There is an unforgettable moment in the comedy Girls Trip involving a naked Kofi Siriboe that has delighted fans and inspired People magazine to nickname the 23-year-old actor KoFINE. But one person, who loved the movie, says she couldn’t bring herself to appreciate it in quite the same way.
“It was hard for me to watch,” admits Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay, who created Queen Sugar, the OWN drama that gave Siriboe his biggest role to date. “I wanted him to have fun and do all that he could do, but I see him as a serious actor and someone that’s going to be involved in our future black cinema, right? And it’s not just that I’m a prude — which I am, I’ll just say that right off the top — but I was clutching my pearls for the whole movie. And I was laughing while I was clutching them, but I was definitely clutching them. I have a different relationship with him, more like a big sister, so it was hard.”
After his first audition, which was also their first meeting, DuVernay cast Siriboe in the series based on Natalie Baszile’s book about three siblings who inherit their father’s Louisiana sugarcane farm. The Los Angeles native started acting when he was 5 years old, when an agent approached his mother about commercials and modeling work for him and his two brothers, Kwame Boateng and Kwesi Boakye (their different last names pay homage to the Ghanian Ashanti tradition). On Queen Sugar, Siriboe plays the youngest sibling, Ralph Angel Bordelon. “It’s challenging to think of an actor his age and in his generation that can do the hard-core dark drama of Ralph Angel and the kind of light rom-com and pull it all off and still look sexy and feel like a thinking person,” DuVernay said. “That’s the magic of him between these two parts. We have him crying a lot on Queen Sugar, you know? So at least a brother got to laugh and enjoy himself and I’m grateful for that.”
DuVernay says she was struck by Siriboe’s seriousness and depth when she met him at age 21. “You have a lot of young actors who come in the room and they’re just kind of feeling the moment and the Hollywood-ness of it,” she said. “He came in very prepared and connected to the material. But I don’t just cast people based on the talent. I cast them based on who they are. It’s really based on the chemistry and a certain spirit the person has, and he is a very smart, sweet spirit. He’s older than his years. There’s a wisdom there that’s innate and comes across in the choices he makes as Ralph Angel.”
At the outset of the series, Ralph Angel had just served four years in prison and was figuring out how he would support his son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), when his father unexpectedly dies and leaves his farm to him and his sisters. As the series has progressed, Ralph Angel reconciled with Blue’s mother, Darla (Bianca Lawson), leading to the romantic marriage proposal in tonight’s episode. But as sweet and compassionate as their romance has been, no relationship on Queen Sugar is more open and loving than the one between Ralph Angel and his 5-year-old son, Blue.
“The way I see it in my head, they are the true love story of Queen Sugar,” DuVernay said. “Because of Kofi and Ethan’s performances, we are hoping to show a love that is rarely seen in American filmed art. This is the elongated black father-son relationship, delving into the falsehoods of formerly incarcerated people and delving into an exploration of identity. It’s a very complex role — this formerly incarcerated man with very open progressive ideas allowing his son to be who he wants to be. Kofi is the one who makes it all believable. It’s his ability to balance the light and the dark spaces of the character.”
During a nearly hour-long phone conversation from New Orleans, where he was about to embark on his last week of work on the second season of Queen Sugar, Siriboe spoke with Vulture about growing up in show business, his dramatic weight-loss journey, and what the last two years have been like working on TV and landing a part in Girls Trip.
What were your early years like? Did you like being in show business as a young boy?
I was always the awkward middle brother, at least, in my head. I was chubby, and I just wasn’t the one who booked the most jobs. But as I got older, I realized there were a lot of things that I had to work on identity-wise just to be comfortable enough to be who I thought I could be in the industry, and just for myself personally. So around 16, 17, I started to make a transition. I was home-schooled so I didn’t go to a regular high school. I spent a lot of that time building the initial foundation of who I thought I was, and discovering that identity. I started to really lose weight. I went off to New York to travel for the first time away from my parents and I signed with Wilhelmina Models. And while I was in New York, discovering and emerging and becoming, I booked a MTV show called Awkward, which brought me back to L.A. So I spent a year in L.A. and I got my first apartment. I lived with my friend Kiersey Clemons. She was on Dope and a bunch of great shows like Transparent. While I was on Awkward, I booked myself on Kicks, which I starred in with Mahershala Ali. That was my first leading role, a role that was different than myself — similar but very different. Kicks was the one. Once I did Kicks, I was like, You know what, I can do this! This is my time! I’m gonna be the best actor in the world, who’s Denzel? [Laughs.] I just had this surge of confidence because I had worked my whole life to get to the point where I could even be doing a role like Flaco on Kicks.
