Sundance 2017 Exclusive: Football Player Turned Producer/ Actor Nnamdi Asomugha Talks ‘Crown Heights’
Sundance 2017 Exclusive: Football Player Turned Producer/ Actor Nnamdi Asomugha Talks ‘Crown Heights’
Posted by Wilson Morales
February 3, 2017
One of the standouts of the 2017 Sundance Film Festivals was actor-producer Nnamdi Asomugha, who came to the festival with three projects. Not only was he there for the first time as a producer for the documentary short “Waiting for Hassana,” which was about Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls, and the hip hop film “Patti Cake$,” which was a festival favorite and introduced Australian native Danielle Macdonald in a breakout role, but he also produced and co-starred in Matt Ruskin’s debut film “Crown Heights,” opposite Keith Stanfield.
The film is based on the true story of Colin Warner, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, and his best friend, Carl King, who devoted his life (over 20 years) to proving Colin’s innocence. Asomugha plays King, who worked as a New York City process server to get close enough with the right lawyers to get Colin out of prison.
What’s interesting about Asomugha is that he’s also a former football player, who played with played for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers before retiring after 10 years in the league. Since changing careers, he’s hit the ground running, having already help produced the critically acclaimed “Beasts of No Nation.” Even while he was playing, he had a few roles in shows (BET’s The Game, Friday Night Lights Season 4) where he was would play the role of a football player.
With a bigger role in “Crown Heights,’ Asomugha, who also happens to be married to actress Kerry Washington, is ready for stardom in this field, in front and behind the camera. Blackfilm.com caught up with him as he spoke his transition from sports to entertainment.
Was this your first time at Sundance?
Nnamdi Asomugha: Yes. It’s my first time and it has been amazing so far. I have three films here. I have a short doc called “Waiting for Hassana,” and then I was part of the financing team for “Patti Cake$,” which is a feature and I’m producing and co-starring in “Crown Heights.” If this is what Sundance is all about, I’m all in.
How did you get involved with “Crown Heights”?
Nnamdi Asomugha: “Crown Heights” came to me through a mutual friend of the director. It started with a five minute documentary in which I was blown away by and then directed me to this American life piece that they did on the story. I had to read the script. In the film, Colin starts talking about forgiveness and forgiving all of those that wronged him. This is his lot in life and he’s going to take it to do better. All of that stuff just blew me away and I said, “Let me be a part of this.”
How did you come on board as the producer?
Nnamdi Asomugha: When I auditioned and was cast, I said this is great and I will figure out this role. Then the film was going basically in New Orleans. There was a different producing team that was on board, and I just felt like the relevance of New York was too important to miss. I went up to the director, Matt and just said, “I think this film should shoot in New York. It’s a Crown Height’s story, it’s specific to that area and I don’t think shooting in New Orleans is going serve it.”
He took a few weeks and finally got back to me and he said, “If you can bring it to New York, then we’ll shoot in New York.” Basically from that point on I became the producer of the project and we were shooting in New York.
Can you talk about the character you are playing, Carl King. It’s based on a true person. How did you set out to embody his persona?
Nnamdi Asomugha: Yeah, it was a very interesting process. Carl King, he’s such a larger than life personality, and he’s always on, and I really wanted to capture as much of that as possible but that was such a tough time in his life. So, I asked him, spent a lot of time with him, spent a couple weeks with him before shooting, and I asked him, “Were you this big when you were working on the case?” He said, “No, that was all focus, all determination, and when I would do with my friends or with my family, then my character and my smile would come out.” And so I said, “Let me, try to capture that in as best a way as possible.”
It was important to me and in spending that time with him, those couple weeks, we were able to do so much. I basically became a process server with him for a couple of weeks. We were going to the Bronx and Brooklyn and serving people papers, and I just wanted to embody as much of him and his character, and what he’s been through, and what he goes through, as possible.
How was working with Keith Stanfield?
Nnamdi Asomugha: You know what’s crazy we didn’t even get a chance to work together that much, because he’s (his character Colin) mainly in prison, I’m mainly on the outside trying to get about. We had about maybe two scenes together, so I didn’t have the opportunity to get a lot of work with him, but the thing that we did get to do, was before we started shooting, we made sure to spend a lot of time together. A lot of walking through New York for us, and just talking and getting to know each other and become friends that way, so that we could really bring it to life on the screen.
So that part, all of the pre-stuff was just great. Working with him as a dedicated actor and trying to bring it together once the camera started rolling.
