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Exclusive Interview with Legends’ Sundra Oakley

Photo Credit: Lesley Bryce.
Photo Credit: Lesley Bryce.

Sundra Oakley has pursued a career in acting since she found her vocation at the age of 13 or 14.  She has guest starred on many shows over the years including LOST, Touch, Days of Our Lives, CSI: Miami, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Sex and the City.  She has a background in dance and trains in martial arts.  Some may best know her from her 2006 appearance on Survivor.

Sundra can now be seen in Legends, which is a TNT production that stars Sean Bean. The first season ran in 2014 and the second season kicked off this past Monday night.  The premise of the show follows a deep cover operative named Martin Odum, who has an uncanny ability to transform himself into a different person for each job.  His own identity comes into question when a mysterious stranger suggests that Martin isn’t who he thinks he is.

We were able to catch up with Sundra this week and she graciously filled us in on herself, her career, her character and her show.

How did you choose acting as a career?

I would have to say that acting found me.  I started off as a dancer as a little girl and I’ve been dancing and taking dancing lessons for as long as I can remember – from at least four years old.  At some point when I was around 12 or 13 – I can’t tell you what the precipitating factor was – but I just had this feeling that I wanted to act.  I had no inkling prior. It wasn’t as though I’d been in a lot of productions I just knew that, one day I decided to be an actress and being a dancer, I always felt like those two disciplines were really linked. It felt really natural.  So I’d say that it really did find me because at one point I thought I was going to be an archeologist or a lawyer. (Laughs).

I guess being an actor; you really get to be those as well, so it’s kind of all packaged into one career!

(Laughs) Exactly!

You get to do everything!  Coolest job ever!  So it sounds almost as if it was a calling for you.

Absolutely, absolutely.  That’s what made it so cool because I think that that was the first time in my life – and again I’m talking 12/13 years old – that I had a knowing, this feeling and it felt really cool because I’d never felt anything like that before.  You know, you’re a kid just going about your business and one day you realize ‘oh wow, that’s what I want to do’ and it just feels really awesome.

And when that happens, it did to me as a kid too, it just feels so right like ‘oh gosh, this is what I’ve been looking for and I didn’t even know I was looking for it’.

Right! (Laughs).

So besides dance, what about your life experience do you think makes you a better actor?

There’s a couple of things I would say, I’m a mother and if that doesn’t shake up your life and give you perspective, I don’t know what else does.  (Laughs).  Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone, but for me parenthood has definitely transformed my work as an actor because you feel things on levels that you never realized you could feel before being a parent. The depths of your feelings have no limits and I would absolutely say that this has colored my life as an actor.

I’ also traveled a lot as a kid and because of that I developed perspective about people, people from different cultures and because of that I consider myself, like my passport, on the front, should instead of saying a country, should say Earth because I’ve always felt that no matter where I would go, that I am a citizen of that place.  I swear that if I could get paid to travel, if I could find out how to make that happen, that would probably be my Nirvana.  So I would say these things in particular, besides being a dancer have really colored and affected my work as an actor and I’m very grateful for those opportunities.

I can definitely see how both of those experiences would help give you greater depth and range.  Particularly the travel, I think the more different people who you get to talk to the better understanding you can have of humanity, period.

One hundred percent! I mean, I’m already a first generation American and came to this planet already with a different perspective. I spent a lot of my years looking back and forth between America and Jamaica so I was already seeing biculturalism and other people and was very aware of that fact.  Coupled with the fact that my mom worked for an airline my whole life. So, I was able to travel extensively because it was easier to say ‘hey, we’re going to this country or that country’ and being in so many airports, in so many different cities and being able to see so many different people and listen to them talk.  In my room growing up I had a map of the world on my wall so when I was brushing my hair and getting ready to go catch the bus I would look at world and say ‘I want to go here, I want to go there, I want to meet and figure out the people who live in this country’.  I got really good grades in geography because of that! (Laughs).

At least until they changed all the borders! Right? (Laughs) Have you found that any of your experiences have hindered you or your career in any way?  Anything you have had to push past, some type of stumbling block or maybe a fence you had to climb?

