EXCLUSIVE: Gbenga Akinnagbe, best known for roles in The Following and The Wire, has been signed for the lead role in writer-director Angela Shelton’s Heart Baby! The film is from the same screenwriter whose Tumbleweeds won the filmmakers trophy for Gavin O’Connor at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. The new pic tells the true story of a convict named George Lee Martin who became infamous in the Tennessee prison system as an unbeatable boxer. When he is offered an opportunity at freedom in exchange for fighting for Team USA in the 1984 Olympic Games, he shocks everyone by saying no.

The feature film is set to begin principal photography in New Orleans next month and is targeting a Sundance 2017 premiere.

Akinnagbe has been training for the past two months with Darrell Foster, who turned Will Smith into Muhammad Ali for Ali and with acting coach Larry Moss to prep for the role. Akinnagbe is an athlete already, having run marathons in recent years; he was also a star wrestler in college.

Shelton noted that this role for Akinnagbe, just as it did for Tumbleweeds actress Janet McTeer, could be the film that brings him into the fore for critics. McTeer received an Oscar nomination in 2000 and also won the Golden Globe for best actress the same year.

Angelashelton_theater“This role — and the film — is undoubtedly, a game changer for Akinnagbe,” said Shelton. “The journey of getting this story ready to shoot certainly has been a priceless experience for me.” No doubt, as Shelton has been friends with former convict for many years and followed him after he was imprisoned in the early 1980s for multiple armed robberies. Martin was given a compassionate release in the 1990s.

He is now working to set up his own boxing gym to get youth off the street and working towards a dream in his community. Shelton and the team behind Heart, Baby! set up a webpage to try to help him achieve that goal.

“You will not find anything about this story anywhere on the web except an article about the John Tate/Larry Holmes fight being canceled in 1984,” said Shelton, who added that the movie will delve into the reason why.

Shelton, Shawn Caulin-Young and Kim Barnard are producing the film. George co-stars include Jackson Rathbone (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side), Keir O’Donnell (American Sniper), Justice Leak (Insurgent), Abe Benrubi (Bosch), Michael Badalucco (Bones) and Ann Cusack (Nightcrawler) among others.

Akinnagbe, who recently completed a role in Independence Day: Resurgence, is repped by APA.