On Showtime’s outrageous comedy series House of Lies, Megalyn Echikunwoke plays sultry temptress April, the love interest of management consultant Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle). This season, she has also recurred on The CW’s reboot of 90210, as the stylish and conniving Holly. Next up, she is playing one third of a trio of girls set out to revolutionize college life at a grungy American University, in the smart and quirky comedy Damsels in Distress, from writer/director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco). And, the busy actress has also signed on for the innovative new NBC pilot Beautiful People, taking place in a not-too-distant future where mechanical human beings exist to service the human population, until some of the mechanicals begin to awaken.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Megalyn Echikunwoke talked about how her role on House of Lies came about, how physically challenging it was to do a pole dance as her stripper character, how much she enjoyed working with Don Cheadle, and why she thinks it’s important to portray strong women. She also talked about what drew her Damsels in Distress and what it was like working with Whit Stillman, as well as the appeal of the futuristic sci-fi drama Beautiful People, and how she would love the opportunity to do a musical. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
MEGALYN ECHIKUNWOKE: Well, actually, I didn’t originally audition for the role of April. I was being seriously considered for the Jeannie role that Kristen Bell plays. I tested for it, but I didn’t get it. But, I read the script and I was telling friends of mine, “Hey, I just read this great pilot and there’s this great role. It is to play a stripper, but it’s this really fun role that’s the best role in the pilot. Get in on it. Audition for it.” And a lot of them were like, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t play a stripper.” So then, I forgot all about it until a month after the test, they called and said, “We’re having trouble casting this role and we thought of you. You might be great for this role of April. Would you do it?”
I thought about it and was like, “That really was such a great character in the pilot. Why not? Why wouldn’t I do that?” It just seemed like it would be so much fun, and the show is so well-written. I was like, “I don’t think it could hurt me. I’m fit and I work out.” I’ve seen shows on Showtime and they’re very provocative, if you will, but nothing to the point that’s over-the-top or gratuitous. It’s really good storytelling, so I just had faith in that and went for it. Being a stripper is just one thing that this character did, as a means to an end. The character was like, “What would be the most fun thing that I could do, so that I could make money to go to law school?” We don’t want to watch boring characters.
Did you do research into what it takes to be a stripper and dance on a pole?
ECHIKUNWOKE: Yeah, it was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. I did do a little research. I went to a couple really fantastic strip clubs with really talented dancers, just in terms of their physical prowess. For the scene, there was a whole dance routine that I had to do, so I worked with a pole dance instructor who helped me choreograph a number for that scene. We broke down the principles of pole dancing, for three days, for an hour a day. You can’t really do it for more than 30 minutes. It takes so much upper body strength that you can’t really work a pole for more than 30 minutes unless you’re a body builder. So, I did the training and I had a whole new respect for people who do that kind of dancing. It’s really hard, and it can be really beautiful and artistic as well, depending on where you go.
Obviously, there’s the seedy side of the strip club world and pole dancing. But, pole dancing, as an art form, is really beautiful. It’s been hyper-sexualized because it’s associated with strippers, but if you think about it, just in terms of other kinds of dancing, they’re using an instrument to create these amazing dance forms. That’s not seedy. It’s just a pole that you’re dancing on. I’ve been to strip clubs where the dancers have these whole routines that they create just for the wow factor and to say, “Look how strong and physically fit I am.” Most women couldn’t do it, and it’s not necessarily sexual. It’s just a performance. It’s almost sad that it’s something that’s just associated with stripping or because someone is slutty. That’s really not it. It’s actually a really great way to get a work-out and to build upper body strength and to have fan.
You had a very memorable scene with Anna Camp. Was it fun to have her as a scene partner? Was she game for anything?
ECHIKUNWOKE: It was fun. I’d never done anything like that. I’d never done any bi-sexual or lesbian scenes before, but it was really fun. We were definitely giggly about it. She’s great, and she’s so funny. She’s such a good actress that it was good. In the end, it just came off as this really funny moment in the show, and then ended up having this domino effect ‘cause it totally ruined the life of the Greg Germann character. They keep referring back to it, throughout the whole season. It was this big moment that changed everything. It was good. I think we achieved our goal.
ECHIKUNWOKE: I do. I think it’s important to see that, as an audience member, because a lot of times you pass judgement on people, right off the bat, depending on whatever they’re involved in or the people they surround themselves with, or something like that. You really don’t know the full story. You don’t know why someone is in a certain circumstance and why they chose to be there. Sometimes it’s just about having an experience and learning. I don’t think you can begrudge someone that.
The character is young and smart, and she has a lust for life. I think that’s why she is so drawn to the Marty (Don Cheadle) character. He’s dark and troubled and disturbed, but he’s also a savant, in a way, just in terms of how he runs his business and how he deals with people. That is really attractive to her because she has a lot of the same elements to her personality. It’s fun to play a character that is not what it seems, at first, and to go, “F-you, there’s a lot more to me.” You can be a stripper and still be this incredible person who’s not necessarily slutty or dumb, or has no other options.
Has it been fun working with Don Cheadle?
