When you meet Anna Diop, the ebullient star of writer/director Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” you notice how closely her fearlessness as an actor aligns with the film’s potent protagonist. In Jusu’s debut feature, Diop plays the determined, hardworking Aisha. Living in New York City as an undocumented Senegalese emigrant, Aisha takes a high-paying job as a nanny for an affluent white Manhattan family in the hopes of saving enough money to bring her young son over to America.
Her employers—the corporate manager Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and the exploitative photojournalist Adam (Morgan Spector)—bring her on to care for their daughter Rose. The gig begins well enough but soon unravels under the guise of micro and major aggressions and other interpersonal foibles. While Aisha catches the eye of a charming doorman named Malik (Sinqua Walls), she barely enjoys his caring attention before she begins experiencing hallucinations. And her son, mysteriously, rarely appears on her video chats with people back home. Is she overreacting? Is it all in her head? Or is some darker presence afflicting her?
In this smart and agile horror flick, bursting with West African folklore, lush lighting, erupting soundscapes, and themes of alienation and othering, Diop shoulders the psychic shocks of a woman and mother pushed to the edge of something unrecognizable. Diop plays Aisha with sensitivity and force, vulnerability yet guardedness, and an unmistakable brightness that invites anxiety when circumstances pull her physically back down to earth. It’s a palpable performance—the heartbeat of Jusu’s bold, uncompromising vision—that is nothing short of a revelation.
During the Chicago International Film Festival, where she received the festival’s Rising Star Award, Anna Diop met with RogerEbert.com to discuss how she prepared for the role of Aisha, finding chemistry with co-star Sinqua Walls, and filming those terrifying water scenes.
I was aware of Nikyatu Jusu about a year before I even read the script. I was aware of her because of “Suicide by Sunlight,” which is a short she did. And I was like: Who is this filmmaker? Because the story was original and it was bold and it was elevated, and I had been longing to find someone like that to work with. When “Nanny” was greenlit, they were looking to cast Aisha, so we finally met over Zoom and I read the date scene with Malik. Nikyatu, she plays her cards really close, so she didn’t tell me that she liked me. I didn’t know that I got the role for weeks. She had me do a series of chemistry reads, but still didn’t give me the role. I finally landed the role a few weeks after that, after that Zoom meeting with her and our casting director Kim Coleman.
Thankfully me and Sinqua immediately had so much chemistry, even over Zoom. So it was very obvious that it was going to be him. I was nervous to finally meet him in person. I was like: Is it gonna still work in person? Will it still translate? Thankfully, it did. He got to New York, and I took him out to dinner so I could just meet him and chat with him before we started filming, and that was really all the time we had. After that we just went into it.
It was peak pandemic. So it was this looming threat over production the whole time because we were such a small-budget film. So any positive case in the red zone would’ve crippled us. We were just really lucky. The production was 28 days, and every day you get swabbed and tested and you don’t want to be the one. It was stressful.
Well, I can swim [laughs] and I love the water. And Nikyatu, actually nobody knows this, but she’s a pro swimmer. I think she swam competitively. But during those scenes, the water was freezing. I hate cold water. I hate being cold. Those were miserable, to be honest. But also I was excited about the shots because I knew they were gonna be really stunning and so I just put my head down and got through it. But the water was freezing. We were in a YMCA, and it wasn’t glamorous. It was down and ugly and dirty, but we got it done.