Versatile Shakespearean actor and television comedy sensation Nyambi Nyambi stars on the television sitcom “Mike and Molly” airing on CBS. The show’s title characters are played by Billy Gardell and Emmy Award-winner Melissa McCarthy. Gardell and McCarty play a working class couple from Chicago who met at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
Nyambi handles the hilarious breakout role of Samuel, a Senegalese waiter working in a diner to whom dieting is a foreign concept. Earlier in his career, he shared the stage with Hollywood legend Al Pacino in productions of “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale” for the New York City Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park.
As a member of both the LAByrinth Theater Company and the Classical Theater of Harlem, Nyambi’s other theater credits include the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Tempest,” opposite Mandy Patinkin for the Classic Stage Company, and “Coming Home.”
The Oklahoma native was born on April 26, 1979, to Nigerian parents but was raised in Houston and Dallas, Texas, as well as in Fairfax, Virginia. He attended Bucknell University on a basketball scholarship, and subsequently earned his MFA from the Graduate Acting Program at NYU (New York University).
A self-proclaimed basketball junky, Nyambi collects vintage basketball jerseys and plays for charity alongside stars like Jamie Foxx, Dean Cain, Joel McHale, Adam Sandler and Zac Efron in Hollywood’s Entertainment League Productions. In addition, he enjoys donating his free time to coaching at teen camps.
A true film buff, Nyambi watched 365 movies in 365 days last year. Here, he talks about life and about what it’s like to be on “Mike and Molly.”
What interested you in “Mike and Molly?”
What interested me was the hilarious script and the idea of playing a West African character that was the smartest guy in the room … and I was broke.
Tell me a little about the show.
“Mike and Molly” is a show about two people in love and the work it takes to keep it that way.
What would you say is the show’s message?
The message of the show is that love is out there and, if you want the baggage it comes with, it’s yours.
How would you describe your character, Samuel?
Samuel is a dry-humored, highly-educated immigrant from Senegal, who speaks five languages, studies English literature at The University of Illinois and is a waiter at Abe’s Hot Beef. Nothing gets past him. He’s family.
How did you prepare to play a Senegalese waiter?
I ate in a lot of diners and spent some time in Senegal.
“Mike and Molly” has one of the most racially diverse casts on prime-time network TV. Who is responsible for that diversity?
Mark Roberts, the creator of our show, and the writers have done an incredible job of creating and writing for these amazing actors.
How has a series about two overweight people managed to become a hit in our weight-conscious society where most TV and movie stars are thin?
The truth reigns supreme and the love that all of these characters share is what people ultimately connect to. They see themselves in these characters or in their dilemmas.
Plus, the hearts of Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy are deeply genuine and infectious. It begins with their genius together.
What are the similarities and differences between you and your character?
We both have a dry sense of humor and an appreciation for classic literature. Samuel is Senegalese and my family is Nigerian. I hope to one day speak five languages like Samuel. Right now, I know English, a lot of French, a little bit of Efik and a few words in Wolof.
Were you surprised when Melissa McCarthy was nominated for an Oscar for “Bridesmaids?”
[Cast member] Reno Wilson called it immediately after we saw the premiere of “Bridesmaids” and [cast member] Katy Mixon had a dream about it not too long after that. So, when it came time for the nominations, I wasn’t surprised. She was that good! Melissa McCarthy is a character acting genius.
How did you develop an interest in acting while playing Division I basketball in college?
I have always had an interest in acting for as long as I can remember. I just never called it acting. It was celebrating the nuance[s] of the people I met. So I constantly was entertaining my family and friends with some character they knew —an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a family friend or a character from a television show or film.
When I was a college senior, I was a business major and uncertain about my future. The dream was always professional basketball, which was fading with each dribble, and I just did not feel Wall Street or any other desk job was in the cards for me. I was at a loss. So I decided to do what I do when I want to be happy and that is [to] play a character.
There was a Martin Luther King gala at Bucknell University, so I offered to recite a speech I used to compete with in high school for the forensics club — the art of speechmaking forensics, not CSI forensics. I sensed doubt in the coordinator of the event about my skills, because those who knew me from afar knew me as a quiet, shy type.
To have fun and prove the coordinator wrong, I decided to memorize the speech, study his cadence, his suits, his walk, the speeches behind the speech, his inspirations and never once did I call any of that acting or what an actor does.
So, the night I performed the speech, something new was happening within me that was electrifying. For ten minutes I actually thought I was Martin Luther King. Afterwards, Professor Glyne Griffiths who — along with me, I’m sure, wondered what I was going to do with my life — with joy, put a name to the very thing I loved to do: ‘Nyambi, you’re an actor.’ And I haven’t looked back since.
Why did you decide to get a Master’s in theater, and how did you come to pick NYU over the Yale Drama School?
I got my master’s in acting from NYU because I wanted to explore the great roles in the great plays and be given the arena to fail triumphantly.
My father so eloquently stated, ‘Well, in Nigeria, we know Yale.’ Choosing NYU was a heart decision. I wanted that playground of New York to draw characters from.
I see that you’re a junior. Is Nyambi Nyambi both you and your dad’s real name? Did you ever wish you had two names?
Yes, my father and I share the same name. Our names mean a lot in my family. I love my name because of the level of confusion it brings to people’s faces. I wonder sometimes what life would be like if my name were Clint or Wally.
You watched a movie a day last year. What were a few of your favorites? What was the worst one you saw?
A few of my favorites were “Diner,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Citizen Kane,” “Unforgiven” and “Sounder.” The worst, but still entertaining, was “The Terror of Tiny Town.”
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
You are a superhero. What is your one super power and why?
Are you ever afraid?
I am always afraid, which I have decided to be a good thing, because I’m in the face of the very thing I need to conquer. And when I conquer that fear, it is the most awesome feeling.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
What was the last book you read?
Richard Pryor’s autobiography, “Pryor Convictions.”
What was the last song you listened to?
Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” from the “Hot Buttered Soul” album.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Rice with stew.
What excites you?
Any art form from the soul.
Who is your favorite clothes designer?
Right now, John Varvatos.
What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
Best business decision I ever made was becoming an actor. Worst business decision I ever made was the belief that ignorance was bliss.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Joy and promise … and a stain on the right corner of the glass.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Running through a courtyard in Oklahoma being chased by a dog that eventually bites the back of my right leg.
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
I would be a hyena disguised as a lion.
When do you feel the most content?
When I am traveling.
Who is the person who led you to become the person you are today?
My parents and sisters as a unit led me to become the person I am today. All love.
What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
The audacity to fail gloriously again and again.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Joy. Find it. Seek it, and hold on to it. It will get you through the pain.
How do you want to be remembered?
He celebrated life and all of its flaws.