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Interview: The Undoing’s Noma Dumezweni

by Leora Heilbronn

While I certainly enjoyed the all night and into the next day video junket for the David E. Kelley HBO series The Undoing, with some delightful conversations with Hugh Grant, Édgar Ramírez and Matilda De Angelis, Nona Dumezweni came out of (almost) nowhere to become a major part of why the experience was a refreshing change from the typical media blitz. In the pulpy noir whodunit, Dumezweni appears late into the series as Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant)’s defence attorney Haley Fitzgerald, but is immediately magnetic on screen, especially since the role is drastically different from her Tony Award nominated turn as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End and Broadway. When I spoke with the actress, she was extremely down to Earth and still super thrilled about her experience acting opposite Nicole Kidman and Donald Sutherland.

The following is a condensed and edited version of my Zoom video conversation with the super sweet Noma Dumezweni of The Undoing.

Hi, Noma! What drew you to this project and the role?

Noma Dumezweni: Well I got the first episode and Haley doesn’t arrive in the first episode, as you know. So I got the sides, which are the pages of my audition for Haley, and I got the first episode to get a sense of what the show was like, and I know most actors say this but when it’s a good script, you don’t want to stop reading it. You just want to keep going to find out what happens next and there was no boredom there whatsoever. But we’re also talking about David E. Kelley, because we’ve all a part of his cultural storytelling, and that’s extraordinary. You don’t have a career like that without being that good, it’s as simple as that. There’s still a curiosity about his writing, there’s still a tension about his writing, and he is a storyteller. As an actor, when you’re reading that, I was like “what the fuck is happening?? Oh. Ok”, and I’m not even anywhere in it! And then I read my sides and think “ooh, I really want to go up for it! Please. Yes I’m going up for it. Ooh, yes, I’ve got it!”, and that’s literally the route that it went. And then “oh shit, I’m actually doing it!”.

Without revealing any spoilers, what were your most challenging scenes to shoot? 

ND: There were two scenes for me. The very first scene where you see me, where Haley Fitzgerald arrives and meets Grace (Nicole Kidman), I remember that because I knew that was going to be my first entrance into the storyline. And just to make sure I knew who she was in that moment, I had conversations with Susanne (Bier) that week that we were filming because I was kind of going one way and actually Haley is a lot more still than I am. So emotionally, I had to tune into that stillness. And then the other one was the first day of the courtroom and that was really fascinating because there’s a whole load of people watching the theatre of the courtroom, so I was like “ok, here we go!”.

What were those conversations like with Susanne in terms of the character development? 

ND: They were really helpful because, and I have to state this right off the bat, after three years of doing theatre on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this was my first TV. Yes, I’d done a few little bits in between, but they were one or two scenes, so to have a character like Haley weaving her way through the storyline once she arrives, I needed those chats with Susanne because I kind of arrived with an expansive energy, shall we say? Because doing that framing from the back of the room and there’s the camera, I had to come back just a little bit more still, just a little bit quieter…”no, a lot quieter, Noma”…and that’s what it felt like. That was a learning curve, the coming back to TV. The last series I did was Black Earth Rising and that was a totally different process and collaboration. So you meet the person that you’re working with and the character that you’re working with, and ask “what are we both going to be happy with?”. I remember talking to Olivia Colman because she had worked with Susanne on The Night Manager, and Olivia was like “yeah, great, she just left me alone to it. That was fantastic”, whereas I’m like “err, umm, so do I do this?”, it’s all those different levels of collaboration. Susanne was very good at getting me still. What was great for me was Susanne’s insistence on Haley’s stillness and her quietness. What power does to people is they let you come to them. So I’ve got this loud theatre voice but actually the joy of Haley was in me getting quite still, and that was a huge learning curve for me. That did something to me physically, and even putting the costume on, the costumes that Susanne chose with the costume designer when deciding how Haley would look, wearing those kinds of clothes do something different to you.

What was your research process like in terms of playing this badass, highly intelligent lawyer? 

ND: So the one thing I was very lucky to do, and it helps when you’re working on an HBO project and they can facilitate experiences for you, is go to the courtrooms where we filmed the courtroom scenes, on Centre Street in New York and actually get to watch some courtroom moments. What I didn’t realize is anyone can go and watch a trial. If you’re done early for the day, “let’s go see what’s going on in the courtrooms!”. As long as you’re quiet and don’t interrupt, you can sit there in the back. I didn’t know that was a thing! So I’m learning. And then I got to meet this amazing defence lawyer and I’ve just forgotten his name because I met him in June of last year, but I believe his name is Jim Sullivan, and he was an amazing prosecutor and he’s a defence lawyer now. He was in this extraordinary building in downtown on Wall Street and I remember going into his office and going “wow, this is a different world”. A kinder, more humble person I would not have expected to meet, and someone who could have had all the trappings of privilege, but he’s absolutely there for fighting for the rights of people. He also helped me understand the drama of the courtroom, which I love. He said “it does become theatre so employ the part of yourself that works with theatre”, and I thought “ok, that bit I can do”. I was very lucky to meet some extraordinary people in this.

