The Orville: How Imani Pullum Acts Beyond Her Years as Topa

Imani Pullum speaks to Den of Geek about her breakout year with crucial roles on The Orville: New Horizons and Apple TV+'s Emancipation.

The Orville New Horizons -- Midnight Blue - Episode 308 -- Kelly and Bortus are assigned to a mission that takes them to Heveena’s sanctuary world. Topa (Imani Pullum) and Heveena (Rena Owen), shown.
Photo: Greg Gayne | Hulu

This article contains spoilers for The Orville: New Horizons through episode 9.

When The Orville moved from Fox to Hulu, it received an exciting new addition to its name. In adding the subtitle “New Horizons,” Hulu and the show’s creators were letting audiences know exactly what the third season was going to entail, both on camera and behind the scenes. Yes, the budget has been inflated and Disney-fied. Yes, costumes and set pieces have become more detailed and elaborate. Yet at the core of the show, The Orville has still played to its strengths: its characters. 

With the emergence of these “New Horizons” came an influx of new cast members, most notable among them being Topa, played by Imani Pullum. Throughout season 3, Topa and the young actress who plays her has had the entire weight of the show thrust on their shoulders more than once. And as if it weren’t enough to be asked to shoulder a typical narrative burden, Topa’s stories were loaded with topical subtext and important social issues. Within Pullum’s premiere episode, “A Tale of Two Topas,” the actor had to create a character who grappled with gender identity and the intense and unfair geopolitical implications that came along with it. 

Another massive change to The Orville this season was a subtle leap in the timeline. Pullum’s tenure as Topa represents the first time Orville fans have seen a teenaged version of the young Moclan, as Topa is now burgeoning towards adulthood. In the second season the role was played by child actor Blesson Yates, and Topa was not even a pre-teen. Granted that second season was in production nearly five years ago, but the jump in narrative chronology within the show was still more significant than in reality. 

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With Topa’s coming-of-age storyline, came a personal journey for the character which dealt with extremely mature and sensitive issues. Pullum often showed a talent and emotional sensitivity beyond her years in her performance as Topa this season, and she’ll look to carry that success into Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming Emancipation, opposite Will Smith, which will be streaming on Apple TV+ sometime next year. Pullum is quickly emerging as a performer who does not shy away from tackling roles that will educate, challenge, and hopefully even comfort viewers when addressing these social issues. 

Den of Geek had the opportunity to speak with Pullum about The Orville, her breakout year, and the importance of telling these stories. Also, be sure to check out a time lapse video of the actress becoming Topa below!

Den of Geek: I did want to mention how great it was after your first two somewhat heavy episodes this season, that in the latest episode, we got to see Topa just relax and look at the stars for once. Did you get a chance to catch your breath a little?

Imani Pullum: Yeah, it was super cool. I was happy that she got a moment to breathe and just enjoy that. It was a fun episode to film, so I was happy to just sit back and throw a ball and look at stars.

Walk us through it, because at the time of your audition, how much did you know about the role of Topa and The Orville at that point?

I didn’t really know anything about the show. I got the audition from my manager, and so I looked it up. I [did] some research on the character because it was clear that Topa was somebody who’s already been present in past seasons. So I thought, “Let me just get a feel for what the role is like and what I’m expected to do”. So I learned a lot about Moclans, and how to be one from watching episodes and clips. Got the audition in December of 2019, I had one audition for it, and then I got the part.

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How old were you at the time of filming?

I believe at the time of the first thing I filmed, I was 16 years old. With COVID and everything, there was a pause, and then we started up again when I was 17, and we eventually finished everything right before I turned 18. 

The reason I ask is because the sheer life experience that you somehow brought to this role is tremendous. The fact that you had to play two (or more) parts of a personality or call on this experience that you might not have had in real life for the role should be applauded. What did you draw upon in order to make Topa’s inner struggle as authentic as you did?

I consider myself a fairly observant person, I like to just watch people and see how they react and observe their emotions. I use a lot of that in my acting, because certain things I can’t fully relate to, but I can see how other people deal and cope with those things in their lives, and I can draw on that. 

