When Star Wars: The Force Awakens breakout star John Boyega won the BAFTA Rising Star award last month, he made a point of praising Identity founder Femi Oguns, describing him as, “my agent, my manager, my best friend, my brother…who has repped me since I was 16.” That close relationship sums up the hands-on approach Oguns takes with both his clients and his business. The Identity Agency Group, which he launched in the UK, now has on its roster some of the most exciting up-and-coming ethnically diverse actors around. In addition to repping Boyega, Identity looks after Malachi Kirby (Roots), Melanie Liburd (Game of Thrones) as well as many others.
As with so much innovation. Identity’s birth came out of necessity. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities in the acting world for ethnic minority actors, Oguns set up the Identity Acting School in 2003, Britain’s first BAME-oriented drama school. Literally handing out fliers on the streets of London, Oguns built the school up in time to become a real centre of excellence for the best young acting talent that also happened to be neglected by the status quo. It was a natural step to then branch out into representation.
“I’ve always been driven to create the things that have never been done before,” Oguns tells Deadline. “The acting school would give actors of colour the opportunity to receive the highest standard of training where their skills would be nurtured, developed and then propelled. It’s a well known documented fact that mainstream drama schools in the UK only take on a very small percentage of BAME talent. Instead of complain, I decided to do something about it. The next step was to create an agency.”
The rest is history, especially when a certain sixteen year old called John Boyega walked through those doors. It didn’t take long for Oguns to land the talented youngster his first lead in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block in 2011. From that point on the two have worked hand in hand, developing a five year plan that included raising Boyega’s Stateside profile with roles in 24: Live Another Day as well as being selective over what to accept. That strategy culminated in Boyega now a globally-known face thanks to Star Wars.
“I would consider us the ultimate partnership,” says Oguns of his relationship with Boyega. “My relationship with John has been a very close one from the very start. He was a graduate from Identity. It was obvious to all that this was an individual with a remarkable talent. It was from that very first experience of his talent in one of the classes I taught, that I chose to take him under my wing. We haven’t looked back since.”
It says something of Oguns and Boyega’s ambition that their five year plan is actually ahead of schedule. “I’m not at all surprised John is where he is, because we spoke and planned it into existence years ago,” says Oguns. “I remember we were both sitting in a cafe in Pasedena (because the travel agent at the time told me it was a few minutes walk from Hollywood) when he was just 18, and we spent hours planning and strategising ‘the operation ‘ as we liked to call it (still do). That came with A LOT of challenges. JB is a beast. This is a man who would rather starve than play roles that do not stand for something or challenge him. We had so much money thrown in our faces to accept roles that offered him no creative satisfaction. At the time, seeing a young man turn his back on them, even though he had holes in his pocket, was the mark of a king. ”
As for the greater debate on diversity taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, for Oguns it’s both predictable and long overdue. “There is a storm coming,” says Oguns. “You either accept change or get swept up by it. To accept that talent and ability comes in many forms is to disrupt the cultural landscape that has been insidiously used to undermine us for so long.”
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