These days, the much maligned model-turned-actress descriptor has lost some of its sting as a dismissive (see: Cara Delevingne, Dree Hemingway). But professional-football-player-turned-actor has not been a cultural phenomenon in recent years. Should that change, Nnamdi Asomugha has the potential to become its poster boy. After a decade playing cornerback in the NFL for the likes of the Oakland Raiders, the now 36-year-old retired in 2013 and changed tacks, pursuing an acting career (he made his professional debut while still in the NFL in 2008, on an episode of The CW’s The Game). Though he has racked up several credits since them, his meatiest and arguably most poignant role to date is in the Amazon Studios-distributed film Crown Heights, which opens August 25th.
Directed by Matt Ruskin, the movie, which won the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film at Sundance earlier this year, tells the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian Brooklynite who at 19 was arrested and charged with a murder he didn’t commit. He went on to serve 20 years in prison before finally having his conviction overturned. Warner (played by Atlanta actor Lakeith Stanfield) owes his freedom in large part to his best friend Carl King, whom Asomugha portrays and who tirelessly devoted his life to proving Warner’s innocence through everything from community fundraising to legal research.
In addition to starring, Asomugha was a producer on Crown Heights, and he also helped produce the award-winning, Cary Fukunaga-directed Beasts of No Nation (additionally, Asomugha helped finance the new film Patti Cake$, a drama about a plus-sized white female rapper that was also a critical hit at Sundance). In short, Asomugha has great taste—but we knew that already, since he is also married to Kerry Washington. One has to wonder, can Hollywood power coupledom be far off?
Congratulations on the film. It’s very tough to watch, but really well done.
But then also really inspirational at the end, right? And hopeful. It definitely was tough to watch. I hope that people get the inspiration side of it.
And we also all should have best friends who are Carl.
Yeah, that’s right.
When did you first hear about Colin’s story? And what was the arc from there to you playing Carl?
It was interesting. Our amazing director [Matt Ruskin] was kind of passing around a five-minute documentary throughout the industry of the two guys, and he just wanted someone to be interested and to help him as far as getting it done. It made its way to me, and I asked if I could audition. And I got the role. Initially, though, I wanted to audition for Colin because it felt like the more meaty role. And [Matt] was like, "Nah, I think we’re going to look for someone that’s known in this world." So he had all of these big time names he was going to go after. But I had a connection to Colin that stayed with me. When I was between the age of thirteen and sixteen, I was arrested twice and both times were for things I didn’t do.
Wow. Where was this?
This was in Los Angeles.
And what was the nature of the arrests?
One of them is what we call driving while black. I got pulled over for being in my mom’s car, and the cops just basically telling me that I didn’t look like the type of person who should have this car and said that I stole it and then arrested me for it. So both times I spent a day in a holding cell, which is nothing compared with what Colin did, but it still stays with you. And I just thought it could be a little bit of healing for me in that sense. But I didn’t get to go after the Colin role but went after the Carl role, and it was more than I could have imagined.
Those personal experiences for you happened when you were around the same age that Colin was when he was arrested. How did you grapple with that as a kid?
I mean for me, just the fact that it happened and even just the one day in the holding cell you feel the outrage, the embarrassment, the shame and just the hate for everyone and everything. It takes you through an interesting period. So it’s always interesting when I’m with Colin and I’m talking to him about his time and all that he went through and even getting out and just being so giving to everyone who got him in that situation, it just baffles me. But it’s also so humbling to see that someone could go through that and feel that. Because I know what I went through, spending two days in that situation.
And then how did that personal experience affect your portrayal of Carl, who is obviously on the other side of things?
Oh yeah, definitely. There were moments, I could pull on all of those moments when I was working on character with Carl. The moment where Colin is asking Carl, “Why are you still doing this? You have a family in your life, why are you wasting your time on me?” and Carl is looking at him and says, “It’s not just about you. It could have been me. It could have been any of us.” And I remember just being in that moment there were a lot of heavy things I could pull on just even to say that. So it definitely informed a lot of decisions while I was playing Carl.
One of the things that struck me when I was watching Carl, there are so many points when he could have had a blow out or expressed how angry he was about this incredibly unfair, frustrating situation. And you never see that from him. And I’m wondering if that came from your interactions with—I assume you met the real life Carl? Or did that come from you?
I actually wanted those moments! I was like, There’s gotta be a moment where he throws something or you know what I mean. The actor wanted that. But the authenticity of the role and speaking with Carl he was like, “I didn’t have that sort of outward anger moment.” I was like, “What did you do when Colin got out? You must have broken down, everything flashed in front of your eyes and you couldn’t believe it?” And he was like, “No, I didn’t break down. I just smiled. I was just very calm and I just remember smiling. It was so heavy for me I couldn’t even bring myself to breaking down and crying about it. I just smiled and we actually did it!” So I tried to be as close to what he said happened in those moments and let it affect me more on the inside and see if that could come out outside and onto the screen.
