The Thing: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the man with the name that’s hard to spell and impossible to pronounce, is often better known for the roles he’s played on TV, particularly Adebisi on “Oz” and Mr. Eko on “Lost,” but he’s regularly appeared in movies including a small role in Stephen Sommer’s G.I. Joe. From what we saw, he certainly has a larger part to play in The Thing, his first horror film, and having been a fan of his work, it was exciting to finally meet and talk with him. We came on a day you probably won’t be able to talk about in promoting this movie. What has making the movie been like?

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Well, it’s been emotional, especially today. It’s been really exhilarating. It’s been a real, I would say an honor, because I’m working with a really nice bunch of people and that goes from the crew, that goes from director and producerial and the cast, because the cast, as you know, is made up of a lot of unknown, at least to American eyes, actors. Norwegians. And that brings a certain level of authenticity to it, you know? Because I do a lot of American film, it’s great to hear them speaking a foreign language even if you don’t know what the heck they’re talking about, it just makes you feel like you’re not actually making a movie, which is great, because that makes it easier for us to be normal in the movie. Personally, I love Toronto. It’s my third film here. And then the film itself, it’s obviously part of a cult and I’m privy to seeing JC’s version and it’s just nice because everybody I mention the film to are just so excited and it’s nice being part of that, right, and trying to pay homage to that, even if it’s a prequel. I’ve never done a horror film before. I’m always kind of shy and a little superstitious, to be honest, but what appealed to me about the film was the thriller element. It’s like a psychological thriller of who’s who. The monster and the effects come in last. It’s funny, because we shot it like that. We shot it as just a film. Everybody was buddy-buddy and we didn’t actually shoot any of the gory scenes until the last two weeks of the movie. So I remember at one point, I was like, “Oh shoot. We’re actually shooting a horror movie. I’m not just seeing people’s arms drop off.” I was, “Oh shoot. I forgot. This is really scary.” But until that point, it was all jokes and two months of hanging out. I think it’s just really nice to be part of this genre and for me to enter this genre in this way, with this vehicle, is kind of special, because obviously you have an in-built audience. And just “The Thing,” it’s really clever, because there are so many moments that the audience can play with: Is he? When did he? How did he? And that’s the kind of thing you want to leave people… It treats you, the audience, as intelligent, and you don’t get that in a lot of movies. Without giving the plot away, it’s not predictable. And that’s what I liked about it. Everybody is dispensable. You know what I mean? But you just don’t know the outcome. You’re not gonna know the outcome. You can hazard a guess, but you’ll probably be wrong. That’s what I liked about it. It’s unconventional in its storytelling because you just do no know which way it will go.

Shock: How does your character arrive at this situation? Presumably he’s not Norwegian, right?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Yeah, in the movie, I think I’m the only one without a hairy face, so I’m really proud of that. Me and Carter, who’s my buddy, we used to be in ‘Nam together and after Nam, we couldn’t really fit into ordinary society, so we figured we’d go and try to make money at what we knew how to do best, which was fly choppers. And this was probably at that time the best bet, coming out to the Antarctic. We could make some dough here ferrying bods back and forth. So that’s kinda how I land on this piece of ice, ferrying people. We actually stationed out here and as you see in the movie, I’m always griping about like, “How ’bout California? I hear they’re dumping water on fires over there. Beaches. Bikinis. You know? I can get my suntan.” That’s kind of what brings us there. We’re just making a buck and this is where we can make it.

Shock: You mentioned the character was in Vietnam. Is that something you keep in mind as you’re performing, or is that just back story you can take or leave?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Yeah, I came to the project late and they’d already obviously written it and the way it was written initially was Carter was a captain and he was giving orders, but when I came on the project they said, “Well, he’s 6’2”, that’s not gonna work. Know what I mean? So I was like, “How ’bout we be best friends…” and so Vietnam was the backstory. It’s hard, as you know, you get into a movie and you’ve never met somebody and then you’ve gotta pretend that you’re best friends and you need some glue. That was the glue. That was the fabric that we needed to kind of stitch us together. And we tried to see… because this is 1982 and Nam would have been ’70s and ’60s, why would a black guy from a certain part of America be best buddies with… It’s not the usual relationship, especially out in the Antarctic, so we tried to get behind and see what it was that would bond us, really, and have these two guys abandon society and go live on friggin’ ice pack and that was the common denominator, that we’d been at war. We’d both seen loss and we’d saved each other’s asses and had each other’s back and trusted each other. And you make those pledges like, “When I get out of here, I’m gonna blah blah blah…” It was was one of those. So…

