I’m not quite sure how we met. Probably because it was digitally. On the Dutch in LA Facebook Group or through my blog or something. I do remember the first time I met Samba Schutte in real life though. It was in some cafe in Hollywood where Samba was kind enough to meet me to indulge me in my anxiety and answer the many questions I had as a new fellow Dutch O1-B actor in LA. I remember being taken by his kindness. LA can be soul-crushing, consequently turning a lot of sensitive artists into embittered assh– unkind souls. I also remember making a pact with myself to do my best to pay the kindness forward.
But enough about me. As some of you may have deducted from my previous article about what happened to the many actors I met in LA during the 12 years I’ve known them, Samba recently booked a series regular role on an NBC sitcom. In other words: Samba is now likely having his proverbial breakthrough. Make no mistake though: Samba is not an overnight success, as this interview will make clear. I first interviewed Samba in 2013 after I had just moved to LA. We were both struggling actors and though I quickly switched to writing, I always kept following Samba. I ran into him at workshops, Dutch in LA events, attended some of his stand-up shows… He put in the work, and he put it in with a smile. It therefore warms my heart that I can now interview him about his success. Me having just cycled in the rain for 35 minutes in Amsterdam, soaked to the bone marrow, him walking about in sunny Los Angeles.
Samba! You’ve scored a series regular part in Sunnyside from NBC, the network that brought us Friday Night Lights and Parks & Recreation, some of my favorite TV shows of all time. Congrats! When did you hear about the audition? I heard about the audition in February 2019. I had just done a taping of my comedy special that I wanted to send to producers. The theme was my multi-cultural background, being an immigrant, coming to America… And then literally two weeks after, my manager got me an audition for this show. The original breakdown was a Somalian cab driver – but back home he was a heart surgeon – who moved to America on the Green Card Lottery that now wants to become a certified citizen. I was like: okay, that’s a very familiar story.
What was the audition process like? I saw that the casting director was Allison Jones, who’s a huge comedy casting director. She’s done all the big comedies: Bridesmaids, all the Judd Apatow movies, The Office, Parks & Rec… And then I looked at her resumé and saw that she did Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Golden Girls. And it was so funny because when I was growing up in Ethiopia we only had one TV channel, and it would air Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Golden Girls. So I was like: Oh my God! So I went into the office and I was the last actor, and I said: “Hey it’s nice to meet you, there she is, Goddess of Comedy” or whatever, and she was like “oh stop, whatever.” And then I told her the story and then she said “Okay, let’s do the scene first, and then I want to hear all about it.” So I did the scene and everyone laughed and then we talked for like 15 minutes and then she said “Matt, the creator of the show, is gonna love you. We’re calling you back next week.” So I was like “really? Oh my god, oh my god.”
And then a week goes by, no news, so I’m like: “Oh, man.” And then the day before the end of the week I got a call from my manager saying I got a call back. And he said “this is just with the producers, at 7PM.” So Mike Schur was there, creator of The Good Place, Parks & Rec and Brooklyn-99… And Allison helped me out a lot by asking me to tell the producers my story again, which really got them to get to know me before doing the scene. And then I got a callback for a third round, a test with Kal Penn, and that was great because all the same producers are there, they’re filming it for the network, and Kal Penn is there and he was really friendly, really nice.
Had you ever had a callback like that before? No, for a pilot, never. Pilot season is a myth for actors who are not established names. You hear “pilot season, pilot season” but you never get an audition unless you’re lucky. And one for a series regular, you hardly hear of that. Especially if you don’t already have many TV credits. But my manager got me the audition, I guess because it’s really specific. So in that way I was really lucky, I guess.
Did you already feel like there was something different about the audition or script? No, because I’ve gone out for “African” auditions before and most people have one image of Africans and that is the dark-skinned Djimon Hounsou rebel with a typical Wakanda accent or whatever, haha. So was like: Oh man, I hope these guys are more cultured and more aware of how different the races are in Africa. And I was lucky that they were.
When did you hear you got the part and what did that feel like? The network test with Kal Pen went really well and you’re supposed to hear the next day. And then a whole day goes by and I say to my wife: “Let’s forget it, let’s just get wings.” It’s my comfort food. So we’re driving to Glendale, and then my agent calls at eight – and they’re supposed to let you know if you got it or not, regardless – and I pick and he’s like: “Samba…” And he sighs. And I’m like: “noooo…” and he goes: “Congratulations!” And I had to pull over the car because I just lost it, I completely lost it. It was just so surreal. We were crying for ten, fifteen minutes.
