Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interview with Gbenga Akinnagbe: "Acting is What I do, Not Who I Am"


Gbenga Akinnagbe
If you ever kept up with the extraordinary show that was ‘The Wire’, you definitely know Gbenga Akinnagbe. On the show, he played the character Chris Partlow and recently, he played the nemesis in the movie ‘Lottery Ticket’ opposite Bow Wow. Eights & Weights caught up with the phenomenal actor about his current projects and how he’s kept his great physique over the last few years.

Eights & Weights: Tell us a bit about your story and how you got into acting.
Gbenga: Picture it. It all happened in a village in Sicily in 1963.
He breaks into laughter. Like ROFL-type laughter as I had my mouth wide open wondering ‘But he wasn’t born in 1963’. Yes, that's how slow I was.
Gbenga: Okay, I’m kidding. I fell into acting by chance actually. I was working for the Federal Government and I was curious about acting. I wasn’t trying to become an actor, but I was curious so I bought some books and did some research. I found out that there were some auditions around me so I started going, and I was offered a role in a theater in DC. That’s where it started, and I have been acting since. There are many different paths into acting.

Eights & Weights: You were born and raised in Maryland. Do you visit Nigeria often, or maintain any ties back home?
Gbenga: Well, my whole family is Nigerian. We are Yoruba. I was the first one born here so I was raised in a very Nigerian household. Yes, I do have a lot of family back in Nigeria, but unfortunately I don’t know them very well because those ties have not been maintained too well. But in my adult life I have been taking steps to try to bridge the gap, and get involved in a lot of the Nigerian cultural events here, and hopefully eventually back in Nigeria as well. For example, I was on the float at the Nigerian Independence Day parade in New York. So basically I’m doing a lot of things to try to promote a positive image of the Nigerian culture here.

Eights & Weights: Is it difficult maintaining an identity here being Nigerian- American? I know sometimes this may affect the kind of parts you get branded with?
Gbenga: I think I’ve been really lucky as I’ve got to do all kinds of acting. I’ve got to play roles as an African, and I’ve got to play other roles as well. People see my work and they can tell that I can do other things.

Eights & Weights: I hear the rapper Wale is your cousin? Did you guys influence each other’s decision to do what you do?
Gbenga: It’s funny because we both fell into entertainment. He didn’t grow up doing music and I didn’t grow up acting. I was already acting when I found out he had started doing music, and I remember that his brother and I would take his mix tape everywhere with us trying to promote him. For a full week once, we took his mix tape everywhere and handed it to everyone because he is really really good. And a week later, he had a gig and it all kind of skyrocketed from there.

Eights & Weights: So we all know you as Chris Partlow on the Wire, a sociopathic killer. It’s often said that once you establish yourself as a character on television, it could be hard to break out of that identity. Has that been true with you?
Gbenga: Breaking out of a role is never easy, but I’d like to think I’ve been more fortunate than a lot of people on other shows with roles that were as heavy as Chris. I can’t say that I’ve had great difficulty. Even in the fourth season of The Wire, I got to play a nurse in a movie called ‘The Savages’ by Fox Searchlight, which was very different from the role I was playing as Chris Partlow. So I really don’t think I’ve had some of the stereotypical difficulties of breaking out.
Now that being said, we are always constantly fighting against stereotypes, right? People may look at you and form a preconceived notion of what they think you can and cannot do. With those, I have to fight to show what I can do, but I think most people know that my ability is not restricted to one role.

Eights & Weights: What would be your ideal role?
Gbenga: I can see myself doing a lot of things, like playing a supporting role, being the romantic lead, I like really different things. But a role I’d love? I’d love to play Batman.
I burst out laughing, not because I found it amusing, but that was just not what I expected to hear.

Eights & Weights: I think that would be really interesting.
Gbenga: Why are you laughing? I’m serious. You said that would be interesting. Interesting as in?

Eights & Weights: Interesting as in good! We don’t have any black superheroes that I know of. So that would be a great role, I think.
Gbenga: Yes, I think I would love that. I get that character.
 
