Amandla Stenberg on using improv, getting away from 'westernized style of acting' for The Eddy
Netflix's new eight-part limited series follows André Holland's character Elliot Udo, a once-prominent jazz pianist who has relocated from New York to Paris, where he co-owns a struggling jazz club known as The Eddy. Things take a turn for the worse when secrets emerge about his business partner Farid (Tahar Rahim) at the same time that his troubled daughter Julie (Stenberg) comes to live with him.
The show features original jazz numbers performed by the show's cast members, many of which are real-life musicians making their acting debuts. According to Stenberg, that energy dictated all of the acting in the show. "I feel like that was kind of the intention of the show, that the medium of it would kind of reflect the subject," she tells EW. "And so since the show is about jazz, the way that we worked as actors and worked on the scenes was really improvisational, really kinetic, and really spontaneous."
Here, Stenberg reveals more about the surprising amount of improv in the show, the unique challenges of working with such a diverse cast, how she learned to get away from the style of acting she grew up on, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have to speak quite a bit of French in this role. Did you have experience with the language beforehand?
STENBERG: [Laughs] Um, no, I had zero experience with French. That was one of the most daunting aspects of the show was acting in French, because it kind of takes the left brain, right brain thing, like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. And acting and doing it in a language that I didn't speak was definitely hard. But it's also so cool. I really felt like by the end of the production there, I was able to pick up on a lot that was being said to me. Definitely was not fluent in speaking back, but I was able to interpret what people were saying generally.
So did you find it more instructive to take French lessons or just work with a dialect coach on your particular lines?
I just worked with a dialect coach. Her name was Dany [Héricourt]. She was incredible. She had to do all of this intensive work for the entire production because we had so many people of different backdrops having to do different things. You know, Joanna Kulig had to learn how to sing in English and then speak French and then also speak in her native language in Polish, and the dialect coach had to ensure that when she was singing, it was clear and intelligible. And André, who had never spoken French outside of high school, when he was speaking French it had to sound like he was fluent in it. And then even Adil [Dehbi] who plays my boyfriend, he didn't speak very much English at all, and she had to ensure that when he did that it felt authentic. So she was juggling a lot. And she was such an integral part of the crew and of the production. But yeah, I primarily just worked with her and she helped me do the lines that I had to speak, but it honestly wasn't too intensive. I think André was in a much more difficult position.
You mentioned how international this show is. What was the vibe like on set with all of the different backgrounds and cultures and all of that?
It was a really enriching, diverse, kinetic energy. So many people from different backdrops just like bringing their passion and their enthusiasm and their skill to the set. It was just so alive with culture. It was really incredible. It was the kind of set where like we would wrap and then all stay for an hour after work was done, which never happens for any job I feel like. The musicians would break out into an improvisation and it would grow and we would all dance and it became this collective experience of just celebrating that we were all able to work on this show together.
That comes across on the show, too. I think I counted at one point five different languages being spoken. And it's really interesting that with all of the different backgrounds and cultures, there's a shared language and love of music.
Definitely. I think actually somehow everybody on the set was musical, even if they weren't cast as musicians on the show, like everyone brought a natural musical energy to the set. It was so cool. And it was so amazing to be around all these world-class jazz musicians all the time and understand kind of how improvisation even comes to fruition, like how it can start with just someone starting to play a bass line and the drummer hopping on top of that, and growing and becoming bigger and kind of just consuming you and pulling you in. That energy dictated the set so much. It really influenced the way that we even worked as actors, because I feel like that was kind of the intention of the show, that the medium of it would kind of reflect the subject. And so since the show is about jazz, the way that we worked as actors and worked on the scenes was really improvisational, really kinetic and really spontaneous.
Oh, interesting. So there was a lot of improv then?
I would say most of it is improv.
Maybe not most, but when I watched it, I see maybe like 60 percent improv. We were constantly redefining our characters and the scenes and deciding what the scenes were and inserting our own narratives. The show as it exists now has this beautiful backbone that was created by Jack Thorne, the writer [and executive producer], but then each storyline kind of came to fruition on set.
And Julie grows so much through the course of the eight episodes.
Yeah, it definitely was an experience I never had before to try to construct a character arc over eight hours of content. I had to kind of allow her to unfurl. And I think it manifests in the show. I wanted her to grow a lot because the person that she is in the beginning of the series is not necessarily a role model. She's just a girl who is a really complicated person and really messy, and I think the thing that felt the most important to me was to kind of honor that experience. And also maybe show that for people who are in those precarious positions or dealing with substance abuse issues or have come up with certain coping mechanisms in order to escape their trauma, that there is a lot of hope for growth. You do learn how to become a more self-aware person, come up with better coping mechanisms, be more forgiving, less selfish. That felt like the most important thing to do with her.
What is your biggest takeaway from your experience on the show?
There are so many things I take away from it. It was a real challenge, especially thinking about our second unit, which was directed by Houda Benyamina. It was a real challenge to get out of the westernized style of acting that I've naturally grown up doing and to get into this headspace of, "Oh no, we're not focused on the mannerisms of the character, we're not focused on their arc. What we're focused on is truth, and what that truth is here in this moment, and honoring that." That was a new kind of challenge. Houda pushed me in ways that I had never been pushed before. She would spin me around in a circle and shake me five times and then yell in my ear — all with my consent — and then whispered in my ear. And so being worked with in that way to try to kind of strip away the pretenses or constructions that I had and just try to tell the truth as best as I could. That was a really big challenge and I'll always carry that experience with me.
The Eddy is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.