EXCLUSIVE: David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nonso Anozie, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. These are but a few of the actors of Nigerian descent whao are working steadily in Hollywood — actors who have, for the most part, not changed their names for more easily pronounced stage names. Each has a unique story, but all have the same determination to forge a path based on their excellence in the craft while also firmly holding onto their Nigerian heritage.
As Captain America: Civil War opens this weekend with a storyline that involves Nigeria — played by actors of American and South African descent — what better time to talk to these actors of Nigerian decent?
The common thread among this crop of acting talent is one of pride in their roots, in their country of origin and in their — by American perceptions — unusual names. “My mother begged me to change my name; she thought I wouldn’t get a job because it was difficult to pronounce,” said Akinnagbe, who next stars in what could be a career-making role: the true story of a convict boxer in the indie film Heart Baby. “People would ask me, ‘Are you going to change your name?’ I said, ‘No. People are going to learn it.'”
Sound familiar? It should. Arnold Schwarzenegger kept his hard-to-pronounce name, and moviegoers around the world embraced the action star regardless. In Nigeria, a name is part of a spiritual ancestry of sorts and carries with it a strong meaning. For instance, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s name means “the crown” (Ade), “has arrived” (Wale) “warrior” (Akin) “of great chieftiantacy” (Nuoye) “of abundant prosperity (Agbaje). Similarly, Chukwunonso “Nonso” Anozie means “God is with me,” and Oyelowo means “a king deserves respect.”
In honoring Oyelowo as breakthrough performer of the year at the 2105 Palm Springs Film Festival, Brad Pitt even led a song to teach people how to pronounced the actor’s name.
“Every day from when I first (began working), even in fashion, I was asked to change my name. Many, many times,” said Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Oz, Lost, Suicide Squad), who started out as a model in the European fashion industry before becoming an actor. “I fought for my name because it is who I am. I was very intent on not changing my name. As a child in school, even my teachers (in England) tried to changed my name to Robert, but it didn’t feel right. It’s not me. I had to fight for it. Your ancestors and your parents name you based on the constellations and the legacy of that lineage, and I learned early on that every time someone calls you that name, it re-affirms who you are. My name describes my purpose in life.”
Anozie (Zoo, Game of Thrones, Cinderella) said that people in drama school said he should change his name to Zach Power. “There is a certain pride to your African lineage,” he said. “Even though when you are young and people make fun of you at school, I still feel blessed every time I hear my name.”
Another commonality among actors of Nigerian descent, they say, is the premium that is placed on education for a higher purpose, and children are pressured to go into a profession that is highly regarded. When Oyelowo said he wanted to become an actor, his parents “were mortified. Acting is not a ‘proper job.’ Nigerians value education very highly, and Nigerian parents value being able to brag about their highly educated children even more. Saying you have a struggling actor for a child carries no weight in Nigerian society.” He said that changed when his father saw him play King Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. “To hear my dad leaning into a statement like ‘My son is the King of England!’ was something to behold.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje had a similar experience: “As the only son, my father wanted me to take over his business (as a lawyer). To think of acting as a way to make a living was sacrilege.” So, in order to make his parents happy, he pursued his education and achieved both a Bachelors and a Master degree in law before following what he felt was his true vocation. His parents are part of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria and part of a wave of immigrants that moved to England through a government program, but they didn’t meet until they were in Europe. Then they married and had five children. Akinnuoye-Agbaje was put into foster care because that it how it was done in England as both of his parents worked. His foster family actually took care of more than 50 Nigerian children. So he had two sets of parents — one black and one white — but for him it was a fight for survival. People would spit on him and unleash dogs on him as he tried to get to school through the mainly white neighborhood. It was a very tough upbringing.
While studying law, he had a part-time job selling menswear in a retail store when a photographer approached him. Eventually, Akinnuoye-Agbaje fought his way into becoming one of first black fashion models (the first on the cover of Sportwear International). And then, to pursue his passion for acting, he followed a girlfriend to the United States.
His first role was in the 1995 film Congo, and while doing that film, actor Tim Curry approached him and said he believed he had a big future in this profession and introduced him to a British agent. He went onto work in several films because he could do an African accent — some of his biggest breakout characters were African on such projects as The Bourne Identity and Lost. But it wasn’t until HBO’s Oz that Hollywood sat up and really took notice of him. And, at the end of the day, his success ended up actually bolstering his father’s legal practice because it brought him clients who big fans of his son’s show.
“I was the really the first Nigerian actor to come into Hollywood, cut down the bush and break through,” said Akinnuoye-Agbaje. “Acting is no longer foreign to our culture, and to see Nigerians getting an opportunity to express themselves on the grandest stage is heartwarming. And particularly because our parents’ generation disregarded this profession as something credible. Now we have made it a credible entity. As more people hear our names and it’s not a novelty, it will become part of the fabric and fuse with who we have always been, which is African storytellers.”
These actors also are becoming strong role models for a new generation. Many started in Britain before making their way to the U.S. Oyelowo was born in the U.K., as were Ejiofor, Anozie and Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Some began in theater, including Oyelowo, was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for three years before doing the TV show Spooks/MI5.
Says young actor John Boyega (the lead in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the success of Oyelowo working in projects, including some that pay homage to his Nigerian lineage, has been his inspiration. Boyega was also born in England to parents of Nigerian descent and followed the same path as Oyelowo from stage to Hollywood. “Seeing an actor like that, who I can relate to on a personal level, is one of the things that pushes me and my generation forward against the inevitable challenges of this business,” said Boyega.
