Yaya DaCosta is taking a crash course in emergency medicine. Wearing scrubs and asking for a doctor “Stat!” or staring at a flat line on a monitor, then grabbing a defibrillator and shouting “Clear!” simply won’t suffice when she plays headstrong, seasoned ER nurse April Sexton in Chicago Med, the latest series from Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and a spinoff of the ratings mammoth Chicago Fire.
“One of the goals of the series’ creators is to be really accurate and true to science, from the way we hold instruments to the way we pronounce [medical jargon],” says 33-year-old DaCosta, who is of Brazilian, Nigerian and Irish descent. “It’s like learning a whole new language, because a lot of these terms aren’t used in everyday speech and I’m trying to make them second nature.”
The Harlem, New York, native is more than equipped to tackle the challenge—after all, her extraordinary intellect, innate curiosity and academic discipline helped her gain entry into Northfield Mount Hermon, a tiny Massachusetts boarding school, and later Brown University, where she majored in International Relations and African Studies. Moreover, it’s her desire to learn and her dedication to perfecting her craft that has allowed DaCosta to earn the respect of her acting peers, stomping out any misconceptions stemming from her TV debut in Season 3 of America’s Next Top Model, in which she finished as the runner-up.
“It took a while for me to be taken seriously,” DaCosta confesses of her post-ANTM acting life. It didn’t help that during the competition, show creator and host Tyra Banks criticized DaCosta’s penchant for “Afrocentric head wraps” and described her as having a “superior, condescending attitude” simply because of her desire to celebrate her multiethnic and multicultural ancestry. “I remember that when [the ANTM producers] called me to meet in person, they handed my application back and there was a Post-it on it that said, ‘Reads like a book,’” says DaCosta. “I should’ve seen that as a sign not to do [the show], as [an indication] that it wasn’t the environment I needed to be in, one in which people were going to write me in as a smarty-pants when I was just being a normal girl. It was definitely a setup, but I made it out alive and took some time afterward to heal my soul and focus on acting.”
Like Jennifer Hudson, who went on to win an Oscar and a Grammy after being eliminated from her season of American Idol, DaCosta has reached an unprecedented level of success compared with other ANTM alumni. Since 2005, she’s guest-starred on such hit series as Ugly Betty and House M.D. and landed small but memorable roles in critically acclaimed independent dramas like The Kids Are All Right and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. This past January, she hit a particularly high note playing a young Whitney Houston in Lifetime’s Whitney biopic. She’s also thrived on a personal level giving birth to a son, Sankara, in September 2013.
As for her future plans, DaCosta dreams of working on a Brazilian film, teaming up with local talents such as Regina Casé, Patrícia Dejesus and Taís Araújo. “My mom’s dad is Brazilian, and that’s the aspect of my heritage I identify with most because I grew up around my Brazilian cousins, speaking Portuguese and going to capoeira rodas,” she says.
For now, however, she’s as excited to make the Windy City her new home as she is about the prospect of filming on the sandy beaches of Rio de Janeiro. “I’m just going to need a good winter coat!” she says. Indeed—and stat!