We caught up for a Q & A with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who stars in Killer Elite, opening this weekend, alongside Robert De Niro, Jason Statham, Clive Owen. This self-proclaimed gentle giant is best known for his roles on the hit shows’ Oz (Simon Adebisi) and Lost (Mr. Eko) and plays a suave, cunning and ultimately ruthless negotiator in this action thriller where only ‘the best man will live’.
Before acting, you had a career in law and also worked as a model in Milan, when did you first know you wanted to pursue acting as your life’s work?
My start came from the law. Even as a lawyer, I think subconsciously the acting was there. I grew up in London and I went into law because it was the profession of my father. He worked his way up the ranks to become a successful barrister so I pursued that as sort of a parental gesture. I did a Bachelors and Masters degree but I knew even then that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life just reading thick books and studying. Although I still read thick scripts! My real love of cinema started when I was about six or seven when I was a bit of a mischievous kid. My grandmother was from the “school of hard knocks” and so my mom sent me there to spend time with her and get disciplined. During that time, I would often sit with her and watch these old black and white movies over and over and I noticed how the films would transform her stern face. After a while, I knew all the plots and actors and we began having these conversations and banter over the story-lines. This time in my life exposed me to the romance that I currently have with Hollywood. I recently shot the film Bullet to the Head with Sylvester Stallone and Christian Slater which releases in April. This film was based on one of the older movies and it reinforced that my love of film started at an early age back in m grandmother’s house but didn’t manifest itself as my career until I left law and moved to Hollywood.
When did you make the transition to LA and how did you begin landing roles?
I had a girlfriend at the time that was a model and was making the move to LA. I came over too and was originally looking to work in the music industry. I have a love of music and I play the trumpet. I still play it everywhere I go. I bring my trumpet to set because it’s a great way to relax the nerves and playing helps my vocal baritone when I do different accents. I also play the drums. When I first got to LA I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but I am a very fast learner and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Traditionally, for Hollywood, I started late in my mid-late twenties. I was just trying to make ends meat when I was sent on an acting audition. I was asked to read a four to five page scene and so I did. I read the lines quickly and read both my lines and the other actor’s part. I had never auditioned before and the casting person kindly told me that you just read your lines. Despite this, he was impressed by my ability to memorize quickly and I landed my role in the film Congo. This was my first real break back in 1994. Funny story, whilst I was filming that movie, Jim Carey was on the same backlot and invited me down to watch him. Afterward, we went to his office and messed around on another scene from his film and suddenly I landed the police officer role in Ace Ventura.
Most people know you as imposing convict Simon Adebisi on HBO’s OZ or as Mr. Eko on ABC’s Lost? Tell me a little bit about what attracted you to these roles.
The stories of these roles are actually inextricably connected. The pivotal breakthrough for me in my career was Oz. Eventhough I’d done some films, this role really made people aware that I had acting chops and brought about both critical acclaim and made me a bit of a house/cult character. It said: I’m not just a former model or a pretty face. But what drew me to it was actually necessity. At this point in my career I was still struggling, broke really, and I needed to work. I remember saying to my agent at the time, ‘What’s going on in NY?’ She said most of the meaty roles in projects were all booked and there were only a few two-liners available but I was hungry and willing to do whatever. I couldn’t afford a round-trip ticket so I bought a one-way and auditioned for two lines for a guy in Oz who would quickly die in the next episode. When I went in for the audition, I read the role in every accent I could do- English, Jamaican, African and American. The casting director, Alexa Fogel, marched me right into Tim Fontana’s office and told me to do the same for him. The next day I got a call and they said we liked the African accent and we love your voice and we don’t have that on the show so we created this character. It was originally an American gang-banger but the part was transformed for me to this Nigerian character. For Lost, the creators were actually huge fans of my work on Oz and so they came to me and said they wrote the character for me and with me in mind. They flew me to LA (I was shooting Get Rich or Die Trying at the time with 50 Cent, the role of Majestic) and I had dinner with the producers. They said this is not an audition, this is an offer, and told me the character they wrote they wanted me to do and that they could only see me doing this part. Even though TV at that point in my career was not my focus, it was such a great opportunity to play such a rich character on such a large platform. You don’t say no to something like that, so that’s how that role came about.
You tend to play tough, powerful, authoritative characters – Dictator Wombosi in Bourne Identity, Heavy Duty in G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra– how do you feel you are most similar and different to these roles? What do you think might be a fan’s biggest misconception about you?
I certainly don’t go around murdering people, shooting or stabbing anyone (laughs) so in that respect, very different. Often when people meet me I have a British accent not a thick African or American accent as on screen and they also note that I’m very laid back, so these things take fans by surprise. They expect me to be the character but I am different in that sense. I am Nigerian and British born and raised, but I live in America and I am well-educated. I am a big guy with a powerful on screen presence so initially in your career you will be typecast into those types of roles but for me, it’s not a hindrance. I see every role as an opportunity to act. So with the criminals and heavies, you inject humanity and texture into the character. With the roles I play, my goal is for the audience to sense the compassion and the humanity in them. It’s a treat because you have more freedom- they are not bad guys, they are just men taking care of business in the way they know how. For me, you did your job as the villain if the fans clap when you die.
