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Welcome to Walewood

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Words Helen Jennings   Photography Nabil

"I play a black superhero. We haven’t had one before and it was about time we did,” says Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (also known as Triple A) about his incentive for taking the role of Heavy Duty in G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. He’s taking time out from today’s ARISE shoot in downtown Los Angeles to ruminate on his contribution to the summer blockbuster, and indeed, life in general. “I’m a big black actor – 6’ 2” and 235lbs – and look even bigger on screen, so I just knew I had to be in one of those Hollywood Marvel movies.”

Akinnuoye-Agbaje is best known for playing dubious characters – a drug-dealing priest in (TV drama) Lost, a violent killer in (cult TV prison drama) Oz – so he relished the chance to portray a good guy. Heavy Duty is a trooper, who, as part of a crack military unit, aims to take down an evil underground organisation. “I naturally get typecast as a baddie because I’m so large, and if I turned those roles down I’d be out of work. But that’s why I pushed for Heavy Duty. He’s a very different character; he’s a cool guy. Also he’s English, so I got to play a cockney in a movie for the first time. And most importantly [spoiler alert], he doesn’t die. I was happy about that.”

Opportunity knocks

The film brought out the big kid in Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who trained for six weeks and filmed for six months with co-stars Christopher Eccleston, Sienna Miller, Jonathan Pryce and Marlon Wayans. “These types of films look easy but they’re actually really hard work. It’s a lot of stunts and green screen. But it was a fun ride and we got to play with huge guns. When you’re young enough to do stuff like that, you’ve got to go for it.”

G.I. Joe might appear to be a departure for Akinnuoye-Agbaje but it’s part of a logical trajectory for a man who has never let a good opportunity pass him by. He was born 42 years ago in Islington, north London, to parents who arrived in the UK from Nigeria in the 1960s as part of the British government immigration push. One of six children, he was fostered by a white couple at six weeks old. “In those days that’s what all the Nigerians did. My parents worked during the day and studied at night. There was no time to raise the kids. I never saw them, then one day when I was eight, they turned up and took me to Nigeria,” he recalls. “It was traumatic for me. A white couple had raised me, so I felt like a white boy in black skin. I stopped speaking; my parents thought I was possessed. Within a year, they sent me back to my foster family.”

His foster parents lived in Tilbury, Essex, a town that at the time was immersed in racist skinhead culture, making Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s decision to return there a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. “It was the worst slum pit hole on the planet. People hadn’t seen black people before and I got beaten up a lot – until I fought back. Eventually, as a teenager, I was running the gang. I became a street fighter with a name and I was vicious.” Once again his birth parents swooped in, enrolling him at a “posh educational rehab” in the more middle-class environs of leafy Surrey. The intervention worked. He excelled at school and ended up doing a Master ’s degree in law at King’s College London.

Thinking big

“My dad taught me that if you’re going to be something in this life, you’ve got to play the game. The law is the fabric of the system. It hasn’t shifted for centuries and there’s a lot of institutionalised racism in that system but it trained my brain. At that time [the late 1980s], the opportunities for black people were limited so I used academia as my ticket to freedom. I had a big dream and big aspirations.” 

His student jobs included being a bouncer and a dustman but, while working at the then-trendy fashion superstore Hyper Hyper, he was spotted by a stylist who put him in touch with some model agencies. “They told me to get lost. I was too black, too strong. That pissed me off. If someone says I can’t do something, I will set my mind to doing it and I will prove them wrong.” And he did. At first he moved to Milan, where he slept in parks for a few months until he found an agent, and a week later he landed his first magazine front cover. He then conquered Paris before returning to London. By 1990, he was a well-known model but still felt restless. Next stop: Los Angeles.

“The first place I put foot on American soil was Hollywood. I’d had a successful international fashion career because I’d stuck to a strategy and set myself certain deadlines in each city, after which I’d move on and up the ladder, so LA was the next obvious place for me to go. I met a modelling agent who told me there were enough black models in LA already. I told him there were enough white ones already too.”

Again, obstinacy proved his salvation. Although he had a great modelling book, he didn’t have the correct legal papers to work as a model so he travelled back and forth to Europe until he found a niche as a dancer in music videos. The eagle-eyed among his fans will recognise him gyrating in promos for En Vogue, Mary J Blige and Dawn Penn.

