“You kind of have to know (you will succeed)”
Ego Nwodim ’10, now in her second season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, graduated from USC Dornsife with a degree in biological sciences — never doubting she would succeed as an actor.
Back when she was a student at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences majoring in biological sciences, Ego Nwodim wouldn’t be shy about having a little fun in her organic chemistry lab.
She often would break into song, startling her fellow pre-med students.
“Mainly Britney Spears,” she says with a laugh. “My go-to song was ‘I’m a Slave 4U.’” Her classroom cohorts didn’t know it at the time, but Nwodim (pronounced “Woh-dim”; her first name is pronounced “Aye-go”) was dead set on a career as an actor. But she had to make a deal with her mother, a doctor who raised her and her three siblings, and who insisted she go to college while pursuing her dream.
Always a good student growing up, Nwodim gave it a go — but knew acting was her destiny. Hence, her classroom song-and-dance escapades.
“I wasn’t taking that class too seriously, I think,” says Nwodim, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2010. “I was doing well, but I was having fun with it at the same time.”
Nwodim recently reached a height to which all comedic performers aspire: becoming a cast member of Saturday Night Live, one of the most high-profile stages of all for working comedic actors.
Her booking as a featured player on the long-running NBC sketch-comedy show was announced Sept. 21, 2018.
Nwodim is the seventh African American woman to be hired as an SNL cast member.
Knew It as a Kid
Nwodim, who grew up in Baltimore, had known that being on stage was her calling since she was 12.
She felt it in her bones.
“I used to dance, and I loved performing; I started when I was 7,” she says. “Performing in front of an audience is something I really enjoyed. I also did a play when I was 12 and fell in love with (acting).
“I knew I wanted to perform. I found such joy in it. I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
Being the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant and a first-generation United States citizen, Nwodim had some convincing to do.
“As an immigrant, my mother just wanted her children to be stable and successful,” she says. “And when you say you want to pursue a career in acting, nothing about that sounds stable, and the process of achieving success as an actor is incredibly unlikely.”
And yet, Nwodim’s mother was supportive.
“Go all out and don’t give up,” Nwodim recalls her mother telling her. “You’ve got this.”
Los Angeles Bound
Nwodim attended Eastern Technical High School in Essex, Maryland, near Baltimore. By the time she was a junior, she knew she had to get the best grades possible to make it into the university of her choice.
And she knew she had to live in or near Los Angeles to become a successful actor. She worked hard to boost her grades during her senior year in high school, which gave her a better shot at being accepted to an L.A. university.
And she was.
“I kind of made a deal with my family that if they let me go to college across the country, I would go to college and major in biology as a premed student,” Nwodim says. “I remember thinking I wanted to go to UCLA. I went to visit and thought, ‘This campus is huge!’”
A college guide noted that USC had out-of-state enrollment of 40 percent.
“That appealed to me,” Nwodim says. “Having to move across the country, I wanted to be part of that 40 percent so it would be easier to make friends.”
Moving far from home, Nwodim says, made her grow up quickly.
Path to Laughter
At USC, Nwodim minored in business and sociology, with an emphasis on social welfare.
“My interests are kind of all over the place,” she says. She started taking dramatic acting classes off campus when she was a senior. Over the course of a year or two, she got a commercial agent and a manager.
“To be able to make people laugh is such a gift.”
Comedy, at first, wasn’t on Nwodim’s radar.
“(My reps) told me, based on my energy, I should consider taking improv classes,” Nwodim says. “They were really popular at the time. But I didn’t really want to because I’m stubborn. I didn’t just want to do something because it was popular.
“In fact, I refused to do it for a year and a half. I finally caved and told them I would take Improv 101. But I fell in love with the class, and that’s how I discovered comedy as a viable path for me.”
Nwodim knew comedy was her destiny after she made a character reel — a short demo video of her portraying different characters — and showed it to her USC friends, who knew she had come out of the acting closet.
“They told me, ‘This is the most ‘you’ thing I’ve ever seen you do,’” Nwodim recalls. “And I thought, this is me. It’s kind of cool to do the thing that’s you.”
Deciding to pursue a career in comedy, Nwodim took more classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A. She became a regular cast member and also performed her one-woman show, Great Black Women … and Then There’s Me.
Nwodim was named one of the New Faces at the 2016 Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. Supporting roles on television include Law & Order, True Crime: The Menendez Murders, 2 Broke Girls and Living Biblically. She has also made several guest appearances on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!
And now, Nwodim’s on the big stage at SNL (her acclaimed skits include the racy “Thirsty Cops,” about two female cops hitting on a handsome man played by Seth Meyers.)
Comedy and Happiness
Nwodim recalls a professor at USC whose words stuck with her.
“She taught a communication class,” Nwodim says. “One day she told me, ‘You’re not cynical.’ And that’s really an important thing to carry through life.’”
It’s this positive, can’t-fail mindset that has taken Nwodim far in her successful career as a working actor. And she’s just getting started.
“You kind of have to know (you will succeed),” Nwodim says of professional acting. “Some of the people who don’t think they’ll make it do. But for me, I just kind of knew for sure that it was going to work out.
“That’s a big part of pursuing it. I just knew that, against all odds, things were going to work out. It was nice knowing I had a college degree, but I can’t imagine a world in which I would have actually gone to medical school.”
Nwodim finds a direct link between happiness and being a comedic performer.
“It’s really important for me to do work — whatever work I’m doing — that adds real value to society, or impacts people’s lives for the better,” she says. “What I really think is great about comedy, and why I’m so fulfilled by performing comedy, is that it certainly brings joy to people while at the same time illuminating social issues.
“And to be able to make people laugh is such a gift,” Nwodim adds. “Having purpose like that, in turn, impacts my happiness. There’s kind of a synergy going on there. I get to make people laugh, and that helps me feel fulfilled because I’m adding something to people’s lives that makes them feel joyful.
“Comedy is just a very cool thing.”
By Greg Hardesty