As difficult as it might be to remember his name, it's almost impossible to forget Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje after you've seen him act. After 32 episodes of HBO's Oz as the ruthless inmate Simon Adebisi, he then gained national attention—and a sort of actorly redemption—playing Lost's uplifting Mr. Eko. Since then, he's memorably transformed himself multiple times for both TV and more roles, most recently in the Jason Statham thriller Killer Elite and the new prequel for The Thing. Boxoffice sat down with Akinnuoye-Agbaje where he first offered his gratitude for—spoiler alert!—not succumbing to the same fate as so many other African-American characters in horror movies, and what he sees as the increasing colorblindness of Hollywood.
First of all, how much of a relief was it to not be the first guy to die in this movie?
You know, there was a lot of pressure, man [laughs]. You know how it is. There's like a barometer for African-Americans in horror movies where we normally go after the first five minutes, but I think I stretched it a few. It was great. You know what you sign up for. This movie—the star of this movie is The Thing. And I think in a movie like this, you just wanna make sure you go with a bang. You want it to be The Thing that kills you. The last thing you wanna do is run away from it and fall and trip on an axe.
What did they originally tell you about about the movie?
When I first came on, first of all they'd told me they developed the character with me in mind. The producers were fans of the work I'd done, so that's always a good thing. The project specifically was told to me that it was a prequel, because there's always trepidation about making a remake, as I'm sure you know. And then I learned that David Foster, the producer on the original, was involved—he's like the godfather of The Thing and he shepherded it—and that they were bringing on a European first time director, which I thought was really interesting for a cult classic like this with a big budget. So I knew they were taking a risk, but one that was a challenging one, and I thought that was intriguing because there's gonna be a different take. They weren't casting a huge name—other than myself, of course. And so I knew it was going to be about the story, and it would do something different. Making a prequel will give us latitude and creative license to put our own stamp on it, so all the normal anxieties about doing a remake were somewhat alleviated by those factors. And you know, this was my first venture into the horror realm, so, and I think if you can get it, this was one to do, because growing up. I was aware of the '50s version, but the one that really struck me was the John Carpenter version. And why it struck me was because it never seemed just like a horror film to me. This was a film that was more of a thriller suspense. There was great acting, great characters. The horror just happened to be there. So I liked that. I relish that as an actor, because I think the success of these films, the real good ones, always speak to the primal fear that we as human beings have about the unknown. And this had all those ingredients. Plus I had done four movies this year. I played with De Niro as a slick man in a suit, and I just finished one with Sylvester Stallone. This represented something different yet again. He was a guy who was American and he was an all-around nice guy. He had a sense of humor and a heart. And I thought it'd be a different side to show as an artist. It was perfect to showcase it in this kind of genre.
You tend to turn up in a lot of ensemble pieces where there may be a clear lead but really it's about the group as a whole. How do you make sure you give a story what it needs, and at the same time make sure you're creatively challenged?
I think the key, the first question, is always about story. Is it a really good story? And then you look at the arc of your character within that, and do you have an impact on that story? Are there opportunities for you to create something unique? And often the best characters, certainly in my career, but I think generally, are not always the lead ones. The more interesting ones are the creepers, the supporting characters, the ones that pop up with a few words in an ensemble. An ensemble reflects more society, you know, especially in this movie. It's quite diverse: you've got a Norwegian speaking Norwegian, you've got Americans who aren't really Americans but play Americans, you've got a British guy. I mean, you've got it all, and that's what life is. When you have those elements, it just makes it more interesting, gives it more texture. How do you, you know, try to service yourself and stay in the ensemble? You stay in the pocket of your character. Once you know your character, you can go anywhere. And often what happens with an ensemble, if you're in the pocket of your character, it's going to be an organic process. What's the phrase? The cream rises to the top. If you've really done your homework on this character, as in Oz, as in Lost, these characters have an organic way of flourishing and blossoming. So I like that challenge. And also, you know, if the movie bombs, then you don't get the blame. [Laughs]
Because of the amorphous creature you had to deal with in Lost, how much were you prepared for the imagination that this role required?