What happened in between you knowing and the first day of filming? We were only gonna do the pilot, so you never know, of course, how it’s gonna go. You get the job but you can always be replaced. Because you do a table read and you can already be replaced at the table read, so there’s pressure there. It’s terrifying because there’s people you don’t know sitting at the table read and behind you around the table. All the presidents of the network are there. So you’re reading your part and doing your thing but everyone’s watching you and taking notes. And then you have to leave the room, and they talk about it. And then all the actors are like:”Oh no I have friends who’ve been replaced after a table read dadadada” haha. So then we hear the table read went great, and what was nice is we got to rehearse the scenes a few times before shooting to feel comfortable with one another and the script.
And then it’s time to start filming. What’s that like? There’s pressure every step of the way because every step of the way there’s all these people looking at you. Even on set while you’re filming, there’s always someone from the network behind the monitors, watching what you’re doing. So you always feel under the gun. There’s no time to mess around, you have to do your job the best way possible. But what really comforted me is that they changed the character to an Ethiopian, because of my story. They said: “We love your authenticity and we wanna keep the show as authentic as possible.” So I was like: as long as I keep myself authentic, they can’t do anything. And the casting director helped me, she made me feel comfortable, so I owe her a lot.
So then we filmed it in one week and that was it, boom. Everyone’s like: “That was great, hope I see you in August” and you’re done and that’s it. And you’re like: Wow, I shot a pilot but that could be it. Because so many pilots are shot but only a handful make it. What they do is they film one episode and then they test it on an audience, and if the audience likes it, and the network likes it, then they option a series, they order more episodes. And they take photos of you individually for the poster, so then if the audience doesn’t like you, they can replace you and just Photoshop a new guy in the poster.
That happens a lot at the Upfronts, right? In New York? (The upfronts is a lavish event where networks present their shows to potential advertisers, since networks still depend largely on advertising) Yeah if a pilot gets picked up it goes to the Upfronts. So we filmed in March and found out we got picked up in May. And then Kal Penn went to the Upfronts to present this show and then we knew: okay we’re gonna film at least six episodes but they’re ordering ten, and we start filming in August. So then we were like: Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. And it’s wonderful news to get the pilot but to hear that people liked it and it’s gonna be a series is just a dream come true.
Has it all been like you expected it to be so far? What has been unexpected? First of all everyone’s really nice, because everyone in the crew has already worked together, on The Good Place and other shows. So they know one another and it’s a very smooth machine. And they move very fast. We film very fast. And what’s really fun is a lot of the cast are stand-up comedians, so we get to improvise a lot.
The thing that surprised me is, you know how you’re like: Yeah, I’m a series regular, I have a trailer etc. And yeah, I have a trailer, but I’m never in my trailer. Never. I come in at 6am in the morning, I put my bag in my trailer and boom: off to hair and make-up, boom: get dressed, boom: to rehearsals, boom: start shooting shooting shooting, lunch for maybe half an hour in my trailer, shoot shoot shoot, end of the day.
You don’t have lunch with your peeps? No, I have lunch with my peeps but then I gotta get into the zone and get ready for my next lines. So the trailer thing is, yeah, it’s for my bag.
So how long are your days? The longest day is 12 hours, so 6AM to 6PM but they try to space it out evenly so you don’t have too many long days. And they shoot with three cameras so it moves really fast. And you shoot one episode a week so for example we’re shooting episode five right now, but then every week you also have a table read for the episode that comes in two weeks. You really have to keep track of what’s happening. Your mind is working and doing its thing, but only when you have a day off or when it’s the weekend or something you go: what the hell did I do with that scene? And then most times they send you the lines for next week on the weekend, so you have Saturday and Sunday to prepare. So you don’t really have a weekend. And I’m not complaining because I love it, this is what I’ve been working for. But you have to get your mind into the zone of yeah: boom, work. You have to trust yourself, you have to trust your choices. You try to enjoy the process but it’s work work work work, and then when you get home that’s when it sinks in and you’re like: “Oh my God.”
Tell me about your character a little bit! Hakim is his name and he used to be a cardiothoracic surgeon in Ethiopia, and he had a really good life there. Then he comes to America and he can’t get certified as a doctor so has to start from scratch: be a cab driver so he can become a citizen. Which is very relatable to me because I grew up in Ethiopia and we had a great life there, and then we moved to Holland and I had a great life there as a comedian. Then I moved to America and you have to start from zero, because all your credits don’t really count here. And also I had the O1 visa and I came here and studios here don’t hire actors on the O1 visa. I had auditioned for NBC many times before, and gotten the part and the producers called and were like: “Oh, you don’t have a green card? Sorry.” Twice that happened.
What? Oh my God! But you’re allowed to work! That’s the crazy part. You’re allowed to work, it’s a legit work visa but you need a green card. It’s some stupid rule that’s still there today. So I was bummed out. So I had to wait until I had a green card so I could finally audition. You work so hard to get your O1 visa, and then you’re here and you can’t work. Maybe for indie projects but network TV? Forget about it. But yeah, so Hakim is the heart of the group. There’s a few wild characters but he’s the one who keeps it rational. He’s really sincere and he’s actually in love with America. He loves the culture and he really believes in the American dream. He’s really positive.