ECHIKUNWOKE: I felt so good about the work that we did together – better than I ever have – mostly because he’s not your typical leading man who’s really self-involved and doing his own thing. When he’s in a scene with you, he is your partner in the scene and you guys are doing the scene together. If one of you has an issue, then you work it out together. I was so grateful. I definitely was much better because I was working with him. Because he’s so experienced, he was just passing that on to me, and I just felt like I learned a lot.
Since your character certainly doesn’t seem like a woman who feels threatened too easily, what do you think she thinks about the other women in Marty’s life, like his ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri) and Jeannie (Kristen Bell)?
ECHIKUNWOKE: April is definitely very alpha. I don’t think she feels threatened by the other women. At the end of the day, because her and Marty are so similar, she’s probably more afraid of him than of any one person in his life. I think she’s more concerned about his demons than either of them.
On both House of Lies and 90210, you play very sassy, strong women. Is that something that’s been intentional? Is that important to you, when you’re deciding on the roles you want to do?
ECHIKUNWOKE: Yeah. I don’t know whether it’s been consciously or subconsciously. I definitely am drawn to strong females who are successful, smart women because I am a woman like that. I think it’s important to portray those kinds of women on film and television. Especially as a black woman, I think it’s important. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to play a character that’s not necessarily a super-woman. Even if the character is a little bit stereotypical, as long as the whole story is good and positive, or makes some sort of important statement, I think it’s okay. But, on the whole, you can’t just do that, especially as a black woman. It’s more of a responsibility. You’ve gotta let the world see black women being successful, strong, smart, with power and who are self-possessed.
ECHIKUNWOKE: I just remember reading the script for that and thinking it was so fresh and authentic. (Writer/director) Whit [Stillman] has such a unique voice and was so funny. I hadn’t read a script in awhile that just made me chuckle out loud, throughout the whole thing. I just get his humor, and it’s definitely not for everybody, but I felt excited and inspired by it. I had never done anything like that. The characters are subtle, but also broad, at the same time. I just wanted to challenge myself and see what I could do and how I could fit into this bizarre, beautiful world that he created.
And then, when I was in the audition, he told me a little bit about the
inspiration for the character and asked me if I could do any accents. I just said, “Well, I have this funny English accent that I do. Let me try that.” And he ended up really liking it, so it just stuck. I’d never gotten to do an accent for anything that I’ve done, so that was really appealing because I love doing accents. Ever since I was a kid, I made it my business to try to mimic foreign accents, so it was really fun to be able to do that. I was really working on the accent to try to make it really good and, at one point, Whit said, “No, it’s too good. You have to muck it up a little bit.” He would try to get me to not do it so well, so that it would be funnier.
Was it fun to get to work with girls from such different backgrounds?
ECHIKUNWOKE: Yeah, I loved that we were all so different, and that’s a testament to Whit and his vision and his sensibility about people. I really liked working with everyone. Greta [Gerwig] is so interesting and smart, so it was really great to work with her and see her process, as well.
What drew you to the NBC pilot for the sci-fi drama Beautiful People?
ECHIKUNWOKE: To be honest, it’s actually not a story that hasn’t been told before. Once people see it, it’s the same themes as Blade Runner or A.I., or any of those futuristic, robots-in-the-future type themes. That story has been told before. What’s different about this is the way it’s written and the execution. That’s what’s really going to hook people. Michael McDonald is a really special talent and he’s such a good writer that, when I read this, I just thought, “Gosh, I’ve heard this story before and I’ve seen this played at, but I’ve never seen it told or executed this way, so why not give it a shot.”
Also, it was an opportunity to work with the same people from House of Lies again. That was a big plus for me. I had so much fun doing that, and they’re so good at what they do. With this show, it’s gotta be really, really good for it to be a success and stay on the air and to even get picked up. I felt like I was going into something that sounded like something we’ve seen it before and that it was just another one of those sci-fi shows that could be boring, but because of the people involved, it’s going to be really, really good. It’s not going to get picked up or stay on the air unless it is. Oftentimes, shows are really mediocre, but they stay on the air. I don’t think this is going to be one of those shows, so that feels good.
ECHIKUNWOKE: I play an attorney. I play the boss of James Murray’s character. Frances Conroy plays the mother, and she’s got two sons. One of her sons is an attorney, and I play his colleague and boss at this law firm. He’s also my childhood crush. I’ve just graduated law school and become a lawyer, and I work at my father’s firm. We work together on cases. The cast is really cool and really interesting.
Is there a type of role or a genre that you’d love to work in, but haven’t had the chance yet?
ECHIKUNWOKE: Yes, so many. One thing I am really dying to do, while I’m still young and in shape, is an action movie. I would love to do a Lara Croft type of thing that’s really physical and tough. I want to have a gun and do martial arts. I would love to get paid to get into the best shape of my life. That said, I sing and dance as well, and I have never gotten to do a musical. I would probably love to do that even more.
If someone said, “Here, you have your pick, you can do either a musical, Moulin Rouge type of movie, where you sing and dance, or an action movie, or a Shakespearian or Elizabethan movie,” I would definitely love to do a movie that was based on a musical, where I would get to sing, dance and act, all at the same time. There aren’t a lot of roles in period movies for black people. It sucks because I love that era. But, I love musicals. I love the show Glee, and I wouldn’t mind being on that either.
House of Lies airs on Sunday nights on Showtime. Damsels in Distress opens in theaters on April 6th.