Eights & Weights: You mean that dark and twisted type character?
Gbenga: He pauses like he’s remembering something, and then says in a mischievous voice “Oh yeah!” I would have asked him to expand on that, but after that pause, I decided not to dig into that so I don’t have to rate this article ‘PG-13’.

Eights & Weights: So back to what you’re doing right now, you are currently shooting for the television show ‘the Good Wife’. Can you tell us more about your role as Pastor Isaiah?
Gbenga: I play Chris Noth’s spiritual advisor. I run a church in Chicago with a very large African American constituency and Chris Noth asks me to help get his poll numbers up with black people. My character generally doesn’t play political games and has no interest in helping out, but he is interested in helping Peter, Chris Noth’s character, repair his marriage as he’d just been released from prison and was trying to make a real turnaround.

Eights & Weights: Is it a recurring role? Can we expect to see more of you?
Gbenga: I actually started at the end of last season so start watching from last season so you can see the full story. So it is recurring because they brought me back after last season, but for the future, you can never really tell where TV shows are going so you don’t know what they plan for future episodes.

Gbenga and Bow Wow on the set of Lottery Ticket

Eights & Weights: For the other project you worked on that was just released ‘Lottery Ticket’, tell us a little about your character.
Gbenga: My character’s name is Lorenzo Mac, who is the antagonist of the film. He is very much a thug, aggressive, but pretty intelligent. And Bow Wow, who’s the protagonist, wins a million dollars and has to make it through the weekend with his lottery ticket before he can turn it in. Lorenzo and Bow Wow’s character live in the same neighborhood, so basically Lorenzo is after this lottery ticket.

Eights & Weights: Apart from ‘the Good Wife’ and ‘Lottery Ticket’, do you have any other big projects being released in the near future that you’d like us to know about?
Gbenga: People always ask me just about my acting, but right now, I’m also freelancing for the New York Times as a writer. I’ve had a couple of articles published so I would say look out for more articles.

Eights & Weights: Yes, I did read your article about your trip to Nepal to climb the Himalayas. That’s very impressive. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
Gbenga: The trip was amazing. We were above 18000 feet. I was in a small town where some people had never seen black people before. I had my hair at the time, and so many people would touch my hair and freak out because it was so different. I took a bunch of pictures and it was just incredible. I mean these are grown people who in their entire lifetime had never seen anyone who looked like me, people of my race. When I was walking by this man once, he said to me that he had read about people like me in books.
But though the view was absolutely gorgeous, the climb was difficult. We walked about 100 miles straight from town to town to town going up in elevation. Sometimes, we would walk 7 hours from one town to the next, and stay in these little tea houses that were like cabins. Nepal was great, a very peaceful city. Katmandu was a bustling city, but very filthy unfortunately. For a city with such history, the air was pretty bad. But it’s not different from a lot of third or second world big cities.
One thing I thought was great is that you can find seashells in the Himalayas. I mean this is thousands of feet above sea level, but you still find seashells. I think it’s a testament to the fact that at one point, these mountains were actually covered by water.

Eights & Weights: While we’re on the topic of you climbing things, can you tell me how you stay in shape on a daily basis?
Gbenga: I was a wrestler in college, and so I was used to staying in shape on a daily basis. Recently though, I’ve been biking a lot. I bought a bike that I ride in and out of the city. I was never much of a biker before; I always loved to run so it’s a new experience for me.
But I used to run and then do crazy pushups and situps. There’s a website I use called www.crossfit.com, which has a lot of crazy fitness programs. One I used to do was run 800 meters, do 300 squats, 200 pushups, 200 situps, 200 pullups, and then run another 800 meters. It’s pretty quick and you can be done within the hour, but it’s really difficult. Because of my training, I learned the difference between pain and injury. So if you don’t mind pain, you can pretty much do anything.
Once a lot of people feel a little pain, they back off. But then they see little to no benefits and start to think that exercise is a waste of time and doesn’t work. But you have to push yourself way beyond your own comfort level. Just like much in life actually.

Eights & Weights: What about with food? Are you health conscious with food as well?
Gbenga: I love to eat, and I’m very aware of the food I eat. So when I eat badly, I know it. I’m very conscious of it. I try to eat greens very week at least and drink a lot more water. It’s funny though because it really comes down to basic things that our bodies need. We know what we should eat and what we shouldn’t because our bodies tell us.

