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Gbenga Akinnagbe was born in Washington DC on December 12, 1978. He attended Magruder High School in Rockville, Maryland and received a D1 wrestling scholarship to Bucknell University. Akinnagbe began his acting career with DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company. He received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Kelly Slater in Showtime’s hit series Nurse Jackie with Edie Falco, but his most famous acting role remains that of Chris Partlow in HBO’s dramatic crime series The Wire (2002-08). Akinnagbe's film work includes The Savages with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney (2007); The Taking of Pelham 123 with Denzel Washington, and John Travolta (2009); Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson (2010); and Lottery Ticket with Bow Wow and Ice Cube (2011). Akinnagbe's TV credits range from Barbershop (2005), to The Good Wife  (2010-11), to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2009-12). Akinnagbe was attached to two films this year that made their debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, and he is currently starring in and producing the crime thriller Render to Caesar. This June [2022 note: this interview was conducted in 2012] he will be starring in USA Network’s new original series GracelandAkinnagbe is a true Renaissance man. He continues to grace the most renowned stages in America, he has written two freelance articles for The New York Times, and he is deeply committed to a number of nonprofits, including Streets of Baltimore and Re-Wired for Change. In November 2012, Akinnagbe challenged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy. His high-profile case, which went on for a year and a half, won a dismissal in March 2013,  upholding Akinnagbe's and his three co-defendants'  right to free speech in their protest of this policy.

Spectator Magazine: Your parents and your sister were born in Nigeria. Did your parents ever talk about why they immigrated to the US?

Gbenga Akinnagbe: My father came to study medicine, initially in Canada, and then they came here, I believe, like most immigrants, for a better life. He continued his studies for some time here. And my mother has been working, like, ever since she came to this country.

SM: What was life like in the Akinnagbe household? Growing up, was money tight?

GA: Money wasn’t tight because there was no money (laughs). It was a very tough childhood. We lived in shelters and projects up until I got a wrestling scholarship to college. That kind of changed everything. I have four younger brothers and one older sister, so yeah, things were tight.

SM: You were the first of your siblings to be born in the US. How did your placement in the family shape your life and affect your values?

GA: Being the oldest male in a Nigerian-American family—there was a lot on me. I was always the first in trouble—and I got into a lot of trouble. I was the first one to go through a lot of things. So I had to figure out my path in life quickly, sink or swim, and it helped me find what success meant for me. It helped me develop skills. It’s not like I had my younger brothers to depend on, they had to depend on me, so it was lonely.

SM: How did it shape your values?

GA: I think...I would say hard work, and that came from wrestling, and before that from my mother. When I was eight I had my first job. I’d go to this daycare in the community where they’d give me a few dollars to clean up. The kids there were all my age. Sometimes I’d have two jobs, because I needed to provide for myself, you know? So I think values were instilled there and then and entrenched themselves even more when I started wrestling. When you do a sport, when you wrestle, you realize you can do a lot more than you ever knew you could. So when you go out in the real world, with that mindset, you just do more. You excel further. I believe so, yeah.

SM: Who were your heroes growing up?

GA: Oh—I watched a lot of TV (laughs). I don’t know if I had any heroes growing up, I just had a lot of favorite shows. I loved Alf. I lovedBenson. Mr. Belvedere. The Golden Girls—I still watch The Golden Girls all the time. The Cosby Show. My brothers used to call me “The TV Guide” because I could tell you what was on, on what station, at what time, any day of the week. And that’s not good; children should never watch that much television. But the television was like the babysitter. This is sad to say, but I did learn a lot from television. People would say, “Oh, you speak so well,” thinking I had some sort of education, but I gained my vocabulary—higher than my station in life warranted—just from watching obscene amounts of TV.

SM: You mentioned there was a lot of pressure put on you, describe your relationship with your mom and dad growing up?