Shock: Do you and Joel try to bond off camera and have your own…?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Menage a trois? Well, we’re in the same hotel, so… (laughter) No, now, we do. We hang out. Joel is a really, really cool, sociable bloke. I don’t know if you’ve met him. He’s really personable. He’s easy to get along with. He’s an Aussie and I’m a Brit, so there’s already a common… And we’re both putting on accents, so we’re kind of like the outsiders, and we kind of bond pretty easy and we kick around a football, but yeah, we do. I think especially coming in late, it was quite important for us to get to know each other. We hung out, had a drink or two.

Shock: We’ve heard you do a lot of different accent in movies, rarely your natural British accent. What nationality are you in this?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: No, that’s another reason why I took it. The last two films I’ve done, I just finished one with Billy Bob Thornton and The Rock called “Faster,” in which I play a black evangelist and it’s an American preacher and again in this one, they were very insistent, I was very fortunate, Marc Abraham, Eric and Miles were quite insistent on me doing the job and, in particular because they’re used to seeing me play the bad guy, but they know me as having a sense of humor and they thought that that’s what I could bring to the movie. They wanted to see the lighter, funnier side and it’s an American. It gave me, again, another opportunity to show the range that I have and I felt very comfortable. The irony is that all of the Americans in the movie, none of us are actually American. You’ve got Australians. You’ve got a British. You got Canadian. We’re representing the Yanks and I hope we do it well. Otherwise, no more jobs for us, right? But yeah. I like doing that. I’m about to do another movie straight after this, in which I’ll play a British accent. I did it in “GI Joe,” but that was kind of a caricature Cockney. It was my accent still. The next film I’m going to do, it’s going to be a really good one actually, it’s a British accent. It’s a joy to play, it’s kind of like New Yorker accent.

Shock: Since most of us first saw you in “Oz,” it’s surprising to hear you with this British accent.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: A lot of people expect me to be walking around with a club, like Mr. Echo and they’re absolutely amazed about why I don’t talk like that and I’m like “Well, because they were paying me.” Yeah, I’m obviously Nigerian, but born and raised in England, so the good thing about it, is that because of my heritage, I’m able to flip back and forth whether it’s African, Jamaican, American, Australian, wherever. It’s always been a natural thing for me to be able to do, actually, and the nice thing is now you’re able to show it in characters. I remember when I first came to America, nobody had a clue what a black Englishman was. I was either South African or Australian to them. I was like, “No, I’m British.” So now, it’s permeating the industry, which is nice. As an actor, you just like to be able to play as much range. I just want to be invisible. I want to be able to be perceived as an artist, a opposed to “a black actor,” that’s the joy. That’s why I like this film. Matthijs, obviously he’s not from America. He has a different perspective as well. One of the things we talked about, there’s only one shooting in this movie and he said he’s tired of seeing in American movies where the victims get shot four, five times and they’re still having a go, getting up or having an hour-long dying speech, but he really wanted to bring realness to it and show the humanity in shooting somebody. And so when we shoot somebody, it’s actually a really big thing in this movie and it’s “Holy fuck, it’s not only the wrong guy, but you shot him.” Everybody’s like, “There’s an alien running around and they’re having a go at me for shooting somebody.” But it’s nice, because it places a level of importance on life. It really is and I think the whole film does that, because The Thing assumes your entity. Know what I mean? So in order for it to live, it has to live in this… So it’s quite mystic and spiritual and that’s my realm, to be honest with you.

