GBENGA AKINNAGBE: MASTER OF HIS CRAFT
By Khalid J. Strickland a.k.a. Dirty Angel
Surprise, “Wire” fans! Ya’ favorite gangster has a clean-cut side.
Gbenga Akinnagbe is a star most definitely on the rise. The versatile, theater-trained actor was a regular on the Showtime comedy series “Barbershop”, based on the hit movie of the same name. Akinnagbe is also featured in the upcoming motion picture “The Savages”, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. But it’s his role as cold-blooded assassin Chris Paltrow on HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire” that has garnered Akinnagbe the most accolades thus far. “The Wire”, a complex crime-drama that takes place in the mean streets of Baltimore, is considered by many connoisseurs to be not only the best show on television today, but perhaps one of the finest programs in the history of American television.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C. to Nigerian parents, Gbenga Akinnagbe was in-and-out of trouble as a youth, having no definite goals at the time. It wasn’t until he joined the wrestling team in his junior year at High School that he gained focus with his life. Gbenga attended Bucknell University on a wrestling scholarship and majored in Political Science and English. During his time at Bucknell, Akinnagbe joined the wrestling team and became a champion all-state and all-conference competitor. After graduating, his next move was working at the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency in Washington D.C. that administers Americorps and other volunteer programs. A year later, while sitting in his cubicle at work, Gbenga decided that he wanted to break from the monotony of a standard 9 to 5 job and learn about acting. He bought books and deeply researched his future profession. After attending many auditions, Gbenga earned a role at the Shakespeare Theater in D.C., and later worked his way into various productions in the area, performing for crowds at the prestigious Kennedy Theater and Shakespeare in the Park. While taking acting classes in New Jersey, Gbenga was invited to audition for a recurring role on “The Wire”, and the rest, as they say, is history.
During an interview with Insomniac Magazine, Gbenga proved to be very down-to-earth and amicable. His real-life demeanor was also a confirmation of his exceptional acting ability, as the humble Gbenga Akinnagbe is quite different from the feared Chris Paltrow.
Dirty Angel: What would you say was your first big break? What was the first production you were a part of?
Gbenga Akinnagbe: The Oedipus play at the Shakespeare Theater. It was one of the top theaters in the country and I was on stage with actors like Avery Brooks and Earl Hyman. That was my first big break, my very first show.
Angel: And you were on “Barbershop” as well, right?
Angel: And that was on the west coast?
Gbenga: Yeah. It was on Showtime. That was my first time out in L.A.; I auditioned for that here in New York, they liked me and they brought me out to L.A. I was doing a play here in New York City at the Public Theater so I came back and finished the play and they brought me back out to L.A. and we filmed… not this past summer, but the summer before… so I was out there at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
Angel: “Barbershop” and “The Wire”… they came on during the same season?
Gbenga: Well, there was a slight kind of conflict and overlap. I was fortunate enough (to) get permission, because at that time I was contracted with Showtime and Showtime gave me permission to go back to “The Wire”. I was on “The Wire” in a smaller capacity and I didn’t have a contract. And then they invited me back in a larger capacity as one of the leads. So it was just conflict with my previous contract. It just so happened that the filming season for one show ended just as the filming season for the other began. So I was able to do both.
Angel: Did that take a toll on you, man? Not so much contractually but physically, having to do one show and then running and jumping into the next one. Was it hard for you to do or was it something you welcomed?
Gbenga: I welcome it, I love to hustle. What’s hard for me to do is to wait between jobs. I haven’t had to wait between jobs for years and when I have to that’s hard. It drives me crazy even if it’s for a few days.
Angel: Do you have any influences in acting?
Gbenga: Oh, absolutely… I love Daniel day Lewis, he’s a sick actor, it’s ridiculous how good he is as an artist. I really dig Angela Bassett, she’s really good. I wish I could see more of her work. There’s a lot of good actors out there, and there’s a lot more bad actors out there, so I don’t know… there’s people I see their stuff and I’m like “All right, this person’s the real deal”. Sean Penn, he really brings it every time he’s on screen. Phillip Hoffman. Ken Watanabe, I like that cat, he’s a Japanese cat and he was in “The Last Samurai”. He’s a real cat I like his stuff.
