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Megalyn Echikunwoke – Exclusive Interview: Megalyn Echikunwoke Talks ‘Made in Jersey,’ Crush on ‘The Fresh Prince’

Megalyn Echikunwoke isn’t your average Hollywood actress. The gorgeous half-Nigerian star grew up on a Navajo reservation, where she competed in rodeo sports like barrel racing on horseback.

When she wasn’t making her mark on the rodeo world, Echikunwoke was developing her love for performing. She landed her first big acting role when she was just 15 in a TV movie called Creature. Since then she’s had memorable roles on 24The 4400CSI: Miami90210, and House of Lies, where she played a sexy stripper opposite Don Cheadle. This fall, Echikunwoke will join the cast of CBS’ new legal drama Made in Jersey, about a working-class girl who uses her street smarts to climb the ladder at a prestigious New York City law firm.

We recently chatted with Megalyn Echikunwoke about her Made in Jersey role, her dreams of kicking butt in an action movie, and how her unconventional upbringing helps her bring a unique perspective to every role she plays.

What can you tell us about your Made in Jersey character?
Well, her name is Riley Prescott and she’s kind of a badass. She’s a second year lawyer at a big Manhattan law firm, she’s Ivy League educated and she’s got ambition to be partner. Essentially she ends up playing the role of antagonist to theJanet Montgomery character [Martina] when she comes to our office and kind of tries to take over. So there’s definitely a lot of push and pull between those two characters.

Do you think Riley and Martina eventually might connect? They’re both strong, independent women who want big things.

Oh, absolutely. And that’s what I think I’m really liking about the show is that there are definitely these kind of archetypal characters, but I think that there’s a lot of room to find more interesting dynamics within those roles. So with Martina and [Riley], it’s not always just the cat fight. My character’s not always just saying bitchy zingers and she’s not always trying to win me over. We’re actually finding some really interesting dynamics and colors within that. So I think yeah, eventually. Maybe Season 2? [laughs] Season 1 is probably a little too soon, but maybe in Season 2 we hang out, have a drink and dish about a guy or something like that.

Do you think that Riley feels threatened by Martina? She’s got it all together on paper — Ivy League school, on the partner track — and here’s this new girl from Jersey out of the blue.
To a certain degree, absolutely. But she would never show that. She would never let on because she’s so in control. But you know, because of the structure of a law firm, I think that Riley is pretty secure in her role and she’s pretty certain that she has the goods to make partner and that Martina has a long way to go.

Janet Montgomery, who plays Martina, is British but rocks a pretty fierce Jersey accent — can you do a Jersey accent?
Yes! I can do a Jersey accent. But I have to agree, when I saw the pilot I was blown away. I hadn’t ever — I didn’t know who she was and then I looked her up after watching the pilot and I was like, ‘Wait a minute…’ Very impressive, very very impressive.

You’re in the upcoming Die Hard sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard. What kind of character do you play?
My role in that is very small. I play a reporter — a CNN correspondent — and I’m just in and out. Who knows how it will all come together, but if you blink you might miss me. [laughs] That might be what happens, who knows. But I play a reporter who’s reporting on the big — the climax of the movie.

Are you a fan of the Die Hard movies?

Oh yeah, I’ve been watching those since I was a kid.

Which one is your favorite?
Oh man, probably the first one. I’m always partial to the first of any of those type of series because that’s when it becomes a hit, but it doesn’t know it’s a hit yet, you know? So it’s still kind of got a little bit of carbonation. The magic is still happening a little bit.

You’ve played a lot of strong, tough women. Is there a type of role you haven’t gotten the chance to play yet that you’d love to sink your teeth into?
I’m really looking forward to doing action. I would die to do a very heavy action movie where I’d have to do tons of training and just be kicking ass and taking names all day long. I would love that because I’m a very physical person and that looks like so much fun. And also musical theater! I love musical theater and I love to sing. And I also dance so that is a genre that I haven’t gotten the opportunity to play yet, but I’m really hoping that I do because it’s one of my dreams in life. [laughs]

What’s your favorite musical?
I’d have to say Book of Mormon. It’s sensational. It’s so funny and so well done. That’s definitely my favorite musical that I’ve seen so far, but I love Hairspray. I love camp! I love Glee, the television musical. I love a lot of stuff.

You had a unique upbringing on a Navajo reservation, where you competed in barrel races and things like that. How do you think your upbringing contributes to what you bring to your various roles?
Well, I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills or New York or Brooklyn. And those kind of things definitely inform your sensibility as an actor. And that’s good. Often times I feel like I wish I had grown up in the big city and I could really tap into those kinds of characters. But I think growing up in kind of a remote place, it just kind of gives me even more to draw from.

And also, as a black woman in Hollywood you are sometimes relegated to playing these very kind of boring roles that are how the world sees black women. That are very one-dimensional, not dynamic, not necessarily strong, not necessarily very interesting. Or sometimes you’re thrust into being the “pretty girl” role, and that can also be very one-dimensional and not very interesting. And I have definitely fallen victim to that because I’m a young black girl in Hollywood and that’s what’s available. So when I do end up playing those roles, I think maybe I can bring a little something different based on not having a conventional upbringing.

It sounds like you’re proud of being able to represent young black women in positive ways on TV.
Yeah, absolutely. Because, I mean, what is a black woman? It’s a many-splendored thing and often you just see the same kinds of characters that don’t represent black people or black women at all. And I mean, what does that even mean? I’m a black woman because I have brown skin? I am black American? I am African? I feel like it’s important to be able to play all different kinds of roles because there’s no one kind of black person.

So yeah, I’m very proud to play roles that aren’t necessarily for black women — they’re just people. They’re just interesting people who happen to have brown skin. And I think that’s important because I’m black, but I’m not necessarily black American. I’m African and there’s that whole world to explore too. I don’t like limiting myself. I feel like oftentimes Hollywood can be very limiting so it’s important when you get roles to kind of push it a little bit — push the envelope and give viewers insight into a more fully fleshed out person as opposed to a “black girl” or a “Latina person” or a “pretty girl.” [laughs] That was a very long-winded explanation to your question.

By Jennifer Rose

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