#MakingGhanaProud ‘Beyond the Lights’ Actress Maame-Yaa Aforo Talks Career

Please introduce yourself (Nationality, Educational and family background)

My name is Maame-Yaa Aforo. I am a Ghanaian-American born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. My parents hail from the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana. My mother is from Sunyani and my father from Jepekrom. I am the only girl and middle child of 3 including my brothers Kwasi and Nana. My parents left Ghana in the early 80s but have made sure our culture was always at the forefront of our lives.

I received my undergraduate degree in Political Science from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia with aspirations to become a Political Journalist. During my junior year at Spelman (6 years ago), I had the opportunity to study abroad with the NYU in Ghana program. I lived, learned, and volunteered in Accra for 4 months.

One of the most influential experiences of my life, I made a documentary entitled, so says she articulating misconceptions associated with the word black in relation to women of the African diaspora. Never before had I felt a passion for my work as the way I did while filming and editing the film. From that point on I changed my focus from journalism to film and television production.

 What role did you play on the set of the movie ‘Beyond the Lights’ and what exactly did you do?

I was the director’s assistant to remarkable writer, director, and producer Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of her film Beyond the Lights.

I worked with her from pre-production through production of the film. This amazing opportunity afforded me the experience of watching a major studio film come to life from script to finish. It was invaluable to watch the detail and research that goes in to making a film as beautiful and poignant as Beyond the Lights and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to watch and learn from Gina.

Gina also gave me a background role in the film knowing that I am an actress as well.

What kind of persons were Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Nate Parker on set with regards to their interaction with other actors and the crew?

Gugu and Nate are wonderful people and actors. I watched Gugu work and train every day to be able to play the role of Noni.

She spent hours in rehearsals to truly embody the character. Her dedication to her role was an inspiration to me as an actor. She was so kind and professional and I’m grateful I got to work with her. In the same regard Nate was so humble and kind to everyone on set.

You become family while you’re filming spending hours and hours together, so it was really cool to be around such talented people. I’ll never forget that Nate wrote individual thank you cards for the whole crew at the end of the film.

 Which projects/movies have you been a part of?

I am featured in John Legend’s You and I music video. I play Tim Robbin’s wife in an independent Kristin Wigg film, Welcome to Me which premiered on Netflix in August.

I produced, wrote, and acted in a web show called We Famous. I also starred in a Funny or Die sketch I wrote, directed, and produced calleddeVirginize Me. I’ve made appearances on several web shows including Issa Rae productions How Men Become Dogs and All Def Digital’s Blackie Sack.

My first role in LA was in a beautiful short film by Eli Russell Linnetz entitled Afterglow you can watch on Vimeo. I played a supporting role opposite Steven Spielberg’s son Sawyer Avery.

How did the journey as an actress/movie producer begin?

I arrived in Los Angeles by chance. After graduating from Spelman, I was a Press Staffer in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. at one point in time, this was my dream job but while I was there, I was looking for every possible connection to production I could find.My friend passed on my resume to the producers of the daytime talk show she was working on because I had worked as a Production Assistant on a few movies in Atlanta. They hired me and told me that if I could be there by Tuesday, the job was mine.

My friend said I could bunk with her until I got on my feet. I decided not to renew my contract on The Hill and bought a ticket to move to LA. When I called to finalize the deal, the producer told me ‘actually we don’t want you to move here for this, just in case it doesn’t work out’. I was devastated and scared.

I had just quit my job and bought a ticket to Los Angeles. One of my friends told me ‘go and you’ll figure it out.’ That sounded insane and there was no way my Ghanaian parents would go for that. Even though I was an adult, you’re never really an adult at home when you’re African. I called my parents and presented my case promising that I will find work within a month. To my surprise they said okay.

So I packed up everything and moved. When I arrived, I looked high and low for work ultimately working for free again on a film. On set I met another woman who connected me to a transcriber job at a reality production company. My shift was from 6pm – 2am. With the city at my disposal, I ventured to audition at The Groundlings Theater and School.

My whole life, I grew up watching Saturday Night Live (SNL) and feeling like I belonged in that world. I’m not one to toot my own horn but as long as I can remember people told me ‘you’re the funniest girl I’ve ever met.’ That itch led me to audition at the Groundlings where many SNL alum launched their careers.

