He has had meaty roles in several Hollywood blockbusters. He has acquired a string of television credits that would make most working actors green with envy. He has even notched a recurring staring role on a HBO mega-hit, yet he walked away from it all when he got homesick.
Now a couple of years later Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje _ known to legions of fans as 'Adebisi' from the prison drama Oz _ is back with a bang. He's got two movies about to open in multiplexes nationwide and his directorial debut is set to arrive just in time for Christmas.
He rarely gives interviews and his name rarely if ever pops up in gossip columns, yet his star is burning bright in Hollywood. Of all the male continental actors currently making a dent in Hollywood - Djimon Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, etc _ this budding trumpet player is the most prolific.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje has come full circle from the early 1990s when the Nigerian heart-tist arrived in New York as a trained barrister. He had sent many hearts aflutter with the modeling career hed been building in London, his base. And of course, Paris and Milan.
"It was a time when they were not familiar with really, really dark black men in fashion. You saw good looking guys but nothing like proper African looking men," Akinnuoye-Agbaje recalled to The AFRican in between cups of mint tea and trumpet playing high above New York City in a Manhattan hotel room.
"It just was not there," he said reminiscing on a time when his chiseled looks were a staple on MTV as a result of numerous music videos he's worked on. Among these were perfromances with En Vogue and Mary J Blige. Modeling led to commercials and calls from casting directors.
"I do not ever recall wanting to act. I never really visibly thought about I want to be an actor. I had no idea what it was. The world from which I came that kind of concept could not even come into your mind. It was like a very machismo world. Tough-is-tough-is-hard-is-hard kind of thing," he said of growing up in Tilbury Essex, a London suburb.
"You did not entertain things like art. It was for sissies; that was the stigma it had."
And his distinctly Yoruba name did not make growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood any easier. "It was the cause of a fight every single day and the teachers suggested that I change it but I could not. It's my name, that's who I am. I could not see myself being called Peter or John. I tried it for a week and it did not fit."
He wore the four syllable first name and double-barreled surname proudly like a badge, all the way through law school and into the modeling world. Modeling soon led to a role in two projects by Zelman King, the creative mind behind cable television series Red Shoe Diaries.
A part in the Stephen Spielberg produced Congo followed. It was his first real Hollywood movie, a role he initially turned down because of other artistic pursuits. When he finally accepted, a proposed six-month stay in Los Angeles turned into a six-year residency.
"It was like getting into Hollywood in a big way. Six months on that thing they took me to Costa Rica. I had a pad on the beach! Coming from London (in) that much sun you loose your mind." During rehearsals on the studio lot, Jim Carrey who was at the time making the Ace Ventura sequel asked him to audition if just for a laugh. He got the gig.
"I got a taste of this and I said 'hmmm, I could like this.' Hollywood was kind of on the African tip but then you know as Hollywood does, it moves on and it dries up. I realized the first two had been easy but if I was going to have to lick this I needed to focus." So it was back to New York and hustling up some new gigs as an actor first as opposed to African specialist. The television show New York Undercover, Deadly Voyage and other film work came his way.
Using four different accents, Akinnuoye-Agbaje not only got the bit two-line part in the prison drama Oz but also turned it into a regular gig.
His fame exploded as viewers began to notice his powerhouse portrayal of a hardened African prisoner in a tough penitentiary, and many where saddened when he bolted the hit show after four seasons.
"The character had completed its creative cycle/journey. I had done and said everything I wanted to say through him. I ceased to be stimulated and was no longer happy with the direction the show was taking," he said. "You do not want to get fat and old as a character. I used 'Adebisi' to iron out a lot of things that were going on in my mind at that time. I got the opportunity to vent a lot of things."
His departure was not for long and when he appeared on screen in the hit movie The Mummy Returns there were audible gasps on joy and whispers of 'Adebisi' in movie theaters.
"I was missing home. I'd been in America for nearly ten years and I wanted to do something different," he explained. "So a movie came up that was going to be shot in England called The Mummy Returns. I said perfect! It was a fantastic time because I went to Morocco. In London they put me up in this beautiful million-dollar apartment in Soho. I'd come back home in a style that was off the hook. It was the Daddy returns," he said.
Then the producer of the Matt Damon lost memory hit The Bourne Identity-a big fan of Akinnuoye-Agbaje's work on Oz wooed him to play an African dignitary who is the target of an elite assassin in the film.
"I really did not want to do another African character. When I read the script it was a really big part. It was shot in Paris, Greece, London." Still, the producers had poorly conceived the pivotal African character.
"It's very difficult trying to do African characters with integrity in Hollywood because they do not have any real understanding or knowledge, nor do they care to. For them Africa is a black man with a bone in his nose, he could be from anywhere," he said. "The character was so generic that he did not even have an ethnic background."
"I was at the point where I did not have to work so I was very adamant as to how he was supposed to be done. I said where's he from? You dont know, okay I'll tell you where he's from. He's from where I'm from, so all these guys that are speaking French you can get them out." Then he went into the Parisian streets and recruited several Nigerians to work on the movie as his henchmen.
"After that I said I'm taking off. I went and sat in England for a couple of years. I just chilled man. I'm still chilling," the thirty something heart-ist said. In reality he will be back on the big screen this summer playing a hero cop opposite Wesley Snipes in Nine Lives and hooting it up with Patti Labelle and Eartha Kitt later this fall in a movie called On the One.
His African origins are the subject of his directorial debut, an explosive look at the Nigerian intelligentsia and their actions abroad in the past. An eight-minute clip left this reporter stunned and excited. He transitioned to directing because he's an individual "concerned with truth and as such use art as my vehicle to propound it. Hollywood on the whole has no regard for morals, ethics, integrity, or decency, and that contradicts my purpose. As an heart-tist. Everything I do is from the heart. I try not to fit into categories. Labels are like ceilings. They entrap your spirit. Mine is to be free."
Directing has provided him with creative control to ultimately ensure the integrity of this project near to his heart. "The project gives air to a voice that has not been heard. The Black British voice and it details what we as the Afro-European generation experience in growing up."
When he's told that fans the world over _ especially African ones _ are proud of him, he wonders "What's pride? Pride is a foolish mans wisdom men," he declared before punctuating our conversation with more of his trumpet playing.
"If you are conscious it's really hard. You can be black and unconscious and you can get right to the top because they tend to promote people that do not know anything about their culture and do not give a damn," says Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
"For any man woman or child who is conscious there's only one route. People are afraid of enlightenment of truth and will go to any length to stamp it out and keep it down," he added.
FILMOGRAPHY (PLUS TV CREDITS)
Delta of Venus
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
The Mummy Return
The Bourne Identity
Kate & Allison
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
New York Undercover
On The One
This article originally ran in the September-October 2004 issue of The AFRican.