Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
A Force To Be Reckoned With
by Michele Elyzabeth
You may succeed in pronouncing his first name, but his last name is another story. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who stars as Atticus in the epic film “Pompeii,” has captivated audiences around the world with his fight scenes, which were so brilliantly executed. Though “Pompeii” only received a lukewarm welcome in the U.S. (for reasons unknown to me), I just loved it. I must confess that I was among the people who were not very familiar with Adewale’s body of work, which spans over two decades. Just back from filming “Annie,” due in theaters later this year, the English-born actor (who splits his time between London and Los Angeles), visited with me at the magazine. Making his entrance into our offices, I could not help but think that he was as imposing in life as he was on the screen, standing at 6’3”. With an undeniably heavy English accent and a very soft voice, he spoke with me about “Pompeii” and much more.
“I was raised and educated in London, where I got my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in law. That’s what I started out doing, because it was kind of a family tradition. My father was a lawyer and I was the only boy, and there were four girls, so I was expected to take over the business. Once I finished the Master’s, I decided not to continue with that path. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I knew what I didn’t want to be, and so I just kind of followed my heart. Because where I grew up, if you said you wanted to be an actor, it was something that was frowned upon. I thought I would be creative and maybe do music.”
I learned that he plays the trumpet, sings, writes and that he even built a recording studio in his home which helps him keep his sanity. While music soothes his soul, it seems that acting was always his calling. 1995 was a significant year in Adewale’s career. He joined the cast of “Congo,” went on to “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls,” followed by a string of TV movies and series. Less than two years later, he booked a co-starring role in “OZ” on HBO which lasted from 1997 to 2000. Making the jump from TV to movies, he then appeared in various films including “The Mummy Returns” and “The Bourne Identity” to name a few. He eventually returned as Mr. Eko in the famous ABC series “Lost” before going back once again to film, this time as Heavy Duty in “G.I Joe: The Rise of The Cobra.” Due to his physical appearance, Adewale is often cast as the bad guy with a dark side, usually a military man or a villain. I asked him to recount how he was offered the role of Atticus.
“Well, it was quite a simple process. They actually called me, and we Skype’d. Most things are done through Skype because people are in different locations. I had read the screenplay, and obviously loved it. The director at that point had various options for the part of Atticus. We connected on Skype and I told him what I felt about the character.”
What did you tell him?
All I could say is how much I loved it, that it was such an iconic role, and how much I would love to play it. And perhaps a few of the ideas that I could bring—perhaps infuse some of his culture into the character. What fascinated me was how a man like Atticus, an African, could end up in Pompeii at that time, in 79 AD.
I said, “Well, where would he have come from? Who would he have been? Maybe we could implement just a symbol of that into the film—and we did. We managed to put a little talisman that he could pray to that reflected his cultural religion and his traditions that he held onto before he went into the arena.
Paul (W.S. Anderson) was very open to that; he liked those ideas. We talked about the accent and trying to do a pseudo-accent so that the populous could really understand him. It was really that much; it was really just connecting. I think Paul had to see whether you fit in with the other characters, and particularly with Milo (Harington), because that chemistry is crucial in the movie. After that, it was pretty easy. He was like, ‘Okay, come to Canada,’ and that’s what I did. I went to Canada and went to what I called Gladiator Boot Camp.
I came onboard fairly late, and I had about three to three-and-a-half weeks to get in shape. I had just come off of Thor, too, so I was in a different kind of shape. I was big because I had to wear all these prosthetic things, so I was lounging and chilling, but now it was like “Uh, oh, no we’re going to need to see everything.” No CGI. And the director was very insistent that he wanted actors that were not merely pleasing, aesthetically, but he wanted actors that were going to be able to perform these physically intricate fight battles themselves. He wanted to use actors wherever he could to give it this real gritty and authentic feel.
Did you do the fighting?
Yes, and I enjoyed it. When you work out as hard as we did, there has to be a payoff and the payoff was these greatly choreographed, fight sequences that we had. Four weeks before the movie, we worked out for four hours a day, six days a week.
Did you change your diet or anything else?
Yes, we did two hours of fight training with a great French choreographer, Jean Frenette, who also worked on “300.” We did fight training with weapons and swords, and that was followed by an hour’s weight training, and that was followed by an hour’s cardio where we’d run. We were on this very strict diet of 1800 calories, where we had fish and veggies. We had three meals a day, along with two snacks. We did this for five months, and it was hell.
Was the making of Pompeii relevant?
It certainly introduces that era to a new generation. I think that was one of Paul W. S. Anderson’s intents as well — not only to bring an epic movie, but also a phenomenal story in 3D so that the younger generation can immerse themselves in it.
Where was the movie made?