GA: It wasn’t so good actually. It was a very crazy household; there was a lot of abuse. My father would come and go for months at a time; we looked forward to the times he was gone. My mother was barely there. She was working all the time, and when she was there she was very stressed; and there was a lot of pressure on us because of that. So we fended for ourselves. One thing that you learn quickly as a child is which adults are protective. You don’t consciously think about it. You just know who you can go to. Kids are very smart; they have to identify good places and bad places. I didn’t socialize a lot but what I did learn was survival, and I count on those skills to this day.

SM: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but when you say abuse, what do you mean?

GA: I mean beaten by plungers, and stove pots and so on.

"So I had to figure out my path in life quickly, sink or swim, and it helped me find what success meant for me."

SM: How did you not lose your sense of sanity in that type of environment?

GA: I’m not quite sure I didn’t (laughs). It’s tough, especially when you’re growing up as a child, developing yourself, or being developed. It’s very important to instill things in a child, such as socializing. In fairness to my mother, she didn’t necessarily know you had to socialize children; she just worked hard so we could survive. When the family came over from Nigeria my sister was eight, and she’s been watching over us ever since.

SM: Your bios often refer to a troubled youth resulting in special school placements. How tough were you, and what kind of trouble were you getting into?

GA: I don’t know how tough I was, I just got into fights a lot. So many. I went to Mark Twain, a school you go to once you’ve been expelled from all other schools. I was classified SED, Seriously Emotionally Disturbed. It was crazy there. One time I saw this guy hit this other kid in the head with a hammer. Something went down when we were in woodshop, we didn't have things like woodshop usually but this year we did, and he took this hammer and bashed this kid in the head. Yeah, it was like, “Wow.” But a lot of people were at Twain whether they belonged there or not, just because of circumstances in their lives that gave them certain labels. There’s a path to these schools. Some people needed to be there; some just needed guidance in a certain way that they weren’t getting at home or in school. It’s wild because I hear parents tell their kids “Use your words. Use your words.” And it’s frustrating when you need to express something but can’t. It’s so important to teach a child how to use words, and I’m not just talking about avoiding aggression—I wasn’t aggressive—sometimes I was, but most times I was just quiet because I didn’t know how to be with people.

SM: Were you ever bitter? Did you ever want to just lash out?

GA: Yeah. As I got older, I started to interact with people who had different experiences in childhood—experiences I wished I’d had—and I saw how many of these people had squandered such opportunities because they just didn’t seem to care, you know? But sometimes it took a person touching this raw nerve in me to make me lash out. There was this one time especially, in middle school, in the cafeteria with all the kids around, with this kid I was fine with but who didn’t like me, and I said hello to him and he said something, I forget what, and it just turned into this big fight. We both got suspended, but I got a longer suspension because I broke away from everyone restraining me and went after him again. I lifted him up against the wall, and the gym teacher had to slam me on the ground. There were lots more fights. I don’t recommend fighting. Use your words. Use your words, because if you don’t have your words (laughs) you’ll pick up a brick.

SM: In your junior year you attended Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland where you fell into a lifelong love affair with wrestling. Do you remember what you were thinking as you stood there facing your first opponent in your first wrestling match? Were you scared?

GA: Aw man, “lifelong” is absolutely right, it’s ridiculous how much I love wrestling. Let’s see, I remember I was very nervous—and excited. My first wrestling match was a tournament at Magruder. Up until then I had only wrestled in practice. I realized I might be good because my coach and everybody were very excited about me wrestling. But at a tournament you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, and all these other schools and so on, and here I am wrestling in my first match in front of all these people and I won! I remember when I looked at my opponent I thanked God for practice because I didn't know what I was doing. But I had managed to get one or two moves down that I felt pretty comfortable with, and so I was like, alright, I’ll just do these two moves over and over, and I did. That first year in the county they were saying, “That’s his move,” and he will most likely get you into it. Then I realized I had to learn other moves! Prior to wrestling, I had never received positive enforcement for anything. When I started wrestling, I would walk into a room and people would smile. People would come up to me in the hallway and talk. It’s amazing how these little things are so powerful. It changes who you think you are; who you think you can be.

