Beauty and the beach:
Intimidatingly beautiful, yet refreshingly approachable and abundantly compassionate: Ilfenesh Hadera, star of the new Baywatch movie, really does have it all
How do you dust off Baywatch, an iconic TV series from the 1990s, and make it feel like a fresh film in 2017? First, give it a tongue-in-cheek slant. Second, find the right cast.
For Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson, the star and also a producer of the film, casting his love interest was no easy task. “She had to be a lot of things,” Johnson wrote on Instagram. “Strong, intelligent, formidable, beautiful and funny. Want to welcome the talented Ilfenesh Hadera to our Baywatch family.”
We can confirm Hadera is all of those things – and more. The 31-year-old actress, who was born and bred in Harlem, New York, has made her mark in recent years in acclaimed US TV series Show Me A Hero and Billions, and through her frequent collaborations with film director Spike Lee. This is not a CV that would typically lead to a role in Baywatch, but, as we discover, Hadera is anything but typical.
What can we say? The Rock has phenomenal taste.
THE RED BULLETIN: A 1989 Hollywood Reporter review of the Baywatch pilot read: “Let’s be honest, it’s the oiled bodies that will bring viewers back.” More than 25 years later, how has the Baywatch mindset changed?
ILFENESH HADERA: [Laughs.] You know, it’s still all about [that]. There’s still a huge emphasis on fitness and health: Zac [Efron] transformed himself, and Dwayne’s body is his trademark. But the film is also fun and doesn’t take itself super-seriously. It’s by no means a spoof of the original Baywatch, but it’s action-packed, with explosions and boat chases.
What about as a woman, thinking about where we were 25 years ago?
Versus now? I mean, the funny thing about my character, Stephanie Holden, is that she’s the most buttoned-up of the three female lifeguards. So maybe it was easier to go into it not feeling as objectified as you would have otherwise.
Dwayne Johnson has praised you for being “tougher than new rope”. Where does that strength come from?
I’m really lucky to have been raised by some incredibly strong women. My mother and grandmother are the most compassionate, wonderful, lovely women I know, but they are f–king tough.
My grandmother is 84, and she’s active, self-sufficient, smart, adventurous and as tough as nails. My mom is the same. She’s my best friend, and she’s the f–king coolest. She’s from Vermont and has a total hippy vibe. She never judges, always listens, and gives great advice.
Your parents run the African Services Committee, an organisation in New York City that helps refugees like your father, who came to America from Ethiopia. What’s the greatest lesson their work has taught you?
They taught me to be a good person wherever possible, because you never know what other people are going through. You have to treat people with compassion and generosity.
Which is a great tool as an actress. How did those lessons help your acting?
I grapple with that, because I feel like what I do is silly work compared with what they do, you know what I mean?
Acting can reach a lot of people…
It does. But you have to actively remind yourself of that. I’m really fortunate that I’m finally able to do what I love to do every day; there were many years of working in restaurants to pay the bills. So what was I? A hostess, not an actress. But that was a stupid way to look at it. As long as you’re hustling to get where you’re supposed to be, there’s no shame in what you’re doing to get there.
And now you’re here…
This is the dream. But it’s hard when I get a call from my parents about a grant not going through, and I’m taking the call on a beautiful beach, prancing by the ocean in my red bikini. It’s hard to see the connection between their work and how it influences mine.
But your celebrity can help spread the word about their cause, right?
I finally feel like I’ll be able to use what I’m doing to help them; to feel like I can pull my weight a little bit. My parents recently started a youth committee and asked me to speak to generate some excitement. I always shy away from public speaking, but I told them I would make a video instead.
And then I had a thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Dwayne could do the introduction to get these kids excited?’ Everybody loves The Rock. I didn’t even have to give him specifics: he knew what my parents did, and he just said, “Sure, say no more.” He made the coolest, nicest video about why it’s so important to give back to your community.
Speaking of The Rock, your response to his Instagram post read, “Dedicated to everyone who laughed at me when I fell off the starting block at that swim meet in 1997.” Explain…
I was in the YMCA swim team before starting high school. At my final meet, I was standing on the starting block, and I just fell into the water before the whistle blew. It was the most excruciatingly embarrassing moment. I wanted to stay at the bottom [of the pool]. It was horrible.
What about your swimming skills now? How much training did you have to do?
I’m a pretty strong swimmer. For two months, we trained twice a week, two hours a session. Two hours in the pool is a long time. Swimming is insane exercise – a total body workout.
And probably a good way to bond with the cast. How was the vibe on set?
We had a great time. There were so many different personalities. Alexandra [Daddario, who plays Summer Quinn] is just a ham. She’s also from New York, so it was nice to have another New Yorker on board.
You would always hear rumours about the cattiness between the female cast on those classic 1990s TV shows…
There really was none of that. Which seems crazy to me, because you’ve got three women in bathing suits, and you think, ‘Oh, we’re all going to be competing.’
Do you think that’s just a difference between then and now?
Perhaps. Or could it be that’s what people think should happen when three women get together?
But why should it?
I don’t know. I think on Baywatch we all wanted to be our best for ourselves, and not to outshine anyone else.
In a way, you’re all redefining what it means to be a “Baywatch babe”…
Which is such a weird… what does that even mean, right?
That you should never hide your intelligence to appear more appealing to men? We’re so beyond that…