How I Thrive//

How Actress Ilfenesh Hadera Mastered the Art of Saying No

"You have to preserve yourself — no one else is going to do it for you."

Actress Ilfenesh Hadera has made it her priority to protect her personal time. As a busy actress, she works hard, but in order to succeed and prevent burnout, she makes sure to prioritize her most meaningful work.  Her father, Asfaha Hadera, is the founder and Co-Executive Director of African Services Committee, a Harlem-based NGO that helps African immigrants. Her mother, Kim Nichols, has served as Co-Executive Director of ASC since 1984. When Hadera is not working on a film, she makes sure to help her parents at their NGO. “Because of their line of work, giving back was always number one. My dad has a family of nine siblings, so everybody pitches in, and that’s kind of what they instilled in my brother and I — the importance of community. You take care of others; it takes a village,” she tells Thrive. “I’ve come to realize that it’s not about what you can give financially all the time because we’re not always in positions to, but it’s about time.”

Hadera has appeared in numerous T.V. shows and films, like “The Blacklist,” “Chicago Fire,” “The Punisher,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” and “Baywatch.” Now, Hadera is starring alongside Forest Whitaker in “Godfather of Harlem” as Mayme Johnson. Born in Harlem herself, Hadera had some surreal ties to the role she is playing. “I’m reading Mayme Johnson’s book, whom I play, and there’s a little snippet about Elise Cunningham on 149th street and Riverside Drive, which is where I grew up,” she explains. “As I’m reading it, I realize Elise Cunningham was the incredible old woman on the sixth floor who used to let my brother and I raid her candy dish when we were waiting for my parents to come home from work late. So the connection in that way to this project, before I even knew that I was cast in it, made it so precious to me.”

Hadera sits down with Thrive to share how she prioritizes her family, the art of saying no, and how she handles stress.

Thrive Global: What is your morning routine?

Ilfenesh Hadera: My morning routine is pretty straight forward. I’ve been doing the same thing since I was in high school. It starts with a strong cup of coffee, followed by another very strong cup of coffee, and then a few minutes on the couch, whether it’s leafing through a book I’m reading, or watching Pat Kernan on “New York 1.” It’s just kind of my way to gear up and get into the day.

TG:  What causes you stress, and what are some of the things you do to combat that stress as it bubbles up?

IH: Honestly, in any industry there’s stress, right? So it’s different for everybody, what triggers it and what stress means for you. It’s all very personal. To me, stress comes with saying yes to too many things. I’m in an industry where there’s always something that you’re invited to or something that could be good for you, whether it’s a red carpet or some kind of networking event. I have gotten really good about being very particular about where I spend my time and who I spend my time with. So that, to me, means saying no a lot, and being comfortable with saying no when people are like, “Well you should do this,” or, “You should do that.” But you see a different version of success comes the minute you step out of your comfort zone.

TG: When was a time that you stepped out of your comfort zone?

IH: My co-star on “Godfather of Harlem,” Forrest Whitaker, has a charity, and he had their first-ever gala. He said, “Ilf, I would love for you to come to this gala.” And I said, “Of course I’ll be there to support you.” A week later, when I’d already definitely committed to going because I thought it was just going to be this fun, wonderful thing to take part in, said, “I would really love it if you would introduce one of our honorees.”

I’m not by any means introverted, but it takes a lot for me to stand up and just be me. I’m so used to having my words given to me as an actor, and to really be able to put on someone else’s wardrobe, that when it’s just me, I feel naked and a little bit vulnerable. But I said, “OK, of course.” 

I had my speech prepared, and I went up feeling semi-ready, and I met this young woman who was being honored just before I presented her with this award, and that connection with her was what it was all about. It was about the charity,not my words. It was that moment of real interaction with this woman that kind of made the night and gave it purpose. 

TG: You’ve said that saying “no” can be really hard. 