SM: So ultimately you get a D1 wrestling scholarship to Bucknell, where you double major in English and Political Science, and you go on from there to enjoy a brilliant acting career on stage and screen. Did your wrestling persona ever prevent you from exploring acting during your high school and college days?

GA: No, but something related to that happened. In ninth grade when I mainstreamed out of Twain into Magruder I was there for a couple of periods at first, and then for the majority of the day. I wanted to do an after school activity, so I started hanging out to see what was going on. I went to the drama club a couple of times, and wrestling, but the principal at the time found out and told me he didn’t want me on school grounds after hours, so I couldn’t do acting or wrestling. What happened instead was I got in trouble, got kicked out, and went back to Mark Twain full time where I got in even more trouble. I ended up sometime after that in a mental hospital, and as I was about to leave at the end of two weeks I got in a fight with this kid in the ward and so they committed me. They were drugging me left and right with Thorazine, Zoloft, with hard psychotropic drugs, and I ended up being there a long time. So it was another couple of years before I got back to Magruder and was allowed to do an after school activity. But I’ll never forget that first year there, I did everything that they told me to do, and they still wouldn’t let me participate with the normal kids.

"The principal at the time found out and told me he didn’t want me on school grounds after hours."

SM: Wow, that’s a sad story. Changing gears a little bit, Wale, the rapper, is your cousin. How long have you known him, and have you hung out much?

GA: I held him as a baby. He and his brother were my younger cousins. Sometimes we ran around the neighborhood together. They always had nicer things than we did. They had cable, video games, they got to play sports. So it was cool to go over there but it was also frustrating. Once I went to college we didn’t really keep in touch. Then his brother came to stay with me for spring break when I was living and acting in New York. He said, “He’s rapping now” and I was like, “Really?” So he gave me his CD, and for a week straight his brother and I handed it out to CD stores, to radio stations where people would listen to it, and at places where we couldn't get someone to listen to it, we gave it to security guards. A week later, The Source magazine called because a security guard gave it to a person who gave it to the right person who listened to it and they called—and they wanted it. They put him in “Unsigned Hype,” this column in The Source where they list all the up and coming rappers. Biggie and Eminem—they were in it in their day. It’s a pretty big thing for a rapper. You know, he’s nominated for a Grammy this year.

SM: Getting back to your life, you finished at Bucknell, you explore acting, and land your first small role in a Shakespeare Theater production right here in DC. But in 2002 your life takes a dramatic turn because you find yourself on the set of The Wire, a gritty Baltimore-based HBO crime series, considered by many critics and viewers alike to be the finest TV drama ever produced in America. Ultimately you land the role of Chris Partlow, a sociopathic enforcer for the Marlowe Stanfield drug gang. Your psychopathic partner in crime, and fellow enforcer, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, is an actress who in real life was raised on the mean streets of Baltimore and, at the age of 14, actually shot a girl in the back, killing her. How did life suddenly land you here?

GA: It was a very interesting time. I didn’t have an agent. I sent my headshot in a mass mailing and they called me in and asked me if I wanted to be an extra. I was a background extra one day and an extra in a courtroom another day. I didn’t realize that they were tracking me. I didn't get the role that I auditioned for but they kept calling, and I was offered the part of Slim Charles. I said yes at first, but I had also stopped acting to study and as it turned out the day I was having a final exam was their first day of shooting so I told them I couldn’t do it. Of course I thought some more about this and realized how crazy a decision it was, and just as I was about to get back in touch, they called me again and offered me the part of Chris Partlow.

