In Pompeii, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje co-stars as Atticus, a champion gladiator trying to buy his freedom with one last fight. Centered on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the film stars Kit Harington as a fellow gladiator who, with Atticus’ help, must avenge his family’s death and save his true love, Cassia (Emily Browning).
Agbaje has a meaty role, surprisingly getting a lot of screen time in an otherwise by-the-book action epic. Jessica Lucas also co-stars in a smaller role as slave/confidant to Cassia.
Perhaps best known for his TV roles as Simon Adebisi on HBO’s Oz and Mr. Eko on ABC’s Lost, Agbaje has at least two projects coming up this year including Pompeii and Sony’s film version of the Broadway musical Annie. At a recent press event, he made time to talk about transforming into a gladiator, and what else he sees on the horizon for his career.
What attracted you to the role of Atticus?
My favorite part was just being a full-on action hero. Atticus is a relic in this. He’s ferocious with what he has to do because he has to stay alive to win his freedom. But just having a platform to show the different layers of a character that big. He’s not simply a badass, he’s a badass with a heart and principles. And also the relationship with him and Kit Harington’s character. We go from foes to bros. It’s a nice journey.
And then to stand in the face of death and destruction, and to be that mighty. And then you’ve got that black fist up there [mimics raising his fist in the scene]. I said, “I’ve gotta do this.” And it’s really a credit to the writers, because as a black actor you don’t get iconic roles in tentpoles. You just don’t. So when you see that in your career, and I’ve been working 20 years, it’s like yo, that’s a winner.
The film is set in 79 A.D., Atticus is enslaved, and when we get the first glimpse of him he’s pretty menacing. Going into the project, were you concerned about how you’d be perceived?
I give credit to the director [Paul W.S. Anderson] because we had discussions about what he wanted the character to be, and he really wanted this to be a super heroic character, but also human. We were not creating a caricature. He’d seen what I’d been able to do with Mr. Eko and he wanted that same resonance. So he very much was open to collaborating and creating a character, and actually allowed me to put in some spirituality. The little talisman that Atticus prays with in the film, that wasn’t in the script initially. In doing research, I was trying to figure out where they come from. Because when a man has to go into the arena and fight, he’s got to pray to something, and he’s African. So I presented it to him and he loved the idea.
All the gladiators are in top shape in the film. What kind of physical transformation did you have to go through?
We went to gladiator boot camp about four weeks before the start of principal photography. Paul and the producer Jeremy Bolt really set up the structure for I and Kit and the rest of the cast to get into this Adonis kind of shape. What it consisted of was basically four hours working in the gym, six days a week, for four weeks. Two hours of fight training with weaponry, an hour of weight training, an hour of running, and this nutrition diet that we were put on that really helped sculpt our bodies.
In the film, you’re fighting in heat and ash and escaping floods and lava. How were the conditions on set?
The frustrating thing is that whilst you’re going through all this hell, Paul’s always jolly and polite. You’re spent, at the end of your tether, and he’ll walk up and say, “Well that’s why you were doing all that hard training. One more please.”
But it was a very friendly atmosphere. He had his dog and his family around, and there was a lot of camaraderie. And I think when you’re going to spend four months together, really pushing yourself to the grind, it helps that people are likable and share the same vision. So it was a really enjoyable process.
You have Annie coming up next, which is a much lighter film. How did that compare?
Especially after shooting Pompeii, which was so intense, I was just relishing playing something more lighthearted and relaxing and this was the perfect vehicle. I’ve been a huge fan of Quvenzhane Wallis since Beasts of the Southern Wild. To me, she’s our Shirley Temple, a phenomenal talent, and I wanted to work with her as soon as I saw that movie.
So I got the opportunity to play this character Nash, who is Benjamin Stacks’ right-hand man. He’s humorous and lighthearted, but he’s the security guy and the driver, and Annie’s friend. And we get to see him sing and dance at the end as well. It’s a nice balance, because it’s still tough but it was a chance for me to bring out the child.
What was the atmosphere like working with Quvenzhane and Jamie Foxx?
There was a competition between him and Quvenzhane, they were clowning. Jamie is just an extraordinary actor and person. He gets on set, and we’re shooting in Harlem so it’s like theater. Everybody in the neighborhood comes out and before we start shooting, he would host them for 10 minutes with their own comedy show. So it was a huge treat just to see him at work and we got on really well. It was also a chance for me to work with my people. I don’t do enough of those movies, and it’s just something I like to do and would like to do more, with the right roles.
Are you getting offered the kinds of roles that you want to see at this point in your career?
I look at it like this: I’m just getting started and and my full repertoire and range as an actor has not been shown. It’s unknown, which is why took the risk of doing Annie. People haven’t seen me in a comedic setting but that’s who I really am. So I think that as you do good work more roles will present themselves. I’m not frustrated at all. The offers are coming in and I’m not having to audition. How can I complain? But definitely, I’m looking to play the love interest, something a bit sexier and also dramatic. Something I can really get my teeth into, and go back to real acting. I’m definitely gunning for a leading man role. I think it’s about time.
You had a role in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Will you continue to do smaller independent films like that as well?
Always. Grassroots projects are what keep you alive as an actor. With Mister and Pete the budget was miniscule, but we got to shoot in New York in the projects and do an important story that may not always get a chance to be told. Even if you’ve got a character with two or three scenes but it has an impact, I’ll always do that, because my choice is always dictated by the character and the story. So I’ll always be doing those smaller projects. I love them. And anytime I get a chance to work in New York as well, because New York’s energy is very raw and that’s what it does to you as an actor. It just keeps it real.
What are you working on next?
The very next thing is going to be a TV project for NBC called Odyssey, and also I’m doing an animation for Fox. So I’m just looking to explore every medium to express my talent, but I think mostly it’s going to be a focus on features.
Pompeii comes to theaters on February 21.