Eights & Weights: Do you have any other little tips for our readers on how to stay inspired to work out?
Gbenga: I love to play music as I work out. That really gets me going. When I was wrestling, I would think about my goals as an athlete as I worked out. In fact, I did my last wrestling tournament in 2007 so I still wrestle when I can. Wrestling itself keeps you in amazing shape. 

Eights & Weights: Where do you wrestle though?
Gbenga: There are tournaments that are pre-Olympic qualifiers or qualifiers for other tournaments, and there are college tournaments, which you don’t really have to be in college to participate in. I haven’t been training enough to really wrestle and I haven’t had enough time to focus on it. But in 2007, when I last wrestled, my friend called me at like 10pm on a Friday night and said come wrestle. I was in NY and he was in Baltimore so I resisted at first, but then when I hung up, I couldn’t get wrestling out of my mind. So I stayed up till 3am and caught the next train from NY to Baltimore. I got there at like 6am, and they had to weigh me like they do in wrestling tournaments. I weighed in 4 pounds over, so guess what? I lost 3 pounds in like an hour and then they let me into the tournament.
But then as I’m wrestling, I pulled a muscle in my rib and my hand started to seize up, probably because I did not sleep, I lost all that water weight in an hour, and I had not been training for it. The first round was 0-0, the second was 0-1, I scored I point. By the third, he scored 1 point as well so it was even. We went into overtime, and my body just started failing me. The kids were all crowding me by then screaming ‘Come on the Wire! You can do it!’ And then my mind started wondering, but apparently, while my mind was wondering, my body acted and I flipped him over and won the tournament. It was intense and I could not move the next day.
Eights & Weights: That sounds like an amazing story. As an athlete, I’m sure you would have still done it over again if you had the chance.

Gbenga Akinnagbe
Eights & Weights: At Eights & Weights, we’re also very focused on charity initiatives that have connections to African countries. Are you involved in any charity initiatives? Any relating to Africa?
Gbenga: I work with a charity called ‘All for Africa’. It’s a charity that helps non-profits on the continent fund themselves. We recently had our annual event where artists like John Legend, and the cast from Fela came out and performed. The premise of the non-profit right now is to plant a million palm trees, and allocate the lots of land to non-profits on the ground so when these trees grow, the non-profits can have the profits from the fruits to fund themselves.

Eights & Weights: Our ‘Eights & Weights’ motto is health and happiness since we are all about promoting awareness for health and fitness among Africans. When you hear those words ‘Healthy and Happy’, what does that mean to you?
Gbenga: Healthy equals good abs! He laughs. No seriously, when I think of healthy and happy, I think of eating well and enjoying your friends and your family, but definitely eating well.

Eights & Weights: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Gbenga: Well, I’d just like people to know that I’m appreciative of everyone that has supported my career till now.

Can you keep up with Gbenga's intense workout schedule? Boys, maybe this is just what you need to push yourself to gain that extra muscle.

The television show ‘The Good Wife’ plays on CBS on Tuesdays at 10pm EST in the US.  The movie ‘Lottery Ticket’ is out now. Since this interview, Gbenga has also landed a recurring role as a nurse on the TV show ‘Nurse Jackie’ beside Edie Falco. The third season of the show is set to air from February 2011 on Showtime. Keep watching Gbenga because he's sure to always be on your TV screen or at a cinema near you.

Cheers Eights & Weights!

Photo credit: www.imdb.com, www.insomniacmagazine.com, www.examiner.com

4 comments:

  1. Nice Nice....Way to go!!!

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  2. Awww. Love 'The Wire'. It's always inspiring to read about someone's success.

    Is that joke about Sicily referring to 'The Godfather'?

    *Now going to work on my abs*

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  3. I love him on the Good Wife! Never really watched The Wire or Lottery Ticket. I wonder what he'll do next. He's cute, just shh don't tell him I said that.

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  4. lmao.. cant believe u didnt get the golden girl joke.. mschew

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