This previous weekend, if you were an adult looking for a good time at the theater without interest in wizards or princesses, your best option was the new Dwayne Johnson vehicle Faster. Unfortunately Faster didn’t light up the box office in the way a return-to-form action movie starring The Asskicker Formerly Known As The Rock deserved to. If you take a look at the CHUD review of Faster from David Oliver and I, you’ll see that while the film is not without potholes, it’s a damn good time at the theater and the kind of solid action movie we don’t get a ton of anymore. If you’re into that sort of thing, go see Faster and give this thing some legs so we can get more films like it.
To help get the word out about Faster, I was able to speak with Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, who plays the character “Black Evangelist” in the film, though you may know him best as Mr. Eko on Lost, Adebisi on Oz, or Heavy Duty in G.I. Joe. He’ll also be appearing in the upcoming The Thing prequel, and if all goes well, he’ll be trying his hand behind the camera with an autobiographical film based off of his award-winning (and extremely interesting-sounding) script. The chat is quick but you can immediately tell how willing to speak and philosophize Adewale is about acting and the balance of an action movie. Reading the piece doesn’t quite do justice to his smooth British accent and measured cadence, not to mention his intimidating physical presence, but trust me when I saw he is a classy giant of a gentleman. This was originally going to be a one-on-one but became a small roundtable, so my questions are in green.
Tell us about Faster, and your character Evangelist in the film…
Well Faster, as you know, stars Dwayne, Billy Bob, and myself, but it is one of those action-packed films with a soul, with a heart. I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised because a film like this normally –you know, sensational, guns and bullets– but there’s some real messages in this, without actually being hit over the head with a hammer. George Tillman, the director, has done an amazing job crafting it into a sexy, action-packed film with a heart. The character I play is someone called Black Evangelist. The plot, obviously without giving too much away, is about Dwayne and his brother who are bank robbers, and I’m part of a group of bank robbers that rob him after a heist, kill his brother, and leave him for dead. He then goes about seeking revenge when he gets out, killing each person who was involved in that murder, and I’m one of them. I won’t tell you what happens, but the character, Black Evangelist, is a pivotal character in the movie, as you’ll see when you see it. With some amazing scenes with Dwayne, very emotional, and just real. It’s great to see two big men, who are seemingly action hero men doing very dramatic, real scenes. And you’ll see that here.
The film is clever, you know, because there are lots of sub-plots, a lot of arcs that are interwoven, which is tricky to do with a movie, do it right. So everybody in this movie, no matter how small, has an arc which is interesting. So there’s a lot there for everyone.
So how did you become involved in the production and end up on Dwayne’s list?
It was relatively simple, I mean, you get the call. We’ve been tracking this film for awhile because it’s been on the circuit for a while, but when it really got the greenlight my people, my agent -who’s a brilliant agent- was just all over it, because even though it’s not “the lead role” it’s a pivotal role, and it’s also a role I’ve not played before, it’s very rich in texture. I play a guy who’s MLK-esque, Martin Luther King-esque, and he’s inspired by that era. And I always felt that was a really rich, textured era in Black America, that had I had a choice to be born, that would have been the era I would have been born in, so I was very drawn to the character in thaT. But the process practically was: they were looking for the character, I was on top of a short-list, and I just put something (I was in London at the time), I just threw something on a tape in my house, in London, and sent it to the director, how I thought the character might go. They responded, and George, who comes from a ministry background, his father was a minister, he had done extensive research on this character. You know, we have a full choir in it, there’s actual ministering, and part of his direction to me- he was like, “I really want you to minister him.” And for me as an individual, as an actor I just had to look at Dwayne to see who he was and talk to him through the lines, and hopefully we succeeded.
Considering you’re a Buddhist, and this film is about vendetta and revenge, what are your philosophies about those things?
That’s a great question, the Buddhism I practice is really Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, and one of the principle philosophies of that practice is the idea of cause and effect. The movie really speaks to that because if you make a good or a bad cause, you’re going to have the consequent effect. Life is mystic, what we see as bad may be good, what we see as good or a good person may be bad, so it’s really the heart, the intent behind the cause that you’re making that should really dictate your fatal destiny. I think, what you see, is that philosophy fully lived out in this movie because even though Dwayne’s character Driver, is driven by revenge, hatred, bitterness, he is a pure and good-hearted soul, and that is what I speak to at the end of the movie, and in so doing, redeem him. So I think all of those- Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, have principles that are all similar, and I think you’re gonna see in the movie right and wrong, redemption, forgiveness, all echoed in this movie as in any religion. So for me as a Buddhist, playing this, he was a joy because I was able to emanate philosophies that I actually believe in through this character.
So when you mention someone like MLK and talk about the ministry within the film, obviously you have to trust the director to tread that line in terms of tone, but how do you as an actor prepare yourself to be in a big action movie and be a big memorable character, while still paying justice to those very important figures you’re drawing from?
Another good question, really, as an artist I always seek the truth in the character. The wallpaper I like to call it, the fabric, the context within which that character is embedded, whether it’s a blockbuster, and indie, theater, is not something I try to get consumed with. I think once I suss out the core of that character, and that may be a process of research, practice on my own, collaboration with the director- in this case George had intimate knowledge of that background so there was a lot of collaboration in terms of things to read, videotape, and just sitting down and trying to get the pitch, because we didn’t want him to be a caricature of that, so it’s all of those. For me, it really is one of those journeys I relish as an actor because it’s like opening the pandora’s box, I’m like, “alright, here I go again,” and here are these characters, and I really explore the depth so it was in practical terms, I had to first of all, nail the accent- because once I’ve got that, there’s a certain amount of freedom with the creativity, and I don’t want that to be hanging me up so there was a lot of practice with that, and then once I’m in there I just go for who he is. George fortunately had a lot of backstory for that character, so it was an enjoyable process.
