‘Baywatch’ Breakout Ilfenesh Hadera ‘Didn’t Want to Be Skinny’ for the Role

Ilfenesh Hadera (Photo: Getty Images)

While most casting announcements happen in the trades, news of Ilfenesh Hadera’s biggest role to date was broken on Instagram when Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson wrote a post saying she’d be playing his love interest in Baywatch. “Smart and tougher than new rope..just the way we like ’em,” he shared with his 87 million followers. The significance wasn’t lost on Hadera — but the meaning was, at first.


“Tough as new rope: I had to sit for a split second and figure out exactly what that meant. Oh, new rope. Nothing’s cutting through that. He’s calling me super tough. It felt great. I don’t know that it’s entirely true. I have my moments of weakness,” the actress tells Yahoo Style.

Lack of willpower isn’t one of them. Hadera, a born-and-bred New Yorker, has a major soft spot for pizza and bagels — had two months to prep for wearing that signature red swimsuit. “I worked at it,” she says. “I always went to the gym and ate pretty healthy, but I started working out with a trainer. I went to Chelsea Piers to feel my most comfortable in water. I watched the food, watched the alcohol.” And folks, she feels your pain about cutting back on the libations. “It’s not the easiest thing to cut out, but it’s the easiest way to cut your calories,” Hadera explains.

For the red one-piece suit, she flew to Savanna, Ga., for a fitting, as it was custom-made for her. “I felt good,” she says. “It was after I’d already been working out for two months, so I felt strong.”

Hadera felt the same way throughout the movie shoot. Never having set out to be a waif in a bikini, she says she “didn’t want to be skinny for the role.” Rather, she says, “I wanted to look like a woman who was capable of hauling a grown man out of the water. I wanted to look strong.”

 

Hadera not only brings a different body ideal to the rebooted Baywatch as Stephanie Holden, but diversity as well; her character was originally played by Alexandra Paul, who is white. And the film isn’t your usual all-white summer offering with a token person of color cast as the kooky best friend. South Asian superstar Priyanka Chopra is the drug-dealing villain — in a role originally written for a man. Other key roles went to Hannibal Buress and Amin Joseph.

To Hadera, none of it feels forced. “It’s such a wonderfully diverse cast, and doesn’t need to be,” she says. “I was just excited to be one of the leads in the movie, period.” Hadera was raised in a diverse community and is the daughter of an Ethiopian man and white woman. “I don’t feel necessarily that I’ve been excluded because of what I look like from roles. Maybe that’s naïve of me. I’m working, and I’ve been working,” says Hadera. “I don’t feel like I’ve suffered in terms of jobs. I feel fine.”

True that — she’s starring in the mid-season ABC FBI crime procedural Deception, appeared on Showtime’s financial series Billions, and has a recurring role on Spike Lee’s series She’s Gotta Have It. . “I can buy another Chloe bag and not feel like I have to worry about paying rent for a few months,” she says.

Right now though, she’s excited about Baywatch, which she calls a perfect escapist summer flick for these corrosive political times, regardless how you voted. As for her personal politics, just because Hadera wears a swimsuit in the movie that doesn’t mean she’s a pushover. Yes, she says, you can reconcile showing skin with being a strong female.

“Why not? Why do the two have to be mutually exclusive? You’re a feminist, or you wear a bathing suit. Pick one,” she says. “I am a strong woman, and it’s my body and I am allowed to do this. Because this is my body and I have the right to do with [it] what I please, doesn’t that make me a stronger woman?”

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