Growing up, Ayo Edebiri mused about becoming a stand-up comedian or an actress, but figured she’d probably wind up a teacher. Her immigrant parents are practical people and a career in Hollywood seemed impractical, especially for a kid from Dorchester who didn’t know anything about the entertainment business.
“They were, like, ‘What are we gonna do, give up our jobs and move to L.A. so you can do auditions, you weird kid?” Edebiri said. “They weren’t, like, ‘Go on, kid, go off to Hollywood!’”
But, determined to indulge her interest in performing, she did just that after college, and it has worked out remarkably well. Whatever doubts Edebiri’s mom and dad had about their daughter’s future in showbiz have been extinguished by the runaway success of “The Bear,” the FX comedy-drama series depicting the hurly-burly of an old-school Chicago sandwich shop and the headstrong characters in the kitchen.
In the show, whose second season debuts Thursday on Hulu, Edebiri plays Sydney Adamu, a smart but insecure young sous chef whose ideas and ambition exasperate her more seasoned coworkers at The Original Beef of Chicagoland, the failing restaurant where “The Bear” takes place. Praised by critics, Edebiri’s nuanced performance also caught the eye of producers and casting agents, leading to a plum role in the new season of ABC’s hit show “Abbott Elementary” and a part in Marvel’s upcoming movie “Thunderbolts.”
Despite all the acclaim — Edebiri also shows up on Time’s latest list of 100 rising stars — the 27-year-old actress seems largely unaffected. During a Zoom call from Los Angeles, where she shares an apartment with Gromit, her Chihuahua-terrier mix, Edebiri credited her upbringing in Boston with giving her perspective.
“In Dorchester, there were a lot of immigrants, a lot of working-class Irish people, and the vibes were, like, ‘We’re real people with real lives,’” she said.
Religion, too, was an important part of her early life. Edebiri’s parents — her mother is from Barbados and her father is Nigerian — are Pentecostal, which, Edebiri said, is “a bit intense.” She attended St. Margaret School, a private Catholic school in Dorchester, sang in the choir of her church, and participated in a faith-based youth group. She enjoyed all of it.
“I loved it because I think I was a pretty serious kid,” she said.
She was and she wasn’t. Edebiri, who’s an only child, played oboe, flute, and alto sax in middle school; adored “One Tree Hill” heartthrob Chad Michael Murray; was wild for Radiohead’s “No Surprises” video; and nourished her comedic impulses by watching “Chappelle’s Show” and listening to albums by Dane Cook, John Mulaney, and, when she was sure no one was around, Katt Williams’s “The Pimp Chronicles.”
“I was, like, ‘This is on the edge, but I’m really into it,’ ” she said.
But as much as she enjoyed stand-up, Edebiri couldn’t imagine actually doing it. She was too shy, too anxious — or at least she thought she was. Christa Crewdson, her eighth-grade drama teacher at Boston Latin School, remembers Edebiri as timid, more reluctant than most in the class to get up onstage. At first, Crewdson didn’t push it.
“It took a lot of convincing,” she said, “but when Ayo did finally get up there, she was really good at coming up with strong, interesting characters, which usually takes young actors a while to develop, but she had a knack for doing it.”
Crewdson, who now teaches at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, only recently learned that the diffident kid who had to be coaxed into participating in class has become something of an “it girl” in Hollywood. Crewdson’s never seen “The Bear” — she doesn’t have Hulu — but plans to start watching.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “As a teacher, you never know who you affect.”
At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Edebiri took classes that might prepare her to be a high school English teacher, but she also joined an improv group and started performing stand-up. She met Rachel Sennott, another NYU student just beginning to do stand-up, and the two became friends and, later, collaborators.
“These were open mics with a bunch of 35-year-old guys driving in from New Jersey who really loved Joe Rogan. It was a little scary and we were definitely both intimidated by that,” said Sennott, who created the Comedy Central series “Ayo and Rachel Are Single” with Edebiri. The pair also co-star in the smart, campy high school comedy film “Bottoms,” due out in August.
“We definitely connected over a feeling of, like, we just have to figure it out as we go,” Sennott said.
Eventually, Edebiri did figure it out. She met other young women — specifically, young Black women — who’d graduated and landed writing jobs. They weren’t rich or famous, but they were happy and could afford the important stuff, like health insurance.
“I had a lot of [student] loans, so I didn’t know if it was totally feasible or if my parents would go for it,” Edebiri said. “But I thought, OK, maybe this is realistic.”
After college — she graduated with a degree in dramatic writing — Edebiri continued doing stand-up and worked as a writer on the FX vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” Netflix’s animated sitcom “Big Mouth,” and the Apple TV+ comedy-drama “Dickinson,” on which she also had an on-screen role as a servant who writes for an abolitionist journal.
When Christopher Storer, who directed a few episodes of “Dickinson,” was casting his new show about a fine-dining chef who returns to Chicago to save his late brother’s struggling sandwich shop, Edebiri auditioned for the role of Sydney and got it. “The Bear” debuted last June and became one of the most-watched shows of the summer, lauded for its authentic depiction of the chaos and claustrophobia of contemporary restaurant culture. The first season made several critics’ year-end best-of lists.
Because authenticity was important, the cast, especially Edebiri and actor Jeremy Allen White, who plays chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, had to do more than a pinch of prep; they trained at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and shadowed chefs at Contra and Wildair in New York and Elske in Chicago.
“Both Jeremy and I just wanted to get good and thought we’d have comfort if we were proficient,” Edebiri said. “But it’s not just knife skills or whatever. Can you move like somebody who’s working in a kitchen?”
But “The Bear” is about more than making a convincing cola-braised short rib and risotto. The show has intensely emotional themes — loss, trauma, addiction — and the relationship between Edebiri’s character and Richie, the abrasive manager who’s hostile to Sydney’s hyper-organized approach in the kitchen, is particularly fraught. Edebiri hadn’t done a lot of dramatic acting before “The Bear,” but Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who plays Richie, says she wasn’t intimidated.
“I never saw her struggle,” Moss-Bachrach said. “Ayo’s brain is very supple. She’s got a good sense of timing and musicality, and she’s also a writer and a stand-up, so I think she likes to swim in that temperature pool.
“She’s just got a lot of natural charisma, and you can’t really learn or teach that,” he said.
Edebiri’s performance, commended by “Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson as “one of the most clear-eyed portrayals of the modern working Black girl I’ve seen onscreen in a really long time,” earned an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting performance in a new scripted series. In accepting the award, Edebiri said she was grateful for the recognition: “I grew up and there weren’t people who looked like me or felt like me.”
Those words resonated with Native American actress K. Devery Jacobs. Over the past few years, Jacobs, who plays Indigenous teen Elora Danan on the celebrated FX series “Reservation Dogs,” has crossed paths with Edebiri at various industry events, and the two have bonded as “the FX freaks.”
“How Ayo carries herself, as a nerdy-ass person of color, is really inspiring to me as a nerdy-ass Native kid,” Jacobs said. “To be breaking into the industry at this new level, in these spaces where everybody is so familiar with each other, is disorienting. I feel like, with Ayo, we’ve kind of found each other and hung on to each other like a buoy.”
Edebiri’s mother, who works with special-education students, and her father, a zealous Boston sports fan who works in state government, both declined to be interviewed for this story. But Edebiri is pretty sure they’re finally convinced that a career in TV and movies isn’t as impractical as it once seemed.
“My goal is to get successful enough that I can get my dad some floor seats for a Celtics game,” she said. “I just want to keep making cool stuff with cool people. I always want to feel like I’m doing something that’s exciting to me.”