Speaking of accents, I noticed that most people don’t realize you’re english, because they’re so accustomed to all of your signature characters being like Adebisi and Mr. Eko and then even in G.I. Joe people are like, “that’s not his real accent,” so how do you feel about the fact that people don’t really know who Adewale is?
Um, both good and bad, I always like that element of mystery because it really allows an audience to invest in a character, if they know too much about you, it’s hard for them to displace that reality, so that’s a good element. Obviously bad aspect is that people don’t know you and expect you to be that person walking around wielding the Mr. Eko stick or hat of Adebisi. This year, funny enough, I got to play my native accent opposite Robert DeNiro, so it came full circle and I was really really overjoyed at that, because it’s a big movie, a legendary actor, and I could more or less be closer to myself than I’d ever been. So it was a lot of freedom in the performance, a lot more than there normally would be. I’ve just written a script, that I developed at Sundance, based upon how I grew up and I think that will reveal to people exactly who I am, but I would like to reveal it in that controlled medium- you get the full hog.
You’ve obviously been involved with production at both ends of the spectrum -from small production to the biggest there are- in both TV and film, so how has your experience differed transitioning between the two?
That’s a good question- I mean, I love TV, I love the format, I love the process because it’s quick and you really have to be on your toes. Both on Oz and on Lost you know you get two takes and whatever goes down sticks, and that’s really good for an actor, an artist like me because you have to be ready, and there’s not a lot of waiting around, because of the turnaround the things got to be TV at the end of the week so you know you have to be on your A-game, and I love that. Film obviously is a more protracted process, you can be sitting around for hours and if, for instance it’s an intense character, even like the one in Faster, where the scenes are at a pitch level you have to maintain even if you’re sitting in your trailer for three or four hours, because when they call you for action, it has to be seamless, as if you had come from the last scene and that’s really demanding and taxing on the spirit, and you have to find and employ different ways of maintaining that level, that pitch, so it’s a lot harder doing film, for those reasons but what’s beautiful about film is that it’s versatile, you’re in and then you’re out of that character and you’re in a different one, and the flexibility of the schedule -three months, four months. Network is nine months- not really my creature. Cable, I loved because, again, it’s shot more like a movie but I do love the fast, brutal pace of TV. That has what’s been my training ground, really. It’s very good preparation for movies, because you go in there, and you’re not going to mess around. Especially if you’re coming into a movie like Faster, where there’s a lead actor, and you’re coming in at a certain point in the movie, you have to be ready, you have to be attuned to the pace of the movie, the rhythm of the other scenes. You are expected to deliver, you don’t have time, you haven’t been shooting for months with this guy, so you have to come in, know your stuff, and get on it, and TV prepares you for that.
One of the first time I actually saw you was on the TV show Linc’s, and it was an interesting show, an African-American sit-dramedy I suppose, and your character was a very pivotal, very “street” guy, and I was wondering as your career has progressed, as you moved up from that series to something like Lost, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
I think I’ve just been more intent on expanding my range and defying a stereotype because as fun and novel as it was to be on Linc’s, it was a comedy, it was one of the first comedies I’d done, and the character for me was still a breeze from what I knew, I could do that pretty easily, and so I think if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that I need to go outside of myself, and be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and explore. I think this year, this level of projects – I think I’ve done five this year – have all testified to that philosophy of doing different characters, and pushing yourself. I mean, I’m about to do a movie, as soon as we finish today that shoots in London, a movie based on Of Mice and Men where I’ll be playing a 37 year old with a 7 year old mentality, so with all of those it keeps people guessing and intrigued, like I say, so they can invest in each new character, because if you’re always doing the same note, they know what’s coming, they can write the script themselves.
I was hoping to hear, if you’re willing to talk about it, a little bit more about the movie you were talking about based on yourself, whatever you can say about it…
Well very briefly, it’s called Farming at this point and it’s a script I developed and wrote in the Sundance lab, it won the award for best newcomer writer, I have two producers attached – Charles Steel, who did Last King of Scotland, and [Jim Wilson of Sexy Beast …?*]- so it’s got a very good team and basically it’s based upon how I arrived in England. “Farming” was a process that was named by the British social workers for the immigrants who used to come into England after the second World War, my parents, Nigerians, were among those and this was particular only to the Nigerians who would come over and study in England and in the process be given foster, or “farm” their children out to white working-class families so they could learn english, they could study, make their money, and once they’d accomplished what they set out to do, they’d pick up their children and go back home, and rebuild their lives. However the time between when they dropped them off, which was six weeks in my case, and when they picked them up was anywhere between six weeks, ten years, twenty years, and in many cases the parents didn’t come back, so this was the first black British generation that was actually born there, and it shows what happened to me when they placed me in this area that was predominantly run by skinheads, so it’s a very very interesting story, it’s kind of a British City of God meets Trainspotting, so that’s my thing man. So I’m getting ready and putting together the financing together for that.
*My recording became unclear hear, and unfortunately I couldn’t track down a definitive name I was sure about.