Toks Olagundoye couldn’t be more thrilled that Meredith Baxter is playing her mother on the Thanksgiving episode of ABC’s “The Neighbors.” As a child growing up in Nigeria, recalls the ravishing actress (whose first name rhymes with Cokes), she wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but “Family Ties” was one of the four shows she loved so much, her New York-based uncle would tape it for her and send her recordings. Little did she know, mama Elyse Keaton would someday become her on-camera parent.
“It’s all I can do not to cry with joy just thinking about it,” laughs Toks, whose Nigerian English is delivered with a crisp, clear accent.
“I have to say, what I’ve really enjoyed personally this season has been the people I’ve worked with. You know, Wendy Williams – it was just a riot to work with her. She was so much fun I can’t even tell you. And Lucy Davis of the British ‘The Office’ – she’s a genius. It was one of the best weeks of my life, working with her.”
“The Neighbors” has gained admirers and momentum – in addition to cool guest stars — since getting off to a rocky start in 2012. The high concept show, about a group of space aliens living in a gated community in New Jersey, has called upon its cast to do a range of physical comedy, which is just fine with Toks, who plays Jackie Joyner-Kersee. (All the aliens have taken on names of famous athletes, in case you didn’t know.)
“I enjoy doing different things and I like challenges and the physical stuff, I’m fine with that. That being said, there were a couple of times I found a bit daunting,” she admits. “Oddly enough, those were the times they focused on my looks. I mean, clearly I’m an attractive girl, I’m happy with that. I have no problem with the way I look. I’m pleased with it — Nigerian women usually are. But the first episode that kind of threw me into a panic was where Jackie finds out she’s a ten. I felt a lot of pressure, kind of like living up to the whole idea that was being projected onto the character. I didn’t get it. The other one was the episode where I was wearing a cat suit. It was just kind of the idea of being in the cat suit and kind of crawling around on the floor in front of all these crew men sort of got me a little bit.”
One gets the impression that not much throws Toks. Her eclectic background, perhaps, has helped prepare her for anything. The child of an eccentric Norwegian fashion designer mother and a dignified Nigerian banker father, Toks was educated in Switzerland and England as well as Nigeria, before coming to the States to attend Smith College.
“My parents are very strong people. They come from very strong stock. So are my parents’ mothers, one of whom ran very successful cocoa farm and lived to be a hundred and two. My parents are also very laid back people, disciplined and focused. If something goes wrong they don’t freak out, they always just figure out what to do – which is funny because I’m incredibly neurotic and a perfectionist.”
She was expected to do well, she says, and so, when she excelled, “There was not a lot of praise, because that’s what you’re expected to be doing.
“Nigerians are – we’re a pretty determined bunch,” she goes on. “There isn’t much you can tell us we can’t do. We’re stubborn, but not in a bad way. We just kind of keep going.”
Her perseverance served her well at Smith, which she admits was a challenging time in her life. “I have to say that getting used to living in the United States was difficult for me even though I had grown up in so many different places. I found the interaction very different. Girls, you know, especially when they are maybe not so comfortable with themselves, can be cruel. Smith College is a women’s college – all very smart women. I had spent a long time figuring out how to live my life on my own and I had a certain level of discipline and a very strong idea of where I wanted to go in my life when I got there — and I think that was looked upon with a bit of derision. People weren’t very nice to me, is what I’m trying to say.”
Looking back on the mean and cold treatment to which she found herself subjected, Toks observes, “I think it really comes from a lack of confidence, when girls see other girls who seem to know what they’re doing. I didn’t, really. I was 17 just like everybody else was when I got there.
“Instead of understanding, ‘Hey, we are all in the same boat,’ we were in a very competitive place. I think American teenagers in general are very competitive.” In other parts of the world, according to her, competition is not a zero sum game. “It’s just different. It’s not like ‘I am in direct competition with you so I must take you down.’ It’s like, ‘I want to excel, so I’m going to do the best I can.’ You’re taking into consideration what other people are doing so you know what the definition of ‘the best’ is. I think it’s just a different way of looking at it.”
She found herself hanging out at the University of Massachusetts, where she found students with whom she was much more sympatico. After graduating with a BFA in theater, she moved to New York and began landing acting assignments, amassing theater credits including Saint Lucy’s Eyes with the late Ruby Dee, and the big screen “The Salon.”
These days, Toks enjoys living part of the time in L.A. and part of the time in New York, with Georgie, her Chihuahua rescue. Her parents are enjoying her success. “My mom is so funny. She’s this crazy Norwegian woman, and she’s like, ‘Well, I always knew it — I knew you would end up playing an alien.’ That is actually true.
“But my dad, he’s incredibly conservative and the way he expresses how proud he is – it’s very endearing and very subtle. Very sweet. When he talks about the show, there’s a certain tone he has that I’ve never heard in his voice before. When he came to visit me on set, he didn’t tell me but he told Jami (cast mate Jami Gertz) that he was proud of me.
“Then at one point I watched him watch the show,” she says. “My dad has a place in New York, and my sister and I were there for his birthday, with my dad and stepmother. My stepmother, who is sort of beside herself with joy over the whole thing, got everyone to stop what they were doing to watch ‘The Neighbors.’ My sister nudged me at one point and said ‘Look at Daddy.’ And he was sitting there like a little boy, with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands. It was pretty lovely.”
There’s a picture that translates sweetly no matter what part of the world – or, perhaps, out of this world.