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The director and lead actress of ‘Nanny’ speak to Nairametrics about the Prime Video original horror flick

As part of Prime Video‘s commitment to producing and hosting diverse content on their platform, they teamed up with AFRIFF for an African premiere of Nanny, one of their latest horror African diaspora movies. 

The 11th edition of the African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) opened with the premier of Nanny on Sunday, November 6, followed by the premiere of Wakanda Forever, the sequel to Black Panther. The screening was held at the Filmhouse Cinemas, Landmark Center, Victoria Island. 

In this psychological fable of horror, Aisha (Anna Diop), a woman who recently emigrated from Senegal, is hired to care for the daughter of an affluent couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) living in New York City. 

Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. but becomes increasingly unsettled by the family’s volatile home life. As his arrival approaches, a violent presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality, threatening the American dream she is painstakingly piecing together.  

Nairametrics got an opportunity to speak to the writer/director Nikyatu Jusu and the lead actress Anna Diop. Enjoy the conversation.

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NAIRAMETRICS: Water is a prominent theme in Nanny. It seems to be prominent in immigration stories and art. Was that intentional with you or a happy coincidence? 

Nikyatu Jusu: Nothing in the film just happened; everything is very intentional. Mami Wata is part of the marine kingdom and that mythology. And water is highly symbolic. It is birth and rebirth. It’s prevalent in some of our favourite writers’ work for a reason, and it’s an inherent part of the African Diaspora. In every medium, I think I see the prevalence of water and paintings in film and music, in novels, and it’s just such an inherent part of our history as black people. 

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NAIRAMETRICS: There’s a scene where Aisha is talking to her friend, Sallay, at a salon. In that scene, did you get inspiration from your personal life or from someone you know in that position?  

Anna Diop: I grew up in Houston. My mother immigrated, and I grew up with a lot of Nigerian Americans, and a lot of Indian Americans. But my mother worked in a hair salon for a while with a Nigerian American and a Senegalese woman. We find a community within ourselves, no matter where we are. We certainly found a specific Senegalese community in Houston. 

But we also had a lot of Nigerian American friends that we grew up with, too, and that became family in a lot of ways. I would hear my mom speak with them and share stories about what kind of work they can be doing and how we’re surviving and how we are finding our ways. And that was something we all had in common, certainly. And that was the struggle we all shared.  

Nikyatu Jusu: I’ve never said this in an interview, but I grew up with hair braiding, my mom and I. Hair braided. My mom became really good friends with the Guinean woman named Sallay. So I named Sallay after this Guinea woman who was a big part of my young womanhood and getting my hair braided. And as you sit in the salon, women share stories. They speak in their native languages. You pick up pieces of women’s stories in these spaces. And Sallay was the breadwinner; she got her husband over here and had four kids. 

She ended up getting sent back to guinea, and everything fell apart. I don’t even know an update on this story. It was tragic because she was working so hard here [in America]. This is the only way when I say here in America, she had more agency financially to be able to make the money she wanted to make and carve out the future she wanted to carve out.  

So a big thing that I hope the Nigerian audience got, which we haven’t gotten to engage in the way that I like to engage with my audience. But I hope people notice the commentary I’m making on the ways that women have more freedom in countries and parts of the world that on the surface seem much more restrictive, but are very freeing for women who have their hopes and dreams and are very driven. 

Anna Diop: That reminds me of my mom always jokes with my dad because patriarchy is very real and a lot of men get away with a lot of things, and women don’t have the agency or the support from the government to really protect themselves and feel safe often. And whenever she got into a spat with my dad, she would say does he think we’re back home? I have options here. 

NAIRAMETRICS: How much of the dialogue in a scene is scripted and how much is improvised? 

Anna Diop: That is a testament to Nikyatu. She’s such a collaborator, and it’s not always common that you work with a director that allows you to improve and even encourages it. 

That scene, in particular, I think, had some of our most improvised dialogue. “Nigeria has seen the last of me” was one. I came up with my line about Lamine being a lady’s man and falling in love with Sallay. The script, as you said, was already so incredibly strong but because it was, it gives you space and ideas to colour between it. 

NAIRAMETRICS: Films that have descending into madness as a theme, whether it’s experienced or perceived by other characters, often have some aftercare for the actors and even a wellness officer on set. The writers themselves need to take breaks. What was your process with writing it and acting as well? 

 Nikyatu Jusu: There’s a reason it took so long to get to the draft and the financing, and that’s because, being the writer and director, I’m so close to the material. And it’s very loosely based on pieces of my story, my mother’s story, and my lineage, so I had to take breaks from the script and revisit other projects. 