Sounds a lot like you. Yeah, I didn’t have to act much because it was really close to who I am. He’s really positive.
I’ve seen some pictures of you doing the first press rounds, what’s that been like? Yeah the first thing we did was the Television Critics Association, which was fun. We had to prep ourselves: they told us what to say and what not to say about the show. Like they didn’t want to mention politics on the show or what’s happening in the country right now, because it’s clickbait. I’m glad we don’t have to because yes, it’s about immigration, but at the end of the day it’s about them trying to become American citizens and be the best versions of themselves. And the TCA is weird because you show up and it’s fancy and you’re all dressed up at the Beverly Hilton. And they take photos of you on the red carpet and everybody’s interviewing you and then you sit in this room where they hold the Golden Globes. And it’s 200 journalists and you are on stage and they’re asking you as many questions as possible and they’re not allowed to clap. They don’t laugh. So it’s a very sterile room. You just have to stay grounded and answer the questions.
So do you get a stylist or anything, or a make-up artist? Because I saw what you were wearing, which was really cute. Thank you, haha. That was the work of me and my wife going shopping.
You don’t even get a budget? Come on. No. The nice thing you do get is you get picked up by a car from your house that drives you to the Beverly Hilton. It was funny to be on our little street here and there’s this huge Bentley and my neighbors are like: who’s this guy? And you know, NBC is doing a lot of publicity for us but right now I’m dressing myself, haha.
Well, you and Aria (Samba’s wife) did well. Haha, thanks.
You’ve spent around eight years in Hollywood now. Have you ever felt like you wanted to give up? Ugh, obviously, there’s times when… First of all there’s the whole O1 visa frustration. You’re like: oh you’re here but you can’t work for a studio, so what can you really audition for? And then when I applied for my green card that took two years to come through so that was really frustrating. So I was like: Oh my God, am I supposed to be here? Am I supposed to do something else? And then I got married and then it’s like: Okay, can I really support us just doing acting? No, so I got a part-time job doing quality control for the subtitles of the Dutch programming at Netflix. So you’re doing that and then trying to act and then by the end of 2018 I was still doing background work just to get some money. And it was hard because you’re seeing your co-actors and friends, and they’re like: “Samba? Background?”
So by the end of last year I was like: man, what’s the only thing I have the power to do now before I give up? So I recorded my stand-up comedy special. I did that February 2 and February 10 I got the audition. And also personally I was diagnozed with vitiligo three years ago, but I’m lucky to say that’s it’s healing, slowly. But when I first heard that I was really worried about my acting career, because I was like: my whole face is gonna turn white and nobody wants to see a spotted black man on TV. So that was also a point where I was like: okay, what am I gonna do now? But I never really gave up. I always knew I was gonna be creative for the rest of life. That I was gonna be involved in the business somehow.
How are the actor friends you’ve met over those years doing? Any stories you can share? Some have left. Some have left LA, you know, because they want to start a family, so they settled down somewhere in the middle of the country. Somewhere were it’s cheaper. Some have chosen a different career, something stable. Some are still in it, but are very fragile right now because nothing’s happening. So they’re on the brink of: What am I doing with my life? So I try to encourage them, you know: Hang in there, believe in yourself. See what else you have to offer; do a film to send to a festival or whatever. You know, stay creative. Like me and my wife were doing a lot of sketches last year because that was all I could do to be creative. And then a few friends have had success, like some of my co-stars of The Tiger Hunter have done a lot of guest stars on TV, a lot of commercial work. But if I look at my close friends here, it’s still the struggle. It’s still: what can I do?
In our previous interview your advice for actors was “Make sure you have enough experience and credits from back home, that you have developed tough skin, a strong sense of who you are. Also accept that it will take time. Don’t be one of those actors who leaves after a year because it didn’t work out. If this is your life passion, then give it a chance to come to life. Be patient, have faith and always work on what you feel you need to develop to be an even better artist. They say it takes 10,000 hours to truly Master a craft: be willing to go the distance my friend.” Anything to add or change? That was a pretty powerful thing. I still very much stand by it. if there’s anything there is to add it’s: be confident in who you are because if you’re here it means you have something to offer. So trust that. There’s always gonna be something you can contribute to, so you have to find that, and when you do, you got the Universe like: Okay, I have something for you.
Watch the first episode of Sunnyside this Thursday September 26th at 930PM at NBC, or through the NBC app and Hulu, and follow @sambaschutte on Instagram for behind the scenes footage and baking videos.