliant. Can you tell me how that exchange came about?
TOHEEB JIMOH: That was there before I was involved. So when I was, auditioning for the role, that was the scene that I used to audition. And so it was a scene where Sam… The birthday scene where everybody brings in the presents and stuff to Sam… and again, that’s just testament to the people who make this show happen. They’re super clued in. They’re woke as hell and they’re allies. They use any opportunity that they have to empower us. We have so many different people from different countries and different cultures on this show. They use every opportunity they can to try and shine lights on those communities in those countries. So yeah, I really champion them.
ESSENCE: Speaking of people who work on the show and being allies, Ashley Nicole Black (A Black Lady Sketch Show) has joined as a writer and a producer. Can you tell me about working with her? Or how you’ve seen a change since she’s been on board?
TOHEEB JIMOH: It’s dope to know that we’ve got some faces up there who are looking out for us. Listen, as much as people can be allies and so many ideas have come from our white creative team, there are some times where having Black faces in that team, it comes out in like these little nuggets, these little nuanced moments in the script where you go, “oh, all right, cool. You didn’t need to ask me about that because there was somebody up there who could sort that out for you… You feel seen.” As an actor I get that and it just powers me up to jump into the scene and give my best. It’s been great. It’s great. Trust me.
ESSENCE: I see it too, those nuanced moments hooked me—especially the hip hop references. From Ted mentioning Biz Markie to playing “Award Tour” after Richmond lost. What’s been your favorite of those little Easter eggs?
TOHEEB JIMOH: I love the Allen Iverson moment that Jason and Phil [Dunster, who plays Jaime Tartt] have, I thought that was so dope. The practice bit, I think it’s dope. But also a lot of those references come from Jason. Jason’s got a bit of that culture in him. A lot of that stuff comes from Jason to a point where I was kind of like, “yo, like this guy has been quoting Bernie Mac to me” It’s serious, Jason’s a real one.