In Paul W.S. Anderson's new historical disaster epic, "Pompeii," Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Atticus, an African gladiator who needs one more victory in the Roman arena to obtain his freedom. To win that, he must face Milo (Kit Harington), a captured Celt and formidable fighter who thirsts for vengeance against the Romans who murdered his people. The relationship between Atticus and Milo, against the looming catastrophe of the erupting Mount Vesuvius, evolves from enemies to comrades to heroes, an arc that Akinnuoye-Agbaje handles elegantly.
Since launching his acting career in 1994, the London-born Akinnuoye-Agbaje has piled up a steady stream of credits that include films like "The Mummy Returns," "The Bourne Identity," "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and more recently, "Thor: The Dark World." But the actor may be best known to American audiences for two TV roles: as Simon Adebisi for three years on the HBO prison drama "Oz" and as Mr. Eko for one season on ABC's iconic "Lost."
In that sense, Akinnuoye-Agbaje has paved the way for "Pompeii" star and fellow Brit Kit Harington, who is also turning to more feature film work after his breakout role on another HBO series, "Game of Thrones." Moviefone spoke with Akinnuoye-Agbaje about making the transition from TV to film, doing the intense "Pompeii" fight scenes in little more than a leather tunic and whether he'll get to play Marvel superhero Black Panther in that long-rumored film.
Moviefone: We're not really sure where Atticus's allegiances lie at first...he starts out kind of sinister and grows into a heroic figure. Was that fun to play?
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Very much so. You always want to play a character that's multi-dimensional, and this is exactly what Paul Anderson has created in this guy. Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay, gave it so much texture. We start off with this intense dynamic between these two foes, sizing each other up, and obviously Atticus is the champion gladiator of Pompeii. Pompeii was Vegas; Atticus was Mike Tyson. He was the man to beat, and now this guy (Milo) is in my house, so there's animosity there. We use the fight sequences as dialogue as well, because a lot of the respect between the two gladiators is gained from how they train together.
And then there's where they arrive at, which is a real brotherhood with real respect for one another's quests and views, is quite beautiful. I think friendship is one of the strongest elements that's played in the film against this impending doom.
Did you and Kit have a lot of time to build that friendship in rehearsal?
No, we just jumped straight in. But I think a lot of it was organic. First of all, Kit is a really nice guy, so it was easy to get along with him. And then I think the training process was very bonding for us because we trained together. That really helped us, because that was very intense and we supported each other through it, so there, organically, a natural bond was born. Us both being British actors, we had a natural connection as well. So it was fairly easy.
You and Kit have sort of had parallel career journeys -- coming out of the U.K., getting your first big break in American television, and then moving into feature films.
We both came out of the HBO camp, as it were, and there are some similarities there. We've talked about that. Obviously, HBO now has a lot more money to do bigger, broader scope productions such as "Thrones." But the dynamics and challenges of keeping a diverse career as well as a TV career, we've discussed that and how to broach it, how to find the balance. As I've said to him and to other interviewers, everything comes down to the characters. It's all about your craft, and no matter what medium you're doing it in -- whether it's TV, theater or film -- good work will beget good work. Nowadays, TV doesn't have the stigma it used to. At the time I was on it, it was a novelty still, but nowadays stars are coming from and going to TV.
Can you discuss doing the fight scenes? Were there any days where someone actually got hurt?
I mean, this is a physical film so there are always going to be little nicks and bruises and cuts. But I think because of the choreography and the training that we did, that was minimized to trivial accidents. So there wasn't anything serious and I think ultimately it comes down to your partner, who you're acting with. It is literally like a dance; you kind of look out for each other, so safety is first. It gets a little scary at points because you are fighting to the point of exhaustion and a lot of these weapons -- certainly the one I was carrying, the axe, that's 15 to 20 pounds, and when you're tired, it's 30. And then you're chained as well, so it's challenging.
Do you feel more vulnerable when you're basically just wearing a few straps of leather?
[Laughs] Yes, definitely. I have a new respect for women after wearing those garments, I'll tell you that. I don't know how they do it in those thongs and skirts and stuff. Rolling around in the sand in those things -- they're not conducive to fighting, I can tell you that. It's conducive to entertainment for an audience. In terms of fighting, it can be a hindrance. But we adapted, and we had a wonderful wardrobe person, who I worked with again on "Thor," Wendy Partridge. She's probably the best in the business. She crafted the outfits to really suit our bodies, because they started out a certain way and as we started training, we'd say, "Well, this looks great, but this is what we're going to be performing," so she'd adapt them to the movement and try to get maximum flexibility.
Were you able to research what life might have been like for your character, who is taken as a slave from Africa at the time?
I did. Fortunately with Pompeii, there's an awful lot of material out there. My particular research centered around the background of Atticus -- how would an African like him end up a slave in Pompeii? Back in 79 AD, Europe and Africa were one. They weren't separate. The southern tip of Europe was joined to the northern tip of Africa. So there was quite a fluid trade going on there and it was quite easy for the Romans to have conquered certain African empires. Also, the African Moors that were skilled in mercantile shipping were trading, and could have been easily captured. As the role is written, he's a very noble man with principles and ethics about how to kill as a gladiator, and that can only be born from a culture that is noble. So I just looked into Mauritania, Liberia, Sudan, where these Moors would have descended from and possibly been captured.
Have you visited the real Pompeii?
Not yet. I was planning on going after I finished the movie, but then I started another one, "Annie." So I hope my next trip is down there, because this has really rekindled my fascination. Everyone I've spoken with about Pompeii has been there or knows something about it. I didn't really realize how prevalent a subject it was in human history.
So, tell us about "Annie."
It's a markedly different role to swinging an axe around in this. It's a more light-hearted and humorous side of my repertoire. I play a character by the name of Ash, who is the right-hand man of Daddy Warbucks (Jamie Foxx) and Annie's friend. I get to do a bit of singing and dancing as well. It was a real fun role to do. But I'm actually about to go back to TV for a while. I'm about to start shooting a show for NBC called "Odyssey."
What can you say about "Odyssey"?
Well, they bought 13 episodes, so it seems pretty good to go. Peter Horton is directing and producing it, so it has very good potential. It's about a group of operatives that go in search of the Taliban in Mali, in Africa. They come across the head guy and find out that his intel on his computer shows that his funding is coming from a huge American corporation. So it's about to become a huge scandal and the government hires a private army headed by Frank Majors, which is my character, to go in and clean up the mess. So it's got a sort of "Traffic" and "Bourne" vibe -- it's a great thriller.
There was a moment where your name came up in conjunction with possibly playing Black Panther for Marvel. Since you've now played Kurse in "Thor: The Dark World" for them, does that take you out of the running for Black Panther?
Your guess is as good as mine. I'm just happy to be in business with Marvel. I know Captain America, Chris Evans, was in "Fantastic Four," so there's room for whatever works. I had a great time doing "Thor" and I love working with Marvel, so whatever comes up, comes up.
When you go on the fan websites, Black Panther is one of the characters that they really want to see on the screen.
It's long overdue. Whomever they put in it, it's long overdue. We would like to see a black superhero. It's a good time for it. Atticus is certainly in that vein. He's super-heroic. But we want to see our comic book ones as well.
"Pompeii" hits theaters February 21.