Ayo Edebiri has had one hell of a year. The actress, Emmy nominated for her work on FX’s The Bear, saw three films hit theaters in 2023: the raunchy high school comedy Bottoms, the gut-busting Sundance breakout mockumentary Theater Camp, and the Seth Rogen-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, for which she voiced the character of April O’Neil. To hear her tell it, though, this year has come as a complete surprise. “I was working so much because I didn’t know what was going to hit haha. I’ve got bills to pay and a dog to feed… I kinda got lost in it and I think everything that’s come out this past year has really been the culmination of 3+ years of work in different ways.”
The sudden success has caught her off guard: “I was just working, so I kind of didn’t notice it. It was more really during the strike where I took a trip to Europe, and I was in London – which, I really love because British people, God bless them, they mind their business, you know what I mean? And they’re not really smiling at you in the street – but at one point, I went to Manchester to visit a friend who was filming, and I got recognized in Manchester, and I was like, what is going on, something has shifted, something is not right if someone recognizes me in Manchester.”
That said, the breakout sensation is grateful that her peers are seeing her in a new light. “I can feel people starting to take me seriously,” she says. “It’s really moving to me to be at a point where people see you and also see your ambition, that you want to do things that are different or weird and you’re not afraid of challenging yourself.” The transition from primarily writing to primarily acting has been tricky for Edebiri. “Two years ago, even sometimes now, I would get really frustrated when they would be like ‘actor, comedian, and writer,’ and writer would be last because for so long it was really important to me that writer was first. That’s my first love and always something that I’m trying to return to.” Her ambition is often at odds with her busy schedule, though, and she’s had to learn how to say no. “As acting has come into the fold it’s been interesting to balance my schedule haha. So sometimes I’ll tell my manager, I need two days a week where nothing is scheduled so I can work on something. But hopefully, in the next few years, something will pop up. I’m trying to be in development and write my own scripts and collaborate with people as well.”
Read on for more of our conversation with the year’s biggest breakout, including how her characters would survive in the Bottoms fight club, the most important thing she looks for in a script, and her response to our recent interview with Paul Mescal, who said he would love to do a rom-com with her.
Dan Bayer: Hi, Ayo!
Ayo Edebiri: Hi. How are you?
DB: I’m good. I think there’s only one possible question to open up this interview.
DB: Stage combat. What is it?
AE: [laughs] What is it? What is it?
DB: I took a class in college, I couldn’t tell you.
AE: Oh, man. “It’s the art of surprise!” I love those children! I love those children so much.
DB: They’re so talented. It’s insane.
AE: It’s insane. It’s insane.
DB: In all seriousness, though, I’m here today with AwardsWatch, and I don’t know if you saw this, but recently our executive editor, Ryan McQuade, spoke with Paul Mescal.
AE: Oh, I saw this. [laughs]
DB: So he asked him if he would be doing any comedies in the future, and Paul said that comedy scares him because recently he saw Bottoms and was quote “in awe of how they do that,” and that in the next five years, he’s going to “set myself a challenge to do maybe a rom-com with Ayo or something like that would be cool.” So I have to ask: A) Are you interested? and B) How can Paul get in touch with you to set this up?
AE: Paul and I have spoken about it since because I told Paul he is very chaotic. [laughs] Honestly he’s one of my favorite actors to watch, period. I actually said, “So, is someone writing a script for us now, or what?” So that’s my answer, if somebody writes us a good script. I think he’s so brilliant, and I honestly would also really enjoy seeing him try his hand at comedy. It has to be in an About Time vibe. Something that’s got, like, a heart, so he can still flex his drama muscles where it’s like, the covert rom-com. Like, still a rom-com, but we got to get something inventive.
DB: I like that idea. I like that idea a lot!
AE: I do too! That’s why I came up with it. [laughs]
DB: I would see it 10 out of 10. Yeah, I love it. [laughs]
AE: [laughs] Or it’s like some sort of overly involved plot where I just get to do my really awful Irish accent for half the movie. We’ll figure it out.
DB: I mean, you could, yeah. So you’ve had a lot of projects released this year, and obviously you weren’t working on all of them at the same time, but when did you get the inkling that so many things that you did were going to be released to the public this year?