Angel: You worked with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in your new film about to come out, “The Savages”.
Gbenga: Yeah, that’s right. It’s me, Phillip, Laura Linney and Phillip Bosco. All of them are great actors, it was just an honor to be there doing the thing with them.
Angel: What is the film about and what’s your role in it?
Gbenga: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play brother and sister in a dysfunctional family by the last name of Savage. They’re called to collect their father who they haven’t seen in years and put him in a home because he’s becoming senile. I play an aide in the home who comforts Laura Linney whenever she comes to see her father. She’s got all kinds of mixed feelings because he was not a good man to them and their lives are all messed up. All her relationships with men are really dysfunctional, but as far as our relationship when she comes to the hospital to see him, and unlike her other relationships with men in the movie, our relationship is very clean. That’s basically it. There’s no lying involved and it’s very basic and it’s something new to her, so it’s cool.
Angel: You came up in D.C., is that correct?
Gbenga: Yeah, yeah. I was born in D.C. and I grew up in Maryland, Montgomery County, which is right on the border.
Angel: Did you know or associate with any real-life “corner boys” or gangsters when you were coming up? (Note for the slang impaired: “Corner boys” are the guys who stand on the block and hustle drugs for a living, plenty of whom are featured in “The Wire”)
Gbenga: (Laughs) Everywhere. I mean, that was the hood. It wasn’t a matter of associating or not, it was just a matter of that’s where your neighborhood was, you know? But, again… there’s choices. People act like we don’t have choices. Even in poverty, we have choices. So I never… like, when I was there, my sister wouldn’t let me get too much into any of that. But everyone around was doing their thing.
Angel: You’ve done comedy, you’ve done theater. Chris… that role is like… he’s probably one of the most brutal dudes I’ve seen on television. How do you prepare yourself to play Chris… to play such a cold-blooded dude, man?
Gbenga: Well, Chris is a watcher, he’s a stalker. Not in the sense of stalking, just following people to watch them. He’s a stalker where he observes everything and he when he follows and takes things in, it’s because he’s getting ready to snuff out. So it’s very important to him how he does things meticulous. So, when I get started I start to just walk. I just get to myself, I don’t really fraternize that much when it’s time to film and I just start walking around and I start taking in everything and everyone. At the filming I just stand back, he stands back away from everything and just observes the world. And then he goes into his moment.
Gbenga (as Chris Paltrow) in straight grimy mode.
Angel: A lot of the cast members from shows, like “The Sopranos” for instance, have a lot of real-life gangsters approach them and give them props for the show or advice or whatever. Do you ever have any real-life corner boys or gangsters approach you?
Gbenga: All the time. Every day, every day all day. It’s crazy, I mean, it’s mad love. Especially now, I mean, the streets are giving me mad, mad love. And where I live, I live in Manhattan, and on my block they’re selling 24-7 and of course, they love the show. And once they realize that it’s me, yo… they always come up and show love. No matter where, Harlem or whatever, a lot of these cats who are out there putting in work they come up and they show love. It’s wild because every demographic loves the show. There are doctors, there are dealers, there are people who have killed… everyone. Mothers and their children, everyone is diggin’ the show.
Angel: The cast (of “The Wire”)… you guys work very well together, everybody from top to bottom. There’s a lot of chemistry there. Do you hang out with the folks in the cast?
Gbenga: There’s a lot of chemistry there. When we get together we have a great time. On the regular I hang out with Jamie Hector who plays Marlo. It’s funny because we’re always together on the show. Snoop (Felicia Pearson) and I are always together on the show, when I’m not with Jamie, I’m with Snoop on the show. Snoop, when I’m in Maryland, we hang out. But Jamie and I, that’s my boy. Like, we’re real tight.
Angel: I think “The Wire” is the best show on TV, definitely. I think it may be one of the best shows that ever came on. It’s been ignored so far by the Emmys and all these different award shows, but it’s certainly deserving. Is winning an award something that you’d like to accomplish? Is that something that’s important to you, just as a person?
