Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the only African-American in the prequel to The Thing, something Agbaje jokes about himself. Generally, you’d get the overwhelming suspicion that he’s got no chance of survival here, considering this is a horror film. But whether he lives or dies, I’m sure watching Agbaje on-screen will make you think he’s the guy that’s going to come out on top. Agbaje is one of those actors that has a strong presence both on and off-screen. This isn’t a boy trying to play badass, but someone who has the look and charisma of a genuine action hero.
Here’s what actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje had to say about working with practical effects, acting in the ’80s, and why he hasn’t seen the finale of Lost:
This is an interesting take on a classic, being a prequel. For you, was there any trepidation jumping into something that’s so loved by fans? Do you think about that as an actor?
Well, you always do. I had just done G.I. Joe, as well. There’s always always that same kind of consideration and trepidation about messing with a cult classic. I think those fears were gone once I spoke with the director and just saw his vision. Obviously, being a prequel gives you a creative license and more latitude. Also, him being European…he was coming from a different perspective making it real, very realistic. There’s only one gunshot in the movie and he really wanted that one gunshot to matter, because when people get shot in movies they get up and start fighting again but he said, “No, I want to show that realistic side to life.”
I think it comes across in the actors he chose. We have a large Norwegian cast and there’s quite a bit of Norwegian spoken. What that does to you, as an actor, it makes you present because you have to pay attention. It gives the film a different dynamic, texture, and I think even the audience will have to become present. Subtitles make you have to focus and be invested in the movie, so there’s all of that.
I think what I was really taken by is that I haven’t played a guy that’s likable, lets put it that way. Jameson, he’s more of the traditional buddy guy, but it’s quite a unique relationship with a black guy and a white guy in that period of the ’80s. It’s, how the hell would they become buddies? And why would they wanna leave civilization and go to the Antarctic? There’s all of that dynamic, which is quite a rich arc between them two.
To me, while we were shooting it felt like we were shooting a thriller. I don’t think I realized we were shooting a horror film until the last two weeks of the movie, which is when the arms starting dropping off. It was really cool because I’m a little shy of horror movies. I think the genre is a hard one to hit, but what I learned about the movie is that it’s very much a “who’s who.” In order for The Thing to take possession it has to assume the figure of a human and that creates a paranoia, even between best friends.
It’s a very human film and there’s a lot of mystical elements about it. Enemies are started and friends are broken. I think the audience can really start to investigate and wager whether it’s him or him. I think that’s quite an exciting dynamic, and that’s what really appealed to me. It has got that intellectual element, but it’s also got the gore. As I said, that was really what allied my trepidation about it about this being one I could jump into. Plus, I’m the only African-American (laughs). It’s just a good ride, you know.
What was it like working with practical monsters as opposed to a tennis ball on a stick?
It was really, really frightening. I’ve got to be honest, they’ve done a brilliant job of making them life-like, because [the alien] assumes your human form. So if it’s you, it’ll look like you. And it informs you as an actor, because it’s different than saying, “Right, and now the monster’s coming!” It’s all allowed to your imagination. So every time they thrust that thing out at you—and it’s very dark, the warehouse where we were shooting—it helps you. You do it two or three times, you know it’s coming, but 50 percent of your work is done when you see it. And like, when an arm falls off. It’s different than just saying, “And the arm falls off.” But no matter how many times you’ve actually got a real arm, and it’s falling off, and all the tentacles are hanging out…it looks gross. And it helps you with that emotion. It was a lot of help to have a monster instead of a green ball. I actually didn’t see the green ball once, so I was lucky.
How did this being a period piece affect your performance, if at all?
It was, that’s a good question. There was a lot of discussion about this as to whether we’ll do this or do that, and I was like, “What would my character do then as opposed to now?” When you do a period piece, the way I look at it is what I have to do is to understand and connect to the spirit of the character and the setting is irrelevant. Once I realize this guy is a comedic guy, that is what you’re connected with. You’re not really being swayed by your environment whether it’s the 1940s, or if the guy’s an evil gangster whether it’s the 1940s or 2010. He’s still going to be evil. He’ll have to wear different clothes, the language is slightly different, but the essence of who the character is will still be the same. So that’s what I tried to do: find the essence of who he is rather than the period. You can get kind of lost in that, even though there’s a lot of detail to that.
In essence, I think with Jameson, the only thing that’s changed from 1980s to 2010 would be the cuss words (laughs). There were words that weren’t there in 1980. It was a cool period, and I was around at that time. I did think, “Hold on a minute, I was around then. I wouldn’t wear these crappy jeans!” (laughs) That made it easier having some information, even though I was young I still knew the period and the music. The music really helped because we got some soundtracks that the Norwegians were playing at the base and it really conjures the era for you. Matthijs was very clever about that and he would play soundtracks around the base helping you get into it. It wasn’t as big of a problem as you might think. We were really helped by the production, the aesthetic, and as an artist, you’re just trying to find essence of who the character is.
What’s on the dock for you next?
I got two movies coming out. I got Faster, which is a lot different from The Thing and it’s a really cool shoot’em up with a Pulp Fiction-esque plot. It’s like Pulp Fiction meeting The Bourne Identity. I play a black evangelist in that, who’s a robber gone good. I just finished a film called The Killer Elite, and that’s with Robert De Niro, Jason Statham, and Clive Owen. That’s a great film because it’s all the bad boys of Hollywood killing people. It’s about contract killers who will go takeout anyone you want, and I’m the guy [that] runs it. If you want something taken care of, I know the boys to do it. (laughs)
What did you think of the Lost finale?
You know what? I didn’t watch it. Somebody asked me this earlier and I was away shooting when they were showing it. They did ask me to come back and do it, but the schedule was conflicting because I was working. I was saying to the other reporter that before I went onto the show, I didn’t know the show and when I left the show, I didn’t watch it. I just focused on it and gave it my attention when I was on it, but I’m just looking for a space of time when I can sit down and watch, at least the first through third season.
The Thing hits theaters on April 29th, 2011.