AE: I don’t even know. I think sometimes I just wake up, and I find that somebody is like, “you have to post this trailer, or you’ll be in trouble. So post it.” I’m like, “What? What’s going on?” I mean, I knew stuff was, but… genuinely, I mean, I’m not trying to sound like an idiot, but I really think it wasn’t until this year I was like, wait, what’s going on? I knew that this summer was going to kind of be a moment, but also because of the strike then happening, I was like, oh, then nothing’s going to happen because we won’t be able to promote it.
But then the work spoke for itself and the fans of these projects were so amazing and so vocal in sharing all these things, and people just responded in such a way that it happened. And then that was its own surreal thing where Rachel and I would go on walks and be like, “okay, so I guess people are watching our movie and we’re just going on walks in our pajamas around our neighborhood.” [laughs] Now the strike is lifted, and it’s all just quite surreal. So to answer your question, I don’t know.
DB: I’m sure it feels very surreal, and now that you are officially “overnight sensation Ayo Edebiri,” do you plan on choosing your projects any differently going forward from how you have in the past?
AE: Yes and no. I mean, I think for me, the ethos is always centered on am I excited? That’s like the core of it. Whether that excitement comes from glee at laughing at the script until I can’t breathe, or from being so moved that I’m stuck in my chair for an hour, whatever it is, if I’m feeling something, then I want to pursue it. If it feels like there’ll be a challenge for me too, I like to be a little scared before going into things.
DB: Of course.
AE: So if I feel that, then I’m good. So I think because – and not just for the sake of reception, but for my own personal gratification – it’s worked out. I want to continue that. But I do think that an interesting thing that I’m learning right now is space and saying no, and sometimes things are amazing, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right for me. I really am a bit of a nerd at my core, and I love to learn. I love to absorb and consume and just inundate myself with knowledge, what an absolute loser I am. But…
DB: No, not at all!
AE: But sometimes some lessons are not for you. Sometimes you don’t need to learn X in Y moment, and so it’s been interesting for me now where I’m like, oh, this thing is amazing or it’s interesting, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily want to do it or have to do it. It’s not as possible as it was for me two years ago to jump from this thing to this thing because maybe my energy level is not the same, frankly, and I want to give 110%. I don’t want to give 75, so I have to choose with a bit of a, I don’t know, more wisened eye or something like that.
DB: It’s always difficult to say no to exciting things. But you have to listen to yourself, too.
AE: Of course. It’s like coming up as a writer, as a standup, and also just as a young black woman, I think there’s this idea of scarcity mentality and that’s like, oh, I don’t want to say no to a job. I don’t want to ‘this that and the other,’ but it’s like, I think also a lesson for me this year is that’s not true. It’s just actually not true. There’s space for me. There’s space for all of us, and if something’s not meant for me, there’s a reason. It has nothing to do with my worth or my talent. I also am allowed to turn off my phone on the weekend, and I am allowed to take a break.
DB: Of course, as is everybody.
AE: [laughs] But I had to learn it!
DB: It’s a hard thing to learn.
AE: It’s a hard thing to learn.
DB: We are coming up on the end of our time together, but before we go, I wanted to ask one question: Because you’ve had so many wonderfully written, wonderfully expressive, iconic characters this year, I had to ask, would Sydney from The Bear ever consider joining PJ and Josie’s fight club?
AE: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. She would honestly be like, “Josie, you need a mentor, and it’s not me because you’re so deranged. You need therapy and you need a mentor.” Sydney would be stressed. That poor girl.
DB: [laughs] That poor girl.
AE: And April would throw up. It’s a lot of young stressed women. [laughs] It’s a lot of stressed women. Then Janet, who’s like a complete pathological liar, she’s like, my heart rate is zero.
DB: I don’t think Janet would last very long if she somehow lied her way into Sydney’s job.
AE: [laughs] No, but I think Janet could do really well in the fight club, and that’s not good. [laughs]
DB: [laughs] Ayo, thank you so much for joining us today. You’re an absolute delight.
AE: Thank you, Dan. Thanks so much. Have a great day!
The Bear seasons one and two are currently available to stream on Hulu, Bottoms can be streamed on MGM+ or rented from Prime Video, Theater Camp is available to stream on Hulu or rented from Prime Video, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is available to stream on Paramount+.