During this awards season, perhaps no film is as explosively relevant and of-the-moment than Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. The film, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, takes aim at gun and gang violence in Chicago’s South Side. We caught up with Anya Engel Adams to talk about her first big role on screen, what she learned from working with Spike Lee, and how this film changed her perspective on humanity.
What was it like being a part of a film that merged drama with farce with satire with elements of a musical?
At first it was a little confusing. I read the script and it was unexpected. I had heard the title before I read the script and I was imagining a dark, edgy crime and violence film. Then I read it and it’s in verse, and dance, music and comedy is included. It was a refreshing surprise that it wasn’t going to be the obvious take on it and it was a more creative way to tell the story.
Were you familiar with Lysistrata before this film and did that help you prepare for the role?
The character of Rasheeda is similar enough to me that I didn’t have to go anywhere crazy to find the character. I did read the play and knew the story beforehand. I just got into a warrior state of mind, a “ride-or-die chick” state of mind. I play Lysistrata’s best friend and I tapped into that “I’ve got your back” mentality.
As an actress, how did filming Chi-Raq stretch you?
It stretched me in a human way more than as an actress. We were going directly into the heart of the community. Right away, we went and met Father Pfleger, he’s a white guy who has had an all-black church in Englewood for 40 years. We went to his services and got a taste of that world. We met the mothers who had lost their kids tragically to gun violence. We were injected directly into what we were making the film about. It was heartbreaking to feel the pain of that community. My eyes were opened to another reality that I’d seen and heard about before, but hadn’t ever been in the mix off.
Working with a director as prolific as Spike Lee, what did you learn from him that you’ll take with you to future projects?
This is my first real project as an actress. I don’t have a huge resume and though I did work with Spike earlier this year, this was a more challenging project. One thing was that I learned how to work with someone who works really fast and knows exactly what he wants. As an artist, you want to take your time and do it again, but with Spike, you don’t have the time to do that. He likes to improvise last minute so you have to be ready for anything. I learned about being more flexible as an actress and getting out of my own “needs” that I need to prepare a certain way or be on set a certain way or read a line a certain way.
The film is an explosive take on gun violence. With today’s social climate being the way it is, how did the film’s meaning take root in your life?
It was a reminder that we are all one. We are all connected in some way. It’s an easy thing to say but being in and around this kind of reality, we were the community. We were filming in the South Side and I met locals there that I still keep in contact with. What I have taken away from all of that is that when there’s a tragedy there, it affects me. It’s my tragedy as well and my heartbreak. Spike Lee’s work is all about bringing that awareness to the masses. It’s an emergency. We can’t neglect this issue and act like it’s not happening. It affects all of us and it’s all of our responsibility. I found a deeper connection to humanity and to people and because of that, I’ve gone back there and spoken in schools and invested my heart into that world.
As this chapter of your artistic life is unfolding, what are your hopes what’s to come next?
I got a little taste of what I want to do and I want to keep rolling with it. I always dreamed of working as an actor so I got to get a taste of what’s that’s like. It confirmed all the things I thought and got me more excited and more hungry to keep going. I want to take all I’ve learned by being around incredible actors and my idols, Sam Jackson and Angela Bassett, and keep moving and keep growing. It was a boost that this is what I’m supposed to be doing and I want to let this just be the beginning.