SM: The Wire was such a rare collection of talent on so many levels. You had David Simon, its creator and head writer who’d spent many years as a crime reporter with the Baltimore Sun Ed Burns who was a Baltimore homicide and narcotics cop for 20 years; and George Pelecanos, the well-respected DC crime novelist—all making up the writing staff. But you also had such Baltimore street legends involved as “Little Melvin” Williams and Donnie Andrews. Melvin Williams dealt over one billion dollars of drugs on the streets of Baltimore—he was so smart they had to frame him to convict him—and to a great extent Simon based his book The Corner and later the series The Wire on him. Donnie Andrews, another Baltimore legend, was a “rip and run” artist who robbed drug dealers and actually executed a man, an act that ultimately led to a spiritual sea change in his life. The character of Omar Little was based roughly on Donnie. Outside the script itself, how much did these people, who were so often on the set, help you shape the character of Chris Partlow?

GA: Well, Ed and David created such great characters—some they knew and some were composites. For Chris Partlow, there was a real life family of enforcers that made what Chris was to become. Aside from the script, I took their words and interpreted them, and I took the moments where there weren’t words and interpreted them.  Ed and I would talk, but Ed would never want to say too much about the characters because he was like I hired you to do it so, you know, do it. But we’d talk and they’d establish the world of what was going on in the scene, then they’d just let it rip. David as a crime reporter and Ed as a cop, they spent decades in these neighborhoods. Donnie, he talked more with Ed and David about scenes, but we were friends. Donnie just died suddenly a few weeks ago from a tear in his heart. I saw him the week before he died—we were both up at Harvard speaking. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. And Melvin Williams, who played the Deacon on the show, you know, he was another very powerful figure who influenced Baltimore culture big time. But speaking of people on the show who’ve died recently besides Donnie—Robert Chew who played Prop Joe just died. And DeAndre McCullough who played Lamar died the end of last summer. These were all great guys. It was a rare show, yeah.

SM: Let’s play a game: pick three adjectives that come to your mind to describe Chris Partlow?

GA: Well...he’s a wanderer. He’s intense. And he’s efficient. (Laughs) I see you look surprised, what would you guys pick?

SM: Oh...detached, you know, sociopathic. Misunderstood. Tragic.

GA: Those are good ones too, especially “misunderstood.” It’s easy to misunderstand Chris because he’s a killer, and you think you know what a killer is—this, that and whatever.

SM: I know it’s two words but I’d like to add “emotionally disturbing” to the list because I remember watching one of the episodes in Season 4 where you and Snoop were killing people and burying them in plastic and lime in those boarded up houses and I thought Wow this is one cold dude who can shoot someone in the head with a nail gun and then go home to bed, just another day at the office. And the fact the cops were puzzled by the crime rate going down because they suddenly weren’t finding any bodies just heightened the bizarreness of the scene.

GA: (Laughing throughout the question)

SM: Look, we could talk forever about The Wire, but if readers have never seen it we're going to lose them, and if they have seen it then they love the show, know it inside out, and have probably already read a bunch of interviews about it. So for the sake of focus, let's make this the crux for this whole line of questioning: you've referred to Chris Partlow as a sociopath, and usually sociopaths feel no empathy or sympathy towards anyone. Yet there is a scene in Season 4 Episode 10 where a kid named Mikey asks Chris for help because his stepdad, fresh out of prison, is sexually abusing his little brother, just like he'd abused him. And Chris does help—by beating Mikey’s stepdad to death, because he seems to relate to Mikey's pain. What is it Chris relates to in this situation, and what did you draw on within yourself, acting-wise, to beat Mike’s stepdad so viciously in a scene that even shocks Snoop?

GA: What's great was it was never commented on before in the show, and it was never mentioned after— and unless you caught the looks between the characters you would never know—but the subtext for the scene is that Chris himself was molested, so Chris understood from Mikey's look—the shame, the anger—and as soon as that happened, it was over, Mikey’s stepdad was as good as dead. As far as what I drew upon—BEING BLACK IN AMERICA IS ENOUGH TO GET YOU ANGRY (rearing up, feigning a militant persona, and then laughing). No, no, seriously...there is a well of things, of joyful things and angry things we all have, and it's a matter of what gets us to that place. But Ernest and me—Ernest Dickerson, one of the top directors in the country—created this scene, built this world in that alley right then, to where one could lose oneself. Yeah. Man, my hand was swollen for days.

