Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays a fearsome gladiator in "Pompeii." Credit: Getty Images
Nearly every profile of the English actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje begins with his name. It’s not one that rolls off the tongue — unless you know how to pronounce it. But far more imposing is Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s presence. On “Oz,” where he played Simon Adebisi, and on “Lost,” as Mr. Eko, he embodied fearsome characters — not always evil, but always using their imposing presence to get what they wanted.
In “Pompeii,” a 3-D blockbuster about the events leading up to the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays a gladiator, and a pretty nice one — albeit about as nice as a warrior forced to fight for his life can be.
“Although he’s ferocious in what he does, he kills because he has to. There’s still this humanity and humility in him,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje says. “He does what he has to do with dignity and honor. Gladiators should not stab each other in the back, you know? He’s really adamant about how one should die.”
In the film, he slowly befriends one of the men he may have to kill: our hero, Milo (Kit Harrington, of “Game of Thrones”). Their respect soon overwhelms their fear about facing each other in battle. “How do you live with somebody you know you’re going to kill tomorrow? How do you sleep, with one eye open? Are you testing them for their weaknesses, slap them in the mouth? It was an interesting dynamic.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje admits he only knew as much about the destruction of Pompeii as most of us do — namely, that it was destroyed by a volcano. But his research took other avenues. “What fascinated me was how an African could end up in Italy. I tried to trace the steps and look back and see where he would have come from. I know that the southern tip of Europe and the northern tip of Africa were joined and it was more of a fluid channel for the Romans to go through and conquer and colonialize these African empires like Mauritania, Liberia, Sudan. We tried to put some of that influence of these cultures into the film by having him pray.”
The film also gave him the chance to star in a Roman epic. “My favorite movies growing up were ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Spartacus,’” he says. “I remember Woody Strode [in 'Spartacus']. He was a great black gladiator. He just stood out like Adonis.”
His training regimen consisted not only of extensive workouts but a strict diet. Snapping out of that physical work once the shoot wraps can be difficult. “Even though I wanted to eat junk, the body rejected it,” he recalls, laughing. “Even today, I’m on a similar diet — not as strict, but similar. It's very functional to my lifestyle and it gives me the maximum energy. It was a great benefit. I learned how to maximize my energy.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje is currently trying to direct a film, “Farming,” based on his experience as a Nigerian child adopted by a white English family. He hopes the financing will be in place this year. In the meantime he’s trying to play more than villains.
“I always enjoy playing somebody that could be perceived as ‘dark,’” Akinnuoye-Agbaje says. “I never see them as ‘bad’ per se; you run the danger of making him a caricature if you go about it that way. I do enjoy playing the more challenging characters because you have somewhere to go with them.”