Born in Dakar, Senegal to a Malian father and Senegalese mother, Aïssa Maïga moved to France as a child. She’s appeared in numerous films in a career spanning more than two decades. In 2007 she was nominated for a Best Actress César in Abderrahamane Sissako’s Bamako.
Tell us about some childhood memories in Senegal.
I left Senegal, my mother’s country, when I was four years old. I don’t remember that much from my early childhood there, because I was so young. My first African memories are from Mali. Mali is my father’s country. I used to go there on holiday and spend time with my grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It was paradise.
My family comes from a small town in the region of Gao, near the Sahara desert. I remember noticing how proud the Songhay people are; this is my father’s ethnic group.
They are used to extreme climatic conditions, they eat mostly rice with sauce, and I just love that kind of freedom, a freedom that is really different from what I would experience as a kid growing up in France.
I remember all the jokes and all that humour in my family, especially when we would stay in the courtyard at night, when the weather was cooler.
Do you remember your first trip to the Cannes Film Festival?
In 2006, I had two films, Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako and Paris, je t’aime, a collection of shorts. The one I was in was directed Oliver Schmitz, who is South African. That Cannes was magic. On the one hand, I was the female lead in an African movie, directed by one of the best directors of his generation. Plus, Danny Glover, who co-produced the film, was with us on the red carpet. I was so proud to bring to Cannes a film that was poetic and militant.
Paris, je t’aime was an amazing experience as well, because of all the talent that was involved. We had the Coen brothers, Catherine Deneuve, Ben Gazzara, Gérard Depardieu, Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche, and so many others.
And being in the same film as Gena Rowlands—a woman I simply adore—that was a huge privilege. When I was told what she thought about my work, I almost fainted.
Who is your style icon, and why?
I don’t have an icon. Lupita Nyong’o brought something fresh and elegant to Hollywood. Cate Blanchett is very elegant too, and very special. What impresses me in terms of elegance is the ability certain women have to reinvent a style. Janelle Monáe is a perfect example. I love her. She is unique.
When you visit America, do people see you as French or African?
Both, I guess. Some people see me as Parisian, which I am. In America, my African cultural heritage is definitely something people are interested in.
As an actress, in France, I have been able to play in many different types of movies and be cast as an African city girl, an an African village girl, and then there were times where I got to play the regular French girl.
I love that kind of diversity in acting experiences, so I welcome it all. I can’t wait to see what happens here in America.