Becoming a series-regular on a show as storied as Lost is a lofty achievement for any actor. But for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the path that brought him there—and to films like Suicide Squad and Thor: The Dark World—could not have been rockier or more challenging. It’s a journey Akinnuoye-Agbaje relates in his directorial debut Farming, which premiered in Toronto this weekend.
As a young boy, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was fostered by his Nigerian parents into a white working-class family in Tilbury, Essex—a common practice known as ‘farming’. Dislocated from his foster mother (played in the film by Kate Beckinsale), and completely cut off from the culture of his birth parents (they brought him to Nigeria when he was 8 and eventually returned him to the UK when he struggled to fit in), he was forced to endure the extreme racism of Britain in the 1970s and ’80s.
So abject was the misery and disconnection Akinnuoye-Agbaje faced that he eventually wound up subjugated and in service to a white supremacist skinhead gang, brainwashed into believing in their doctrine and engaging in violent acts at their behest. When he was 16 he attempted suicide, desperate for an end to his torment.
It was a turning point for Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and he subsequently strove to turn his life around, earning a Law degree and Masters and eventually segueing into modeling and acting.
His searing origin story, as recreated by a revelatory Damson Idris, is an undeniably important and urgent film. It has been a while in the making, Akinnuoye-Agbaje told me, but its debut could not be more appropriately timed.
DEADLINE: How long have you wanted to tell this story?
In total, probably about 16 years. It really started when I literally could not sleep at night, and in order to get some sleep I would write five or 10 pages, and then I would sleep. After two weeks, I had about 500 pages of manuscript, and it was my current partner and friend who used to read it before going to work. And he just said to me, “This is really good.”
But it was just a sleeping pill for me at that time. After a few more friends had read it, they said, “You should do something with this.” So I shared it with a producer that I was working with.
At the time, I was shooting a show called Oz. Tom Fontana was the writer/producer of that show. I sent it to him because I valued his opinion. And he really, really liked the style and the authenticity of writing. He suggested that I could really get a lot out of The Sundance Lab, and it would help me hone the manuscript into a screenplay. So then I was invited to participate in the 2006 writers’ lab. And that was quite a bit of a definitive turning point for not only the project, but me as an artist, and in my life. A new journey for me.
I was invited the following year to the director’s lab, and then the producer’s lab. And it was there I met Michael London, who is my current producer. Michael was very enthusiastic, very supportive, and very inspired by the fresh voice in the piece.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting that the project found its way in America rather than in Britain.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: It was Sundance and Michael London. I found that intriguing because I wasn’t sure they would understand the sensibilities of the subject matter, and just the nuances of some of the language, which I kept quite authentic and raw—the Cockney humor and some of the slang. So, I was very happy to know that it resonated beyond just the local vicinity of where it came from. And that inspired me because I knew that the universal values in the story were really coming through.
DEADLINE: The subject matter is tough; was that a sticking point for people?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: You know, I’ve been very searing in my approach to the truth and the authenticity of the subject matter in this film. There’s been no pulling back, and I think that was quite a different storytelling and filmmaking process for back then.
And just as a black man, as well, in the industry, it was not common—still today—that you have many black writer/directors making their own life stories. This wasn’t in the time we’re living in now, where diversity plays a huge part in a lot of films, fortunately. 10 years ago, that was not the case. I did have certain British institutions say, “Well, we like the project, we’ll buy the story off you.” And that just wasn’t the way I wanted to go.
DEADLINE: You did set it up with London, but it fell apart as a result of the 2008 recession, right?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: Michael lost most of the money that he was going to be putting into the film. The project was halted, and it was a hard hit because it was all ticked and ready to go off. But in hindsight, I think had I made the film then, it would’ve been a different film.
In that 10 years that followed, there was a lot being done. I was going pretty much all over the world trying to get people to sponsor me as a first-time writer and director and to believe in my project. Eventually, it happened, but it was a long, hard journey.
DEADLINE: It feels like the world needs a film like this now more than ever.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: Yeah, I think it’s a voice of the times. Unfortunately.
Even though the film and the story occurred about 40 years ago, many of the issues in it parallel what’s happening today with immigration, and what happened, too, most recently in England with the Windrush scandal, where some heartless policies are still being implemented toward the immigrant population. And I think without making the story political, it really does speak to some of those issues.
One of the things that I hope the movie will do is create an opportunity for Britain as a nation, to really reevaluate its relationship with its immigrant population. For me, it was always a state of tolerance, as opposed to acceptance. And until you do have a relationship of acceptance, you’ll always have ripples of racial discontent emerging in that country and in that culture. Because it’s quite often just swept under the carpet.
DEADLINE: A lot of people in Britain today don’t even know that farming happened.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: That’s because it’s just kind of quietly pushed under the carpet, because it may not be something that is flattering to our system or our society. Yet very, very relevant today.
DEADLINE: So much of the potency and the power of the film is tied up in the fact that it’s your story, and it’s your experience. How challenging was it for you to relive that experience so deeply?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: The writing became a cathartic process to a degree. But I think probably the most challenging part of the whole process was the filming of it. You know, allowing other people to breathe life into your words.
More importantly, having to relive that experience every single time, over and over again. That was excruciating. But I didn’t have the luxury of indulging in those feelings. I had to run the show and really get on with it. But that was a very, very challenging part of the process.
