Actors Malaika Hennie-Hamadi and Hannan Younis have each been working in the Canadian film and television industry for over a decade. Chances are good you have seen their faces in numerous projects. Hennie-Hamadi has appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale and short films like Diaspora, which played TIFF in 2022, and Fresh Meat; while Younis has appeared in The Boys, Ruby and the Well, and comedies such as TallBoyz, The Kids in the Hall, and What We Do in the Shadows to name just a few. Now both women are sharing the spotlight in the wonderful comedy series Bria Mack Gets A Life (read our review from its TIFF 2023 premiere), which debuted on Crave on October 13.
In the show, Hennie-Hamadi plays recent university graduate Bria McFarlane, a young woman forced to find a job and a place to live when her mom decides to move to Florida. Younis plays Black Attack, Bria’s inner hype girl, who is both the angel and misguided devil on the protagonist’s shoulder. As Bria tries to navigate adulthood, including facing the challenges of being a Black woman in a predominantly white office space, she uses her pop culture-filled mind to help make sense of it all.
We sat down with stars Malaika Hennie-Hamadi and Hannan Younis to discuss getting into character, their experience on the female-led set, and getting to live out their inner Raven-Symoné. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Courtney Small: Your characters are so intertwined, you cannot have Black Attack without Bria, but yet you each bring such unique takes to your individual roles. When you were constructing how you were going to portray these characters, how much of it was an individual mindset and how much of it was collaborative from the very beginning.
Malaika Hennie-Hamadi: Good question. I guess the foundation for myself was I know that in my personal life I went through this in my early 20’s. Drawing from that vulnerability, the times trying to figure out what I wanted in life and this career in acting, what did that feel like? So, it was easy to dip into that because I had a lot of experience into what Bria is going through. [In regard to Black Attack], we all have a Black Attack so it was kind of seamless transition in trying to figure out how Bria would act in certain circumstances. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.
Hannan Younis: It did feel like a collaboration, but it seemed organic in how it happened. To be honest, it happened fast. By time we found out we got the parts, by time we shot it, it was all less than two months. I think they were really great at casting; they found a bunch of people who were really authentic to who those characters are. They found a real Afro-Cuban for Rodrigo [played by Manual Rodriguez-Saenz], Leslie Adlam plays the mom and was very authentic to her role, everything felt so real. For my character Black Attack, I used to do a sketch duo where my character was really similar to Black Attack. When I auditioned for the role, I was doing it differently initially and they sent it back and asked if I could go bigger. When I did, I thought, oh my god this is a character I have already been before.
Hennie-Hamadi: I think the casting was one of the biggest things. The casting was so diligent, so careful because if it wasn’t it wouldn’t have worked. The clearly know what they were doing because we had such little time. From the time we actually got our scripts to being on set was like maybe two weeks. So, you can imagine that they picked actors who were so close to the characters who could slip right in once they got the script. Honestly, everyone killed it.
When I was talking to [the showrunner] Sasha Leigh Henry, she mentioned wanting to make a welcoming environment on the set. I know you both have done film and television, so how did working on this particular project compare to other sets you have worked on in the past?
Younis: Aside from the fact that it was the most obviously diverse cast and crew that I have ever played on; the amount of love, from top to bottom, that everybody put into it, everybody wanted it to happen. From the grip to the lighting guy to the actors to the writers, everyone was so supportive. It was the best set I have ever been on. If there were any issues on set, I had no clue.
Hennie-Hamadi: You didn’t know.
Younis: None of that stuff got trickled down. There was no day where I went in and everyone was mad. Nothing. They did their work; they knew how big the show could be. They made us feel so taken care of, in other shows they wouldn’t have given us that time or that space.
Hennie-Hamadi: I totally agree it was a genuine safe space. I think it had to do with the fact that there was a lot of Black women and BIPOC people on set.
Younis: So many Black women! We had a Black woman DOP, director, producer, wardrobe.
Hennie-Hamadi: It was so important that they did that because there is that familiarity, that comfort that we can be ourselves. I go on set and feel I can be my regular Jamaican self without being policed or being told to tone it down. Everyone was very professional, but it felt like a safe space for all of us.
I wanted to ask you about the topic of play. You are not only playing Bria and Black Attack, sometimes you have to play the presidential press secretary, sometimes you are a damsel from the 18th century trying to find a man. What was it like doing the fantasy sequences?