Here was a different situation. In Lost, it was a very surreal creature, and CGI. Here we had the luxury of a crew that painstakingly created the meticulously brilliant creatures. I mean, they were automated right down to the skin texture. They were so real, and these things would contort, and they would scream and they would chase you. I mean, that informs your performance. You don't have to imagine when the creature's there and there's blood coming out. So that's just a luxury to work with. That's certainly one of the big differences from working on Lost. It was a very different project, really. I mean, it is challenging, though. Something where Derek Jangerson—he's the actor playing The Thing—he's a curious guy, and he goes and wants to check out this Thing. He sees it, and he's the first guy to actually see it. You know, once you've done your take, you know. So the second take is when the imagination has to come in, and then perhaps there are some similarities. You have to then bring something forth from within. You have to invoke an emotion from yourself as to, not only the fear, but the fascination, because I think that was the incredulity of the situation. And it has to be honest so that you can engage the audience because if it's not honest, then they're not gonna feel it. So there were the similarities there because I had to rely on my imagination of what I was seeing because I'd already seen it. And so you don't wanna act. The first take is always a luxury because you really get to explore. So there were those similarities but, like I said, we just had this great luxury of what I would call exquisitely vulgar creatures. They were just so nasty that it's brilliant because normally you have a green tennis ball on a stick chasing you. Here we had this tentacle falling off, and then this arm falling off. We had puppeteers chasing them. And then that really helps you with your performance. And a lot of the scenes we shot, all of the actors weren't actually in the same scenes, but it was the scene where all the actors were in and about three or four of the creatures were in. It was all going on. We shot in continuously. Five or six cameras in. So one guy's got the hand tentacle on his face, and then a two-headed creature is taking over. And it's all going on at the same time. That's when you're like, "Okay, we're making a horror movie." That was what we signed up for.
You've referred to yourself as an African-American. Given an actor's nomadic existence, much less your English background, do you consider yourself an American?
Actually I just became an American citizen just a few days ago [Laughs] so I do. I do because I've been here 20 years. I'm definitely British; I've got dual citizenship.
Do you feel like you're being cast in a colorblind fashion?
Yeah, that's it. I think definitely now in my career. It took a little while to get there, and I think that's a process on both parts. People have to see your craft, and like I said, in the roles that I've been given, I've tried to play them without color: just to play them as human beings. And I think that's paid off because people have now seen the talent. You know, for instance, in Killer Elite, the character wasn't written as any color or anything. It was just character. I went after that because I thought a guy called "the Agent" is just a great character. I definitely think now people are casting me for my craft and talent as an actor as opposed to, "Oh, we need this black actor." I'm sure there will always be those roles, but that was a concerted effort of mine to break not only out of playing the stereotype of a black actor, but also just an African actor or just a big guy. And that's why I was switching up and showing a tender side, a hard side, a vulnerable side.
How tough has it been for you to find such an eclectic range of roles?
I like to switch it up. And I made a concerted effort this year to display the range of my craft. You don't wanna get typecast. I have been successful playing bad guys—what I've always tried to do with them is inject a measure of humanity and sense of humor or whatever it is in them. Killer Elite was a departure from what I'm known to play. Here's a suit and tie, and the guy was a manipulative, uncompromising guy. He was a really creepy guy, but he was quite sophisticated. It's not always that you see an African-American actor in the position of being in charge of Robert De Niro and Jason Statham. That was a great challenge, and I liked the dynamics of the character because he was the one playing everybody against everybody. It was quite a clever, you know, character, so I loved doing that, and Best Laid Plans, which you haven't seen yet but I'm proud of, I play a 37-year-old man with a 7-year-old's mentality. It's based on John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. I play the big Lenny character. It's similar to The Thing in that it's tricky not to overplay the horror and to play it by being cool. It's the same with playing a disability: you don't want to overplay it, but you've got to find that balance. It was really challenging but something I relish. I sought this role out because, one, the genre, and that it's a classic, but also because it was all-American nice guy. He's just a nice guy. There's not really a bad bone in his body and that's actually what ends up getting him killed because he follows his friend, you know, when he really wants to leave. And that's a guy that they haven't seen me play before and I hadn't displayed. And then with Stallone in Bullet to the Head, we pay homage to one the characters in The Lady from Shanghai, and make the guy a cripple. And he gave me a choice: you don't have to, but I just thought and I put it out there, and I said, "Yeah, let's go for it." I love those challenges. To me, that's what the art is about: testing yourself, taking your art and your craft to its limit, whether it's a paraplegic guy, or whether it's a crippled, demented arch-enemy of Sylvester Stallone, or whether it's a sophisticated manipulative in Killer Elite, or an all around nice guy. I just like to push the barriers of my craft. So the short answer to your question: I definitely actively seek out roles—there's a definite strategy just mixing it up.