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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.
How did shooting in Toronto affect the film?
At certain points it felt like the Antarctic, because we shot at the tail end of winter, so it was very difficult to speak outside. And then ironically the spring came and it warmed up and we were faced with a new challenge, because we had three or four layers on and we were sweating profusely, so after every take you had to mop down and act the cold.
We had incredible set directors that recreated the '80s meticulously; I mean, they went to painstaking details. The vehicles that were used, the tools that we used to excavate, everything really was the ‘80s, and when you stepped on that set you felt like you were in the Antarctic, even in the middle of spring in Toronto.
In Toronto, we shot a lot of the scenes in a quarry that was outside of the city. So we did have that feeling of isolation, 'cause we had an intense two weeks where we shot a lot of the base exteriors, but that was pretty much where we did the film. In the opening of the film, the vast exteriors, that was Vancouver.
Sometimes you might be playing heavies a lot, and you’re like, 'Hey, it’d be nice to do a romantic comedy.' Or vice versa, it’d be nice to shoot somebody.
You mentioned this being your first horror film. Are you a fan of the genre?
The funny thing is, I don’t really look at films in genre. I enjoy all kinds of films, and as an actor I look at the story first, and I think what appealed to me about this project is it’s one of the more intellectual films of that genre, because it really hinges on that suspense. I think why these type of films are successful is they really appeal to the primal fear that we as human beings have about the unknown, and that’s always been something that’s intrigued me, whether it be in Lost or The Thing, the mysticism about the unknown. And in this film it’s really unleashed in the so-called Thing.
So certainly I look at the story, and then I look at what my character’s arc within that story, what impact it has on the story, and what I can do that is unique in that character. I don’t really look at genre. I mean, sometimes you might be playing heavies a lot, and you’re like, hey, it’d be nice to do a romantic comedy. [Laughs.] Or vice versa, it’d be nice to shoot somebody. So it comes like that, but generally it’s about the story.
Are you trying to do a romantic comedy?
Hey, I’m open for business. I’d certainly venture that way, because, you know, it’s another discipline, and I’m a funny guy. I’ve still got my looks and I could get the girl and be in love. Why not? See, to play these twisted, tormented characters is very draining. You have to sit in the pocket of that character for the duration of the shoot, which is normally an average of three months, and that can be taxing!
And that’s what was enjoyable about playing Jameson, because he’s very laid back and light-hearted in a sense. So certainly it would be a welcome relief to play a comedy, or for me, my eyes are set on playing the leading man, whether it be the action-guy cop, or an athlete, a footballer or boxer, something like that. I think that’s really where my head is at for the moment.
How do you feel you're doing on your quest to make that happen?
Well, when you work with the likes of De Niro, and then Stallone, you’re getting much closer to that. People are starting to see the range with this new slate of films, and that’s what I’ve always tried to show, the diversity of my craft.
In Killer Elite, I play a British guy in a suit and tie and people haven’t seen me play that—again, he’s not so much being the brawn, he’s the brains, the manipulator, the smart guy, the con man, which is an interesting departure from what you’re seeing. I’m really excited about this other film I did called Best Laid Plans. In it, I play this character who’s a paraplegic and he has a seven-year-old mentality. It’s based on [John] Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the Lenny character, so I’m really excited about that. And again, with Stallone, my character is the arch villain.
So all these different role types are showing people my artistry and taking them out of the physicality and the color, in fact. So I think definitely I’m in a better position to play a leading man than I may have been before.
What is Best Laid Plans about?
It’s a British indie. My co-star in that was Stephen Graham, from Boardwalk Empire. Sony Pictures will be distributing it and I believe it’s gonna be out before Christmas.
It’s a direct Of Mice And Men adaptation?
It’s a British modern adaptation, so these two guys.... I play a guy who’s loosely based on the Lenny character. His friend is in debt and there’s this inner strength that this paraplegic guy has and this guy uses it to put him in the ring in these cage fights in order to get out of debt. It’s like putting a seven-year-old kid in with these giant savage men, but you see the bond and the relationship and the friendship, and you question who’s really taking care of whom. I have a love interest in it; she’s a paraplegic as well.
It’s a very emotional story; it’ll pull the strings, even for a grown man. I had to dig deep for that one.
It was great to be shooting Oz in the Meatpacking District. I used to ride to work with the hat on my head and you’d just see people in the morning: 'Adebisi! Adebisi!'
It sounds totally different from anything you’ve done.
Yeah, and this one really will show my chops. It’s back to the basics. It’s nice to do the big blockbusters but it’s also nice to get down and dirty and get back to what the craft is, which is you going inside with a camera, no big explosions or anything. It’s just, What can you drop between “action” and “cut”? It sharpens your tool. I’m excited.
And the Stallone movie, Bullet In The Head, is that more of the explosions and the insanity?
Well no, it’s a great film, really. It’s such a great action film. It’s got so many characters in it. Christian Slater’s in it, Jason Momoa’s in it, Holt McCallany from Lights Out is in it. It’s got an array of really good actors in it and it’s helmed by the legendary director Walter Hill, who did Warriors and 48 Hrs..
It’s got some heavyweights in it, and it’s a classic action movie. Stallone plays a hitman, and he’s double-crossed. His partner gets knocked off and he goes on a revenge mission trying to get those who really messed him up. The chain leads to me, the arch villain.
