Star of 'The Neighbors' on critics, James Bond and being a goofball

Toks Olagundoye’s role as alien in suburbia is ‘dream job’

bcain@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

  • More information Tune-In “The Neighbors” Wednesdays 8:30 p.m. ABC

One of the funniest stand-out stars of the 2012 fall TV season has been Toks Olagundoye, a Nigerian-born actress who plays the wife of an alien leader in ABC’s charming new sitcom “The Neighbors,” 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

In “The Neighbors,” all of the Zabvronians living in self-imposed exile inside their gated New Jersey community are named after professional athletes – Olagundoye’s character, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, is married to Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) and they have two sons: Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) and Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick). The Zabvronians are forced to mingle with humans for the first time when a New Jersey family moves into their subdivision. The humans and the aliens (primarily the Bird-Kersee family) both learn from each other’s cultures.

“The Neighbors” was definitely one of the more polarizing new shows of the fall season, with critics either vehemently bashing or passionately embracing its silliness. But it struck a chord with viewers, who have given it solid enough ratings to earn it a full-season pickup from the network.

Olagundoye’s comedic contribution to “The Neighbors” has not gone unnoticed. In November, The New York Times named her one of fall’s “most memorable scene stealers,” describing her character’s defining quality as “Aspirational anxiety with a dash of intraspecies condescension.”

We recently spoke with Olagundoye by phone. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: “The Neighbors” has a bit of wacky premise. What did you think when you first read it?

I really liked the script when I read it. I wasn’t sure that I’d really gotten it, just because it seemed very clever and clever scripts are few and far between. So I thought maybe I was reading too much into it. But turns out I was right. It’s great. I like odd things and I like sci-fi and I like things that are clever, and I think it has all of that. So I don’t know that a wacky premise stands in the way of a good story. I like surprises and I get surprised every week when I read a new episode. I love it.

Q: It was very polarizing among critics. Do you think some people never gave it a chance because of the far-out premise? Yes, I think people didn’t give it a chance. I think a lot of people were like, “Oh God, alien sitcom, blah blah blah.” Which I understand, that’s fine. And I don’t mind that. Some people are going to like it and some people are not. It’s not really a show for the in-betweeners. You’re either going to love it or it’s not your cup of tea. And that’s absolutely fine. The thing that I did not appreciate was that there were some instances where it was clear that the critic had not actually seen the pilot or seen the show, where they were just reading a synopsis and maybe had seen a preview of some sort, because they were addressing things or asking questions that were very clearly answered or addressed. And that is when I get a little bit annoyed. Because don’t comment on something if you haven’t done your homework. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And either way, people are paying attention to the show, and I have a great job and I have a good time with it.

Q: Is the show a fun place to work?

Oh my God, it is the most fun place I have ever worked in my life! Everyone is lovely. Literally, everyone is lovely. Everyone’s fun, everyone has a good sense of humor and we all get along very well, and we all care about each other as human beings. And the producers give us room to play and they trust us. If you had me write down my dream job on a piece of paper I couldn’t have come closer to this. I love it.

Q: The writing on the show is great but I’ve wondered if you guys get to ad-lib any?

Oh we do, oh absolutely. We ad-lib and then maybe the director will throw something our way or one of the writers will be like, “Oh, try this as well.” So we play a lot. We’re not obnoxious about it, we try to stick to what’s there. But if we see something that’s really great, we’ll just go for it, and a lot of times they allow us to keep it.

Q: One of the funniest things I’ve seen on the show was Tim Jo’s (Reggie Jackson) pronunciation of “marshmallow.” Did he come up with that?

I wasn’t there, but knowing Tim it would have been him because he’s incredibly clever. He comes up with things all the time.

Q: Have you worked in comedy before?

In theater I’ve worked in comedy, and once on film. But for most of my film and television career, no one’s been very interested in watching me do comedy. That didn’t happen for a really long time. My manager now in Los Angeles was the one who was like, “I don’t know why you aren’t doing any comedy,” and I was like, “I don’t know either, I think I’m pretty funny!” But everyone thinks they’re funny. She got me in there, really just to meet [casting director] Susan Vash. But I’m a complete goofball and I come from goofballs. My parents are all goofballs.

Q: Wasn’t there a Bond girl push for you on Twitter?

Yes, there was a Bond girl push on Twitter! When I was a girl I was obsessed with James Bond and a couple of musicals. I have wanted to be a Bond girl probably since I was about, gosh, 6. It’s funny, when this last one came out, a lot of people were saying, “You should have been in it!” I think the woman who was in it was fantastic. I thought, “Yes, I should be in it” and then I went to see it and thought, “Oh, never mind.”

Q: There’s always going to be another Bond movie.

There is, and honestly, even if I was a Bond girl who gets killed in like a minute and a half into it, that’s fine by me. I just want to be a Bond girl so badly. Driving an Astin Martin would also be a big bonus.

Q: If you could hand-pick a contemporary Bond to star with, who would it be?

You mean someone I think should be James Bond? I’m a big fan of Jason Isaacs and I really can see him being James Bond. I think everyone else who has been a Bond lately is brilliant, but I just really think there’s something very Sean Connery about him, and Sean Connery is my favorite.

Q: Are you a big TV fan?

Gigantic. I am a gigantic TV fan. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a kid. We didn’t really have much TV in Nigeria, to be honest, but what we did have I wasn’t allowed to watch.

Cain: 919-829-4579,

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