At age 36, Medina Senghore left a lucrative career as a patent attorney to attend the world-renowned Juilliard School and pursue her passion for acting full-time. Now, her perseverance and talent are paying off. She’s starring in the new movie from Warner Bros. Pictures, “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” with Angelina Jolie.
“It feels very surreal,” Senghore, a Brentwood, Long Island native and mom of two, told Know Your Value. “ … I feel very fortunate because I did the 180 purely out of a passion that grew so big that I kind of couldn't use my right brain to deny it, but not with any expectation of success,” Senghore said.
Initially, Senghore didn’t believe she could pursue acting as a full-time career. Writing in her journal, she tried to think of a practical job that she could apply her passion to. “What is it that you would do for free?” she asked herself, drawing on the often-recited question. The answer was easy: She had always been acting for free as a hobby or side hustle.
“Now I'm doing for a living what I would do for free and, you know, if all of this ended tomorrow, I would go back to doing it for free,” Senghore said. “It's almost like doing it for a living is icing on the cake.”
While Senghore is riding high on her recent success, she remembers the trepidation she felt leaving a secure, successful career path for the unknowns that a life of acting would bring.
“What was scary about it was making that transition at my age,” Senghore, now 44, recounted. She entered Juilliard, the prestigious New York City arts conservatory, at age 36 to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Drama over the next four years. The next-oldest person in her class was younger than her by a decade. The youngest students were 17 and 18.
“It was just very humbling to be someone who was very accomplished and used to being one of the experts in the room, to then put yourself into a room where you have the least expertise,” she said about her time at Julliard. “It was jarring. It’s something that I welcomed, but it’s definitely a challenging experience and it takes a lot of humility and discipline.”
With her Juilliard acceptance letter in hand, Senghore walked away from her job as the director of intellectual property strategy for American Express — a demanding corporate role she earned with her Harvard Law degree. As a primarily virtual job that required minimal in-office presence, Senghore was able to both work and study acting in her off-hours or attend auditions from time to time. But she read the tea leaves at work: her boss was being promoted, and in turn, his direct reports would level up. For Senghore, that would mean a new role that required her to be in the office — leaving no time for acting.
“That was the real ‘rubber to the road’ moment.” Senghore remembered. She then applied to Juilliard thinking that the effort would get the acting bug out of her system. “There's no way I'm going to get in. I'm old. I'm a lawyer,” she thought, “but at least I'll be able to tell myself I did it and I'll be able to go back to work in peace."
She got in and excitedly traded a Fortune 100 corporation to get her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Juilliard, one of the most prestigious schools in the
country. It wasn't the first time she walked away from a lucrative job. Back in 2008, she quit her first job at a law firm and learned a few hard lessons.
“There was a period in there where I had run out of the savings I was relying on and I was broke," Senghore said, recalling her jobless period in 2008. "Like, broke-broke. That was a definite low point,” she said. She borrowed money from her sister a few times, until one day, her sister refused. The tough love her sister doled out more than a decade ago Senghore's best advice today for women who are working up the nerve to make a big career change.
“One lesson I learned from my sister [is] finding that balance between pursuing your dreams and being responsible to yourself and the people around you,” Senghore said. "It really helped me to take what was very amorphous [and] make your dreams your plan. I was treating my dream as just as kind of like cotton candy clouds thing, but I wasn't using any of the skills, I have to, you know, make a plan and pursue something. [My sister] forced me to bring those two things together and say, Okay, yeah, we're gonna go for the pie in the sky. But you know, you can still apply your intellect and your skills to put a container around it."
One of the skills she developed was a way to override the negative voice in her head, like the one that told her she was too old to apply to graduate school.
“I had self-doubt or the aversion to risk, and the thing I love, luckily, was just louder and as insistent as my ‘be careful, be cautious’ voice,” she said. “I guess they would just get in a room and duke it out and passion would put my self-doubt in a headlock, and be like, ‘Alright, well, you're coming with me.’”
Senghore has performed Shakespeare classics like Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It with Shakespeare on the Sound, a performing arts group in Norwalk, Connecticut. She earned a part in the SYFY Network Show HAPPY! and appeared on NBC's Blindspot and in the web series Friend Therapy.
She then brought her theatre and TV experience to bear on the big screen, where she’s thrilled to star in a film that puts two female characters, hers and Jolie’s, front and center.
“My character and hers do the bulk of the action and do the bulk of the ‘saving the day’,” Senghore said. “And one of the things that attracted both of us to the movie was that it's an action movie, but features two strong women [who] are not in competition with each other, who are on parallel tracks.” With struggles and fears and vulnerabilities front and center, “their strength isn't because they’re superheroes. It's because they rise to the challenge they’re faced with in a very human way.”
She thinks the movie goes a long way toward establishing ‘strong women’ as those who are confident and vulnerable.
“A lot of times the label ‘strong woman,’ even though it sounds really nice, is actually a box,” she said, ‘because it says, ‘Well, oh, since you're strong, you're not allowed to complain, you're not allowed to take time off, you're not allowed to have a breakdown, you’re not allowed to ask for help because we gave you the strong woman crown. And that’s a path to disaster.”
“The narrative needs to include that sometimes strength is not because we're impenetrable,” she said. “It’s because we're rising to the challenge.”