Anozie had his own challenges on the path to success. Like Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Anozie also grew up in a rough part of London, started acting in the Talawa Theater Company (“Talawa” means “strength”). “It was a black-led theater company,” said Anozie, who still loves the stage. “For me, the biggest influencer on me was Kenneth Branagh. I did a play with him at the National Theater, and he just came from the start of positivity every day and led from the front.” The two actors would end up working together many times; Branagh even directed him in Cinderella.
Anozie ended up at the Royal Shakespeare Company as well, after being plucked out by a scout as one of 16 actors to play major roles and not just spear carriers — a move that followed a local newspaper article noted the lack of diversity. Because of his talent, he became the youngest person in British history to play King Lear. He was only 23, which bested Sir John Gielgud, who was 26. “It was a major deal for my life. I am a 6-foot-6-inch-tall black man. I remember early on when I told friends that I wanted to be an actor and one of them was my Asian career adviser (in school). He looked at me and said, ‘It’s hard enough, but being a tall, young black man is going to be super difficult.’ I looked at it as a challenge.” Anozie said he just knew from a young age that he was going to be an actor.
His King Lear role led to a world tour of his play, Othello. After an exhausting year of traveling, he found representation in the States and set his sights on doing film and TV. He got his big break with the 2007 film The Last Legion, which starred Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley (who he has worked with three times now). He had his first screen test, however, in 2005 with the Barbershop TV series, but that role went to Akinnagbe.
Akinnagbe also started out on the stage, but it was a major life event that pushed him into it. He had been working in the congressional affairs department of a federal organization in Washington, D.C. (Corp. for National Service), and he became curious about acting and starting going to auditions for plays. He went to one audition, came back to his work cubicle, received a phone call and was offered the role. The next phone call he received would change his life: It was from his uncle, who told Akinnagbe that his father had just died. “I resigned my job after that,” he said. “During the day, I figured out funeral arrangements, and at night I did rehearsals.” He decided that life was too short not to follow his dream.
Eventually, he ended up as a background player on The Wire, and slowly that changed from a recurring character to a regular. In between, he continued doing stage plays and then landed in the indie film Savages.
“Being a member of the Nigerian acting community, I’m not surprised there are so many of us now because there is a stick-to-it-iveness,” says Akinnagbe “There is a multi-tasking drive to achieve.”
But where did they find role models? For Anozie, it was a teacher named Lord Eric, who would read African stories to him and other children. Through him, Anozie became to realize that “this black man was a reflection of me.” Later, it was Spike Lee and his films. He also learned from other actors like Branagh and Nigel Lindsay about how they led and affected the cast in such a positive manner; because of them and how he learned to communicate with actors, Anozie now is interested in directing and producing. “My goal is to put something into the world that will change people’s lives.”
For, Oyelowo he identified strongly with a legendary actor. “Sidney Poitier has always been a North Star for me,” he said. “He remains my acting hero and inspiration.” Oyelowo, though he was born in the U.K., lived in Lagos from ages 6-13 — a country where he was not considered a minority. Because he was there during his formative years, that fact greatly impacted his life.
“To live in a society where every opportunity or offer is genuinely at your disposal does something incredible to your self-worth,” Oyelowo said. “By the time I returned to the U.K. and subsequently America, where I’m a minority and opportunities require more of a fight, my self-worth and notions of what I could achieve had already been baked into my psyche. I call it the ‘Sidney Poitier syndrome.’ I truly believe Mr. Poitier achieved what he did despite the racially turbulent times. He did it in because he grew up in the Bahamas, where his self worth hadn’t been daily pummeled by racial obstacles. Nigeria gave me the same thing. Nigerians are proud, kingly people. I wear that heritage unashamedly.”
Akinnagbe feels so strongly connected to Nigeria, that three years ago, he got a Nigerian driver’s license and passport. “I want to be there more. It’s very easy to lose your culture within one generation, and I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I love that people are keeping their names. A lot of the black actresses I know who want to get further, feel that they have to wear wigs and perm their hair. We have learned that long flowing hair like the Europeans is beauty. There is a question of what is pretty and beautiful. Natural hair is beautiful. If they don’t change that (thinking), Hollywood won’t either. We can’t wait for Hollywood to change the image, we have to change the image and make our own stories.”
Oyelowo also noted that there has been a lot of resistance in Hollywood to actors of color being the hero or protagonist. “I’ve largely fought this battle by being a producer and developing my own projects. Thankfully, some of those projects have done well enough to force the issue that I can carry a story,” said the actor who spent seven years preparing for his role as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. “For an industry built on fear, you have to accept that half your job as an actor is to put people’s fears to rest so that your opportunities grow in conjunction with their confidence in you. I’m in the midst of that journey right now. I once asked Tom Cruise the secret to his success. He said, ‘Create, create, create … wait for no one. Create your own work.’ If it worked for Tom …”
Akinnagbe did just that, helping to produce and also starring in Ben Bowman’s comedy-drama Knucklehead, about a man who is developmentally disabled and tries to cure himself. The film bowed at Dances With Films last year. Akinnuoye-Agbaje also is putting together a project about his family and what they all went through coming out of Nigeria into the U.K.
The actors interviewed for this story said they felt a strong spiritual connection to Nigeria. “I’m always a Nigerian first,” said Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who is the lead in the upcoming Michael Shamberg film Wetlands. “I’m British as well and also American because I’ve spent more time here. I consider myself a global citizen. I love my country and my culture, and it’s very important for me to represent that.”
Added Anozie, who is getting married to a Nigerian woman and will have traditional ceremony in their country of origin: “Culturally, I definitely feel like if you grow up with Nigerian parents, you hold on to the culture. There is something about Nigeria. It’s like no where else in the world. The people and country were produced through diversity — there are extremes in Nigeria, and it’s going to produce very gifted people. I think that is what it does. The culture hasn’t been taken away. Instead, it’s something to wear as a badge.”