Anna Diop delivers a terrific performance in Nanny

The universe has a funny way of bringing things into orbit. For the actress Anna Diop, who finds her way to the film Nurse was one of those moments. It started a few years ago when I was a writer on the show Titans emailed her about an exciting new filmmaker named Nikyatu Jusu. He thought she could be the next Barry Jenkins and encouraged Diop to check out her work. She watched Jusu’s short film Suicide by sunlight and was blown away. “I was so taken by the originality of the story – the way it was told through this dark genre, the social issues she wrestled with in the story, the characters. Across the board, I was really impressed with this filmmaker,” she says from a hotel room in New York City. Diop sent Jusu’s stuff to her representatives, hoping to make a connection, but nothing came of it. Two years passed. After that, Nurse appeared in her inbox. Jusu was looking for her leading role and she wanted Diop to read for it.

Nurse premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it received the coveted Grand Jury Prize (it’s the first horror film in the festival’s 44-year history to do so, and Jusu is only the second black woman to win the honor), and Diops excellent central performance has received enormous critical praise. The film is a poignant look at the immigrant experience, centered on a young Senegalese woman named Aisha (Diop), who takes a job as a nanny with a wealthy family in hopes of bringing her son to the United States. But when a violent supernatural presence begins to haunt her dreams and creep into her reality, it threatens everything she’s worked for.

“We haven’t seen many films focused on an individual who is outside the mainstream of our Western society,” Diop says of what initially drew her to the film. “This is a woman who is a domestic worker and an immigrant, and it excited me that we were doing a project that was focused on her, that the gaze was on her, that it portrayed the nuances and complexities of her humanity.” There was also much for Diop to connect with personally. The actress herself is Senegalese. She immigrated to the United States at a young age with her mother, who worked as a nanny. Growing up, she was surrounded and raised by women who worked in these jobs, and she experienced firsthand what it’s like to survive in spaces that weren’t built for her.

Aisha is someone Diop is deeply related to, and when I ask what was important for her to show the audience with her portrayal of the character, she tells me that what was in the script was already so rich. “[Jusu] really wrote a drunk person,” she says. “You see Aisha fall in love. You see Aisha in moments of loneliness and depression. You see her love for her child. You see her trying to navigate the madness that is Amy. You see her loving a child and taking care of a child that’s not her own.” With so many layers already on the page, it was Diop’s job to make each of these moments honest and full, which she does triumphantly.

Interestingly, before Diop was attached to the project, Aisha was not specifically Senegalese yet. Jusu had always planned to adapt the script to suit the actress who would play the role, so when Diop signed on, she updated the role to fit the particularities of Senegalese culture.

Having spent most of her life in the United States, the actress had to work on finding her Senegalese accent, so she enlisted the help of a professor and linguist in Senegal to find the right balance. “I couldn’t just do a real Senegalese accent because people would struggle to understand,” she says. “But luckily it still made sense for Aisha’s character because she’s very educated and has studied English for a very long time, so we still found what was true but also clear enough.” Diop worked with the dialect coach for three to four hours every day for two weeks leading up to the shoot.

Additional preparation included making music playlists that Aisha might have been listening to. Think lots of old time soulful and spiritual Senegalese music mixed with some newer Senegalese artists and a little bit of Lauryn Hill. There was also the unique tactics she used to understand Aisha’s various states of psychosis throughout the film.

“I bought four large cork boards and hundreds of flash cards,” she says. “I had pink ones and blue ones. The pink ones were the ones where she has a normal moment where she knows she’s sane and everything is fine, and I wrote down the event in that scene. ‘Aisha walks down the street. She is about to board the metro”. Okay. ‘Aisha meets Malik. They flirt.’ Okay. And then in blue I wrote all the moments where she’s not sure what she’s experiencing is reality or what the hell is going on. ‘She’s in a pool and she’s drowning.’ ‘She finds herself being suffocated by a sheet.’ All the moments I put it all on the boards and what I saw was, at the beginning of the board, you see a little bit of blue here and there, a little sprinkling. And then as the film progresses, you see more and more blue and the ascent of her insanity and madness. That helped me because we were shooting out of sequence. So before my day would start, I’d be like, ‘Okay, we’re doing scene 13, 49, and 12. I’m sane . I’m sane, but I’ve experienced so much blue that I’m so confused or confused about what’s going on.”

The slow burn of a young woman on the verge of losing her mind is what makes the psychological thriller so compelling to watch. That and the beautiful cinematography by Rina Yang. Moving through dreamlike states and the real world, the blue and yellow lighting creates an eeriness, and scenes involving bodies of water are deliciously haunting.

It was Jusu’s intention to mix an American immigrant story with genre as a way to create more entrances for people to find the film. Benefiting from its award at Sundance and its premiere at TIFF, the success of Nurse has the potential to open doors for more similar projects. “I hope it inspires people – filmmakers and writers who have the stories inside of them that they want to tell, that they’re afraid of not getting attention or not wanting to sell. I hope it inspires them to want to tell them stories and encouraging them to tell those stories,” says Diop. She also hopes that the film evokes a greater understanding in audiences of how we benefit from these types of workers, who are often invisible, and how their existence in our society helps us to do the things we do. “I hope it expands people’s empathy and also their perspective on their place in the world,” she adds.

This kind of original and impactful storytelling is what drives Diop as an actress. She describes herself as an actor’s actor, one whose education in the craft is never complete. There was a summer Shakespeare course in Oxford, then a famous acting teacher in New York and a number of studios in LA. She’s read every book she can get her hands on. “I never wanted another actor to know about another technique that I don’t know about,” she admits. The result is a successful 16-year career. But at the age of 34, there is so much more she is eager to take on. “Across the board, across races and cultures, filmmakers … are telling new stories and sometimes in new ways, mixing genres or playing with new genres. That really excites me, and I hope to be a part of their lanes,” she says. Universe, are you listening?

Catch Nurse in theaters now and streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 16.

Photographer: Tayo Kuku Jr.

Stylist: Molly Dickson

Hairdresser: LaRae Burress

Make-up artist: Shannon Pezzetta

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