In 1993, his agent sent a magazine article naming Akinnuoye-Agbaje as one of the world’s four top black male models to a casting director looking to fill a part in the movie Congo, directed by Frank Marshall (a frequent collaborator with Steven Spielberg). It was his first acting audition and he got the job. “On set, I watched the lead actors who had assistants to hold their bag, comb their hair, read them their lines, and I thought, ‘This is easy. I’m going to lick this’. Because of my legal training I found it easy to memorise my lines and everyone else’s. All my life experience added up to this one spot, and I realised that this was it: this was what I wanted to do.”

This first role helped him carve out an early career playing ‘the African’ in films such as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Legionnaire, but after his initial flurry of popularity, work dried up. “I hadn’t acted for six months. All the big parts had gone, so I went to New York to audition for a two-line part in Oz. I was so hungry I did it in every accent I could think of. The casting director put me straight in a cab to meet the writer to do all the accents again for him, and the next day he said he wanted the African accent. He’d never written a Nigerian part before so we agreed I’d translate my lines for him. I was meant to die in the second episode but I performed my arse off and he liked what I did so much he kept writing more lines. I created this great, raw character in Simon Adebisi and soon enough I was running the show. Oz put me on the map in the business, people could see I could really act – although I didn’t want to tongue-kiss any bruvas. I’m not that good an actor, mate!”

Musical interlude

After four years in Oz, and a decade in the US, he moved back to London to film The Mummy Returns, directed by Stephen Sommers (who also directs G.I. Joe), and The Bourne Identity, in which he played another Nigerian. “Check out my lame attempt at Yoruba in that movie. It was meant to be Swahili but I told them, ‘I’m not Kenyan,’” he chuckles. “At that stage, I’d done a bunch of movies and I’d blown up. I was being recognised on the street and that shook me. I’m a private person and it felt like I was losing my identity so I decided I was going to drop acting and focus on music. I did some recording with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen, which I’m really proud of. But that break from acting lasted as long as my money did.”

Returning to movies, he landed his first romantic part in the 2005 film The Mistress Of Spices, and then played the thug Majestic in 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. While making the latter, Lost came calling with perhaps his most famous role to date: Mr Eko. He named the character himself – Eko is Yoruba for Lagos, his mother’s birthplace – and made a mean entrance in his first scene by appearing bare-chested on the beach, wielding a club with which he proceeded to knock out three men. “The club was my idea too. Because he’s a priest I thought it should have biblical transcriptions carved all over it. Apparently it went for a lot of money on eBay afterwards,” he laughs.

Trouble in Paradise

Filming Lost took him to Hawaii, where he worked solidly for the first six months. “They pay you a lot of money to do Lost, and watch you like a hawk so you can’t mess up. I love that kind of pressure but it was non-stop,” he says. If this doesn’t sound too much like a chore, think again. “When I first got to Hawaii, people would cross the street to avoid me, scratch my car, call me ‘nigger’. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve come from Tilbury to paradise and I’m facing the same damn thing’. But a few months later,

I couldn’t move in that same town once they’d seen the show. And that was just the beginning. Being in Lost was like being a rock star – it was everywhere. There was even a huge Lost poster with me on it next to my London home.”

After a year in the show, he’d had his fill and left to focus on writing and directing his first movie. “I was jaded by the industry. There were a lot of glass ceilings for black actors – we’re always expected to play certain roles, so I started to write my own. We have to do it ourselves – write, produce, direct and act.

Matt Damon and George Clooney do it, so why can’t we? Otherwise all you can do is wait and see what comes along on the conveyor belt.”

Called Farming, the film is based on his own cross-cultural experiences growing up. The script has already won him recognition and a grant from The Sundance Institute, and he’s now in the process of finalising the finances. He hopes to start shooting in the UK and Nigeria later this year with producers whose past credits include Sexy Beast and The Last King Of Scotland. “It’s a cross between City Of God and Trainspotting. It’s a heavy one,” he explains. “I’ve been itching to film in Nigeria; the landscape is so vibrant and visceral. Step aside Nollywood, I want to create Walewood – and sell it globally.”

Right now, though, he’s done with LA and is heading home to Islington, where his beloved Arsenal football club also resides. “One of the greatest awards I’ve ever received was from Screen Nation in 2006. They know I’m a gooner [an Arsenal fan] so they gave me the Male Performance in Film award at the Arsenal football stadium plus an Arsenal shirt with my name on it. That’s it, I can retire happy now,” he says, smiling wryly. “I’m telling you, if I ever win an Oscar, the ceremony better be held at Arsenal, otherwise I’m not going.”

This article was originally published in Issue 4.

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