When did you start thinking about acting as your career, not just something you liked doing as a child?
Around that 16- to 17-year-old age range. It was always fun. It was always a hobby until things get real, you know? Real meaning, when you think it’s getting real. You’re about to turn 18 and you have to make a decision: Is it college? Is it basketball? What do I want to do? I’m not really good at multitasking. So whatever I choose, there is no plan B. At that age, where I decided to really get in the gym and take control of my body, which I think had a lot to do with my identity and emotional state. I got my first girlfriend at 17, which was also a life-changing event for me. So it was the blend of personal and professional enhancing each other. The more I felt I was doing personally, the more I ended up doing professionally. The more I did professionally, the more I got to dive into myself personally.
Was there a moment where you knew you wanted to focus on acting as opposed to, say, modeling?
It’s never been a love for acting alone. I love storytelling and I love visual communication. I’m really into photography. I also love music. I love fashion. So, as a model, I always felt there was an element missing. I knew there was. I’ve never been on a TV show the way I’ve been on a TV show these last two years. So to be on set all day with all these different creatives that make the magic — actors get all the glory, but I really love the world and how it all comes together before it even gets in the hands of the actors. I really fell in love with storytelling and how much you can affect by getting into people’s hearts and souls.
When you say you started going to the gym to take control of your body, how much weight loss are you talking about?
I lost like 50 pounds. I wasn’t Fat Albert or The Nutty Professor but at the same time if you believe you are in your head, then you are. So I wouldn’t swim without my shirt on at boys’ swimming parties. It was a big complex for me. To this day, my body is one of my main things I try and stay on top of. When you grow up with something, it becomes a bigger monster than it ever has to be. So in those formative years, just me growing up with the complex that I was always chubby, especially in Hollywood where it’s concentrated that much more. I think a lot of that had to do with the pressures I put on myself.
That teenage boy could never have imagined taking his clothes off on Girls Trip then.
Come on, now! NEVER! When I was doing Girls Trip, I was like, Kofi, can you just take a second to realize what’s happening right now? You would have never imagined this. And if I did, it was everything I was working towards, just to be comfortable enough to do that on set. Forget the millions of people who are gonna watch it. It’s just doing it in front of Jada and Queen and Regina and Malcolm and all the people there on the crew. That’s the part that’s like, Wow, if I can get past this, everything that comes with it, God, you got me, period.
What kind of feedback are you getting? What are people saying to you now?
Oh, you know what they’re saying. [Laughs.] All they talk about are grapefruits and then black booties [Laughs.] Honestly, I try my best to take it in but not hold onto it too long, just keep it all for fun’s sake. Just because it’s so much. It’s a lot of different people saying all kinds of different things. Some of them are jokes and some people sound so serious and it’s just a lot. I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for that.
Was working on the movie as much fun as it is to watch it?
Oh, man. It was just as fun shooting it. That’s how we knew that the reaction would be like that, if we’re laughing in between takes and trying to make sure we don’t ruin takes. We were dying. And for me, it was a shock because Queen Sugar is my first introduction into this world in a big way. Working with Jada Pinkett on the level that we worked with — we were very intimate with each other on set. So it’s like, How am I supposed to do this?
But Ralph Angel and Darla (Bianca Lawson) have had steamy scenes. You’ve had practice on Queen Sugar.