IH: I firmly believe that it is not what you are saying, and this is across the board in life, it’s how you say it. So if you get an invitation to a birthday party that starts at 11 o’clock at night — I have no desire to be off my couch in a club, starting dinner at 11:00 p.m. and then moving on to wherever else it is until like four o’clock in the morning. So I’ll say, “Hey, I would love to do that, but I have a lot of early commitments,” and a commitment can mean not something that I have to do, but something I want to do, like waking up early and feeling good for the gym.  I’ll say, “So I can’t do that. But I’d love to take you for a drink or for dessert sometime this week to celebrate together.”

Think of alternatives — ways to still be a part of the celebration, but to do so in a way that makes you feel good and is conducive to your healthy lifestyle.

I think part of what’s made it easy for me to be able to say no is honestly my dad and his very stubborn Africanism. My dad does not do things that he does not want to do, honestly. He’s made his life that way. I’m protective of myself, and if I say yes to doing things that I don’t want to do, I’m not there. I’m not present, I’m checked out. I know that about myself. I leave those interactions, whether it’s work or social, feeling like I wasn’t there, I wasn’t connected. I would rather avoid that than being somewhere half checked out, resentful of being there. I think the knowledge that you have to preserve yourself —no one else is going to do it for you. It’s okay to be a little selfish, and that has made it easier to say “no,” because I know what the flip is. I know what happens when you say yes too much and overextend yourself, and I will avoid that at all costs.

TG:  How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

IH:  It goes back to prioritizing where I want to spend my time and who I want to spend my time with — and being okay with being a little bit selfish. I grew up in New York City; I still live in New York City. My parents live nine blocks away from me. All of my childhood friends live here. My boyfriend lives with me. I have all of the places that I grew up knowing and loving here, and then new places that I want to explore. So those things are my must-do’s during the week. My people, they come first pretty much always.

Obviously everybody has to make a living and do their jobs. But in my free time, when it comes to personal relationships, they are my foundation. They are what takes priority because they are grounding, and they bring me joy, happiness, and stability — there cannot be success without your base. So I prioritize them and then comes everything else.

TG:  What are some of the things you do to practice self-care?

IH: I think self-care changes depending on where you are, different points in your life. So now, when I do have a little downtime from work, it means reading. It means writing to still feel creative. But it also means exercise. It means going for walks, it means I’m going to my gym down the block, The Dog Pound, which has become my sanctuary and those people have also become extended family. It’s about moderation in life. It’s about not getting your identity wrapped up in your work. It’s all of the things that I love to do and spending time on those things.

Self-care is prioritizing, not making excuses, and living in a way that makes you feel good daily.

TG: What is your relationship with technology? 

IH: The idea that we are always reachable or should always be reachable to me is insane. Just because I have a phone doesn’t mean that we can always talk. Just because I can check my email on my phone, it doesn’t mean that I am always going to respond right away, and I have younger friends who seem to experience a lot of anxiety when things start to pile up, so they feel like they’ve always got to be taking care of business. 

If I have a bunch of emails that have accumulated, I don’t feel anxiety about that. Things can wait, and I will get to them when I’m ready to get to them. I feel that way about text messages too. I feel that way about voicemails. Obviously there’s a reasonable amount of time, but I think you have to keep people at a distance and let them know that your time is your time. If I don’t want to text you right away, even if I love you to death, I’ll text you when I’m ready. That’s a conversation you have to have with the people who are close — let them know that you need that space. People know that Ilf takes a little while to text back, and that’s just part of my charm.

TG: What gives you hope and optimism?

IH: I think it’s really easy in our political climate, and in the world we live in now with social media, you see the best of the world, but you also see how nasty people can be to one another. It’s right there on your smartphone and in the comments or whatever. But I think people are genuinely pretty good. I find optimism in the work that my parents do. Their job has gotten harder, but they are still doing it, and they’re still doing it passionately, maybe even more so. Their clients are more appreciative of the work that they do because they know how difficult work in the immigrant arena can be right now.

I see a lot of my colleagues who are 10, 15 years my junior with social media followings that are a million times mine, but using their platforms for real good and change, and they’re using their voices in really powerful, beautiful ways. I find hope for the future in them, because they are inspiring to me and my generation. 

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