beauty and the beachACTRESS ILFENESH HADERA IS A STUDY IN CONTRASTS:
A SEASONED NEW YORKER WHO’S OVERTLY COMPASSIONATE AND AN INTIMIDATING BEAUTY WHO’S REFRESHINGLY APPROACHABLE. THIS BAYWATCH STAR HAS 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 approach. Second, find the right cast. For Dwayne Johnson, the star and producer on 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 is a born and bred New Yorker (Harlem to be exact), who’s made her mark in recent years in HBO’s acclaimed miniseries Show Me a Hero, Showtime’s Billions and as a frequent collaborator with director Spike Lee.
That’s not a résumé that typically leads to a role in Baywatch, but as we find, Hadera is anything but typical. What can we say? The Rock has phenomenal taste.
THE RED BULLETIN: In a 1989 review for the Baywatch pilot, The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “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 or stayed the same?
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. With Dwayne, his body is his trademark. But with this film, it’s also fun and doesn’t take itself super seriously. This is by no means like a spoof of the original Baywatch, but it’s action-packed, with big 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 is the most buttoned-up lifeguard of the three women. So maybe it was easier to go into it not feeling as objectified as you would have otherwise.
Your parents run the African Services Committee, an organization 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 you with acting?
I grapple with that because I feel like what I do is silly work compared to 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 am finally able to do what I love to do every day. There were lots of years when I was 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.
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 they asked me to speak to generate some excitement. I shy away from public speaking, but I told them I would make a video. And I 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.” Above and beyond, he made the coolest, nicest video about like why it is so important to give back to your communities.
Speaking of the Rock, you responded to his Instagram post by saying, “Dedicated to everyone who laughed at me when I fell off the starting block at that swim meet in 1997.” Explain.
I was on the YMCA swim team before I started high school. At my final meet, I was standing on the starting block — and I just fell in the water before the whistle blew. It was the most excruciatingly embarrassing moment. I wanted to stay down at the bottom. It was horrible.
How 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, for two hours a session. Not a ton, but two hours in the pool is a long time. Swimming is insane exercise. Total body workout.
And probably a good way to bond with the cast. What was the vibe on set?
We had a great time. There were so many different personalities. Alexandra [Daddario] is just a ham. She’s also from New York, so it was nice to have another New Yorker on board.
On these classic 1990s TV shows, you would always hear about the cattiness between the women on the cast.
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?
Maybe. Or maybe 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 outshine anyone else.
In a way, you’re all redefining what it means to be a “Baywatch babe.”
Which is such a weird thing — what does that even mean, right?
That you should never hide your intelligence to seem more appealing to men? We’re so beyond that.
Baywatch hits theatres May 26.