I’ve been watching Jada my entire life, you know? Set It Off. If me and my friends had posters, Jada Pinkett would be on our wall. So that was probably my biggest thing — adjusting to that in my mind, that I’m supposed to be here. And then being embraced by people like Queen and Jada and Regina, and Larenz Tate. Love Jones is the staple. For somebody like me who likes poetry, those films have a special place in my heart. So I just really wanted to do justice to the film. Being present and fully there and fully prepared for anything was my goal.
Let’s back up to Queen Sugar. Tell me how you ended up working for Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey.
I was really hyped-up when I finished Kicks in October 2014. I was up for a part in Lee Daniels’s Star and a few other films kept creeping in and creeping out. And then Ralph Angel came through my email. And I was just, this is not real. As a black actor in this industry, when you get a character description for exactly what you are — 20 to 25, African-American, sensitive, you’re like, “This is a dream come true. Who’s making this project?” And then you find out it’s Ava and Oprah. And it’s like, Wait, wait, wait, Ava’s doing television? It was an unbelievable project that could not be real. I go in and meet Aisha Coley, the casting director, and she immediately says I have to meet Ava. I was running around on all these other projects, but I really wanted to do Ralphie. So the next thing you know, other things fell through and I meet Ava. Literally, we hit it off. I looked at it as another audition. I wasn’t expecting anything different. I was extremely connected to the character but, at this point, you just go into autopilot mode and give everything your all. Once I met Ava, it just fell right into place. I didn’t have to read seven times or eight times. I was up for Snowfall, John Singleton’s show. It was between me and Damson [Idris] at that point. I read nine times. Shout out to Damson! I wanted Snowfall, but it fell through. Every single project that fell through made the process of Queen Sugar that much more smooth. With Ava, it was just an immediate yes.
What else besides Ralph Angel’s age and sensitivity drew you to the role?
There was just something about how it was written. When it comes to acting, you have to read in between the blanks because everything’s not there. You get the script, you see the sides, and then you’re like, Well, who is this person and why are they are saying what they’re saying? And I remember the first time we see Ralph Angel, the description was: this guy is weary in the eyes and he’s wearing a weight. He’s at his lowest point. We don’t get to see why he’s at his lowest point. He’s just already there. So immediately you’re like, Who the hell is this guy and why is he sitting out here with this kid? Holy shit, is he about to rob a liquor store? Who is this kid? And then next thing you see is his father and you realize he has sisters and the whole dynamic. I’m just like, What is going on here? I didn’t know the depth of where Ava wanted to take the character. But after obviously getting the role and having conversations with her and her seeing what I brought to the role naturally, there was a very, very just divine aspect to the project where we all knew that we’re not trying to tell cookie-cutter stories, the clichés. Yeah, he’s formerly incarcerated, he has a baby mama and she’s on drugs. But it’s like, These are still people. I also know who Ava and Oprah are and what they represent on and off set. So I could only imagine that if they were in charge of the narrative, the story had to be very important. It’s all about leadership, you know? And then the fact that it was adapted from a book — who doesn’t have the fantasy of being Harry Potter or Edward Cullen? I want to be A Wrinkle in Time. Turning a book into a TV show or a film, it’s an actor’s dream. Now, we’re literally on the books they sell at Barnes & Noble. It’s amazing. It’s so surreal.
This is a very dear topic to Ava and she’s showing us the journey of how this really good guy made the wrong choice. What did you think when you got to the script where we learned Ralph Angel’s father left him the farm for himself?
I started bawling. Like, Oh my god, my dad does love me, he always loved me. [Laughs.] I can’t even tell you what I feel about it. To be completely honest, I haven’t watched a single episode this season. Of course, I’ve shot the episodes, I’m in the episodes. But it’s so close to home for me as a character, as a person. At this point I can’t even differentiate, which is why I need to take some time. Ralph Angel specifically feels like the world is against him. His family loves him, but then it’s like, one foot in, one out? One mistake and I’m back to who you always thought I was. My son is here but I don’t know if I can fully provide for him. I have this dream and ideal for my girl but I don’t know if there’s really solid ground to build it. Our foundation’s a little shaky. Everything for him is a question mark.
Is it hard for you to let him go at the end of the day?
