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Nnamdi Asomugha has experience with rabid crowds, armchair critics, and the pressure of performing under an intense national spotlight. He did just wrap up his first opening weekend at Sundance, after all. (Oh, and he also played for 10 years in the National Football League.)
The former cornerback shines in Matt Ruskin’s debut film “Crown Heights,” which follows the true story of Collin Warner and Carl King, two friends bonded by decades of friendship in the face of false imprisonment. Asomugha plays King, a New York City process server who spent the better part of 20 years trying to exonerate Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) after the latter was framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
Even amidst a stellar ensemble, which also features Stanfield, Bill Camp and Brian Tyree Henry, the film really comes alive when Asomugha is the main focus. Portraying King’s gradual, methodical amateur sleuthing is the kind of patient character work that independent film thrives on. Though Asomugha is a producer on the film, this is far from a vanity project. His performance as King is subtle, grounded, and engaging — everything an attention-seeking debut isn’t.
This isn’t Asomugha’s first foray into production. He was an executive producer on Cory Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” and on Ifunanya Maduka’s Sundance 2017 documentary short “Waiting for Hassana,” about Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls. He also helped finance Geremy Jasper’s audience favorite “Patti Cake$.” Up next? A biopic about the life of Harriet Tubman. Not bad for a second career.
Days after premiering “Crown Heights” to a sold-out crowd with Carl King in attendance, Asomugha spoke about the process of bringing the story of a man, a friendship, and a neighborhood to life.
When I retired and went into acting, the #1 for me was to prepare the same way I prepared for football. Became a student again, humbled myself, just did the work that was needed. I did a lot of body work, movement work, voice work for this role because it had to age. In the beginning, you’ll see a lighter guy. He’s bouncing off his feet. And then, as you progress, you start to see a guy that’s getting slower, more focused, more determined. His speech is slower, his walk is slower, there’s a little slouch.
All of that was very important to me. I had a coach, Eden Bernardy, who sadly passed away a few months ago. When we were getting ready for this role, she gave me her bible on what to do when you’re playing someone that’s still alive. And I was lucky enough to spend two weeks with him before we started shooting, because I was in New York. Labor Day, he had me over at his house. We went out and process-served throughout the Bronx and Brooklyn. The goal wasn’t to mimic him, but to get his spirit, what happens to his body when you ask certain questions. If we’re doing an interview, people can be stiff, but if we’re just living, I get to get that essence.
My parents are Nigerian and I know when someone is trying to do a Nigerian accent. I didn’t want to let the Trinidadians down. I’m not doing a Jamaican accent, because they would be upset. [laugh] We worked with a Trinidadian dialect coach for weeks just to try to get down some of the rhythms, so that they would be proud. You know when you watch a film and it sounds like someone’s trying to do an accent. I asked Carl when he watched it and he was blown away, so I was pretty proud of that.
Music was very big in my development of the character. We learned Trinidadian songs. Then we would just spend days living in the dialect. That immersion of the language is what really helped. That’s how it was for me in football. You prepare, prepare, prepare and when the moment comes, you have to throw it away and trust your instincts.
I talked to a lot of people that switched careers. Not necessarily to acting, but switched jobs. The “becoming a student again” is the thing that always kept coming up. If you go into it thinking, “Well, I can master this because of what I did in my previous job,” that’s where you fail. It’s been a lot of work, but I’m excited to continue to work. I was done [with football] at the beginning of 2014 and I’ve had a zillion opportunities to do something based on a persona. “You’ve got to hit it while it’s hot! Do a cameo as yourself!” It was always a risk, and I would always say no. Even when I did that and I was still playing, I just never wanted to be what people expected. I always wanted to surprise them.
In film, there’s always this looking for the “If you lay down and burst into tears, you did a good job.” Matt [Ruskin] relied specifically on his instincts and what really happened. Carl would be there we’d ask, “Carl, did you ever have that big moment of breaking down?” And he’d say, “No. I didn’t. It all happened on the inside. But I never showed that.” There were times when I, as myself and the character, was in a scene and completely about to break down. The character was telling me, “Keep it in.” Because that was Carl.
Something I’ve learned through experience is how important being authentic to the art is. We shot in the neighborhood where it happened, and it was very impactful and emotional. I’m glad we got to do it in Crown Heights. We were walking around with Carl and he would show us where everything happened. Even while we were shooting, people were coming up to us saying, “I know this story. I remember my dad was right there.”
I enjoy stories that can spark a conversation. I’m always willing to help out when people have stories and they bring them to me. I also like the completely fun films like “Patti Cake$.” My taste is, if it feels like it’s something I’d like to see, then I’ll get behind it.
“Crown Heights” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 – 29, 2017 in Park City, Utah.