Do your roles tend to require a lot of physical or weapons training?
The two roles that required the most intensive training were The Mummy Returns and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (both by director Stephen Sommers). He’s a perfectionist and meticulous. We’d go to training like six weeks before the movie and it’s serious. You are working out and weight training and learning weapons training all at the same time. Sommers wanted to be sure everything looked authentic and also that nobody gets hurt. But the training and the physicality of the roles, that’s the fun part of it.
Of all your roles, what part stands out as your favorite or most challenging?
That’s a tough question because they all have their own special element that draws you to them. I loved doing The Mummy Returns and G.I. Joe because they were so fun with the lavish costumes and swordplay. But playing Simon Adebisi in Oz is probably the role where I had the most fun as an actor and am the most proud of my work. That said, I also loved playing Mr. Eko on Lost because it was a very rich character on such a popular show. When I worked on Die Trying, I got to see a dimension of my craft that had not come out before so that was a big role for me. Even recently, working with Stallone on a big studio movie like Bullet to the Head, I get to play a real character and it’s rewarding to get to do that in this type of film.
What is your favorite memory from being on set?
It’s definitely is from Oz. What was so good about that time was that everyone came to set with their A-game, just hungry talented actors because if you weren’t good you’d get killed in another episode so it created a healthy competitive environment. We had a riot scene where we got to smash up the set and light it on fire. When you work there all day, long hours, for months on end, it starts to feel like a real prison. You can get on each others nerves, so at the end of all this we got to smash it up real good and it was a release, a lot of fun to do it together on film.
What do you look for in a role when you first get a script?
Moving forward right now, I want to play some lead roles. I think while I am young and still have some looks, I’d like to play some big action heroes and cop roles. I have to be connected to the character and it has to have an arch or impact in the film. This doesn’t mean you have to be in it the whole two hours. I did a movie with The Rock not too long ago called Faster. I am in it for about ten minutes but it’s a pivotal scene, the type of scene that has the potential to steal a movie. I look for things that will challenge me and also look to see what kind of impact my character can have on the overall story. How I can I create something unique in this character that I haven’t done in other characters. Also, I wouldn’t mind playing an athlete- maybe a football player or a boxer. I’d love to play a musician, someone like Nat King Cole since music is my first love. Maybe even do a romantic comedy. In my recent film, Best Laid Plans, which releases this year, I carry the movie. I’d of course like to do more of that. Play the lead, star in a good indie, take on playing an action superhero. I also look to play opposite lead actors I admire. I would love to work with Javier Bardem or Daniel Day Lewis or work on a Steven Soderbergh film; these are artists I admire.
Tell me about the release of your film Killer Elite which opens this weekend.
In Killer Elite I play a suave negotiator who goes by the name of The Agent. He is called when someone needs a hit. I have an agency of the most renowned hit-men. I make deals and play everyone off each other for my own self-interests. My character is smart, manipulating, and charming but a ruthless negotiator. You never know where his alliances lie but they are always to himself. You don’t normally see a black actor in this role in a film and certainly it was amazing to play opposite a legend like Robert De Niro, someone you can learn from.
You also have a few projects slated for the end of 2011 and 2012, what can we look for from these films?
In Best Laid Plans, which I mentioned, I play a 37-year old man with a 7-year old mentality. He is mentally challenged and the story is a modern adaptation of Of Mice and Men. It’s about love, friendship, and betrayal in a dark world set in rural England. I am a gentle giant who is placed in a compromising situation in order to save my friend. It has certainly been one of my most challenging and most rewarding roles. I just saw a screening of it and you are always nervous as an actor to see if you can pull it off. I was happy with the finished project. Sony Classic plans to release it around the holidays in December. In The Thing, I play Derek Jameson. He is a pilot and the best friend of Sam Carter (played by Joel Edgerton). Our characters set up a ferry base in the Antarctic and we take this job where we ferry a bunch of archeologists to a certain place… and its one of those jobs you wish you never took. In the Stallone film Bullet to the Head I play Morel. The film focuses around a crippled mastermind who puts together lavish scams. All my roles are different and they are not all heavies. I think these upcoming films demonstrate the range of my craft.
You are also a writer and director. What projects can we look forward to in that respect and what are you working on currently?
Yes, writing is a passion of mine. I wrote and developed a script calling Farming which received the Annenberg Award for newcomer writer-director when it showed at Robert Redford’s Sundance Labs. I shot and premiered this short back in 2007 and now I am looking to put it on the big screen. I am putting the financing together. I also just finished another script so have been very active on the writing side of my career. In this career, you can’t wait for films to come down the grid, you have to be multi-faceted. The script is based on my life and how I grew up.
How can your fans stay connected with you?
I appreciate all their support and they can contact me directly at my twitter #TheOneTripleA.