It’s not easy to let go of him. Honestly, I do give a lot to Ralph Angel, but then I also take a lot from Ralph Angel because Ralph Angel is in that concentrated space — that space of trying to get over that hill, get over that hump. In my personal life, I’m shooting Queen Sugar season two, but then I feel the weight of Ralph Angel not being accepted by the society he lives in, and then it reminds me as a young black man who feels like I’m living my dream, that whoa, whoa, whoa, there’s still a weight, there’s still a level of responsibility on you. And then it gets merged together because I’m like, Who am I? Like, am I Ralph Angel? Am I Kofi? Who’s speaking to me? It’s a matter of accepting it and acknowledging it. Then you can take whatever you need from it and release it and go to that next place. It’s definitely a learning process as an actor, as a human being. But, again, I thank God I’m working on a character that I don’t mind sharing some of myself with and vice versa, because I could still sleep at night and I know that the character has pride and he’s a good person. He has a strong heart and that alone is inspiring. I feel like that’s what I try and keep with me regardless if I’m filming or not.
You mentioned working with that cute little boy. It’s such a special black father-son story. What does it mean to you to be a part of this narrative about a boy who plays with his doll, Kenya, and his young dad is so loving and accepting about that and about him?
I’m just honored to be able to be a part of that narrative. It’s so important. It’s a topic that is shied away from in entertainment in general, but especially the black community. It taps into hypermasculinity and what that means to a community, especially to these two young men who are young black men in a society where you’re supposed to be strong. You have to be tough. As many black men wear their heart on their sleeves, they still try and hide it. Ralph Angel is giving space to Blue, his young son who’s 5, who’s still discovering himself, still emerging. Ralph Angel clearly has lived enough life to understand whoever you are you will be, and it’s not about defining that at an early age but it’s just about giving room for that to unfold. It’s beautiful, you know. It’s very needed, and whether you think it’s reality or hyperreality, I think it’s a necessary reality that needs to be shown and broadcast to a world.
This season you had a very special scene with actor Brian Michael Smith, who plays an old transgender friend of Ralph Angel’s. They talk about how accepting Ralph Angel was of Toine in childhood and how he wants to be the same for Blue. It’s one of the best scenes of the season.
Who doesn’t want that, you know?
Right? And I mean the hypermasculinity, it goes a lot of ways ’cause it’s one thing for what you expect men to act like that because they’re men. But then it’s like they even treat women a certain way based off of how they think they’re supposed to act as a man. So, that can be a romantic relationship or it could be a sister. I think the way siblings interact has a lot to do with how society views male/female. And it has a lot to do with parents — how men and fathers interact and how mothers and daughters interact and vice versa. There’s a lot of questions in that whole arena, but it’s very nice to be able to tap on it with somebody as innocent as Blue who’s just living his truth and not giving a damn about who cares.
Let’s talk about your work with Bianca Lawson and that Ralph Angel proposal we just saw. So romantic!
Ohhhh! I love me some Bianca, man. Her father, Richard Lawson, is also a really amazing, well-respected actor. He was actually my coach prior to me coming out to film this. Talk about divinity and what not. That is synchronicity to the tenth-fold. Not six months later, I’m playing his daughter’s baby father. But, anyway, Bianca as an individual, we’re both Pisces, so we definitely connect in that way. I feel like she’s very receptive and intuitive, and I just like how grounded she is in everything. Even on set, there could be buildings on fire and Bianca is just like, “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” She always keeps it very balanced, and I think that’s the strength she brings to Darla because a lot of people expect Darla to be the crazy recovering ex-addict, but she brings such a softness and such a vulnerability. That vulnerability is this quiet strength, and that’s her character in real life, and I just think that she merges the two so beautifully.
Tell me about filming that sweet proposal.