Younis: So fun! I said this to Sasha, but my dream was always to be on a sketch show like a MAD TV or SNL type thing. MAD TV would have been my favourite thing to do, so I told her ‘you let me live out a fantasy of mine.’ We know that Black people are funny, we are funny as hell and so silly, yet every time we see Black women on screen it is never silly. Even when they are funny its in a way that…
Hennie-Hamadi: …there is always trauma attached to it…
Younis: Yeah, it’s like you’re crazy and I [the black woman] am the voice of reason…
Hennie-Hamadi: Everybody calm down…
Younis: To let us to be silly, to let us play, to let us make mistakes so that we didn’t have to be perfect; we could be ignorant at times and had room to just be a human being. That type of play is what really drew me to the show.
Hennie-Hamadi: We can be multifaceted, we can be complex, we can be villainous, it was really nice to have that liberation. I have never done comedy in this way…
Younis: You killed it.
Hennie-Hamadi: Thanks, girl!
Hennie-Hamadi: Watching That’s So Raven as a kid, that was my MAD TV. I was obsessed with MAD TV when I got older, but That’s So Raven…they were little sketches. I never imagined I would be doing something like that, being on set and doing these fantasy departures made me feel like Raven-Symoné. To be all the different sides of myself through Bria. Yes, it’s just Bria and Black Attack but there are so many little intricacies within that itself.
Younis: Sasha wanted to do something where we can talk about the microaggressions, but also win at the end. Let’s have this fantasy to allow us to have the space to show us winning; and not have it be like this trauma porn.
Hennie-Hamadi: Yes, trauma is real, but let’s have more stories like The Last Black Man in San Francisco. That movie, and of course there was some trauma in it, was just about a Black man in San Fransisco.
It had a lot of texture and layers to it.
Hennie-Hamadi: Yes. I was watching it with someone and they said “nothing really happened.” And I’m like isn’t there a beauty in that. It was so sweet.
Younis: They are just living. I felt that way about Moonlight when the father figure just accepted him. We don’t realize how nice it is to see us just happy.
Malaika, you mentioned that you have not done comedy of this magnitude, whereas Hannan you are a comedy veteran; how did those dynamics play out on set? Was there specific advice that was given to help achieve the comedic beats.
Younis: Honestly, they were just like “go.” We would do [the scene] and they would be like “okay cool, now do that but at level 7.” They did not give me specific things to do, but they were really good about being like, lets see what you do; and let’s see what inspires us to do things. They were good about all of us discovering as we go. It was mostly, lets just try it out first, see what it looks like, and go from there.
Hennie-Hamadi: For me, coming from a dramatic background, it was more like give us more. In drama it is about being smaller and more strategic with your eyebrows. In comedy, from what I learned on set, it’s like go crazy. Like [Hannan] said about her audition, and that was the same for me to when I was doing my callback, they said we want you to amp that shit up, go crazy. It was fairly easy to do it because of the environment they created.
One of the universal themes of the show is finding yourself and your place in life. Being in the Canadian film and television industry, do you find yourself where you want to be? Is there still more growth you feel you need? Or do you see yourself still at the beginning of the race trying to catch up?
Hennie-Hamadi: It’s all of that. It’s a whirlwind of emotions. It feels like I am at the beginning because this is my first big thing. I think for both of us it’s our first big thing. Even though we have been acting for 10 years plus, it is such a different space. Also, it feels kind of like a relief. I’ve arrived and feel deserving of this opportunity in my life because I put in so much work. There is always room for growth, you never stop taking classes, never stop workshopping, you keep practicing. I’m learning so many new things in this position being a lead with Hannan. I am excited and nervous, but nerves are good too.
Younis: It feels like the beginning of something, but I also feel like I am in the right place. I’m exactly where I am supposed to be right now. I have never genuinely believed that, but this feels right. I don’t know what will happen next, but what we just did I am so proud of it. Whatever happens next will be great too. I think it was [Issa Rae] who said, “everyday you are a better person than the day before.” It’s true.
We know Black women suffer hugely from impostor syndrome, however, the way they put the show together it really made us feel deserving. I feel like this show has opened doors for other shows. Now we know Black people can be in normal spaces. Every year I would change my idea of what success was and its here and it couldn’t have been better. It wasn’t what I thought before, but the way it happened now, I am [happier] now to be a part of something like this than I could have in any other thing I could have been a part of.
Read Courtney Small’s interview with Bria Mack Gets a Life showrunner Sasha Leigh Henry and his review of the series from TIFF 2023.