Annie Ilonzeh is one tough cookie. After an exhausting 15 hour shoot the night before, the actress still manages to find the time to sign up for an early Saturday morning phone interview to chat about her role as Kate Prince in the iconic “Charlie’s Angels” franchise. After getting her feet wet in the biz as Maya Ward on daytime sudser “General Hospital”, the stunning biracial beauty now has the distinction of being the very first African-American “Angel.” Not bad for a girl from Grapevine, Texas, whose strict Nigerian father gave her an ultimatum: to make it as an actress in Hollywood in one year, or come back home.
Ilonzeh shares her intense audition process, working with Hollywood powerhouse Drew Barrymore, and why she proudly waves her “curly girl” flag high with The Urban Daily.
Tell us about your character Kate Prince on “Charlie’s Angels.”
Kate Prince is an ex-cop detective turned dirty. And now Charlie has given her a second chance as an Angel, an attempt at redemption. Throughout the series, her overall objection is to seek redemption. She also has other motivations like trying to seek validation and seek approval from the other Angels and Bosley. And then her ex-fiance (Isaiah Mustufa) pops into the picture, which creates all this new tension.
What was the audition process like?
I was given the opportunity to audition back in November 2010. I didn’t have a script but the Charlie’s Angels franchise is iconic. When I read the breakdown of the character I fell in love with the project immediately. I found so many similarities between Kate and myself: we’re both athletic, both very strong mentally. There’s also the relationship Kate has with the other Angels—and I come from a family with four sisters, so I understand the sisterhood. We’re also the same in knowing we have flaws, that we make mistakes and using those experiences to turn it into something positive. So between Fall 2010 and February 2011 I had about six auditions. I finally landed the part and started shooting in March. It was a tough process but like Kate, it shows that we’re tough and we don’t give up.
Drew Barrymore is the Executive Producer of the series–have you met her? How involved has she been in this project?
Drew is very involved. She was there at every one of my auditions. She was very charming and would give me suggestions. She’s a very good director and it’s a pleasure working with her. She’s like that veteran Angel and you look up to her.
What kind of training did you have to undergo to prepare for the role?
A lot, actually. I’m a gym rat; I”ll lift weights or hit the treadmill. I like to explore different types of extreme exercising. For this role we had to do specific training like martial arts, scuba diving and gun training. My character’s specialty is martial arts so she knows kung-fu, jujitsu That was really different for me because I come from a basketball background. So I had to change the muscle memory. The gun training was fun though. As my co-star Minka Kelly likes to say “We’re trained assassins now!”
Do you think your newfound combat skills would allow you to defend yourself if you ever found yourself in danger in real life?
At the end of the day you never never if you’re going to go into flight or fight mode but I would definitely be more confident in defending myself.
You are the first African-American angel in the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise. What kind of responsibility do you feel in the representation of black women on television?
In the beginning I didn’t really think about it. My mother is White and my father emigrated here from Nigeria, so I didn’t look at it color wise. I don’t see a distinction between myself, Minka and Rachael (Taylor). It took me a while to realize it is an accomplishment. It’s great to set a stage to tell women that no matter your color or nationality, you can do it. I want African-Americans to know that with Obama in office, there’s no ceiling anymore. Sometimes it might feel like that, but we have to keep pushing and that’s what makes us strong as a people.
Let’s talk about the hair. When you landed the role of Kate Prince, was there ever a discussion in how you would wear your hair?
Yeah, we did talk about it like “So, what can we do with this kind of hair?” Women are embracing their natural hair, which is great, but we don’t always do that as African-American women. Sometimes we’ll perm it or put some tracks in it, which is awesome because we like play and explore. I wear my hair natural, but I have a few pieces I’ll use when I go undercover on the show. But the producers want me to wear my hair natural, to be true to Annie, instead of washing me into a different person, of what society thinks is more appealing.
As a black actress in Hollywood, What would you say to women who are worried about not being accepted or seen as beautiful when wearing their hair in its natural state?
I would say go for it. You see women who shave their head and think that is the most beautiful thing. You should wear your hair however you feel comfortable. You might see a woman with long straight flowing hair down her back and there might be a little African-American girl who knows her hair will never grow that long. If you’ve got a mini-fro or a kitchen in the back, if you want to put a little heat on it, just embrace it and keep it movin’. I wake up with dreds some mornings because my hair locks up, but I just work with it. You’re never going to please everyone, so you should find your own beauty.
Charlie’s Angels premieres tonight on ABC 8P.M EST/7c
Follow Annie Ilonzeh on Twitter: @AnnieIlonzeh