It was emotional. It makes me wanna get married in real life. [Laughs.] To see the full-circle story of these lovers and, I mean, human beings. In the first episode, you see them in that parking lot and you think that Ralph Angel’s literally gonna take her out. [Laughs.] Before filming the proposal, I actually went back to watch a little bit of the journey of Ralph Angel and Darla. A lot of this is it’s just the next step. What does he want? What are the intentions? And that’s when I think all the extra little nuances come from it. The passion behind the words. He could have just said, “Look, yo, yo, let’s get married Darla,” get on one knee, and it’s all good, but Ralph Angel wants this so bad. He wants her so bad. He wants a family so bad. He wants to be on the farm. He wants everybody to know he’s an adult. He’s a grown-up. He’s making real strides. All of that passion, sometimes he doesn’t know where to put it, and where better to put it than his girl, the one person who’s been with him through it all. They have Blue, and it’s like, oh my God, this is my forever. You know, this is what forever looks like to me, and I’m sure about that. And once I realized where I was coming from, the words barely came out because I could barely talk. [Laughs.] I was so emotional. I hated filming these last episodes — the way I was treating her and not supporting her. She’s going through so much with her personal journey and then it’s like here I come with all my weight. It just felt so unfair. So I love that he realizes that in whatever time he did, and makes it official.
The opposite of that amazing romantic moment was the previous episode’s big fight between Ralph Angel, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and Nova (Rutina Wesley).
My sisters are coming for me. Lord have mercy, man. Those three weeks were pretty serious, man. We had weeks where we were screaming at each other, crying or kissing each other.
Are you all speaking at the moment?
We survived. We’re all friends right now. Kind of friends. Kind of cool, but not really. [Laughs.] We only got a week left so, so after Friday we’ll be good.
It was intense to watch. Actors have to do those scenes over and over. How did you get through it?
To be completely honest, everybody’s in their own corner. It’s kinda like a boxing fight, you know? And not in a sense of where we wanna take anybody out, but we try and contain that energy. ’Cause, you know, when they say, “All right we need ten minutes to move around cameras and lights,” I don’t want to accidentally let Ralph Angel come out when Ralph Angel isn’t needed. So I might sit in a corner, and not make any eye contact, look into a deep dark hole and just stay where I’m at. Also because I wanna stay where I’m at because if you’ve ever been in a real argument, once you’re in that place, you’re in that place. Once you get out of that place, you’re like, “Where was I?” Like, damn! You look at the time and you’ve been screaming for the last hour and a half. How do you stay in that charged-up place? So we do a scene like that, we stand there, we hug it out, and we make sure we leave all of that energy on set.
Ava’s done something really groundbreaking on this show by hiring only female directors. How has this continuous feminine energy manifested on set for you? Do you feel the difference from other places you’ve worked?
I’ve always put women on a pedestal, so I enjoy being able to work with all these different women on all these different scripts because every script brings a certain life too, you know? One script may be extremely emotional. One script may be extremely upbeat and, because of divinity, everybody fits her script perfectly. I’ve never worked so much in my life. To be able to see all these different women’s perspectives and how they go about it, to me there’s such a level of detail and sensuality and it’s so much more character-driven. It’s always intention-based. Where are these characters coming from? What do we feel? And I feel like that’s just a testament to the nature of a woman. You guys are very maternal. So all of that has really been a gift to me because, again, I’ve never worked as much in my life, and I couldn’t have asked for a better job — to be able to work with all these female directors who have worked on films, television shows. They’re black, white, young, seasoned, it’s just such a variety of fresh energy. I feel like I’m working with different variations of my mom. Your mom is your first love, but then it’s all these variations of what that means and how that feeds into your character.
And, of course, Queen Sugar is a female-heavy show. It’s about these powerful women, and I honestly feel like my job is just to be here to assist that. I don’t in any way want it to be a King Sugar. [Laughs.] Even beyond the directors, the executives are women. So from the lowest of the lowest to the highest of the highest, everybody is represented on every level. It’s such a gift. I don’t think I would have done Girls Trip if I wasn’t working on Queen Sugar. Being around this strong female energy and telling stories from their perspective, Girls Trip was the same thing. That’s a new thing that’s happening in Hollywood because it’s just the emergence of truth. That’s just a real representation of our world, and I’m glad to be a part of it, to be a part of that representation in any way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.