All Eyes On Ayo Edebiri

The most magnetic presence on The Bear (sorry, Carmy) brings sharp humor and actual knife skills to the buzzy new series.

by Anna Peele
Originally Published: 

Before June 23, strangers would approach Ayo Edebiri and ask her a version of the same question: “Why do you sound like a skateboarding dog?" she says, imitating the people who knew they should know her but were not quite sure from where.

Then The Bear premiered. The restaurant workplace dramedy is the summer's breakout show, and for many, a visual introduction to Edebiri, a 26-year-old comedian-actor-podcaster who has graced the animated series Big Mouth with her distinctive voice for two seasons. On The Bear, Edebiri plays an ambitious young chef who goes to work at a Chicago sandwich shop bequeathed to a Noma-trained James Beard Award-winner after his brother’s suicide. The internet went into heat for the pasty virility of Jeremy Allen White’s Chef Carmy, who is brilliant, tormented, and visibly smells of cigarette smoke and unwashed hair. But the revelation of the show is Edebiri. As Sydney, she vibrates with the impatience and self-consciousness of a talented aspirant who wants to both upend her industry and impress its gatekeepers. After the finale became available, White posted a still from the episode showing most of the cast looking off camera at someone. “Not pictured here is the incomparable Ayo Edebiri,” he wrote in the caption. “But we’re all looking at her in this photo, and I know you’re all looking at her now.”

For her part, Edebiri thought it was Ebon Moss-Bachrach, as the tracksuited Cousin Richie, who would set hearts thudding. “My Massachusetts king,” she says of Moss-Bachrach (he is from Amherst, she from Boston). “We were drunk and we had wrapped the season, and I was like, ‘I made a list of some of my favorite working actors and you’re on the list.’ And his wife Yelena is this amazing Ukrainian photographer. When they walk in a room, they’re literally the hottest couple I’ve ever seen in my life. Yelena’s always wearing a dress where you’re like, ‘Where’d you get that dress?’”

Erdem top, Levi’s Jeans, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Mateo necklace, Lady Grey rings, G.H. Bass shoes

My time with Edebiri, three weeks after The Bear debuted, takes place over a four-hour prix-fixe meal at Les Trois Chevaux, an edgily elegant restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village. “I eat like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2, [in] New York,” Edebiri tells me. “He gets, like, pizza and M&Ms and ice cream.” But she lovingly photographs and devours each of the eight courses, from the artichoke ice cream to the escargot. I notice a card on the table and ask what it is. Chef and owner Angie Mar had recognized Edebiri after watching all eight episodes of The Bear days before and sent her a note, which makes Edebiri cry. She tucks the paper into her purse to memorialize it in the scrapbook she keeps.

Edebiri is awed by the gesture, by the fact that we’re able to order such an extravagant meal, that she has a stylist, that she is mortified to be texting the stylist during dinner. When I tell her I was a little intimidated to talk to her, she says, “Wait, me? What the hell? No,” then loudly clonks her wine glass on the underside of a plate holding cannelloni de fruits de mer. “Literally shaking,” she says, eyes as round as the cockles she’s eating.

Edebiri has been performing as a comedian since college and portrayed psychic writer/housekeeper Hattie on Dickinson and horny stickler Missy on Big Mouth after the departure of Jenny Slate, a white actor who was playing the biracial animated character. Big Mouth creator Nick Kroll remembers meeting Edebiri at a party, where, he says, “She was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Daddy’s Little Daddy.’ I asked her about it and she said she had it made for, I believe, no reason. The next time I saw her, she had made one for me…very generous of her. I cherish it, and I make sure to wear it every Father’s Day.”

Tory Burch top, Courrèges pants, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings

Edebiri also worked on the writing staffs of Dickinson and Big Mouth, as well as Sunnyside and What We Do in the Shadows. She co-starred in a Comedy Central digital series on dating with Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott and headlined a standup special for the network. Still, before The Bear, Edebiri was mostly unknown. White says, “Oftentimes if you're signing on to do a show or a movie, you'll be somewhat familiar with your castmates’ work, especially if they're in their 20s or 30s.” This was not the case with Edebiri, but it meant something better: the miracle of discovery. “It was crazy to me that I was experiencing [the creation of a star] firsthand,” White says.

During casting, The Bear showrunner Joanna Calo worried that creator and co-showrunner Christopher Storer, who worked with Edebiri on Dickinson, had hyped Edebiri to a point no actor could meet. “He had this innate feeling that this was her role,” she tells me. “I felt pressure because I was like, He wants her so much. What if I have to let him down?” But in addition to her crackling presence — her friend Quinta Brunson describes her to me as “just so alive” — Edebiri had worked in restaurants for years, graduating from the cafeteria at a retirement home to various Jean-Georges Vongerichten venues, and knew what it was supposed to sound like when you call out, “Can I get three beefs? Four mortadella? How many all day?” The anxieties of real jobs past allowed her to convey the fictional anxiety of The Bear.

“FX really wanted Sydney to be funnier on the page, and we knew that because we had Ayo, we didn't have to do that,” says Bear showrunner Joanna Calo.

Brunson says a friend who works on her show Abbott Elementary described Edebiri’s dichotomy this way: ​“Lisa Simpson mixed with Meryl Streep.” With the attention on her dramatic performance in The Bear, it would seem that Edebiri’s Meryl is ascendant. But Edebiri feels unchanged. “There’s something where it's like, you're basically always yourself. It's like Strange Loop vibes,” Edebiri says. She’s referring to the Tony and Pulitzer Award-winning musical whose title is a concept borrowed from cognitive science: you believe you have certain innate qualities, and that knowledge prevents you from being otherwise. Self-awareness always brings you back to yourself. “You're the same person,” she says of her nascent celebrity. “I'm just a kid in fucking Sunday school.”

