Fans of America’s Next Top Model likely remember Yaya DaCosta as the cycle three runner-up known for her exotic looks and constant talking. Now, DaCosta, a Harlem native and Brown graduate, is making her New York stage debut playing Leslie Uggams’s younger self in the Negro Ensemble Company’s acclaimed production of The First Breeze of Summer. DaCosta’s received rave reviews so far, and the production was just extended through October 19. She spoke to Vulture about her background in the arts (yes, she has one), what it’s like to act opposite a theater legend, and what she remembers about ANTM.
You’re acting alongside Leslie Uggams — what was it like when you first met her?
Oh, it was a wonderful first day. Everyone’s energy was really high, and it really established the kind of camaraderie that would stay throughout rehearsals and even now. She is such an amazing actress I looked up to even as a child — in Roots as Kizzy — and it was nice and refreshing seeing someone who is such a living legend be so down-to-earth and fun.
Was it intimidating for your big stage debut to be onstage for so long and be beside someone like Leslie?
Well, it’s good to be nervous in all situations, I think — that nervous energy can be translated into something really interesting. When we were in rehearsal, it was suggested that the actors, whether or not they were in the scene at the moment, kind of stick around and continue to be part of the process. So I was there all the time just watching her, listening to the sound of her voice. Whatever gestures, intonations, looks came out of that were based on something deeper than a plan.
What’s your history with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director?
I met him once when he worked for one day on the set of Honeydripper, this movie I did in Alabama. I was one of the very few young people on set, and a lot of the older actors would kind of give us advice every once in awhile, but people were saying things all the time — “You should do this…,” “You should look into this school,” “I know someone doing a project you might be good for…” — people talk a lot. So I went on this audition, but I was kind of unaware that he remembered me until after the fact.
Can we talk about America’s Next Top Model for a moment, since I think that’s how most people first got to know you?
I don’t remember much, to be honest with you. I know it’s always going to be relevant. I just don’t have that much to say about it. I learned … things.
But I’ve read you don’t put it on your résumé. Do you feel like it’s not relevant now?
Not for acting jobs. You know. I don’t put having worked at the United Nations on my acting résumé either. It’s not an acting job.
Did you work at the U.N. at some point?!
Nooo. [Laughs.] Not technically. It was just an example.
Well, so you’re pretty much putting ANTM in the past.
I’ve done a lot of things, and that one just happened to be televised. I learn from every experience, and I’m very, very full right now! It’s really hard to think about anything else but my character, Lucretia, in the First Breeze of Summer. Always in the back of my mind Lucretia is talking to me. It’s hard to focus on anything else, whether it’s the show you’re asking about, or an ex-boyfriend, or whatever. I live in the moment.