I will say this, my culture, meaning where my family is from, tends to be a little more on the conservative side.  So for example, for me to say to family members ‘oh, I’m actually going to go to college to study acting’ and not say business or medicine or something more traditional, was met with a few raised eyebrows and a few remarks to my mom of “what? She’s going to college to study what?’  (Laughs).  You know, it’s not something they think that you pay money to go study at the university level and I think I was probably more reserved and I had to learn how to not give a damn and just be me.  Not being apologetic about it either – that was something I really did have to learn to get over and I think it’s only perhaps in the last few years that I’ve found myself thinking about that more and you know, it’s just a part of your culture.  Meaning that when you come from a culture that tends to be a little bit more conservative and here you come with your Bohemian nature that comes just bubbling out of you that I had to just get past that.  I think it’s a nice evolution.  It’s something that I’m proud that I’ve been able to grow past.

I think that’s a great example for other girls, other women with perhaps similar backgrounds to show them that hey look, you can be yourself and you can be proud of who you are.

I try to say that to, not just young girls from where I’m from, but young girls everywhere.  Especially if you come from a culture that kind of expects you to be a certain way, or not express yourself in certain ways, you know, it’s harder especially when everyone around you is like that.  I’ve come to realize that I think I always had a little fire in me that always wanted to come out. I kind of suppressed that for a long time and thank God I had just enough stubbornness to not hide behind what was expected of me and that’s how I was able to become a creative being.

That’s a great answer and a great example for other people, women and girls in particular of achieving success by being yourself, by not necessarily bending to what your culture or society expects of you.

If it can help somebody else, then I feel that I’ve done my part! Who wants to spend decades keeping yourself repressed, life’s too damn short for that, you know?

That’s exactly right, life’s not…I just read this today…life is not a dress rehearsal.

Yup, you’re set to go out on that stage…5, 6, 7, and 8 – go!

So, I know you are trained in martial arts.  Is this something that grew out of your love for dance or did you become interested in it completely separate from dance?

I was drawn to martial arts because I was a dancer.  It resonated with me since I fancy myself a bit of a warrior spirit so that element (of beautiful fighting) is something that got my juices flowing.  It’s martial, which is fight and it can be elegant, it can be bawdy and it can be raw.  So I think that those elements just really spoke to me.  It’s funny, when I moved here, I wasn’t looking to do it, I was looking for a school for my son and I stumbled upon the school that I still take classes at and thought ‘yeah, I’ll take class too’.  Now I can’t imagine my life without it.

It really is beautiful, the movements, the katas are so beautiful when they’re executed well.

Yeah, even when it’s rough and aggressive, it is still beautiful, still art.

Have you been able to utilize, harness some of the aggression and skill to attack a role?

Yeah, actually, I use my martial arts mentality for life, which is why I believe so much in studying martial arts.  Let’s face it; the fact of the matter is that the majority of us will never be in a situation where we have to fight.  Whether it’s a small fight that we have to break up or a larger fight where we have to protect somebody we love.  The majority of us will NEVER be in that situation – knock on wood.  However, every time I go and train, I see my training floor as a metaphor for life.  It’s not just about kicking and punching and let me lose some weight so I look good – yeah, those things will happen, however there’s so much more at play.  When I step out on that floor to train, when I salute – when I’m honoring what I’m about to do and the information that is going to come to me, that I’m going to take in.  It’s a metaphor for life. 

There are days when I don’t want to wake up and leave the bed to go train.  It would feel so good to go back under the covers and sleep but then where does my good Kung Fu, which means hard work and skill, where does that come in?  Sometimes you have to do the things that you don’t want to do in order to get to the places where you want to be.  So the Kung Fu starts from that moment where you decide that you’re not going to stay in the bed, you’re going to get your butt up and get out and train.  Those are usually when I have my best classes because I know that there was something there for me to learn. 

Sometimes there are days when I am training and there are people maybe I just don’t want to be partnered with that day.  Maybe they’re annoying me for some reason.  Usually that’s when I say ‘ok that means I need to be their partner because there is something here that I need to learn, something that I need to tackle, or something that I need to overcome. It’s not that person, if they’re annoying me, they don’t even know that they’re annoying me, but I need to learn something so it’s up to me to not let ego get in charge and instead say, ‘OK what can I learn from this?’ So that I’m not held hostage by this feeling that’s keeping me in a place that doesn’t feel so good.  So, yeah, I use martial arts for everything in my life, of course meaning when I tackle a role, I’m going to put the work in before getting to set.

I know that Legends’ second season premiered Monday (11/2/15) on TNT.  Congratulations, by the way.  Is there anything that you’d like to share with us about your character, anything you can share?

Well, my character is a wife. She is a mother and she is very proud of and protective of her family.  She’s not going to let even unfortunate circumstances tear that apart.  I can say that much at this time.