I played a small part in the film, as my own father. And we discussed that, during the prep, and were we going to cast another actor, and the decision came down that it was better that I play it. For me, on a personal level, it was a great opportunity to, literally and metaphorically speaking, step into the shoes of my father.
It was quite a surreal experience because it meant being able to see myself through my father’s eyes and trying to understand how he would have felt. You know, it’s one thing trying to tell Damson Idris—the wonderful young actor who played the teenage me—how I was feeling at that time. But it was a very weird experience being compassionate to my father at the same time.
DEADLINE: The film seems to encourage a nonjudgmental stance of all the characters.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: I think that’s really important in the creation of dialogue and in understanding how you can change situations. I may not have liked certain characters, or how they treated me, but I had to go and investigate, you know, what may have made them have that attitude or view at the time, and realize that they were perhaps as much victims of the system as I was. Perhaps not as extreme as my case, but they were victims nonetheless.
DEADLINE: How much did the resonance of the film rely on getting the right actors to play you?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: It was interesting in looking for the people that would play the younger me. There’s Damson, and there’s the young boy, Zephan Hanson Amissah, who plays the nine-year-old. They’re both brilliant.
It was actually easier than I expected to find the ‘me’, because many of these young boys have had a similar experience to growing up in Britain. OK, mine was extreme, but their pain was the same. And also, you know, it’s just about the search for love. Because ultimately, the story’s a love story. The breaking of that maternal love bond and the searching for it, and ultimately, the finding of it within oneself is what drives the story. It happens to be set against this incredible sociopolitical backdrop of the time.
But you know, obviously, this is where it’s imperative that the person that lived it direct it. Because that is what I could impart to Damson.
DEADLINE: How did you explain your thinking back then to Damson?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: There were times when I had to really take him to a place where I was at that time. For instance, there are terms that are bandied around in the film, [epithets] he’d never heard of. I really had to impart what that meant. The constant barrage of it, whether it was through the media—because at that time the BBC was displaying prime time shows like Love Thy Neighbor and Alf Garnett, Jim Davidson—or on the street. This was a common language in everybody’s household.
I was trying to impart to him that when there’s a constant assault and use of these terms, what it would make you feel without any go-to backup cultural reference. You’re not in Peckham with thousands of other black people. You’re in Tilbury, and you’re the only one. How would you feel?
It was crucial that it was a Nigerian boy. He understood the nuances of the culture and the expectations because there’s quite a strong expectation for educational success in our parents’ generation, so he knew that already. And just growing up as a young black boy in England, just wanting to belong and be accepted as a human being as opposed to a color or a race. He had all of those elements, to a degree, but I had to, unfortunately, really ram it down his throat.
DEADLINE: Did you show him all your childhood haunts?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: I took him to Tilbury, and took him places where I used to be. And in fact, the moment we stepped into Tilbury, even 30 years later, you could feel the blanket of depression and the undercurrent of violence. And people said things. Even though we were there 30 years later. People came out and shared their experiences, so he was able to absorb that.
At the point where he had to attempt suicide, I remember I was having a chat before that happened, and obviously everybody’s standing around him saying this is a very, very moving scene. And I’m like, “Well, actually this was my life. This really happened.” And I had to impart what it meant for me at that time to attempt suicide. And he said, “Oh right. Because you don’t want to live anymore.” And I said, “No. It meant freedom. You have to embrace it as freedom because it’s the only way that this young boy could see a way out. And a stop of all of the pain, all of the abuse. And perhaps that if I could stop that, I could be free, I could be happy.”
As a teenager, that is how I viewed it. Then he got that. There’s a beautiful moment where he’s contemplating it before he does it, that is conveyed in his eyes without any words.
DEADLINE: It’s shocking and moving just to hear you talk about that.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: You know, I felt terrible having to take him through that. But there are a lot of young boys now, they have a lifestyle that we didn’t have back then. A certain amount of freedom. And by no means is it perfect, but there was a lot of my blood and many other people’s blood that was split on the concrete to earn that. And I had to show him what we went through, in order for us to get where we are today. There’s still a long way to go. But this is really what happened. This is what is was like being the first black British generation.
DEADLINE: How long did it take for you to find another way out after you’d attempted suicide?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: You see in the film, there’s the support of the benevolent teacher, Ms. Dapo, played by the wonderful actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In reality, she was an amalgamation of several people that supported me at that time, be it a student, a social worker, or an old girlfriend. I think without those kinds of people around you, you can’t really get over that hurdle.
I remember distinctly having failed at death, you know, so how do I now succeed at life? How do I move forward? And I just didn’t have the tools. I didn’t think I had the tools. Until somebody gives you an opportunity, which is hope.
I was so beaten down by my self-hatred, engendered by the various forms of racism, that I had no self-worth whatsoever. Then to start to piece that together is a really arduous, miraculous journey.
I think the turning point for me was the passing of my first exam. I still weep when I think about it, because I never thought I could achieve anything. I never thought I was worth anything. Today, it’s still the formula I use, because passing that exam—and it wasn’t like I got an A or anything—it was when I knew that with effort, focus, and determination, I could achieve something. That’s the same formula I’ve used throughout my life.
DEADLINE: Was this a one-off for you, or does it mark the start of a new career as a writer and director?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: There are a plethora of stories I want to tell. It’s like this is just taking the cap off of the bottle, to be honest.