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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actresses > Feature Interviews A to E > Megalyn Echikunwoke

 

Megalyn Echikunwoke

megalyn echikunwoke

taking the coroner office on csi: miami

by jay s. jacobs

 
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 14, 2009.

Even before she started popping up all over television when she was barely in her teens, Megalyn Echikunwoke had lived a fascinating, unique life. 

As a child, Echikunwoke (the name means ďleader of menĒ) grew up on a remote Indian Reservation Ė despite the fact that neither of her parents were Native American.  Her father was Nigerian, her mother an American of European descent.  In fact her grandfather is a Nigerian tribal chief Ė making her technically royalty Ė but there is nothing haughty about this talented young actress. 

Echikunwoke was only fourteen when she was plucked from obscurity to play a lead role in the mini-series The Creature Ė based on a novel by Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.  This led to an escalating series of high-profile roles, playing the daughter of the President in the first season of 24, Hydeís long-lost half-sister in That 70s Show and the daughter in the Holly Robinson-Peete sitcom Like Family.  However, she really opened eyes with two seasons as Isabelle Tyler Ė the all-powerful evil being on the cult-favorite sci-fi series The 4400. 

She barely had time to catch her breath after the end of that series before she was tapped as the new coroner on the popular cop series CSI: Miami Ė a role which was recently upgraded from recurring to a series regular.  She is also in two upcoming films which are working the festival circuit, Who Do You Love? And Fix. 

Recently, Megalyn was nice enough to give us a call to discuss her career and her life. 

You grew up on a Navajo reservation even though neither of your parents was Native American.  That must have been an interesting way to grow up.  How did that come about and what was that like? 

It was a very interesting way to grow up Ė interesting in the best possible way.  My mom is a nurse.  She worked for the Indian Health Service.  She also always had an affinity for Native American culture as well.  She got this opportunity to go to work on a reservation.  We were only ever supposed to stay for like two years or something like that.  Then, she liked it so much and it ended up being such a safe and great place to be, [so] we just stayed. 

Megalyn Echikunwoke as Dr. Tara Price in 'CSI: Miami.'When did you know that you wanted to act? 

You know, I think it definitely started at a very young age.  Probably started when anything Iíd hear, anything I would watch, I would mimic.  I started being a mimic and I was always very dramatic.  Anytime I heard someone with an accent I would instantly try to emulate it.  I think it started with a kind of sensibility for the performing arts.  I just always kind of had it without knowing that I wanted to be an actor or that I would be.  As I got older, I just always did it.  When I was on the reservation, because it was so remote I didnít really have an outlet for it.  The schools, we had basic things but we didnít have any extra Ė like we didnít have a dance studio and we didnít have a big theater department or anything like that.  I never really had an outlet there until I was in band class.  We did have a music department and I was thinking I donít want to be boredÖ because there really isnít a lot to do so far from everything.  (chuckles)  I grew up not having been to a mall until I was like ten.  The mall is like five hours away.  The movie theater is like three hours away.  So there wasnít a whole lot to do (laughs) except for enjoy nature and read or something.  I saw a poster for this arts academy at my band class and so I applied.  I went and did a theater workshop here in California Ė at Idlewild Arts Academy.  While I was there I got selected to do a monologue.  I did a little musical theater thingÖ the performance you do at the end of the workshop.  The person who is still my manager today was in the audience watching and was interested in me.  He pursued me and I started auditioning by videotape and then eventually got a job. 

You mentioned band class and musical theater.  I was reading you are also a singer.  Is that something that you are pursuing professionally as well, or has the acting sort of taken over? 

Well, the acting has taken over in a way, just because unless you have all the resources at your fingertips, itís kind of hard to wage war on more than a few fronts at one time.  (chuckles)  Itís so funny, Iím only just now barely starting to think: oh, maybe I am kind of emerging Ė coming into my adult self Ė (laughs) even though Iím well past the child cutoff.  Iím not eighteen anymore.  Now that Iím sort of older and getting a handle on my acting, I really would love to really start putting more energy into my music.  I love to sing.  Iíve always done it.  It makes me really happy, so Iíd definitely like to expand. 

In your early years while you were still living in Arizona, you would audition via videotape and only come up to LA for important interviews.  When did it become obvious to you and your family that you needed to be in LA? 

It was pretty shortly after I did my first job.  My manager [said] for practical reasons Ė I was working and I was making money and I was flying back and forth.  And my mom was ready for a change in her career and everything.  So we just did it.  We all just moved. 

Megalyn Echikunwoke as Dr. Tara Price in 'CSI: Miami.'That first job Ė was that the miniseries of Peter Benchleyís The Creature? 

Yes. 

How did you get that job and what was it like as such a young actress working on a major miniseries? 