I can already tell that you and Nisco share at least one trait with each other, that being a strong bond with family.  Does that resonate with you when you think about her?

Absolutely! Your family is a precious jewel, not to wax too poetic, but it is something sacred and you don’t just give up on your family.  That’s how I feel with my own family.  There are times you have to protect what’s there, you know and here’s where I’m going to use my mama bear reference. You know, if your family, if your child is ever really threatened you can see yourself turning into a wild beast if need be.  When you have that kind of love for somebody, your child or your spouse, you can be surprised at the depth that you will go to not let anybody hurt them.

Can you tell us if we’re going to be seeing Nisco (Rice) often this season?

Well, I guess all I can say is we shall see. (Laughs)

Legends is being presented in a ten episode per season format, something that’s more common in the UK than in the US.  How do you like the format as an actor?

I love it because I feel that it’s different and that to be different can be good.  This is such a great team, the writers, the directors and the showrunner, they are just on point and you felt all along like you were in good hands which is amazing when you’re working on a project and you feel like everyone is on their A game.  That is such a cool feeling.  All of us have at one time or another been on a production and on sets where you all kind of look at each other and go “Okay, yeah, all right”.  You put your big girl pants on and just forge ahead.  But to be on something where you felt so excited because you just read the script and you got excited and then you get on set and everybody knows what’s happening and what needs to be done.  You relish that because you’re all part of the whole.  When people do their jobs and they’re good at it, it just makes things go so much smoother.

It really sounds like there’s a great atmosphere on set, an atmosphere that an actor could flourish in.

It is. It just makes you feel like you can come in and do your job and somebody has your back.

So I don’t think you got to work too much directly with Sean Bean.  I’ve always thought of him as a consummate professional.  Does someone at that level enhance the overall production?

I did not get to work with him personally storyline wise, but we ran into each other on set.  I went to set once to watch and I was getting some lessons from his dialect coach.  You see him speaking Russian with his teacher and I have this fascination with speaking with a Russian accent so I practiced with her.  You could see his, his focus. To be around that kind of energy is very inspiring as an actor and to be around that kind of greatness well you just pinch yourself and go ‘thank you acting gods for putting me in this position’.

The show has a really great feel and is quite gripping.

I love gritty! I find beauty in gritty and that’s when I was watching Monday’s episode.  You know you see things on paper, but you never know how it’s going to actually turn out when it gets to the screen.  I became friends with quite a few of my co-stars and you know we were all saying ‘It’s good! It looks really good!’

I never really gave that a lot of thought, but you wouldn’t really know what the end product looks like until the audience does.

Yeah, I mean, you know – that’s why I’m very forgiving when you hear stories all the time of ‘oh this movie bombed and how could this person choose this role’ but you never know.  When you’re reading black ink on white pages, you never know how it’s going to transfer.  You never know.  So I never put down anybody for making a decision because you never know how it’s going to look.  I can tell you this though, that when we were filming, I had this feeling that it was going to look really damn cool just because of the hands that we were in so I’m glad that it actually exceeded my expectations.

It’s interesting to listen to you talk about what enhances your experiences on set in terms of allowing you to get the most out of your art and give the best performance you can.  This feeling of being supported by your co-workers, of trusting the managers to have your back and guide you in the right direction, strikes me as universal across all manner of job situations.  It is very cool to realize that as different as all of our careers may be that we all at some point face some of the same hurdles and have some of the same positive experiences.

That is really pretty cool.

Right?  So, Survivor (laughter), what…how, why did you decide to do that show?

That was another instance of something finding me.  I for sure was not looking for it.  I was approached…I was in an airport in Kansas City at a gate waiting to come back to LA and I was in a really quiet terminal and I was talking really loudly on my phone.  I think I was talking to my Aunt and she was telling me a joke that had me falling over in my seat.  This woman comes up to me and asks ‘are you going on the LA flight?’  I said ‘yeah’ but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘why are you asking me that’.  She says ‘oh, will you come talk to me once we get up in the air?’ and I said ‘sure, okay.’

So we’re in flight and at first I wasn’t going to go, but then I thought ‘no, she asked me and I’m going to look really stupid if she walks by and I haven’t gone to her’.  So I go to her and she says ‘hey my friend is the assistant doing casting for Survivor’ and I immediately think ‘no, no, no, no, I’m a real actor, I don’t do that’ but then I remembered someone in my life telling me recently to keep saying yes, Sundra keep saying yes because you never know, just keep saying yes. So I finally say, ‘OK, here’s my number, you can give it to your friend’, thinking that she would probably forget about me. 