Shock: Do you remember the first time you saw “The Thing”? And reactions to it?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: To be honest, I saw it a while back and then revisited it when the project came up. I couldn’t remember its impact upon me the first time, but when I watched it again this time, I was just struck by, first of all the cinematography is just brilliant. You know, I’ve done quite a few ensemble pieces with “Lost” and “Oz,” but I loved how every character had his own story. They were just real people and I really loved that. I was more intrigued by the suspense, prior to seeing “The Thing.” Know what I mean? I love the build-up and the story and the tanglement and stuff like that. I just like it because it was more of a thriller. The thing that jumped out to me was the cinematography, because it was quite progressive for then, the way it was shot, the angles, the choices. I love Kurt Russell in it. I thought he was a great choice. Keith David. People are like, “Yeah, are you the Keith David character, man? Are you gonna represent? Are you gonna hold it down for the brothers, man?” I said, “I’m just reading the lines, man. And it’s a prequel.” “I don’t care, man. Keith, he was the man. He survived!” I’m like, “Okay.” So there’s a lot on my shoulders. Jesus! I’m just a vehicle! I’m a puppet! But you try telling the public that, especially that have invested themselves in a movie over 25 years, you know?

Shock: People are protective of properties like that…

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Cults, you don’t mess with them, man. You don’t mess with them. And I think if you do, it’s with a lot of respect, and I think that’s the movie. I think it will make people happy. It’s differently. There’s always gonna be some people griping, but I think on the whole, it’s gonna serve it. I think they were very smart making a prequel, because I think it gives us creative license to tell a story in your own way. But I think, still, fans are gonna love it. It’s very much in keeping with JC’s. And we have David Foster to guide us, the original producer. He was great. He had lots of tips. He was really great. He came on set. He was steering us.

Shock: He told you war stories?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Well, you know, he was telling us like what John said about… yeah, because been asked to remake it and what he thought about this and he would just say, you know, he didn’t want anything to do with it, because he felt that anybody who was remaking it, he didn’t want to influence. He said that’s the way it should be. He doesn’t want any part of it, in the best possible way, to give it new life. David was cool. He’s like, “Yeah, you could be a bit more scared…” You know. But he was really supportive. Yeah, but he’ll tell you, though, when the character’s on-point or off, in a nice gentlemanly way. He’s cool. He was stunned by the fact that I’m British. He couldn’t believe that I was British and I was playing this American.

Shock: We were just talking to the effects guys and they were saying it’s so much better for the actors to be able to actually see something instead of just a tennis ball at the end of a stick. With practical effects involved, does that make it better for you guys?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I’m squeamish, man. I was sh*t-scared. I’ll be straight-up with you. When you’re walking in as an actor and they’re carrying someone who’s arm falls off and you’ve got the arm and it’s built life-like, it’s really easy for you to act scared. That Thing is nasty. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to see it. It is horrible. And I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the work for an actor is using his imagination to cry to conjure up the horror, but when you’ve got it produced for you, that’s half of your job done, isn’t it? Now obviously there the repetition, but for me, personally, 100 percent better. I’m sure you saw the creature, the guy, it’s so lifelike. When you touch it, as well, it’s flesh-like as well. It’s really bloody scary, man. And they’ve done such a brilliant job. I think my character, Jameson, was the first one to actually see the creature bust out. And I remember when we were shooting the scene, we had it in a block of ice and I was like, “Oh, how am I going to do this?” I’ve watched those corny horror movies where people are like feigning fear. I’m just like, “I can’t overact.” And I went in and I this Thing in the ice and you *see* it and it looked… Right there, the magnitude of it. And then you start to think as an actor, “Well, what would I really do if I saw, if we really found a creature and dug it out and put it in this ice. It’s not too far-fetched.” Know what I mean? It’s right there in front of you, so for me, it was all fodder. It was great fodder that helps you do a better job. I mean, they’ve done a brilliant job the special effects. I certain prefer it to a little thingie ball at the end. That’s really hard work, man. They should pay you double-time for that. It’s really hard work, because the temptation to not overact. And then when you see the film and you’re like, “Awww sh*t. If I’d known it looked like that, I’d have done this.” But you can’t rewind. It’s just like there it is, immortalized. When you’ve got something to go with, it’s a lot easier.

Shock: Talk about Smoke Monster…

Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Smoke Monster. My point exactly. There was nothing. It was just the camera and three men running at you … “Here it comes and now it’s…” I remember at the end of doing that scene, I had a migraine because you’re given from the director about 50 different directions and he’s like “And now you’re scared! And now he’s coming! And your eyebrow’s coming up!” [He makes a freaking-out noise.] You do that three times, “Aw my head is killing me!” Know what I mean? It was fun, though. It was fun. It’s all fun. This is what you dream of as a kid.

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Source: Edward Douglas


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