Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje made his name playing bad guys. His considerable size and dark skin no doubt lead casting directors to see "Triple A" as the homicidal prison rapist Simon Adebisi on Oz and the drug-smuggling guerrilla Mr. Eko on Lost, but the actor born to Nigerian parents in London is actually one of the most jovial, light-hearted people you'll meet in the entertainment industry.
For his new movie, The Thing, a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 horror/sci-fi classic of the same name, Akinnuoye-Agbaje got to play an obviously upstanding man for a change—rather, he's "good" until a shape-shifting alien starts killing people and assuming their identities in an Antarctic outpost and everyone becomes a shady suspect. Complex sat down with Akinnuoye-Agbaje to talk about playing villains, his entry into the horror genre, why he hasn't watched Lost, and his future in...romantic comedies and musicals?!?
Complex: Were you familiar with both the earlier movies?
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Yeah, I was familiar with both actually. I saw the '50s one, and the John Carpenter one stuck in my mind. I can never get that scene out of my mind with the dog transforming into the Thing; it stuck with me as a teenager.
When the producers called me and said they had me in mind for a part, I thought it interesting, because it’s a departure from what I’m known to play. I’m known to play tough guys, bad guys, heavy guys, and here was a guy, Jameson, who is an all-around nice guy and is American as apple pie. I’ve done four movies this year, and one is a suit-and-tie character in Killer Elite with [Robert] De Niro, [Jason] Statham, and Clive Owen. I play the manipulator, the boss, the arch-villain in this film I did with Stallone, Bullet In The Head. This, to me, was something that was a little different. And it was my first venture into the horror genre.
But I liked the movie because it had a lot of suspense and thriller aspect to it, and the gore element, they just knocked The Thing out of the park. It’s gonna take about 10 years to catch up to this. It’s nasty.
Did you enjoy playing a good guy for once?
It was a nice journey. I think what was exciting about this film and character for me was the opportunity to play horror and suspense, because however unreal or surreal the reality, you really have to make that real for yourself for the audience to be engaged.
It’s gonna take about 10 years to catch up to [the gore in the Thing prequel]. It’s nasty.
That’s a tricky discipline because there’s always those tendencies to want to overplay the horror or underplay it and just be cool, like, “Eh, I wouldn’t do that.” You have to suspend your own ego and constantly remind yourself, “If this really happened, what would I do? If somebody’s arm fell off, what would I do?” And then once you’ve got to there, you say, “No, what would my character do?” because, you know, I wouldn’t be in the room, I’d be on the helicopter and out of there!
You wouldn’t be going in the room with the ice block and checking it out?
No. Actually, you know what, I think I would, but if the thing came out, there would be no, “Let’s go outside in minus-30 degrees and look for it.” It’d be, “Peace. See you in New York.” [Laughs.]
What do you think is the most important to make a prequel worth watching in its own right?
I think [this Thing] stands on its own legs but at the same time pays homage to what came before, and that was aided by the presence of David Foster, who was an original producer on the Carpenter one. He was there to kinda drop those hints for the fans who really love the original. And then they made the prequel, so it gave them creative license to come at it from their own standpoint. This really kicks off the trilogy of The Thing.
And it’s different in that there are women in it; there were no women. And obviously the technological advancement in special FX has made these creatures…they’re just grotesquely vulgar, but exquisitely done. They’ve gone to painstaking details, right down to the skin of these things. You touch these things and the hair on the back of your neck will stand up.
I just think, what was so riveting about the Carpenter version was the paranoia, the suspense-thriller aspect, and it’s very present in this film. The Thing, in order to exist, it has to assume human form, and so you really don’t know who it’s in. So what that does, is it’s very engaging to the audience. Is it him? Is it him? It could be any number of characters. And then all of a sudden it’ll pop out. And it’s very clever. It can lie and manipulate.
It was a treat and I think it will stand on its own, just because…. We had a first-time director, we put in authentic Norwegian actors, not American actors, and they were using their own accents and speaking in their native tongue, so that invites the audience to be engaged, because you have to pay attention, you have to read [subtitles], and that suspends you from your own reality immediately, like, "What are they saying?" And it’s the same for the actor, because you don’t know what they’re saying in Norwegian, so you have to listen, and it creates a different texture to the movie.
And not having a humongous Hollywood name it meant that we could really focus on the story, the ensemble, the group, and really tell the story of The Thing.
How much of what you worked with was CGI vs. animatronic?
Fortunately for me, 90% of my work with the creatures was prosthetic creatures that had been built. Ordinarily, they use a tennis ball and a stick and you have to recreate what you’re seeing in your own mind. Here we have the luxury of meticulously detailed creatures and they were automated. They would contort, they would scream, they would crawl after you, arms would fall off, blood would spurt out, pus, and we had puppeteers with little creatures.
It was good because that all informs your performance as an actor. And also we shot one of the major scenes, where there’s about three creatures attacking the characters, we shot it in continuum. We didn’t do the traditional shot where you shoot one segment and then you do it over with the other actor. It was like five cameras in the room, three creatures, 10 people, all getting attacked, so whatever was going on, you could actually react live. I think that creates a different dynamic, and it was really exciting to work with that process as an actor.