Of course, then she called me and spoke to me over the phone, and I was still very hesitant but still trying to be nice. She at one point mentioned doing a video and I’m like, ‘hell no, that’s way too much work for something that I’m don’t even care about.  I couldn’t see me getting a friend to come video tape me, edit it, put it in the format that they were requesting and then send it over to them.  That was just way too much work for me. It just so ended up that on the day she needed I had an audition that was literally just 5 minutes from her – on the complete opposite side of town from where I lived.   What I find hilarious is that I had never been to that casting place before and I haven’t been back there since.

So, you know how there are no accidents in life, I just think that it was meant to be.  At the time I remember saying to myself and praying ‘God I just need something to shake up my life right now.  I feel like I’m in a rut and I just need something to make me feel alive’.  Who would have thought it would come in that package?

Well, you know, when we pray, we actually always get what we pray for, just not always in the package we’re expecting.

Ah, there you go – you said it.  I think that one of our failings as humans is that we think we know how things are supposed to arrive for us. That’s the human ego and we have to learn to surrender, to be open to seeing that the gifts may come in ways that we never expected.  When I think about it, most of the great things in my life have come to me in ways that I never expected. So I really try to make conscious effort to be very open and humble when I ask/pray for something and not be blinded by how I think it should come.

So, when you finally got out there, did you ultimately have fun?  I mean I know you guys are there to work, but was there also time for fun?

(Laughs).  Fun is an interesting word to use when you’re starving!  Oh my goodness, I would put myself to sleep at night by imagining I was eating a turkey burger, a fat burger.  That’s how I would go to sleep.  I don’t know if that was more torture, but I would envision a turkey burger (laughs) and that’s what finally made me go to sleep because you are just so hungry.  And you’re sleeping on the ground, and it’s hard and it’s cold and it’s wet and you haven’t showered and in our tent we had rats that would like run past our heads while we were sleeping like sardines.  It was crazy.

Wow, so good times! (Laughs).

‘I left LA for this?!’ (Laughs) it was rough, but I am so appreciative of that time.  I’m honestly appreciative of every moment because I remembered that I had prayed for something to make me feel alive and that definitely made me feel alive.  Just something as simple as looking at sunsets – as syrupy as that may sound – I thought ‘now I understand why there are thousands of images of sunsets’.  Because you look at one and you think ‘this is gorgeous’ and you look at another one the next day and think ‘OMG, this is amazing’.  You end up gaining such an appreciation of these simple things, because you are stripped of everything – electricity, modern comfort – there is nothing that they give to you to make your life better or easier. It’s real, I mean it. Is. Real. I remember the first time I saw toilet paper after 38 days I felt like a caveman who had come to modern-day times and was like ‘oh, wow. Oh man, toilet paper’.  We were all like that; you literally look at toilet paper as a miracle.  I remember the first time I saw a mirror, like the caveman analogy, I looked at my face for so long, studying my face as if I’d never seen it.  Same thing about brushing your teeth after 38 days without it, I think I brushed my teeth for 10 minutes straight. (Laughs).

The things that we take for granted, right?

That’s what I got out of this. I always hope the people who do it take away from there. Now mind you, I didn’t go on there to get noticed.  I didn’t go on there thinking ‘this will be my ticket for somebody to notice me’ in fact; I was more worried that it might work against me.  At the time I, because of where I was at that point in my life I said ‘Well you know, I need this and I think this is a blessing that has come to me so I’ll risk it.  So, it wasn’t, it’s against my character to go and act crazy for the camera, I wouldn’t do something like that, that’s just not me.  Now, maybe other people have and I know they love colorful characters but that wasn’t me. 

I just took it all in and it made me really appreciate things.  It made me appreciate seeing a shooting star when you’re sitting on the beach at night with nothing else to do and you just go ‘wow….we’re just…..so small in this universe’.  We’re so small and there are so many wonderful things out there.  There’s so much natural beauty that we don’t take the time to appreciate when you’re in a big city where you have billboards, and signs and all these extra distractions that make you forget about the simple things.

Yeah, we’re just rushing through our day-to-day lives trying to get from one obligation to another and we just forget to look around.  I guess I’m not going to say that it particularly sounds fun anymore, but it does sound like a profound personal growth experience in the spiritual sense.  An experience that makes you feel more connected with our earth, more of a citizen of our earth, like you had mentioned earlier.

