Imani Pullum’s first day on the set of The Orville: New Horizons felt a bit like the first day of school, but Seth MacFarlane and the rest of the cast and crew made her feel right at home, and the rest has been smooth sailing.
Only 16 years old during her pre-pandemic audition for Hulu’s sci-fi series, playing the complicated guest-starring role of Topa, which deals with gender identity and other complex issues, has been exhilarating.
“I was really nervous because it was my first table read ever. I prepped with my coach, Shelli Boone, to prepare for what was in store,” Imani exclusively tells Monsters and Critics. “It was so exciting getting to meet everyone and to just sit at a table with all of these great actors. I was over the moon.”
Her first major acting role was in Disney’s Broadway touring production of the Lion King in the role of Young Nala. Her first TV appearance was in the reboot of Nickelodeon’s All That.
Imani recently completed her freshman year at New York University in the esteemed Tisch Drama program.
She spent her early years as a dancer at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, where she was handpicked for the high-ability Red Bird program. Her other acting credits include Yo Gabba Gabba! and the feature films, Escape Through Africa and Muslimah’s Guide to Marriage.
Read on for details on Imani’s brilliant career, helping her musician father spread his good works, and why she fell in love with her character in her sci-fi drama.
Monsters and Critics: What is it like to work with Seth MacFarlane?
Imani: He’s incredible. He’s so detail-oriented. I wouldn’t have expected someone to be that present and focused and just to care so much. He cares so much about the show, and you can tell. And just how people are doing. He’s so normal, too. It was inspiring to see him work.
M&C: Your bio says that you just finished your freshman year at New York University, and you are majoring in drama? How do you juggle work and school?
Imani: It was a little bit difficult in the beginning just finding that work and school balance, but I ended up having to tell my managers that I wanted to be a little bit more selective with the projects that I auditioned for just for time’s sake, and I just wanted to make sure that the things I was auditioning for that I was putting my best foot forward. They were really happy to do that for me and flexible with me. I asked for a lot of extensions, and people were very gracious and let me take my time with auditioning, so that was wonderful. Yes, I think towards the end, I started to get the hang of it, which was nice. I feel confident that when I start school again in the fall, I’ll be ready.
M&C: Are you planning to pursue acting as an adult?
Imani: Yes. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else with my life. I’ve had a lot of different experiences with dance. I danced for a really long time, I was really interested in singing for a long time. I still do enjoy those things. But nothing makes me as comfortable as acting and as excited as acting does for me.
M&C: Where do you film your show?
Imani: At the FOX Studio Lot in LA. Which was really perfect for me because it was right down the street from my high school. When I was in school and working on The Orville at the same time, so I was able to get in my car from school and drive to go get COVID tested or that kind of stuff. It worked out really well.
M&C: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did your pursuit of an acting career – how does somebody get on Yo Gabba Gabba?
Imani: Well, I started acting because my neighbor is actually Nia Long’s mom. She is very close to my family, and she recommended to my parents that they put me into acting. So, she recommended Betty Bridges as an acting coach and a manager. I started working with Betty. Honestly, I really don’t know about the Yo Gabba Gabba how I got that because I was like four years old when it happened. But I started acting because of Talita, Nia Long’s mom.
M&C: Do you remember anything about being on Yo Gabba Gabba?
Imani: I remember that they had a candy bowl. And I got some Twizzlers that day, and I was really excited about that. I also remember that I got to wear the pink girl, I think her name is Foofa or something like that, she was my favorite. I got to wear the shirt that had her on it, so I was just like super excited about that, too. That’s all that I remember.
M&C: Have you gone back and watched it?
Imani: Yes, I have. I watched it like not too long ago, and I just think it’s the funniest thing ever. I do a little running man, which is like the worst running man I’ve ever seen, but I was also like four, so, what can you expect? But the fact that I chose to do the running man as my little dance is hilarious to me.
M&C: How much of Orville is on the page for your character? And how much are you able to put yourself into and your ideas?
Imani: I pretty much stuck exactly to what was on paper. I didn’t improvise at all. Yeah, I stuck to what was written on paper because I really trusted what Seth wrote for Topa. So, I just felt like I should follow that. I felt like the choices that were made were right.
M&C: There are so many themes going on about gender identity, women versus men, and gender roles, especially in your big episode entitled Tale of Two Topas. Was that a discussion that you had either on or off the set?
Imani: Well, I discussed some of that with Seth right before we would film the scenes just to kind of get an idea of what my intention was when I was in those scenes and how I was supposed to feel. Also, I had talked with my coach about it a lot, my coach on the side, just so I could just know fully what Topa was feeling at all times and just feel really connected to her experience.
M&C: I take it that Topa’s voice and your voice are not the same?
Imani: I used a lower register, as low as I possibly could. But they still added some kind of warping to make it sound lower. This is why I sound really, really deep, or my voice is really, really deep in the beginning. And then once I have the surgery my voice is my normal speaking voice, but just with a more Moclan inflection. Moclan is a humanoid species native to the planet Moclus.
M&C: When you watch the episode Tale of Two Topas, what is that like for you?
Imani: I still feel really emotional watching it because I feel like how I did when I was filming most of those scenes. I’m getting emotional talking about it, sorry. Especially when I looked in the mirror at my reflection post-surgery, when I watched it for the first time with my mom, I just broke down in tears crying because it just felt like such a full circle moment just getting to see Topa be happy. Yes, it’s very emotional and hard to watch because it’s me. It makes my heart happy.