Every weekend of her childhood, Edebiri auditioned for the Holy Ghost. She would go to the Pentecostal church she attended with her parents in Boston, walk in front of the congregation in a puffy dress and a “bow that didn’t make sense with my hair,” and try to catch the spirit. She would dance, pray, and sing, remembering the Bible verses she’d memorized perfectly, focusing her whole being into losing herself to the Lord. She was determined to grind her way to speaking in tongues. And when it didn’t happen, well… “You didn’t do it,” Edebiri says they’d tell her. “Try again next Sunday.”

While Edebiri describes her mother, a social worker turned computer engineer, as a “smokeshow,” she says, “My dad and I are character actors.” As a kid, she continues, “I was hideous because I felt hideous. I didn't really feel like there was anybody who looked like me that was beautiful or popular.” One year, her high school newspaper featured a roundup of anti-regrets; people listing the things they’re glad they didn’t do that year, such as, “I’m glad I didn’t do AP calculus.” After the “I’m glad I didn’t do” setup, someone wrote Edebiri’s name. “My experience of being in that school was horror,” she says. “Just feeling not very pretty, not having a boyfriend, not understanding that stuff. I just didn't feel like there was anybody who was Black that was really like that. Also, I'm anxious and all weird.”

Erdem top, Levi’s jeans, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Mateo necklace, Lady Grey rings

Edebiri attended NYU to study education, which she decided to drop after a student teaching experience during a London study abroad that sounds very like the premise of Abbott Elementary. She worked at a girls’ school, where she says the feedback she got from the students was, “Miss, you don't know what you're talking about." Edebiri says she responded, "You're literally right."

Edebiri made a conscious decision: she would become a funny person. Citing her only-child need to please, she says, “I think there's always that bit of me where I'm like, ‘I need homework.’” She applied this to her comedy, which took off after Sennott told her she needed to be doing standup and booked her a slot at a show Sennott co-ran. Edebiri says she was “watching things, going to shows, meeting people, absorbing things, finding out my opinions outside of the things that I like. Consuming [while] figuring out my taste.”

“I want to look like myself,” Edebiri says. “I want to look like my parents, I want to look like my family. I want to look like Black people who are from Boston.”

White says she still does this. “Her intelligence is unreal. Spending so much time with her while we were shooting the show, I always felt like she had more time in the day than anybody else. She was always watching really great television — like Icelandic television — and reading a really great book, and memorizing her lines, and doing crossword puzzles.” (When I relay this to Edebiri, she says, “Every day I would go to Jeremy and I'd be like, ‘Jeremy, how do you stay off your phone? Teach me how to be zen.’ Man, grass is always greener.”)

But at the same time, Brunson says, “Ayo's just so, so, so, so silly. She couldn't be a sillier person.” With Olivia Craighead, her best friend and co-host of the Iconography podcast, Edebiri got matching tattoos of a Don Cheadle quote from Ocean’s Eleven. It was a piece of rhyming cockney slang that makes no sense outside of the movie and barely even within it: “We're in Barney. Barney Rubble. Trouble!” It may sound like a choice made by someone with a surfeit of joie de vivre and minimal perseverant fretting, but Edebiri is still worried about whether she could have used better penmanship for Craighead’s tattoo, which the artist traced over. “I still sometimes will write it out just to be like, do I think I could have done a better job?” she says of the years-old ink.

Edebiri’s inherent contradiction — her humor and the stress of producing it — are present in Sydney. Calo says, “FX really wanted Sydney to be funnier on the page, and we knew that because we had Ayo, we didn't have to do that.” Sydney would simply be funny because Edebiri was the one playing her, even in the role of kitchen buzzkill, tasked by Carmy to implement a rigid hierarchy she will later help him break. “We talked a lot about how being an actress is about feeling things,” Calo says, “and being a comedian's kind of like putting up walls to all of those things. She is battling those two forces. That's what's special about her: she's allowing herself to want things and admit that she is earnest, even though her body is telling her not to.”

Edebiri has a mental register of people whose faces she loves. British actor Gina McKee of Notting Hill and Line of Duty. Willem Dafoe, Viola Davis, Melanie Lynskey, C C H Pounder. Anne-Marie Johnson, who stars opposite Robert Townsend in the ‘80s comedy The Hollywood Shuffle and reminds Edebiri of her mother. She cherishes people who look like themselves. Including, finally, herself.

“This is the first time in my life where I love how I look,” Edebiri says. “I love my skin, I love my teeth, I love my eyes.” Though her dentist has implored her to get Invisalign, she says, “I'm not allowed to. I won't allow myself to. I don't want to, I want to look like myself. I want to look like my parents, I want to look like my family. I want to look like Black people who are from Boston.”

Chef Mar comes over to tell Edebiri how realistic The Bear was, how much she loved it. “Just to see another woman of color portrayed…” Mar says of watching someone like herself lead a kitchen, “It was great.”

“This was a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful meal,” Edebiri says to Mar at the end of it. “I've almost cried three times. I'm probably going to cry now.”

As we get ready to pay the bill, Edebiri is in an expansive mood. She refers back to a theory she’d posited earlier, about how people tend to operate along a spectrum of one main force, like competence, morality, or, in my case, she believes, confidence. It reminds her of a good gospel song, she tells me now: “Blessed Assurance.” She sings it at the table, sweet and holy. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.” Then Edebiri switches to her skateboarding dog voice, points to herself, and says, “Broken brain.”

Photographer: Myles Loftin

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