Yeah, and more connected with myself too.  One of the things I walked away from Survivor with was ‘hey Sundra, you’re so much stronger than you’ve given yourself credit for’.  I’m not just talking about physically stronger, but mentally stronger and emotionally stronger that I hadn’t given myself credit for. So I walked away with all that growth. For that I’ll be eternally grateful for the experience I had on Survivor.  It was the start of rapid growth for me as a human being and as a woman and I prayed for it and it came.

I can see how we could all probably use an experience like that at some point in our lives, maybe not quite extreme, but perhaps given challenges to help us discover our own hidden depths.

Absolutely.  We as human beings get so conditioned to get away from pain or discomfort, especially nowadays when we’re like here take a pill for this and another for that.  You don’t like something or someone, just avoid them.  Don’t talk; don’t address issues, but sometimes you have to face the things that are uncomfortable so that they don’t control your life.  I’m the type of person who, yeah, I have to put myself in these positions where….like for example there was this one time I really wanted to get into running so what did I do?  I entered a half-marathon.  (Laughs) Because I have to, you know, just go for it.  I don’t do middle of the road.

The issue of domestic violence and domestic abuse really just resonates with me – probably because I’ve been there.  What kind of organization(s) are you supporting that are offering help for this?

What I have been supporting is an organization here in LA that is a transitional home for women who have left domestic violence situations with their children.  So they live on the premises with their children and the children go to school on the premises.  I wanted to go to someplace small so that my involvement could actually have a direct impact.  I randomly found them; I don’t even really remember how I found them. It is called the Good Shepherd Shelter and in terms of what I’ve done, I’ve been collecting things to donate to them.  I love that place. 

Every time I’ve visited the nuns have gone… they are always so incredibly genuinely appreciative and grateful for everything that you bring.  They’ve taken me in and shown me the grounds, ‘this is where the families live; this is where the kids go to school’, because you know for safety reasons the children can’t go to local schools.  They also have this little store where women can buy items that have been collected at a discounted rate and that’s always made me feel like – I can help in some little way.  So I’ve collected items and I’ve donated items from my own home and done larger collections that I’m very honored to be able to do and would love to be able to do more. 

I’ve recently been speaking to them about what else I could do, like helping to teach certain skills.  I don’t know if I told you, but I teach sign language to babies and small children – the same sign language I would teach to you, I teach to the babies.  Maybe I’ll go and offer skill, a dance class or a martial arts class.  Maybe offer yoga classes; something to give them a new outlook and to help enrich their lives.  It’s something I would definitely love to do more of.  I’ve found this little organization and I’ve been doing my part and who knows how that can eventually expand.

I don’t want any woman to feel like that and I believe that we have to support each other especially as women because you know, sometimes there’s chips stacked against us for whatever reason. I think if you’ve been in that situation and were able to find your way out of it, then let’s help somebody else.

Yeah, I think it’s important to not have a preconceived notion about who could be floundering in a situation where she’s losing herself and maybe take the risk to reach out to these women and offer them some support.

I know, it’s like do you see her house or do you see her clothes, she’s got it all.  But I know, I’ve been there, you hide it because you almost feel ashamed, you think that people expect more of you.

I would really love to speak more to young girls – just think of a 15-year-old girl, how easy it is to get swayed and stalked. That is why I love seeing when young girls come into the Kung Fu school to train because, and I’m not just talking about how to fight, but it’s the confidence and the sense of how they carry themselves once they start feeling more confident with who they are. They’re able to conduct themselves – hold their bodies in a certain way.  I think that every little girl should be involved in martial arts because when I see what it’s done for me as a woman, I am so grateful, so very grateful.

We’re called Talk Nerdy With Us, so we’d like to know what’s the nerdiest thing you’ve ever done?

Nerdiest thing?  Oh gosh, I’m a big nerd.  This is such a good question, hold on.  What is the nerdiest thing that I have done?  I feel like my whole life has been one series of nerd moves one after another.

Let’s simplify, we can shorten the time span to the last couple of months.  What’s the nerdiest thing you’ve done in the last couple of months?

Is it nerdy enough that I dressed up as Boy George for Halloween?

Yeah, of course! I love Culture Club!

Oh my God – I’ll send a picture.  It was so much fun and it was done so quickly.  You have to see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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