The black-British acting invasion hasn’t slowed, and Cush Jumbo, who popped up in the season premiere of The Good Wife on CBS, is the latest import.
In her native England, Jumbo distinguished herself on the theatrical stage, winning awards and nominations for performances in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the all-female version of Julius Caesar, as well as playing Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For her American television debut on The Good Wife, Jumbo plays attorney Lucca Quinn, who connects with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) while working in the unglamorous, more realistic side of the law known as bond court.
Though she made her Broadway debut in The River alongside Hugh Jackman in 2014, her biggest splash on this side of the pond was in a one-woman play she penned called Josephine and I, about Josephine Baker, which she performed earlier this year at New York City’s Public Theater.
The Root caught up with Jumbo to do the name game, get tabs on her American journey as Lucca Quinn, and see if she and fellow Brits David Oyelowo and Idris Elba are chums.
The Root: Where does your name come from?
Cush Jumbo: Cush is Egyptian. Jumbo is my real name. I was born Jumbo. Jumbo is Nigerian. My dad is Nigerian. My mum is English. They both were very interested in Egyptology and biblical stories, so that’s where they got it from.
TR: Kush is often spelled with a “k” in the U.S.
CJ: In the Bible, it’s spelled with a “c,” but it’s weird because every time I say my name and someone has to write it down, they automatically write it with a “k.” It’s a boy’s name. It’s Noah’s grandson.
TR: How is your American television experience so far?
CJ: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s a really, really different experience. I think on both sides of the pond, there are pros and cons to TV and film, and I think that there are things we can learn from the Americans and things the Americans can probably learn from us when it comes to the acting industry. But the main thing here is everything is just a hell of a lot bigger. The sets are bigger, the casts are bigger, the crews are bigger.
I’ve never done a show before that was going out on TV while I’m still shooting it. We are used to doing much shorter series and then waiting six months until they come out, and kind of completely forgetting what we’ve done and going, “Oh yeah, it’s on TV.” It’s so weird for me to be watching The Good Wife while I’m still shooting The Good Wife.
TR: What do you like about Lucca Quinn?
CJ: She’s very ballsy and she’s very intelligent. I was a big fan of the show before I actually started working on the show, so I know a lot about the characters and their different backstories and the situations they’ve been in before. And it just really fascinated me, this idea that Lucca could be somebody that was a different kind of woman than had been in the show before, somebody who Alicia clicked with because they had similarities in their personalities. So they are also both very driven and very intelligent and they have very challenging attitudes to life; they don’t take things lying down. So it was really interesting to me, the idea of the two of them coming together and working together. She’s a joy to play because she’s full of life and energy and ideas, and I love that.
TR: How did The Good Wife come about for you?
CJ: Robert and Michelle [King, creators of The Good Wife] came to see the Josephine Baker show at the Public and then they offered me a job.
TR: When did you discover Josephine Baker and start writing your one-woman show, Josephine and I?
CJ: The show is about an actress in her 20s in London who is trying to decide between staying in London and accepting a contract for a TV show in New York. I used to watch a lot of old musicals and matinees on Sundays. I was just a weird kid, I guess, who was really into Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. I just loved old musicals.
And they showed Zouzou, and I was just really struck by her because she was the star of the movie, and the only time I’d seen anybody who looked like me in one of those old musicals, they were like a nurse or a maid or a dresser. They were never the star. They never had fur or diamonds on as she did, and the whole cast, you know, were white, [but] nobody seemed to be making anything of the fact that she was brown, and I just thought it was mind-blowing.
I was 8 when I saw that, so I was always really interested in her, but I didn’t write the show until four years ago, when I was doing a series in Scotland. I was quite, uh, resolved to quit acting because I had gotten to a stage where I was unhappy with the work I was doing. I didn’t feel like it was creatively fulfilling anymore … and I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the artistic process.
So I decided that I was going to stop because it was making me very depressed, and I wrote the show during a fringe festival in Camden, back in London, as a kind of farewell to acting. So the idea of the show first came to me, weirdly, because I was going to quit acting, not because I was going to carry on acting, and then it ended up kind of changing my life.
TR: Are you friends with other British actors like David Oyelowo and Idris Elba?
CJ: People ask me that all the time, like there’s a place where we all have tea together or something. [Laughs.] No, I’m not really friends with any of those British actors. Obviously I know of them and we’ve crossed paths, and we’re probably six degrees of separation in terms of who we know, but no, other than the fact that they’re all British, I don’t know them. They are kind of a couple of generations older than me … so all of those people that are doing amazing here, the Idrises and the Davids, I’ve been watching those people and admiring those people for years in the U.K. before they came to America. I would love to know them, so maybe I should have a British tea afternoon.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.