I passed, trained and performed improv (improvisation) there for 3 and half years completing 4 of their 5 levels. This past June, I was told that they were looking for ‘something specific and I did not have it’. I did not fit into the image that my teacher thought I should. Of the characters I created, the only one that truly resonated with my teacher was one similar to an Atlanta Housewife. Not my overbearing African auntie, or Professor of Black history who looks for historical discrepancies in every room that she enters or the butch high school gym teacher that had the entire theater uproariously laughing in improv (improvisation) shows ( not bragging, it’s just true.)

What I thought made me unique was actually what was not wanted. They only needed a black girl to be ghetto. In the middle of the course I realized this and self sabotage set in. I was confused and sad because I never want to be something I am not. When my final show came, I went completely blank during my Atlanta Housewives-esque monologue and I knew that would be the end of me at The Groundlings. Surprisingly after realizing the reality of the situation, I saw this as a blessing.

The thought of having to play within the confines of what people who don’t understand me thought I should is startling. I wouldn’t have lasted in that kind of environment. I also felt a sense of ease. I no longer validated myself by the standards of one of the Bajillion theaters in Los Angeles.

It also gave me the confidence not to care what anyone thinks about my work but me. That’s what truly matters. I met so many amazing actors and writers who are now friends at The Groundlings and I’m forever grateful for the experience.

I also met the Maame-Yaa who doesn’t give a hoot whether you like her or not, the one I’d been looking for forever.

What has life as a producer been like for you?

Life as a producer has been wonderful, at times crazy, and overall so much fun. I had to learn from my mistakes the first few years in LA. I hit the ground running and made the mistake of collaborating with people who didn’t have my best interest at heart.

The first web show I co-wrote and produced was the greatest learning experience. I worked with someone who was desperate for fame and I’m not that kind of person. Eventually the professional relationship had to end because I felt uncomfortable being associated with someone like that. I had another experience where someone approached me to collaborate but rather wanted to take credit for what I brought to the table. I’m grateful for both experiences. They were the slap in the face I needed.

I can be waaaaay too nice sometimes and people will try to take advantage of that. That doesn’t always help when you’re trying to get things done. In the same regard I’ve met and worked with some amazing people. Los Angeles is full of passionate and talented people so you get in where you fit in. I had to learn that not every opportunity I was presented with was for me.

Any movie/production you are currently working on?

I have a few solo projects in the works right now.

I am directing a music video for my younger brother Nana Aforo who is an up and coming artist. I am also writing and producing a short film and web series that will come out later this year.

 What is your future goal with regards to your career?

I am currently in the application process to receive my Masters in film and television production so that’s my biggest task right now. I’m super excited about the opportunity to hone in on my craft and learn more about the business aspects of the industry. I never want to stop learning.

I will continue writing, directing, producing, and acting in my own projects and for others. I have several scripts for feature films and television shows being developed and I cannot wait to share more stories of brown people with the world. That’s my mission. Growing up in a predominantly white area with Ghanaian parents, I struggled with identity. Television was my only connection to seeing people who looked like me. Shows like Moesha and Sister, Sister gave me confidence that being black was okay. I want to do this for other girls.

My other goal is to make African themed stories main stream. I mean stories that show more than malnourished children with flies on them or Africans as uncivilized ruthless people. Sadly coming to America is one of the only positive images people have of Africans in America and it wasn’t even written by an African. I’ve made it my mission to change this.

Is there anything you want to add? How does anyone contact you on Social Media?

Working for Gina Prince-Bythewood was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve had thus far. She is one of the most humble, brilliant, dedicated women in Hollywood. The reason her films continue to do so well made complete sense to me. Her attention to detail and building a real world for her characters to live and journey through is unmatched.

Every day after 16 hours on her feet, and thanking every department in the crew she would ask me to meet her in her car and ask ‘What did you learn today’. If you’ve heard about stereotypical Hollywood directors, you wouldn’t believe it but it’s true. She wanted to make sure I was learning, not just serving as her assistant. I’m forever grateful for the experience to see her do her thing.

My advice to others who want to work in the entertainment industry is to stay true to yourself. Honest stories and performances are the best ones. Find grounding and humility in your experience and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. And don’t stop working. Make your own work if you have to because you’ll get better every time. Never stop working.

You can reach out to me on social media. My Facebook is Maame-Yaa Aforo and my Instagram and Twitter handle is @yaamaams.

By: Gameli Hamelo (on Twitter @ghameli) 

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