Oh my God, it was a dream come true.  Mind you, I had no comparison.  I had never lived in the big city, so when I got the job, I didnít know what it meant, really.  I didnít really know what it meant to be an actor.  Living in LA.  I didnít know anything.  I was just like, okay, Iím just going with the flow.  Iím not going to question it.  (laughs)  It ended up being, to this day one of my best location experiences.  It was kind of like a fairytale because I was like fourteen years old, living on a reservation, had never been in a limo.  I donít know if Iíd ever even seen one.  This limo comes to pick me up in the little doctorís compound where we lived Ė it comes in, itís like this big thing and everyoneís like, ďWhat!?Ē  I drive to Phoenix and I take a first class flight to St. Lucia.  (laughs)  I spent two months in the Caribbean and then I go to Canada and spend a month there.  It was really pretty dreamy.  I had never really traveled, either. 

The first time I remember seeing you Ė and many people would Ė was on 24 when you played the daughter of the fictional first black President.  At the time, that storyline seemed so daring, now several years later, it has really happened.  How cool is that? 

Itís so cool.  Oh, my God, Iím still pinching myself.  Every day, Iíll see a new photo and Iíll take a moment and say: okay, we did that. 

As one of very few people in the world who has even close to any of the same kind of First Daughter experience as Obama's daughters Ė do you have any advice for them? 

Oh, wow.  Well first of all Iím envious.  (laughs)  Iím so envious I can barelyÖ it makes me want to spit, Iím so envious.  No, Iím not really envious.  I just hope that they will learn from their mother and maintain their humility, but also stay curious and proactive about their lives and take responsibility for the position that they have.  Really keep the legacy going.  Change the world with their father.  Heís the first black President.  Heís got three amazing black women around him.  Thatís pretty powerful.  Weíre in store for several generations of powerful black women in this country, which is something that is long overdue. 

Megalyn Echikunwoke as Dr. Tara Price in 'CSI: Miami.'Most of your major recurring roles have been in dramas, but as a guest star you have done comedies like The Steve Harvey Show, What I Like About You and That 70s Show.  Do you enjoy comedy?  Is that something youíd like to try more? 

Absolutely.  I love comedy.  I love, love, love, love comedy.  I also did a TV show Ė a WB series for a year called Like Family with Holly Peete.  I had done a lot of guest star stuff and recurring stuff and then I did that for a whole year.  I really learned a lot about comedy and sitcoms.  Itís really like a whole other medium.  Thereís a whole other technique to it.  I find it just as gratifying.  Itís actually a lot more like theater than anything else.  Itís just as gratifying as doing drama.  I would love to do more theater.  If I was lucky enough to get on a great show Ė like 30 Rock or The Office or something like that Ė that would be dreamy. 

Iíve been catching up on The 4400 lately, so Iíve been trying not to ask any questions that might get you mad at me or anything. 

(She laughs heartily.) 

Whatís it like to play the personification of limitless, powerful evil? 

Oh itís always way more fun to play a villain than it is to play the good guy.  It was a treat, because I had only ever been allowed to play someoneís daughter or someoneís sweet youngÖ you know, always the straight man.  I got to be the villain in that.  Always more interesting, I think. 

Your last name means ďleader of men.Ē  Did that make the role of Isabelle seem kind of a natural for you? 

Oh, yeah!  Oh yeah.  You know, I throw that around on dates and things like that as well, to remind peopleÖ.  (laughs)  No, itís kind of a fun thing. 

In your second season of the show, when Isabelle lost her powers, you got to show the more human, insecure side of the character.  Was it fun to explore that level as well? 

Yeah, it was fun to take that character on that arc Ė from utter, reckless abandon and malevolence to kind of finding herself and becoming a human being and caring about people. 

On both The 4400 and now CSI: Miami, you have come on board a show which is established for a while.  Is it difficult getting the hang of it when you are the new person in a cast which has been together for a while? 

Yes, definitely.  It definitely takes a second.  With CSI, Iím still sort of getting the hang of it.  Itís such a demanding role in terms of the subject matter that Iím dealing withÖ the medical jargon and stuff like that.  That takes a second to get the hang of.  But it really depends on the cast and the production environment.  Iíve been lucky enough to work with really great casts.  Everyone is really welcoming.  David Caruso is really supportive and welcoming as well. 

David Caruso as Lt. Horatio Caine, Adam Rodriquez as Eric Delko and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Dr. Tara Price in 'CSI: Miami.'David Caruso is such a good actor, but his character is always so serious and dour.  You hear those stories of the problems he had early on in his career with his co-stars in NYPD Blue, but Iíve only heard good things from castmates on the new show. What is he like to work with? 

