Tall, dark, sinister, he's often the intimidating dude featured in some of the biggest and most popular movies or TV shows in the past decade – Lost, as Mr. Eko; Oz, as Adebisi, and blockbusters like Thor: The Dark World, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Bourne Identity, the upcoming Pompeii, and Annie opposite Cameron Diaz and Jamie Foxx. Most are familiar with his face, but few really know the name – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. British born, former street thug who turned his life around, learned four languages, got a law degree, flew to Hollywood and blew up. Sounds easy. But with a sordid backstory of growing up in a foster home, running with English gangs, and being jumped because of his skin color, Adewale’s walk to stardom began with a crooked crawl that evolved into a successful run.
In this exclusive interview with The Shadow League, Adewale shares his upbringing, the difficulties, trauma, and how it trained him for the hops and hurdles of Hollywood today.
RM: Can you give everyone the correct pronunciation of your full name?
RM: I like it
AA: It's a lot to live up to.
RM: Yeah, well…
AA: I'm working on it.
RM: They say people's names become who the child is.
AA: Yeah, I'm Nigerian of the Yoruba tribe. And when we name our children, it's really designed to remind you of what your purpose is, your ancestral purpose. So every time somebody calls your name, it’s that reminder. Adewole, means “he's arrived.” And in the context of my family, I'm the only boy of four girls. And so a man is the one who will continue the legacy. So it's like the crown, the king has arrived. So the legacy can now live on.
RM: That's powerful
AA: That's what it is.
RM: Like you’re upcoming film, let’s take a quick look here…
RM: Wow, thanks for the breakdown. You know I read something else about your life. I did my research.
AA: Oh you did?
RM: Yeah, I did. And what stuck out to me was your backstory. It was very interesting and you’re making a movie about it, where you were a foster child coming up, dealing with racism, hating your skin color because of it. How did that experience influence you as an actor today?
AA: I often say that your glory is born out of your suffering. That is my resource in which I pull, when I’m acting. So it's not really acting, you're being. The pain, suffering, the joy, the love, all these experiences, it's hard to capture them if you haven't really got a reference point. And I think my upbringing from being fostered in an area that was very hostile to black people. It was not friendly, it was not a pleasant experience for me. But what it did for me is coming into the world as a black man, I was under no illusion as to what life was going to be like. So, from the very outset I knew it was going to be tough. So I had to get tough. I had to put away my childhood, and become an adult instantly. But it became my saving grace, because when you go out into the world, you know, I travel all over the world. I travel alone, I'm fearless, and there's nothing I can't handle. Also in this industry as well, I mean it just prepares you. And specifically for my craft, it's a reservoir of experiences that I can pull. So if somebody wants me to be bad, I can really be bad. If you want me tough, I can be tough. Vulnerable, I can be that, because of my experiences.
RM: Yeah, I know that children who are brought up in foster homes, oftentimes, they take to the streets and they have to defend themselves and they are bad. Particularly with being black, growing up in a white household with white foster parents, and having to go out and having to self-identify and figure out who you are. I assume that makes you deal better in Hollywood, being black, a minority, and fitting in?
RM: Did you take singing or dance lessons to prepare for Annie? Is this all natural?
AA: No, this is all natural? And the thing is, we have this motto, ‘When there's cheese, you gotta eat it.’ (He laughs) Just get on with it.
RM: With Pompeii, did you have to take any lessons in learning karate, boxing, or anything?
AA: It was very intense training. I came on board the project about 4 weeks before it started. And the director Paul W.S. Anderson had a very specific vision for the movie. It wasn't just aesthetically, it was just looking fit, you had to be fit in order to perform the very intricate fight scenes, and physical gymnastics and acrobatics you had to perform. It’s quite dangerous work, so it was very important we were prepared. They fortunately set up a structure for us where we had a trainer and a nutritionist who gave us meals, three times a day, and 2 snacks, about 1800 calories
RM: To keep you buffed?
AA: Actually, it was to trim us right down and keep the muscle. And then we had a physio and on set there was the gym beside the camera, so every second before the take, we're pumping up. It was intense. And my day prior to shooting consisted of an hour's run, two hours fight training, with [the trainer from the film] 300, and then we break for an hour, and do an hour’s weight training and break for an hour and…
RM: So you obviously need to relax now. You were listening to reggae when I walked in. That can be soothing. Do you listen to Bob Marley at all?