Do you have a favourite memory from set or down time from filming? 

ND: Oh, my darling. To be in the room with Nicole (Kidman) and Hugh (Grant) and Donald Sutherland, let alone Lily (Rabe) and Ismael (Cruz Cordova) and Edgar (Ramírez) and Sofie (Gråbøl), amongst all the other actors. I didn’t get to work with Matilda (De Angelis), but seeing her work, you just go “wow, I’m in this company!”. But I think one of my nerve wracking moments was when we were waiting to do a shot, so we all go and sit and take a look at our scripts, and things like that. So there was a moment where I was sitting on my Haley chair, having a drink beforehand, and there’s Donald Sutherland in the corner of my eye and I’m thinking “I can’t believe that I’m sitting here. That’s Donald Sutherland!”. I mean for me that was one of my favourite moments. “I’m working with Donald Sutherland!!”. [laughs] That was a good moment, thank you for asking.

What was it like acting opposite Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland?

ND: When you are in a room with people that are brilliant at what they do, just to watch them work, and realize that everyone is different in their processes, is a joy. You realize that there’s no cookie cutter way of doing things. They’ve all gone from one medium to another so they all know what they’re doing, but how they go about it is the difference. There is something amazing about watching someone who is brilliant at what they do. I remember there’s a moment where they were filming on Nicole and I had a couple of lines coming up but I wasn’t on screen, and I was watching her and then it was “oh shit, my line!” because she was mesmerizing. When people are good at what they do, mate, it’s a pleasure. And Hugh Grant too, yeah. [laughs]

Did you bring any parts of your upbringing in Swaziland or your family’s story to Haley’s backstory?

ND: Everything that we do, all of us sitting here, and this is a message that I’m trying to impart on young people, is ‘be kind to yourself. Don’t diss the things that have happened that you think were wrong in your past because actually, all those moments, all those choices that you thought were wrong, all those moments led you to this moment.’ So as an actor, I think “what is Haley’s story?”. She’s an African-American woman and I’m a Black woman from South Africa and, in a different way, that’s why my family left. All I could bring in was Noma’s version of Haley. So you could have been given the part of Haley and it would have been your version of Haley. All of us look to the script and when the script is that good and when the director goes “we can fine tune and then fine tune some more”, when you’re collaborating with great people, the work becomes easier and then my sense of self goes and the character comes in. But everything that we do, we bring ourselves. I don’t think anyone disappears. I think we can transform, we can transition, but it’s smoke and mirrors. We always start with ourselves but we will overlap somewhere.

The series addresses social disparities and the clash between different social classes. What do you hope the audience takes away from The Undoing?

ND: I mean that’s great that you have observed that. I think just the fact that I have been cast in the role of Haley, especially post George Floyd, has a different bearing of what it would have been like if you had watched it at the end of May, as it was due then. I’m a storyteller, I’m an actor, and to be able to tell a story like this and to share it with the people that I’m sharing it with….it’s a thriller, a psychological thriller, and we don’t know what’s coming – that’s the beauty of what David E. Kelley has done. What you choose to put on top of that is the joy. At its most basic, it’s a great who and what and howdunit, and those are the elements that we always love in storytelling. So if we can keep ahead of you, and you have to keep catching up, that’s brilliant. We have to acknowledge the class layers. Being in Britain, you can’t help but notice class, and class is not necessarily money but what money can do for those that are able to afford it. What we are witnessing in the world right now is it can let a lot of things go and a lot of things slide. The person in the suite right next to you may be suffering. So hopefully they take a lot of things but understand that it’s a story.

As a storyteller and an actor, are there moments that you’re particularly proud of in terms of your work in this series? 

ND: Oh wow. Ooh! I don’t know yet because I haven’t seen all of it, so I can’t tell you! Like you, I’ve only seen the first five episodes so I’m proper pumped to watch the rest. I find it very hard watching myself but just to be part of the project, and whatever the outcome of people’s experiences with it, that’ll always stay with me. That I was part of the project, that I did sit three feet away from Donald Sutherland, that I did watch Nicole Kidman being mesmerizing, that I learned that Hugh Grant is a sweetheart, that Sofie Gråbøl is an extraordinary actress, that Lily and Ismael and Edgar are extraordinary people that I got to be in the room with. That sounds very romantic but then I am very romantic about being an actor because I think people can take us for granted, but when you see the work that goes on, especially with people that are great at what they do, we’re lucky.

The Undoing airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Crave

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