This story will remind some of Hurricane Carter, which starred Denzel Washington. There are going to be lots of comparisons because we don’t see these many stories told. Over time, we’ve seen individuals, mostly African Americans being released from prison after serving decades and then being found innocent.
Nnamdi Asomugha: That’s true. It’s so interesting that you would bring up that film, because that film was, let’s say maybe 15 or so years ago, if not more, I can’t remember. This story is still very relevant today. Not just mass incarceration, but even further, wrongful incarcerations, just as relevant, as it was, if not more, than it was back then.
I just think being able to tell the story and show it from the vantage point that we showed it, and to show that there’s still this issue with the criminal justice system, I think that was very, very important to all of us. We don’t want to beat it over the head, but we do want to get the point across that something needs to be done.
We don’t always see it in film, you can name a handful of films that have tacked this issue, so this was our way of adding to the conversation.
Can you talk about leaving the sport of football and entertaining this field, not only as a producer but as an actor as well?
Nnamdi Asomugha: It has been very exciting. It’s very difficult to leave one career and try to find another. It doesn’t matter how old you are, but especially when you’re in your thirties, because retirement in your head, is meant for someone that’s lived a very, very long life, and it’s time to retire and sit down. I talk with former teammates and we talk about how difficult it is to transition, so just being able to have something like this, that I always was passionate about. I always knew that I would take a stab at it, and I would go at it like I went at it in football, with as much determination, and heart, and passion as it could. Just to see what happened or to see what came from it, and until you retire and then three, four months later, I’m out shooting Beasts of No Nation.
It’s just mind blowing and affirming for me that this was the work that I want to do. That I wanted to carry on, so, yeah, I’ve just approached it the same way. It’s been nothing but dedication, and hard work, and preparation, and just trying to get better every single day at it.
What’s going to be more of a focus, producing or acting?
Nnamdi Asomugha: Acting definitely is something that I just want to do. That’s where the first passion was, just seeing people come to life as other characters and just being able to show that on film or on stage. I’ve just fallen in love with that completely, and then the producing part is great, because I just love to help people, and to help people get their stories out there. Whether it’s mine or it’s someone else’s, it’s just that I love that sort of leadership. Taking on that sort of leadership role, and being able to get things done, for people and get people’s stories out there. There will be a mix, but I really want to get into acting much more and see where that takes me.
You obviously have some close relations to the acting community, but having interviewed other former athletes like Thomas Jones, and Matthew Cherry, and other people who have make that transition into the entertainment world (acting, directing), it’s not easy. You have to be in a position where people want to take you seriously.
Nnamdi Asomugha: It’s true, it’s true and it’s very interesting. I think any time that you go from one career to another, especially this one, you just have to humble yourself and you become a student again. That’s just what I did. I went straight back to school with acting, and not even right when I finished, but during some off seasons while I was playing. I just really wanted to learn and to get better, so I went right in to it. It’s acting classes, it’s voice classes, it’s movement class, you know, whatever it is. I have taken the position of student and just wanting to learn. I’m 24 hours a day, something to do with acting and film or stage. It doesn’t just happen out of the blue, you definitely have to work at it to get somewhere.
And it’s tough, especially as an athlete. I can definitely tell you as a football player specifically. It’s tough because you do walk into a room, or get on the phone with someone and you are dismissed, because in all honesty, a lot of people feel that the transition hasn’t been made. I guess in a way that shows us in such a respected way for football payers, so people would just look at me and be like, you’re a football player trying to act. When I would go into a room and talk to different directors or something, so it’s important for me to actually get the work out there on screen, so that people can see the hard work that’s gone into it, that I am able to transform into different characters and bring off a role and carry a film in some sorts.
When you’re not acting or producing or watching sports again, what keeps you humble?
Nnamdi Asomugha: Just family, I think family is the number one thing. Family and friends. I’ve got a great support group, great support team, that’s just with me through good times, tough times, it’s just great.
At the end of the day, after it plays at Sundance, and hopefully gets a deal to be seen in theaters, what’s a good reason for folks to see Crown Heights?
Nnamdi Asomugha: There are many great reasons, it’s a story of friendship. It’s a story of hanging on to your morals in the face of adversity, and it’s a story of forgiveness. I think with Colin and Carl, you’re looking at two guys that, are the epitome of what it means to be human. They sort of reassure your belief in the human spirit and the power of forgiveness, and the power of dignity. I think those are all great reasons to go see this film and to be uplifted by it.