In “Emily The Criminal,” released in theaters Aug. 12, Spokane-born actor Megalyn Echikunwoke plays Liz, the oblivious best friend of Aubrey Plaza’s titular Emily, who, saddled with debt, gets pulled gradually deeper into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles.
The thriller, which also features Theo Rossi, Brandon Sklenar and Gina Gershon, is a product of art imitating life (sort of). Echikunwoke was given the script by Plaza herself — their friendship dates back to making the 2011 comedy-drama “Damsels in Distress” together.
“I remember hanging out with her during filming and thinking, ’She’s so weird and fun and cool,’ ” Echikunwoke said. “We stayed friends. We’d run into each other. I hadn’t seen her for a few years then she randomly invited me to a Paul Simon concert. We just ended up having tons of fun and we stayed in touch.”
So when Plaza not only decided to star in the film, written and directed by John Patton Ford, but to produce it, too, it was natural she sought out Echikunwoke.
“Her character needed a fun best friend,” Echikunwoke said of her turn in “Emily the Criminal.”
“And she thought of me. I just loved the story of it. It’s inspired by John’s own experience of being broke, in debt and disenchanted with the American dream,” she continued. “I related to that, especially when he told me about what inspired the Liz character. I really thought his vision for the film was inspiring and exciting.”
Echikunwoke and two siblings were born in Spokane; her Nigerian parents Anita and Mark met at Eastern Washington University. Mark went on to study law at Gonzaga University, but died just two weeks before his graduation, when Echikunwoke was just 4.
“That’s my very bleak connection to Spokane,” she said. “But it is responsible for me and my siblings.”
Two years later, after earning her own degree, Anita moved Megalyn, her two siblings and two other half-siblings from a previous marriage to Chinle, Arizona, after being recruited as a nurse by an Indian Health Service hospital to work in the Navajo Nation.
Echikunwoke visited Spokane regularly, though, as her grandfather stayed in the Lilac City. She’s since made her way to Western Washington, too.
“I love Seattle. I think it is such a fantastic city,” Echikunwoke said. “There are so many amazing artists, especially musicians from Washington. It’s so beautiful. Some of my fondest memories are up in the mountains and at the San Juan Islands.”
Washington is where Echikunwoke’s dreams of acting first sparked: There isn’t a period of her life where she didn’t want to perform.
“I was always performing,” she said. “I was always in trouble with my brothers because I wouldn’t stop like singing, dancing and pretending.”
But Echikunwoke started to perform “with earnest” in public school on the Navajo reservation. There weren’t dancing or acting classes, so she played saxophone in the band. Then, one summer, a teacher decided to put on a radio show of “Cinderella.”
During rehearsals, that teacher told Echikunwoke about the Idyllwild Arts Academy outside Los Angeles, where she’d learn to sing, dance and act. Echikunwoke landed a scholarship and attended a three-week theater program, where she performed a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke,” as well as some other musical numbers.
“The guy who ended up being my manager for the next 13 years was in the audience of the big show at the end of the program,” Echikunwoke said. “I don’t know how I pulled it off. Whenever I get too down on myself, I just think, ‘Well, this is clearly meant to be.’
“I really had nothing to do with it. I just wanted to perform. I wanted to do what I felt called to do. And I figured out a way to do it. Somehow.”
Since then, Echikunwoke has appeared in the TV shows “The Steve Harvey Show,” “24,” “ER,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as well as the movies “Night School,” “Late Night” and “CHiPs,” leaving a strong impression when she appears on screen.
With her latest film, “Emily the Criminal,” Echikunwoke hopes to help “normalize” the sight of “strong and complicated female characters” on the big screen.
“I think a lot of people will relate to it. I don’t think there are a lot of stories like this. I hope people feel less alone when they see what Emily is going through,” Echikunwoke said. “Because I don’t think it’s that rare. Not everyone agrees to become a criminal and commit fraud. But the struggle is quite common and I don’t think you get to see that on screen a lot from the female perspective. So I hope people can identify with the film.”
The film is showing now in multiple Seattle-area theaters.