Gbemisola Ikumelo on stepping up to the plate with A League of Their Own

·8 min read

One of the most memorable characters on the new A League of Their Own TV series isn't a baseball player at all.

Like the beloved Penny Marshall film that inspired it, much of the new show takes place on the baseball diamond, telling the story of the many women who fought to play professionally at the height of World War II. But one of the series' breakout stars is British actress Gbemisola Ikumelo, who stars as Rockford resident and aspiring comic book artist Clance Morgan. Warmly funny and deeply nerdy, Clance is loosely inspired by real-life cartoonist Jackie Ormes, the first Black woman to have her own regularly published comic strip. Clance is also the lifelong best friend of aspiring pitcher Max Chapman (played by Chanté Adams), and together, the two form one of the show's most charming friendships.

"She's a really forward-thinking, modern woman," Ikumelo says of Clance. "I found it really exciting to play that, to play the funny and the quirkiness. She's a bit of an outsider, but she is just so full as a person."

Gbemisola Ikumelo on A League of Their Own
Gbemisola Ikumelo on A League of Their Own

Anne Marie Fox/Amazon Studios Gbemisola Ikumelo as Clance Morgan on 'A League of Their Own'

Ikumelo and Adams both note that they never had a chemistry test together, only meeting for the first time after they had already been cast. Still, they became fast friends, both on and off screen. "I think the first day that we met was doing chemistry reads with people who were going to play our husbands or partners or friends and family," Ikumelo recalls. "Within 10 minutes, Abbi [Jacobson] was getting us to improv, and we were just being really silly with each other. It's really rare to find someone you can be goofy with instantly, and I think you get to see that on the screen. They nailed that, casting us."

Ikumelo is already a BAFTA winner for her comedy short Brain in Gear, and is set to appear next with Jake Gyllenhaal in the upcoming Road House remake. But A League of Their Own is her biggest American project yet, and she found herself immediately drawn to Clance's warmth and sense of humor. Plus, she herself is a major nerd, although she's quick to point out that she's not nearly as knowledgeable as Clance. "I feel like the nerdiness of comic books and superheroes is so extreme that even if I align myself with the nerdiness, people go, 'You're not a big enough nerd!'" Ikumelo says with a laugh. "But I am, definitely."

Here, Ikumelo talks stepping up to the plate with A League of Their Own.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a Brit, were you a fan of the original movie? Are you a baseball person?

GBEMISOLA IKUMELO: We have rounders in the U.K., which is like baseball's poor cousin. So I didn't know much about the game at all. I got to do a little bit [on set]. Justine [Siegal], who is our baseball coach, did a little bit of catch with me just to familiarize me with the world. She said I had a good arm, so I always tell everyone who will listen that Justine says I have a good arm. [Laughs]

But in terms of the film, I have watched it a zillion times growing up and loved it. I was a Madonna fan, so I was like, I'm definitely about this. But it's so beautiful, I think, to be able to do something that nods to the film but also expands and goes on this journey of a generation of women and gets to tell so many more of the stories of the real women who are out there trying to be professional baseball players.

A lot of this story centers on the central friendship between Max and Clance. What about that friendship really intrigued you?

For one, I think it's beautiful to be able to see Black sisterhood on screen and have people — potentially people who aren't Black — watch that and go, "I relate to them." In the reverse, as a Black person watching the movie growing up, you find yourself in people of different races. So I think it's really lovely that we get to be that. We get to be that friendship where people are going, "Oh, I love Clance and Max." That feels really powerful in terms of what this story is doing. But it's also about finding your team, which is what this whole story is about. It's something we're all doing as humans: We're trying to find where we belong and who we belong to.

A League of Their Own
A League of Their Own

Nicola Goode/Prime Video Chanté Adams and Gbemisola Ikumelo on 'A League of Their Own'

Chanté also spoke about how refreshing it is to see a period piece that depicts a thriving Black community that's full of joy and isn't a story solely about racial trauma. What excited you about seeing that story on screen?

It's so exciting. As Chanté said, there's this Black joy that you get. You get to see Black business owners and this successful Black family, the Chapmans, who are prominent in the community. [Max's mom] runs this business, and it's like, her husband is there too! It's really lovely to see these supportive husbands because Clance has a supportive husband as well. In this era, these men were just fans of their partners, of their wives. And that's really special because it's not often that we get to see that on screens, especially within the Black community.

Look, I don't think we shy away from the fact that there's racism. I think those things are very clear. There's the mere fact that Max will never be able to join the Peaches in this time. There are clear moments where we have to go to the white side of town, and they won't serve her. But in the midst of all that, there are also people gravitating towards joy. When you speak to the people who were alive then — the Black people of Rockford, and we got to speak to a few of them — that's what it was. It's about finding joy in their places to exist and be who they are. So seeing that on screen is joyful.

What was it like to immerse yourself in the sets and costumes of the 1940s?

I loved everything that Tracye [Field] did with the costumes of this. I just think she's a genius. I love that she was also really excited about working with a curvy frame and making clothes that were a little bit edgy — finding what edgy in the '40s was. Everyone has their own interesting quirks. I would see D'Arcy [Carden] wearing things, and I'd see Chanté wearing things, and I'd be like, "You should keep that because it's so cute!"

I think there's something about putting on a costume as an actor. You put on those shoes, and you start to get a sense of how people moved in that time — because we don't suddenly start walking like slouches in the 21st century. Our clothes inform that. Our shoes inform that. So it's really great when you get to see why the posture changes and why it shifts. You start to live it, and you start to think, "Ah, I get it." They're these little gems for actors because they're beautiful cues that you can run with.

Gbemisola Ikumelo attends the official Los Angeles red carpet premiere & screening of "A League Of Their Own" on August 04, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Gbemisola Ikumelo attends the official Los Angeles red carpet premiere & screening of "A League Of Their Own" on August 04, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images Gbemisola Ikumelo at the 'A League of Their Own' premiere

When you think back to the filming process, what was your most memorable day on set?

There was a scene that was one of the last scenes we shot, if not maybe the last scene of the season. It was when Max says thank you to Clance for getting her to where she is, and they say that they're each other's team. I think they put that right there at the end, knowing that we're going to wrap and all the emotion of that. Seeing Chanté and the sisterhood that we formed, [I remember] all of that feeling so true in the moment and just feeling so grateful. It was a really beautiful moment.

Some of the actors have said something similar, that making this show felt like being a part of a real team, both on and off the screen.

Absolutely. I got the honor of being in the writers' room as well for this, so that isn't just with the cast. That's with the crew and in the writer's room, where we wanted to tell a story of a generation of people. In doing that, we're bringing bits of ourselves and bits of our own stories and bits of our lives. Doing that, you start to see some of that live on the page a bit, and it sort of translates. I do feel like some of that community was fostered right in the beginning, where we were just some of the people who got to sit and write this story together.

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