It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since we first met Yaya DaCosta on season three of America’s Next Top Model. Since then, the 33-year-old has established herself as an actress who has impressed audiences with her performances in The Butler, Whitney, and as nurse April Sexton in Chicago Med.
Now the star, who’s also a mom of a three-year-old, is speaking to EBONY.com about motherhood, the Rio Olympics and the new season of the NBC drama.
EBONY.com: What should viewers expect for April in the new season?
Yaya DaCosta: The last season ended with a couple of really shocking moments. One was kind of a fast proposal. The other was a diagnosis of tuberculosis. It’s only been a few weeks between seasons. So we basically pick up where we left off.
April is learning to deal with this illness. She’s really scared and concerned about herself and the people around her. You see her take space from her relationship. Her boyfriend Tate comes around but there isn’t that giddiness that generally follows a proposal. It’s very serious. It’s just very solemn and she’s very protective of him and his son. She doesn’t want him to get infected, even though she’s not contagious. She continues to throw herself into work so she doesn’t have to stress about her personal life.
EBONY.com: As you do more projects like Chicago Med, are people seeing you more as an actress first rather than that girl from America’s Next Top Model?
DaCosta: I don’t know and I don’t really mind. I was actually an actor before. I did my first job at 11-years-old. I used to do educational films. I always knew it was something I wanted to do. But it just so happened that my side hustle got more attention because it was on a huge show at the beginning of this phenomenon called reality TV when no one really knew what they were getting themselves into. It was an experience that definitely had its pros and its cons.
But when people come up to me I never know what they’re going to say. Sometimes they say “The Butler.” If they’re young girls they’ll say “Take the Lead,” which was the first big film that I got to star in. A lot of people say “Chicago Med,” because it’s on air now.
But it also depends on the demographic. For the most part, homosexual women will say “The Kids Are All Right,” while homosexual men love Tyra [Banks] so they’ll say “America’s Next Top Model.”
It’s always interesting to me why people connect. The fact that they’re connecting at all is a real blessing, because I could have been on “Chicago Med” without anyone knowing who I am. But I get to bring all those fans of “America’s Next Top Model” – who remember me from 12 years ago – to this show and they’re rooting for me. It feels so good that they feel our connection is relevant and they want to follow this show now. I’m happy to bring that with me wherever I go.
But you know I even played Vanessa Williams’ daughter on “Ugly Betty” and she’ll always be thought of as Miss America and that’s cool. That’s totally cool.
EBONY.com: What is it like juggling motherhood and work with the long hours on set?
DaCosta: What’s great about being an ensemble cast is there are ebbs and flows. There are some episodes where April plays a big part and she has a lot of scenes and I’m there all the time and then some episodes where I feel that I’m barely there, I barely work. So I do have a lot of time at home. That’s [what] my favorite and number one job is, being a mom for sure.
EBONY.com: The Rio Olympics were this summer, given your Brazilian background, where would you advise visitors to the country to go?
DaCosta: I haven’t been back to my other home in Rio for a very long time, in almost 10 years. Everyone that I speak to, half of them are like, “Oh, come back, we miss you.” The other half are like, “Don’t come back. It’s a lot more dangerous. It’s a different vibe. What you remember is not here.” So it’s really bittersweet.
But there is a great nightlife scene. There are amazing restaurants to eat at. One of my favorite places is called Zaza [Bistro] in Ipanema.
I was a local, essentially. I blended. I didn’t look or sound American so a lot of my places I may not recommend that people go unless they’re with locals – like going into a favela for a baile funk party. It just means, “dance funk.” It’s sort of hip-hop-esque Brazilian. There’s nothing like it.
There’s a huge Cape Verdean community in Rio as well. I spent a lot of time going to zouk parties. I love that dance too, in Santa Teresa, so maybe that’s a little safer that they can venture out into.
No matter what you choose to do I would say overall dress down. Don’t show off. Don’t have your camera hanging off your neck and just enjoy the people because they’re some of the most loving, welcoming, joyful people in the world. Unfortunately we’ve also had to undergo a lot of hardships because – especially with the Olympics – a lot of people have been displaced from their homes.
It’s such a give and take. I’m from Harlem. It’s the same thing. I was excited to buy my first apartment up there but I also knew I’m new Harlem now. Who did I displace?
[I’d say to myself], “I’m from here. I’m from five blocks down.” But it doesn’t matter so I have the same thing when it comes to Brazil. This is going to be great for some of the country but then for others it’s not so great.
I hope people are able to have fun, but just be safe, especially with Zika going on. If you have the right mindset there are so many opportunities.
One of the most fun, safest places is a rehearsal for one of the samba groups, because the carnival groups rehearse for months to prepare. If you go to one of their centers you can see them getting down and learn to samba. It’s pure fun.
Chicago Med airs Thursdays on NBC at 9pm/8pm Central.