Gbenga: It’s something that I’d like to accomplish (but) it’s not important to me. I mean, I don’t need an Oscar to tell me that I did good work, because I know what I am as an actor and what I do with my craft. I won’t lie and say I don’t want one, I mean it would be cool to get one, but it definitely isn’t important. I’ll continue doing good work with or without an Emmy or whatever. The show itself, we’re all proud to be part of a show like this. We all go in knowing that we’re doing good work, and it’s so different from a majority of stuff that’s on TV. I mean, how many other actors get the opportunity to work on a show that’s been called the best show on TV or the best show that’s ever been on TV? And whether it’s recognized by award committees or not, to know that you’re going in and working with these people, who are putting in real work, that’s enough right there for most people. Well, it is for me.
Angel: There are some actors, people of color, who don’t want to be considered a “black actor”. Do you kind being referred to as a “black actor” or is that a label you’d like to shed?
Gbenga: I feel it’s a label I’d like to shed. I mean, I feel sorry for anyone who would think of me as a “black actor”, because that’s a limited vision. I’m so much more and they’d be surprised. To underestimate me or my capabilities… and I mean that’s black or white, there’s black people who think of me as a “black actor”… that’s unfortunate. And then again, there are a lot of actors who are black who can only do roles that are “black”. So I won’t generalize and say that all black actors can do everything. No, that’s not true. There are some black actors who can only play hood. There are some white actors who can only play Beverly Hills. But me, for example, you give me a script and I’m going to give you something real, whatever’s on it.
Angel: I saw you in XXL magazine with some other members of “The Wire” cast doing some modeling for Akademiks (clothing line). What are some of the other things you have poppin’ off outside of acting and “The Wire”?
Gbenga: Yeah, we got that endorsement deal with Akademiks… me, Jamie Hector, Michael K. Williams (“Omar”) and J.D. Williams (“Bodie”). There are some things in talks right now, nothing definite. But as far as things that are concrete that are out right now, it’s just the Akademiks endorsement deal and our projects that are coming out, like as far as our work.
Angel: What’s been the best part of what you’ve accomplished in your career so far?
Gbenga: That’s easy. There are a lot of good things that come with it… with what I do. I enjoy my craft, I enjoy making a living from my craft. But what’s really cool, I’m big on the celebrity and service. As I do these things, I gain more recognition and people knowing whom I am more so, I can talk about these causes and these things that are important to me and then more people listen. It’s definitely not about the images of the bling and Rollies and cars and all that stuff. It’s an uphill battle. And I like the fact that more people are listening when I talk about serving your community, serving yourself, and other things that are more important. I think that’s one of the biggest perks of my current career.
Angel: Indeed. You seem like a very nice down-to-earth dude… a very humble dude. In a business like this, how do you maintain your humility?
Gbenga: As far as staying down-to-earth, just being reminded… it’s great I’m having success. It’s great I’m on TV and got movies coming out or whatever. But all of that is, like, not me. I’ve just been blessed. God did that and I just happened to be a vehicle there. I can’t get a big head because I know I didn’t do it, I just happened to be fortunate to be a part of it, you know what I mean? So, maybe I would get a big head if I thought I was responsible for all that… I’m responsible for my decisions, but… as far as all the great things that have been happening, they’re all blessings. And also I make sure to surround myself with people who are like-minded. Who are down-to-earth, like Jamie Hector, he’s a guy like that. He and I, we keep each other in check and we talk about real things. It’s not like we’re sitting down talking about being famous, because at the end of the day we just sat down and spent the whole day talking about being famous. No, we like to talk about concrete things and those are things that entertain our minds and keep us busy and keep us down-to-earth.
Gbenga Akinnagbe can be seen on “The Wire”, which is without a doubt the best show on TV, Sunday nights at 10pm EST on HBO. If you’re a TV aficionado and don’t watch “The Wire”, you’re really depriving yourself of something special. “The Savages” will be released in 2007.