M&C: What advice do you have for a teen who wants to be an actor or his/her parent on pursuing a tough life as an artist or creative type?
Imani: I would just say to trust yourself and trust your instincts. If it’s something that you really, really love and you just can’t imagine a world where you weren’t able to pursue it then it’s worth all of the sadness and rejection. You just have to hold onto hope and just be grateful for even the little things, the little signs that you’re on the right path because that’ll help you with longevity. Just making sure that you still have a love for the craft.
Imani: I also recommend if you have other interests that, you also pursue those. I’m not saying give up on your dream, but sometimes you need a little distraction from one thing. I feel like a lot of acting is about experiences, as well. Anything you can do to have as many experiences as possible, I think, is super helpful in being an actor.
M&C: Tell me about the movie that you’re in, Emancipation.
Imani: I play a 13-year-old girl named Betsy. It was really a great experience for me to get to film the movie. It has an incredible cast and crew. I got to go to New Orleans for about a month. I went while I was still in college, so I missed a month of school, but it was so worth it, and I’m so grateful that I got to do it. It comes out sometime in 2023.
M&C: Before this show, did you already have an appreciation for sci-fi and fantasy and adventure, and did this show deepen that?
Imani: You know what? Not really. I wasn’t super into sci-fi before watching the show or being a part of the show. But when I got the audition, and I started watching the clips and stuff, I thought it was really fascinating. Then when I started working on the show, it helped me find a love for sci-fi. Everything was just so cool and out of this world. I’d just walk around the set and see spaceships lying around. I think that’s exciting for anyone. I’m glad that it opened my eyes to sci-fi, and I’m hoping that someday I’ll be able to do more sci-fi-related stuff.
M&C: Have you ever thought about what our lives will look like 400 years from now?
Imani: You know what? I don’t know. It makes me a little nervous and anxious to think about, especially with global warming and the climate crisis and all that kind of stuff. My biggest hope is that we still have Earth, that Earth is still habitable, and that people get to experience the beauty of Earth. But we’ll see about that, I really don’t know.
M&C: What does it mean to you that girls and young women watching you in the movie and the show will see you as a role model? And what have role models meant to you?
Imani: It truly means the world to me that people maybe think that. I’ve gotten a lot of messages, DMs, and Tweets, just saying how they feel about the part and how they feel about Topa and feeling inspired by Topa. Honestly, it’s like the greatest honor for people to think that way. I could have never imagined that people would think that, but it’s nice to hear. It’s exciting, for sure.
M&C: When you’re not acting or prepping how are you hanging out?
Imani: Well, I hang out with my friends a lot, of course. I like to read. I’ve just picked up crocheting, I really like crafts and hobbies and little stuff like that. I love to shop, but secondhand, of course, I really like shopping on Depop and e-Bay and Poshmark. Yeah, I just hang around. I’m also my dad’s assistant right now, which is a new thing that I’m doing which is really interesting.
M&C: What are your summer plans?
Imani: My dad’s from Chicago. I got the chance to there a couple of times recently and loved it. Hopefully, I’ll be visiting again this summer.
M&C: You say that you work as your dad’s assistant. What are your duties?
Imani: My dad’s a musician. He plays the trumpet, and he owns a community center in Leimert Park called the Fernando Pullum Performing Arts Center. They offer free performing arts lessons to the youth. I’m assisting him and just helping him do his daily tasks to be the executive of the center. I just help him with that stuff. They do different gigs, so I go to the gigs, I arrange the music, I text the band where they need to go because they have a youth jazz band, so I help out with that.
M&C: Do you play an instrument?
Imani: No. I did try to play instruments. I took piano lessons as a kid. But having a dad that plays an instrument and learning to play an instrument is really difficult because he would make me practice way more than I wanted to. Then I eventually got kicked out of my piano lessons because I would cry every single time, I had to take them. My piano instructor told my mom, “I really can’t teach her anymore, she’s too emotional in here.” But I can recommend another teacher.” So, yeah, no instruments for me.
M&C: What does it mean to be a noble person?
Imani: I think being a noble person is just like trying your best to do the right thing at all times. And help as many people as you can while doing that. Just trying to be as positive as possible and help as many people as possible.
M&C: Talk about the special effects for a minute. Do you get to see any of that before you see it on the screen? Do you get to watch any of that being made?
Imani: I saw some of it, like after I filmed a scene, somebody would come by and say, ‘Oh, look at this, this is so cool,’ and I’d see kind of what they were doing with the special effects. But most of it, I didn’t really know. In one of the scenes I have with Commander Grayson, Adrianne, we’re standing on the bridge, and there’s that giant blue ball of energy behind us. I had no clue that was going to be there.
When I watched the show and I saw Seth post the picture on Instagram, I was like blown away because I had no idea that was going to be there. Maybe they told me that, and it just slipped my mind, but I don’t recall knowing that that was going to be there at all, but it was super cool. Most of the stuff, I didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, so it was really exciting to see it when the show was out.
M&C: Why do you think my readers should watch?
Imani: I think they should watch it because Tale of Two Topas is a really feel-good episode. It’s inspiring, and it’s so relevant right now to our social climate. I think if they watch it, they will be happy that they got a chance to see Topa’s story.
M&C: Lastly, do you know what’s coming next besides your sophomore year of college?
Imani: Yes, just sophomore year of college and then Emancipation. I’m excited to see what’s next for Topa and Topa’s future.
The Orville: New Horizons airs on Hulu and is in its third season.
For more Hulu dramas, check out Helstrom review: Hulu releases Marvel’s new horror series.