In Toronto, Canada. Actually, Paul did the exteriors in Pompeii. He filmed the exteriors in Pompeii, but we shot everything else in Toronto. They built a huge set in this massive warehouse in Toronto, and when you walked in that warehouse, it really felt like you walked into Pompeii. It was amazing what they did. We had the arena and we had all of the little cobbled streets with the horse and carts, including the galleys where we were chained up. Everything had been built. It was amazing. Actually, it was quite moving when they broke it down. We were living there for five months as these gladiators, and then they’re like, ‘Okay, we’re finished.’ And they just packed it up into boxes. ‘Well, wait a minute that was my home!’ But it was great what they built.
There are quite a lot of special effects from the lava killing people to the earthquake and tsunami.
The lava wasn’t actually the thing that killed them. Because it actually comes down relatively slow, you can kind of run. There were two things that actually killed them when the eruption occurred. The eruption spurted these huge boulders the size of a block — like five to ten miles — and they just landed on these people everywhere. And then the pyroclastic ash, with the poisonous gases — that’s actually what killed them.
When the earth opens and the rocks are falling out of the sky onto people’s heads as they’re running is another scene to remember.
Having been deprived of certain foods, what was the first thing you ate when it was all finished?
Honestly, it was nothing exotic — I went and got about three or four fish burger meals and I had some milkshakes and fries. That was it — I just gorged out. It was quality junk. My body was craving sugar and salt, because it had been deprived of it for so long. That was the fastest way to get it in.
In looking at Adewale’s IMDB it seems that he is always working, going from projects to projects. I asked how he managed to do that.
I’ve been very fortunate, but that fortune has been the result of a lot of hard work in creating it. There’s been a lot of hard work behind this. I always give the analogy of a swan; you see the swan on the water looking graceful and beautiful, but its legs underneath are paddling (laughs) And so that’s pretty much the career has been — there’s been a lot of peddling to keep it consistent and smooth and to have diversity to go from job to job. But I am fortunate because people do a lot of paddling and still don’t make it.
You went from “Thor” to “Pompeii” to playing a very different character in the remake of “Annie.” What motivated you to take the role?
Well, after such an intense role, I needed a little light kickback. I’m a big fan of Will Smith, and we’d been talking for a while now and trying to do something that made sense. And “Annie” came up and he was producing it. I’d met with DeVon Franklin who’s also a producer, and we tried to see if it would work out. There was this lovely little part of Nash who plays the right-hand man to Daddy Warbucks, played by Jamie Foxx.
Nash is Daddy Warbucks’ driver and security guy, and he’s also Annie’s friend. He tries to help her find her parents, and he’s a very lighthearted, humorous guy. He’s still tough, but he’s very friendly. And I guess it’s a side of me that people are not readily familiar with — certainly not from characters that I’ve played.
There was also a chance for me to bring out this lighthearted side of myself, and I get to sing and dance at the end. I’m singing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” with about 300 kids and there are these very intricate dance sequences. They were all surprised that I had little twinkle toes so that I could actually do good moves. It was funny and it brought the child back out in me. I loved Quvenzhané Wallis from her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I just thought, ‘I’d love to work with this little girl, she’s amazing.’ And so “Annie” was the vehicle for it.
How was it working with Jamie Foxx?
Jamie’s a genius. He’s a comic genius. I have to say that, because I think he’s still probably underrated. He’s so good and so funny. It’s hard to keep a straight face when you’re the straight man in the scene. The challenge was not cracking up when he’s making these jokes because he’s so funny. He can just recite it three or four or five different ways and still be funny. It was a huge pleasure to work with him, as it was with Cameron Diaz and Bobby Cannavale. I just think it was a great cast. It was important that all the actors actually got along, because it’s a child’s movie and you have to have that good vibe, and there was a very good vibe on set.
What’s next for you? A vacation?
Oh no, there’s no such thing as a vacation for an actor. You don’t want a vacation; you just want to keep working. You take that when you retire. Next, I’m actually going to go back to TV. I’m going to shoot a pilot for NBC called “Odyssey.” I do that in two weeks in Morocco, and I play a really great character. He’s an American guy and the TV show is kind of like the movie “Traffic.” “Traffic” meets the “Bourne Identity.” It’s about a bunch of operatives that go over to Mali to try to track down the Taliban, and they actually get the head guy, but while they apprehend him, they come across some Intel that links him back to a U.S. corporation.
There’s a potential scandal, and so they send me in, the head of a private army, to clean it all up and wipe everybody out. And there’s one person who survives, and then I’m chasing that one person. It’s an action thriller; it’s going to be great.
Is there something you would like to do that you haven’t touched on yet?
A bit of rom-com. It would be nice to have a lady and be a love interest in one of these films. And I think just pitching myself as a leading man now. I think Pompeii kind of sets me up. I’d want to have a movie on my own shoulders, whether I’m the hero or the action guy. Action is good, because I can do that. Something like “Taken” that’s a kinetic, gritty kind of drama, but with characters that still have some depth. But I’d love to do a rom-com as well. (laughs)
As for his many fans worldwide, Adewale responded with a humble statement
I really have been fortunate to resonate with people. And they’re just so, so loyal.
It was a pleasure meeting someone so talented who has such approachability, a sense of humor and humility about life itself.