I assume you spent time with Carl preparing for this role. How as an actor do you toe that line between responsibility to this living person and then also having your own take on it?
It was tricky. I had an acting coach who has since passed away, her name was Eden Bernardy and she kind of took me through what she believed was the way to portray a character who is still alive. And I just used it. I went to Brooklyn and spent a lot of time with Carl for two weeks, did some process server work because that’s what he ended up doing to get closer to the lawyers. So we did that, went to all the five boroughs, just seeing what a day in the life was like as Carl back then. And I didn’t want it to be an imitation. It wasn’t about how he walked or how he laughed. It was more about if you asked someone a question, seeing what their response was physically. It says a lot more than what their response might be vocally. It’s more about getting those responses, like, what did it feel like to do this? And then if you see his eyes well up then I know what I can pull from that.
Do you think that approach is also tied to the fact that you were this incredibly successful athlete and I can only imagine that when you’re on a field, reading people’s physicality and body language is crucial to how you interact?
Yeah, it is. I was able to benefit from that because that was basically what I spent my life doing up until that point—reading the person that’s in front of me and like you said, the body language, how my doing something makes them react. And just the preparation that it takes to be successful at the game of football, the studying, all of that getting to the moment where you have to perform and throw away all that you’ve studied, to not think about it and just be in the moment. I think that was really helpful to me in transitioning over.
That transition going from a professional football player to an actor is not something you hear about every day.
They’re the two things that when your teacher says, “Okay, what do you want to be when you grow up?” you say you want to be them and she says, “Oh that’s one in a million, it’s never going to happen. But good luck!”
And you got to do both of them, which is insane.
Yeah, it’s been interesting. But I always said football prepared me for life. I’ve played it since I was in high school. I think I just learned so much from it. So going from that to acting or whatever, there was no thing I was going to go into where I would feel like it was this insurmountable thing. Just because of what I went through in football.
I imagine you have a great support system. Your wife is obviously a very accomplished actress. Has she given you any advice as you’ve been navigating this?
She’s never had to go through the second career transition thing. I got more advice about that from former players who had gone through it. And the number one thing they would tell me was make sure you prepare for your new career the same way you prepared for your old career. And it wasn’t about you’re going to reach the same heights or the same levels, but know what it took to get where you got and when you transition over you need to do it the same way.
Has it been tough for you? I feel like anyone entering acting with a sizable public career behind them in another field is often judged.
Yeah, I’ve dealt with that. I continue to deal with that. I dealt with that from the moment that I left the game a few years ago. And I knew just to go straight into training. I didn’t want to do the cameo on this show or play myself on that show. I would get the questions, like, “Oh, you’re going into acting, huh? You’re going to make movies? Are you serious about that? Oh, why don’t you just go on such and such’s show? Put on a jersey and you’ll definitely get there.” It was just never something I wanted to do; I had a deeper passion for this work and I thought I needed to train and get better at it that way, instead of using my name or whatever I could just to get a quick cameo.
You produced Crown Heights. You were a producer on Beasts of No Nation and also helped finance Patti Cake$. Tell me about how you ended up producing and how all these projects tie together from a producing standpoint.
For me it was definitely learning on the job. And it’s definitely a leadership position, like you’re the person who is in charge and who everyone’s looking to. Luckily, I had experience with that—again, in football, just being a captain on my team every year. Just understanding the weight of that and what you have to bring to the table to make it go. So maybe I fell into it. It was never really the goal and then Beasts of No Nation came and I said I really love this story and I want to be involved. And it’s been a great challenge and it’s been difficult and it all kind of rests on you. You know Patti Cake$, in reading the script I fell in love with it so I helped move that along. But it’s just about telling stories I like and stories that resonate with me, whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy or a true story or a comedy. If I like it then I’m going to be more passionate about telling it.
You mentioned earlier that you want viewers to look at Crown Heights as an inspiring story, and thank god it has a great ending. But the film does end with that statistic that 120,000 people in the United States are currently wrongfully incarcerated, that’s very sobering. So while Colin’s story is great, there are so many people out there who don’t have a Carl or infrastructure to help pull them out. For you, what kind of optimism can we take away as it affects the bigger picture?
I think a big takeaway for me is that one man, one person can make a difference and affect positive change. I went through the whole emotions reading the script the same way people are as they’re watching the film and just being hopeful and really cheering for Carl and just hoping that Colin can just hang on. And being able to see that it happened in the end, it’s just mind-blowing for me that even one person could say that no matter how long it’s going to take, I am going to keep fighting to right this wrong. And I think that was a way for me to look at the criminal justice system or whatever is going on that you feel needs work, or you feel is wrong or you’ve been wronged, just thinking of what Carl did and that one guy could really galvanize a community to behind him and follow him so we can right this wrong. That’s my big takeaway.
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