What is particularly nice about this film is that, with Walter Hill, we got to create this character within a studio movie, because Walter was very fond of a particular nouveau movie—I won’t tell you which, I’ll let you see the movie and see if you can guess—but what we did, we made [my character] a cripple, and it was really taxing. He had two canes, and the disability just made this guy quite demented in his mind. Because he doesn’t have the physicality, his muscle is his brain, and so he’s playing everybody like chess. My character is quite poetic; he has a great vocabulary, he’s very sophisticated, he puts everything on to mask his disability.
Stallone is one of those guys who gets played, and so he wants payback, and there’s the quintessential standoff between the crippled arch villain and Stallone. It was really a challenging and interesting project, and a great context in which to still be a character, because sometimes you see the big films and it’s always the one-dimensional baddie, but here we actually got to create somebody quite special. I had fun, but it was hard work, because it was 105 or 110 in New Orleans when we shot it, so after every take it was changing the shirt, putting on a fresh shirt, after every take.
I didn’t realize there was the cripple aspect to your character in that film. That definitely takes it in a different direction.
Yeah, and Walter gave me the option, do we want to do it or don’t we? I like challenges, and I thought it would bring an interesting dynamic to the film. Because I’m a physical guy, it’s like, "How would he not be able to beat you?" And so we made him [a cripple] and it worked out.
And working with Stallone, he’s one of the few actors who’s larger off screen than he is on screen. He has that persona. He’s a real movie star. I’m like everyone else, I grew up watching these guys, the Stallones and De Niros. You have a surreal moment when you’re in front of them, and you give yourself that moment, but then you have to snap right back into the character. When they say “Action!” you gotta bring it—otherwise they’ll fire you! [Laughs.] There is no time for stargazing. You have a moment and then you get on with it.
You have two characters, Adebisi from Oz and Mr. Eko from Lost, that people relate to you. Which is the one that you get approached about most?
It depends. New York, this is Adebisi’s territory right here.
Why is that?
I mean, he’s worldwide, but this is where the show was shot, this is where it really sprung up, this is the home of HBO, so.... It was great to be shooting it here in the Meatpacking District. I remember riding to work on my bike every day, great memories. I used to ride to work with the hat on my head and you’d just see people in the morning: “Adebisi! Adebisi!” It was just great. So there’s always Adebisi, and they will never, ever let that go.
Honestly, I just read the lines [on Lost]. I just did my work between action and cut, and I left the conjecture to the audience. I’ve still yet to watch all of the seasons.
I was in Australia, where I was filming Killer Elite, and it was dark and kind of cold, and I was just out getting something to eat, and there was this bum sitting on the bench, and he was like, [puts on scratchy Australian accent] “Hey, Adebisi! Adebisi! Yeah, mate, I used to watch you. I used to watch you when I had a TV.” [Laughs.] That amazed me. And it happens so often. All these countries I’ve been to, other places where they can’t speak a word of English but they can recite every line I said as Mr. Eko. It’s always endearing when the public loves the characters, they own them, they take them as personal. As an actor you want your work to resonate with an audience.
As far as the mysteries of Lost, did you have a favorite theory?
Nah, nah. Me, honestly, I just read the lines. I didn’t mess with that, I just did my work between action and cut, and I left the conjecture to the audience. I’ve still yet to watch all of the seasons, because when you work you’re in a vacuum, you do it and you move on to the next job, so you don’t always get time to [watch]. Like, it was a long time before I watched the whole series of Oz. At some point I’ll sit down and watch Lost, and I might have a theory then.
Are you doing strictly screen work now? Any stage?
I don’t really discriminate with my art. To me, it’s my art and it’s to be expressed through whichever medium is there, wheather it's treading the boards in the theater, on the small-screen TV, or on the large screen. I love theater, and it’s definitely something I would love to do. I’ll be meeting some of the theater producers and directors while I’m here, but [theater] is the hard work. There ain’t no cut and rewind! You gotta bring it and whatever comes out sticks. But I’m ready to do that, especially in New York. It’d be great to do some theater here.
It seems like a lot of actors move out to L.A. for the business of movies and TV but return to NY regularly to do theater for that live buzz.
It’s like the gym for an actor, it’s like the training ground. You sharpen your tool and you’re face to face with your audience, so it’s brutal. You know when it’s hitting and when it’s not. That’s always good for an actor, because you’re live. But you know, TV and film is a different discipline. You can be great on the stage but when you go back on the screen, it’s about pulling it in. Either way, it’s great exercise.
When was the last time you did theater?
I did it in London, the Old Vic, about four years ago. It’s long overdue. I’ve gotta go back to the gym, my acting gym, and start treading the boards, as they say.
Is it like second nature to get back on a stage?
It is, but it’s a little scary because, the first night you get out there, people were as close to me as you are [sitting in the adjacent chair] and they’re staring right at you. And some people are on their phones and you have to move them, you have to move them to the point that they put down their phones and just be riveted. That’s the challenge, but it’s a great one.
It’s reactionary too, when someone’s phone goes off.
Well, you can play with that sometimes, depending on the material, but you’ve gotta be in the pocket, so deep that whatever’s going off is not going to psyche you out. It helps if you’ve got a great cast. But a musical could be good too…. [Laughs.] But we’ll leave that for down the line.