When you got to meet with Peter Macon and Chad L. Coleman (NOTE: The two actors play Topa’s parents in The Orville) for the first time, did you feel a kinship with them or have any questions for them?

I definitely felt a father/daughter connection with them. Being my first major role, I wanted to do the best I possibly could do, and they were so kind to me when I got on set, because I was certainly a little nervous.

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Also the framing of [the situation] helps as well, with the emotion and connection, with the makeup and the costumes, and just being there with Chad and Peter. Feeling like this is my family. This is how our family works. This is our structure. So they were super welcoming and kind to me, and I truly felt like I got to know them on a close level. 

“A Tale of two Topas” was clearly important to creator Seth MacFarlane as he both wrote and directed that episode. What were some of the pre-production discussions surrounding that episode you had with him?

The first time I met him was at the table read, which was the only table read I think we got to do, because COVID put an end to that. But pre-COVID, I went to the table read, and read the whole episode. Then [during filming] before we would do certain scenes, Seth would come talk to me about what Topa might be feeling and thinking. 

That helped me get into character and it was great of him to be able to speak with me on a very personal level. He always made sure to communicate with me what his expectations were and it was a very collaborative process. 

The support system that has come out of that show from your castmates has been tremendous. I just saw a recent post from Adrianne Palicki, who talked about how your performance makes her emotional. How much like what does that mean to you at this point that you’re getting the support from this tremendous cast?

It really means the world to me, because I wasn’t expecting any of that, to be completely honest. Going into the project, I didn’t realize how big of a role Topa was. I kind of knew, but I didn’t want to psych myself out and think about all this pressure to do well. 

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But everyone was so kind to me, and I would have never guessed that I would be able to have such a great connection with these people who are incredible actors.

Speaking of support systems, I love that your dad, Fernando Pullum, founded The Fernando Pullum Performing Arts Center, (located in Los Angeles) which offers free music and acting lessons to the youth of the community. What was your upbringing like with your dad, who had worked with some tremendous artists in his lifetime? Did he foster an artistic lifestyle for you?

It’s so funny to think about because, for me, it was all very normal. Growing up, I would go to the Hollywood Bowl constantly as a kid. It was just something we did regularly. I met Chadwick Boseman, as my dad had worked with him before, and it happened before I really understood what any of it meant. I didn’t quite grasp how cool it was at the time, but it was really exciting getting to go to all these concerts. 

So my dad’s very supportive. Being in the performing arts, he understands what my job is like.  I also hope that someday, if and when he retires, that I could take over his community center, because it’s just made such a big difference for so many people. It keeps a lot of people off the streets, and helps them get jobs because a lot of people who’ve gone to his community center have become performing arts teachers, which is incredible. It’s nice to see him be able to accomplish his goals and his dreams, and it’s really inspiring for me to try and do the same thing as well. 

Good for him, and good for you, as well, for wanting to carry on that legacy. What can you tell us about Emancipation?

I play Betsy, a 13-year-old girl and Will Smith’s daughter. I got to work with some incredible actors. Charmaine [Bingwa], who plays my mom, is on The Good Fight and she’s the best. I have a great relationship with her. 

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It was really an honor to work on this project. I got to go to New Orleans for a month, so I missed a lot of school for that, but I’m not complaining (laughs). It was a really fun project to work on, and I’m super excited to see it when it comes out. 

The fact that you’re in both Emancipation and The Orville, you’ve got an interesting juxtaposition in these two major roles. Have you reflected on the fact that you’re both a critical part of telling a tragic piece of African-American history, and yet, you’re also in a project which fosters the future of representation, especially in science fiction? 

Sometimes I do, but other times it gets to be a lot. I remember when I watched “A Tale of Two Topas”, for the first time, I was watching it with my mom, and I was on Twitter, just refreshing my page constantly. Just to see what people thought, because it was just so much for me to process. I wasn’t expecting that. 

So I can’t really think too much about it. Because it gets to be a little much for me. But when Emancipation comes out, I think I’ll be able to fully reflect on everything and then maybe relax a bit.

The season finale of The Orville: New Horizons airs Thursday, Aug. 4 on Hulu (and Disney+ worldwide).