Oh heís great.  He definitely knows exactly what heís doing, exactly what he wants.  Itís his show.  Heís very instrumental in creating the tone of the show.  Itís kind of like his deal.  Actually itís nice working with him, because heís so assured.  He knows exactly what heís doing.  Where heís going.  Why.  What.  It makes things move a lot quicker.  Heís also a part of the behind the scenes as well. 

You are essentially taking the place of Khandi Alexanderís character.  Is it sort of intimidating to replace such a well-liked actress? 

Yes.  That is another thing that can take a little while to kind of get over, because also you have to answer to the fans.  When youíre replacing someone, itís like youíre just setting yourself up for inevitable scrutiny and judgment from the fans.  That happens and thatís to be expected.  But Iím a different character, so there is that.  I think it will take a while, probably, for the fans to warm up to me completely. 

In the few episodes Iíve seen of your work on CSI, so far they havenít given all that much background on Tara beyond her work.  Are you looking forward to exploring some more of the levels of her life?  Maybe that will open people up to her more. 

I think thatís the idea.  Itís just taking a second to incorporate me and also Iím not a CSI, which makes it a little bit more difficult to incorporate me and my backstory.  But, yes, I am looking forward to that.  I think that theyíve got some interesting things in store for my character.  Thatís probably part of the problem, it just takes a while to get that going. 

Have you talked with the producers to work out Taraís backstory and some of the things that may be coming down the line for her? 

Yeah, weíve talked about it a little bit.  Iíve heard some things.  I think actually this next episode I might have some interesting things going on.  Theyíve assured me that there is going to be some juicy stuff coming up, so Iím excited. 

Megalyn Echikunwoke as Dr. Tara Price in 'CSI: Miami.'What is an ideal storyline youíd love to see Tara in? 

It would be interesting Ė because I spend so much time in autopsies in my office Ė to be caught in the crossfire in some way.  Maybe become a victim.  Not die, obviously (laughs) but maybe be caught up in one of the crimes in some way.  It would be kind of interesting.  Not in a bad way, but in a good way. 

Iíve always thought that CSI: Miami is by far the most beautifully and evocatively shot series on TV Ė particularly when you watch in HDTV. 

Oh, definitely. 

Even more so than the other two CSIs, I feel the city is an integral part of the story.  I know much of the series is filmed in LA, but have you gotten to go to Miami to do any exteriors down there well?  How do you feel really filming the real city adds to the vibe of the show? 

I agree with you that the show is really beautiful and really sexy.  The saturated, rich oranges and everyone looks beautiful and tan.  (laughs)  So thereís that.  I havenít been to Miami, ever before.  Iím hoping that Iíll get to go.  I donít know if Iíll get to go this season, but if they keep me around then next season for sure.  Iím going to demand it.  (chuckles)  It really adds to the show, because if you think about it, any major American city, the city is always a huge part.  It plays a character in the story of your life.  We live in LA and LA is almost like a friend, the city.  Youíve got your certain parts and your certain restaurants and the different landscapes.  Youíve got the ocean, the mountains and the weather.  Itís an important part of anyoneís life.  I love that.  I donít know any other show that incorporates the city so well. 

You also have a movie called Fix coming up.  What can you tell me about that? 

Fix, well I actually did that last year.  Speaking of incorporating a city into the movie, that is another movie that is sort of a road movie and it really takes you all over LA.  LA definitely plays a character in the movie.  It was shot a while back.  We went to Slamdance and weíve done some other festivals.  Itís doing well still.  I donít know that it has distribution yet.  I donít know if viewers will get to see it in the near future, but eventually Iím hoping it will come out and people will get to see it.  It was a really, really interesting, really fresh and unique take on narrative storytelling. 

Megalyn EchikunwokeAre there any misconceptions youíd like to clear up? 

Well, I think if I were to say anything I would say, I donít know that it is a misconception about me, but just in general, I think that itís easy to judge someone based on the work that theyíve done.  Sort of put them in a box and say, ďOh, well sheís just pretty.Ē  Or ďsheís just thisÖĒ  Itís not true.  I think the business is what it is.  You sometimes donít always have a choice in the way you are portrayed.  Itís not always as clear cut as it seems.

Ideally, how would you like for people to look at your career? 

You mean based on what Iíve done so far? 

So far, or plans or dreams you have of your future workÖ 

Well, ideally I think my journey and my job and my passion, where eventually Iíd like to master... I think the beauty of this art form Ė cinema and theater and music, all the fine arts Ė the beauty of them is the stories that you tell and the experiences that you can allow other people to have through you that they may never experience on their own.  Itís really a storytellerís medium.  At the end of the day, I would hope that people would view my body of work as a place of refuge.  A sanctuary, whatever it is that I can offer you through the stories that I can tell.  I would hope that I will become a great storyteller and effect people and move people with my work. 

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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 14, 2009.