And at the time, as you’re chipping away, you don’t know if this is the one that’s going to get the financing, because I had other feature ideas before that. This is the first one that got the money. 

And as an artist, especially in the beginning stages of your trajectory, you have to have blind faith that the work you’re doing will pay off. It’s hard, it’s not easy. In terms of a wellness presence on set, I know that series like Lovecraft County, have had issues in terms of the things that have surfaced. 

And I think that it’s becoming more normalized, but also that is just another title. Sometimes that means another body on set that isn’t necessarily affected. I think that we’re navigating capitalism, capitalism is inherently toxic, and anti-mental wellness, and especially the way that production happens in the West, there are so many other variables besides the themes that you’re navigating in the film itself that contribute to mental unwellness. So I think it’s bigger than having someone who’s getting paid a good cheque to just sit around on set every day. It’s a structural issue. 

NAIRAMETRICS: I imagined anything short at the height of COVID, must have been hard. What were certain issues you faced? 

 Nikyatu Jusu: With production, you get tested every other day. So if a positive case surfaces in Zone A, which is the zone that has people who are not replaceable, that’s the director, the lead actors, you’re above the line unit, you get shut down. And if you get shut down at the budget level that we were working with, the likelihood of going back up isn’t zero. So it’s a precarious situation. 

We shot for 27 days and the likelihood of someone going out at weekends and living their lives and coming back to set and having COVID was very high. So there’s an added layer of anxiety and stress because production is inherently riddled with issues. But this just adds a variable. And budget-wise, it’s a 30% additional contingency to your budget. So already people are struggling to scrape together these budgets. And now you have to worry about PPE and COVID protocol and COVID officers on set. That’s a whole separate unit that you’re hiring to be offset to feed. It’s expensive. 

NAIRAMETRICS: How did you approach putting yourself, in the shoes of someone who is a migrant and also working that job? 

Anna Diop: Well, I am an immigrant, I’m familiar with the experience of feeling alien, and feeling different and learning and navigating a new space. So I brought all of the emotional truths that I know that I also reflected a lot about my mother at the time that she first arrived in the States, and how precarious it was, how little of the language we spoke and how lonely it was and how isolating it was. And so I reflected a lot about that. And also try to find a way to manifest that into behaviour. What we do as actors is to translate our emotional life into behaviour. And for I show it I love to that was already written is, you know, one of the first scenes in the script, we didn’t get a chance to shoot but she always has her headphones on. 

Yeah. In the subway, as she’s walking, you see her take them off, and she runs into a week. And I’ve seen that that was a way to it’s a manifestation of behaviour of, of the kinds of ways in which you just, I mean, New Yorkers do this in general, is there so much going on around you? But I found that to be very helpful because again, it’s just a physical causation of Ayesha’s loneliness in terms of her longing for grief. 

NAIRAMETRICS: When people make art, they are usually setting out to tell one narrative, but another person can connect to it in another way. So I wanted to ask what you were trying to put across with money. Why horror? Why a nanny? Why the themes you chose? 

 Nikyatu Jusu: First of all, I don’t think there’s any such thing as objectivity when you’re navigating humaneness. We’re all subjective. There’s no such thing as an objective human. Whiteness tends to perpetuate this idea that there is objectivity, especially when it’s censored in their gaze but I disagree. I think that horror is a great way to tell the story and folklore is a great way to externalize stories that may feel pedantic or preachy, or like a PSA.  

It’s an entertaining way into a protagonist who we typically don’t see or we typically don’t get to see centred in the way that Anna is portrayed. Aisha horror elements, there was a quote that you had with the was it in Chicago, where she the moderator said, horror allows people to be brave, it allows the audience to be brave. And so you know, they’re universalities in, in a genre in horror, that no matter how specific the story is, allows the audience to enter this world we all understand fear and loss and grief. And I love heart that examines those themes. 

NAIRAMETRICS: What can we look forward to from both of you? 

 Nikyatu Jusu: We both have one foot in our next projects. This has been a dream collaboration and you know, when we speak at interviews, we’re trying to manifest working together again. I would love to direct Anna as Storm for Marvel. The most exciting one to me right now is the one with the monkey paw, which is an expansion of a short film I’ve worked on. I’ll be working with Jordan Peele and it’s going to be very exciting. He has a really smart team. I’m also in the writing stage of three projects, but nothing is green yet. 

Anna Diop: Well, I’m working with a filmmaker who is very bold and audacious and original. And so I’m very excited to enter the world that he’s created. It’s a fun one and it’s a big one for me. 

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