When celebrities hang out with Bustle editors, we want to give them the chance to leave their mark. Literally. So we hand them a pen, a piece of paper, a few questions, and ask them to get creative. The rest is up to them. This time, New Amsterdam star Freema Agyeman is leaving her mark in the Bustle Booth.
It took some convincing for New Amsterdam's Freema Agyeman to even read the script for the NBC series, which premiered last week. "I was like, 'Ugh. How many times are we going to do a medical drama?'" she remembers telling her agent. But it won her over that the pilot and the show are based on the memoir of former Bellevue Hospital medical director Dr. Eric Manheimer (who's also an executive producer) and are rooted in real stories of how the bureaucracy of healthcare ends up harming patients.
"I’m just trying to navigate your system here," the British actor says. "A nightmare. And you kind of go, 'But why?'"
It's a question the series asks as well: What exactly is standing between patients and the people in the medical field who are dedicated to taking care of them? And how do we either get around or blow right through those obstacles? "It's people in suits, all this red tape that’s a million miles away, and you don’t understand how that’s affecting you just getting help," Agyeman says.
Agyeman stars in New Amsterdam as Dr. Hana Sharpe, an oncologist who, when the audience meets her, is much more interested in boosting the New York City hospital's public image than actually treating patients. (The reasons why she "clearly can't handle" giving direct care any more will be explored throughout the first season, the actor says.) But the "authoritative, grown-up, contained" Hana didn't seem like an immediate fit for Agyeman.
"I was a bit like, 'Oof, I can’t quite squeeze myself into that,'" she laughs. But it helped that Manheimer introduced the actor to oncologist and hematologist Dr. Mary Lynn Nierodzik, who he'd worked with at Bellevue. Agyeman wanted to know how to play someone in her position, but there was no easy answer.
"You treat people as individuals, you handle each patient by case," she says Nierodzik told her. "And that was really liberating, because you think, no one can tell me I’m doing this wrong now because it comes from a place of authority that there isn’t one rule to how you practice your medicine."
There also isn't one particular way that a doctor should look or wear her hair, but there seems to be some public confusion about that. Agyeman brings up the 2016 incident in which a crew on a Delta Airlines flight called for a doctor for a sick passenger but declined the services of Tamika Cross, MD, a black OB/GYN, in favor of a white man who raised his hand after her. Her experience launched the hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike, which women of color in the field used to share their photos and stories. Agyeman says she could easily see Hana enduring the same kind of discrimination.
"The idea that someone would assume you’re not a medical professional because you do not look like a standardized, stereotypical depiction of what a medical professional looks like is astounding, but that’s what you’re being fed," she says. "You walk into a hospital, and there’s medical professionals from all different backgrounds, but that’s not what you’re seeing [reflected in media]. So I’m overjoyed to be representing all of those black women with dreads and braids and whatever else they want to do with their hair."
New Amsterdam is a sharp left turn from her last TV project, the bold, sci-fi Netflix drama Sense8, in which Agyeman played Amanita, whose girlfriend Nomi (Jamie Clayton) shared an empathetic psychic link to seven other people in different corners of the world. But representation is the common thread for the actor. Sense8 was renowned for the breadth of its characters' identities and experiences, but ended with a finale movie earlier this year.
"That show for me will always probably be at the top, just because it changed me so fundamentally, creatively," she says, still clearly moved by its message. "And I feel like sometimes, projects are more than just an acting role. And that became... something else. It was more like a movement for me, and I don’t say that lightly. You just have to look at the fans. It reverberated around the world." I ask what she hears most often from Sense8 fans who stop her on the street, and Agyeman says it's a simple "Thank you," which she always returns. "I'll never get tired of hearing that," she adds.
It's important to Agyeman that Sense8 avoided "tokenism" and "all that cliché crap," opting instead to portray a loving, committed relationship between a cisgender woman and transgender woman. "It was just about telling a story — a truthful story about these two people who were utterly in love, and it’s the work I’m most proud of to this day," she says.
It was also a sexual relationship, and the series endeared itself to audiences by refusing to point the camera away whenever any of its characters became intimate. The honesty of it felt radical, and definitely revolutionary. Working on Sense8 helped Agyeman to confront that double standard that exists between sex and violence — the former being considered much more "explicit" than the latter. She didn't even mind her own family seeing her spicier scenes. "I’m like, 'That’s my mum and my brother watching me have sex with my transgender lover with a strap-on,'" she laughs. "This is brilliant!'"
It's a thread throughout our conversation — the power of seeing oneself reflected in the media, across every genre, in every light. Agyeman took on her own breakout role in 2006 when she became the first full-time, non-white companion on Doctor Who. And after busting through one barrier on her own, she's happily cheering from the sidelines as the series tackles another.
"Finally, we get a woman up there!" she enthuses over Jodie Whittaker playing the first female Doctor in the show's 50+ year history. "And people say to me, 'Well what about all the little boys? And I’m like, 'They have all that went before, they have everything around that. And also, little boys don’t have a problem with females in authority. That’s not where the complaints are coming from. So we need to address who’s saying why we need to be keeping women out of mainstream roles."
Those comments may still come, but Agyeman isn't going to be kept out of anywhere by anybody.