Brentwood-raised Medina Senghore has a degree in chemical engineering, followed by a law degree from Harvard University, followed by work at Manhattan law firms, followed by a vice presidency at American Express.
Followed by a master of fine arts degree from The Juilliard School and starring opposite Angelina Jolie in the thriller "Those Who Wish Me Dead," opening theatrically and on HBO Max this Friday.
"I'm very proud of my accomplishments and appreciate the prestige of the schools that I've attended," Senghore, 44, says by phone from Los Angeles when asked if people are intimidated by her background, "but I don't think anyone should be intimidated by anyone because everyone has something unique and special about them. Most of the people in my intimate circle, I look up to them and consider them so impressive."
"Those Who Wish Me Dead" stars Oscar-winner Jolie as a smokejumper — a firefighter who parachutes into wildfires — trying to help a traumatized young murder witness (Finn Little) escape two assassins. Senghore plays a pregnant survival-school instructor married to a deputy sheriff (Jon Bernthal) in Montana, where they're trapped between the killers and a conflagration.
The real-life mother of two children with husband Kareem Collie, Senghore used her character's pregnancy as an anchor. "In one scene I auditioned with," the actress says, "she talks about how she's uncomfortable" physically at her stage of the pregnancy. "I'm a physically active person. But when you're pregnant, there comes a day where there are things you can't do anymore." Senghore "identified with this character's identity crisis when your physicality starts to be limited by this wonderful thing you're excited about. I love contradictions and paradoxes in characters, and honed in on that."
Contradictions and paradoxes have long been a part of Senghore's life. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her parents Mustapha and Vivian Senghore lived while her late father attended college, Medina moved to Brentwood as an infant. Her U.S.-born mother, a New York City public school teacher, is Christian, and her Gambia-born father, who worked in sales, was Muslim. They both prized achievement for their daughter.
"My parents were very good at finding summer enrichment programs or an academic camp," says Medina Senghore, whose Brentwood High School extracurriculars included student government, the African American culture club — and the drama club.
Her high school acting stayed with her. "As a young associate at a law firm, you're working around the clock, and I saw I was missing balance. … And it was, like, a Friday at 11 p.m. and I was looking up at the fluorescent lights and thinking, 'OK, what did I used to like to do?' And I always loved acting."
She began attending a late-night acting class and eventually discovered a theater community centered on "people with regular jobs. There would be plays that would specify rehearsals are on nights and weekends only." Eventually doing theater and small independent films, she left the law to attend Juilliard, Class of 2017. Her first screen gig afterward was a series role as the wife of Christopher Meloni's lead character on Syfy's "Happy!"
Brentwood, Senghore says, was pivotal to the person she became. "It was really special because it was diverse in a way I didn't realize as a kid, but now as an adult I really value." Her friends and classmates were "Portuguese or Albanian or Puerto Rican or Chinese — one of my best friends was Thai. … I wasn't aware of how important that is, growing up in a melting pot, for that to be your foundation."