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Ego Nwodim
Ego Nwodim (NBC/Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

For Ego Nwodim, scoring the hire at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” didn’t just require the same resilience and grit usually demanded of onstage performers. It forced the Baltimore-area native to dream of a reality outside the realm of what she knew.

“I’m the only one in my family in this industry — I had no insider connection,” the 31-year-old featured cast member said. “I just had a goal and ambition. And, I guess, talent.”

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Nwodim, a product of Eastern Technical High School in Essex, Maryland enters her second season on the long-running sketch comedy show this month. The premiere arrives on the heels of controversy surrounding the hiring of Shane Gillis, who faces criticism over past racial slurs and degrading comments regarding Asian Americans, Muslims, women and the LGBTQ community, among other groups.

Responding to the backlash in a tweet published Sept. 12, Gillis said he would be “happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.”

“I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss,” Gillis wrote in the tweet. “My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”

Nwodim, whom The Baltimore Sun interviewed before NBC announced the season 45 additions, was not immediately available for comment regarding Gillis’ hiring. On Sept. 17, a “Saturday Night Live” spokesman on behalf of Lorne Michaels said that Gillis would not be joining the cast.

“We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard."

Despite fellow cast member Leslie Jones’ departure from the program, Nwodim — now the only black woman on “SNL” — said she’s proud of the progress the network has made in recruiting and retaining actors of diverse backgrounds.

“It was fun having Leslie there with me and having that mentor whose experience is somewhat similar to that of my own,” Nwodim said. “But the show is certainly making strides, and I feel the doors to producers’ offices are always open regarding my experience.”

Nwodim grew up near Baltimore, in White Marsh and Perry Hall, and remembers urging her mother to drive her to a casting call in the city as a young girl. She soon realized that the Los Angeles area could offer more acting opportunities than her native hometown — where she said she performed in church and school plays — and soon made plans to attend college in California.

Ego Nwodim as Jaguar, backstage in Studio 8H in New York.
Ego Nwodim as Jaguar, backstage in Studio 8H in New York. (NBC/Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

She graduated with a biology degree from the University of Southern California and, at the prompting of her agents, began to pursue comedy. Forgoing a potential path to medical school, she took classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and joined a number of troupes, and would ultimately write and star in a one-woman show, “Great Black Women...and Then There’s Me,” which sold out in Los Angeles.

In 2015, she sent her first character reel to “Saturday Night Live,” which initially turned her down. No matter.

“It was the first time it became a reality,” she said. “For so long, it seemed so far out of reach. But then I realized this is something that I could do.”

After performing in the CBS Diversity Showcase in 2016, she said the “SNL” staffers invited her to try out for the show. She joined the cast in 2018.

Nwodim said “SNL” has afforded her the chance to write and play important characters. In sketches that drew the ire of the Baltimore Police union, she, Jones and cast member Kate McKinnon parodied the city’s police officers in two skits that eventually led to a formalized letter of complaint to SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels from Lt. Gene Ryan, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

“It is a difficult time in Baltimore and to portray our brave, hard-working members with such an inappropriate manner is very unfortunate,” Ryan wrote in the letter.

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Nwodim has also been lauded for her “SNL” roles parodying Jordan Peele’s “Us” film in a fake Discover credit card ad and even rapping about pets alongside James McAvoy and cast members Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson in an “I Love My Dogs” music video sketch.

Nwodim said she generally finds that sketch and improv comedy remain among the most supportive art forms, since actors inherently have each other’s backs.

“I feel safe and supported usually, and if not, I feel comfortable having those conversations,” she said. “As diversity becomes part of the larger conversation, we’re going to see more industries become more inclusive.”

She said though her family might be relatively disconnected from Hollywood and the arts, her “Saturday Night Live” success “is a job they can contextualize.”

“It’s a scary endeavor to pursue acting because so much of it is unstable,” she said. “Especially not having anybody in my family who works in this field, they’re proud to see the fruits of my labor.”

Left to right: Ego Nwodim as Lisa and host John Mulaney as Daniel during the "Cha Cha Slide" sketch in March.
Left to right: Ego Nwodim as Lisa and host John Mulaney as Daniel during the "Cha Cha Slide" sketch in March. (NBC/Will Heath/NBC)

And though Nwodim said she’s focused on getting back to work after a fast summer, she hopes to start her own production company “many moons from now” and create a platform for comedic or dramatic performers of color. She also hopes to transition into a director’s chair someday.

“I really do feel honored and privileged to be in the position I’m in now,” she said.

The show’s 45th season premieres Sept. 28, with Woody Harrelson and Billie Eilish as its host and musical guest, respectively. The show also named Thursday its first-ever full-time cast member of East Asian descent, Bowen Yang, as well as additional newbie, Chloe Fineman.

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