So Many Questions: 'The Neighbors' actress Toks Olagundoye enjoys seeing things differently
As a self-proclaimed “odd ball,” Toks Olagundoye is the first to admit she's got a soft spot for quirky people. That tends to come in handy when you're playing the role of an alien on the ABC comedy, “The Neighbors.”
Her character — Jackie Joyner-Kersee — is one of the unintentionally hilarious members of a colony of extraterrestrials who have settled into a hoity-toity New Jersey neighborhood. Having adopted human forms in order to blend into their surroundings, outward appearances indicate they're just like everyone else…until it comes to embracing the everyday customs of humans.
Adjusting to strange situations is nothing new for the Nigerian-born actress, whose childhood included spending time in both England and Switzerland before coming to the United States to attend college. But although her surroundings were constantly changing, one thing that stayed the same was her attraction to people who are not considered part of the mainstream. That's because, for Olagundoye, differences and quirky behavior aren't weird at all. They just makes life more interesting.
Question: What's one earthly custom that's hardest for Jackie to understand?
Answer: It would probably be something that's every day — like having to sleep in a bed. I don't think it would be a big thing, but probably something little like that.
Q: Did the show give you a new perspective on things we consider normal?
A: Yes and no. I think the writers do a phenomenal job taking something ordinary to Americans and really presenting it as being something weird. Because I'm not from this country, I come from Nigeria, and did grow up without electricity a lot of the time and without water some of the time. So there are just things about being in America that people take for granted everyday. And I think it's fantastic that you can take it for granted because I think it's lovely to not have to think about running water and those things. I think that, yeah, every time we do something new (on the show), I'm kind of like, “Oh yeah! I remember thinking that was odd.”
Q: Did experiencing different cultures help you relate better to what Jackie is going through?
A: Growing up somewhere, I think of it as wherever your family is. I think the interesting thing about that question, which I've gotten since I moved here, is that people think it must be so different. But your childhood is your childhood, and you don't think growing up, “Oh, this is different!” I grew up with a lot of American television, and I knew I wanted to be an American. It's such a hard question. I know the way I grew up prepared me in many different ways in my life because I believe the universe has a plan for each of us. I love who I am, and I love my life and all the lessons I've learned — everything that comes up, I'm like, “Oh, that's why I had to go through that!” So in many ways, it's prepared me for life and what I do now.
Q: So you're used to being the odd man out?
A: I was really odd as a kid, and no one ever knew what to do with me. I was really strange and different and very emotional, but on the quiet side. I got picked on a lot, not like I didn't have friends — I had a lot of friends. But there's always that one girl in the group that gets picked on, and I was that girl. I remember every day thinking, “Someone's going to be picking on me, and someone's going to be telling lies about me.” That being said, it never stops — especially in the industry I'm in. But when you're odd, it's something that people want to tear apart, but you just have to deal with it and go on.
Q: Does that give you empathy for people who are different?
A: Oh my God, yes! In my life, in general, not matter what it is — I like things, people, experiences that are just a little bit off kilter. I like odd people, I like eccentric people, I like odd arts. Even if you look at the shoes and clothes and bags I have, all of it is just a little odd. I appreciate people who are naturally individuals, the people who are OK being who they are and think a bit differently. Being biracial, even if I were home, in some way or another I was always the “other.” And not in a bad way, it's never been that “You aren't one of us,” but I've always been other. For a long time when I was a kid, I just wanted to be like everyone else so I wouldn't stick out so much. And I got to a point where I kind of liked being who I am. I have a strange brain, and I think about things differently. I would love being with someone who's a little odd and interesting and engaging and kind and embraces difference rather than try to be mainstream. And we're all oddballs on the show — we're all completely different.
Q: What point do you think the show's creators were trying to make by presenting the family as such a diverse ethnic blend?
A: I think the statement is more about, to the family, color doesn't factor in. That humans are just humans. No matter what color or shape they are, they're human. So the beauty of what they have done is less about, “Look at us we're diverse,” and more about, “We don't notice it.” Just like it really shouldn't matter to us. And I know that originally that wasn't (the goal). They really were just going for the people who fit the characters the best, and I think that, really, the statement, the way I see life in general anyway, is that it's about the not noticing. (Our characters) have no idea what race is. It's kind of silly that we do separate each other by race.