SM: Wait. Did you really hit someone?

GA: Yeah. In that scene there was the actor, there was the stunt double, and then there was an animatronic dummy that cost like seven thousand dollars that was made just for me to destroy. So the dummy I hit. And the stunt double I may have slipped up and hit a couple times when I didn't mean to which is too bad because he was a nice guy.

SM: Did you lose yourself?

GA: I may have lost myself a little bit (laughing)—but I was thinking! I was thinking!

SM: But what a complex scene. Sympathy in a sociopath—that's not predictable, but it seemed totally realistic. I think that was probably the most powerful scene in the five years of the series. I mean like we already said, you even seemed to shock Snoop—not just in the scene, but outside the scene—because her jaw just dropped as she watched you lose it on camera.

GA: Yes! Yes! Snoop’s face! You know, that show is so smart to do something so very different than the way shows usually do, but in a way a sharp audience could pick up on. Snoop’s expression was a perfect button on that scene. Her face, right at the end there, made that scene. And, you know, I noticed it when I watched it later, and I've never heard anyone else mention it, but you know people have to have been moved by her reaction.

SM: How difficult is it, as an actor, to come home and have to memorize lines for the next day?

GA: I mean it's like a muscle you train and so I've gotten used to it. It's difficult but you learn what works for you and what doesn't work for you. It's a habit you develop, but it's definitely work.

SM: What actors, actresses, and directors do you really like, not necessarily for the greatest, but who appeals to you for whatever reason?

GA: I love Daniel Day-Lewis. Laurence Fishburne—he's a magnificent actor. Cate Blanchett. I have a friend who's a wonderful actress: Aisha Hinds. She's great. Directors? Steve McQueen. I want to work with that guy. He did Shame that came out a couple years ago. He didHunger in 2008 I think, about Bobby Sands and that 1970s IRA hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison. And he just finished one calledTwelve Years a Slave. I’d also love to work with Guillermo Del Toro—the guy who did Pan’s Labyrinth.

SM: Speaking of good working habits, how do you teach the rank and file of high school kids like us that developing good habits is important—that it's not just what we're learning that's valuable, but also the discipline of learning?

"A lot of kids start things, but get them to appreciate and love the idea of completing something."

GA: Wow (smiles). Twyla Tharp, the choreographer, wrote a book called The Creative Habit, and one of the things she believes—and she's talking about creativity specifically but I think the point can be taken more generally—but she believes that if you do something enough you create a habit for yourself, and if you do this you can access this creative well that's in the universe that's available to anyone. I believe strongly in habit. How do you teach this to kids? They need something that sparks. I think you just keep throwing things at them and hopefully something sticks and makes him think Whoa, I love playing the guitar! Or Wow, I love wrestling! Stay positive but get them into the idea of completion. A lot of kids start things, but get them to appreciate and love the idea of completing something. Whether they end up liking it or whether it's good or not, completing it makes you so much stronger. And that’s something I'm still learning and practicing now.

SM: “Little Melvin” Williams, the legendary Baltimore drug dealer we spoke of earlier, once said that trying to stop drug dealing on the streets of Baltimore is like trying to rake leaves in the wind. Why are drugs such a problem—not just on the streets of Baltimore—but in America. What does that say about Americans and American culture?

GA: Drugs are a problem in this country for a couple reasons. First, they are unnaturally and maliciously restricted and enforced. Our prisons are overcrowded, many of them with non-violent offenders. And these prisons stay open for lots of reasons—sure to get dangerous people off the street, but also make money, and because prisons supply jobs to communities. We have a prison population that has exploded to over 2 million—mostly black and Hispanic—and now various industries are starting to use them as cheap labor. That coupled with the various states with “Three Strike” laws—and New York's own drastic and conservative Rockefeller anti-drug law where you can get 15 years to life for possessing over four ounces of marijuana—it makes you wonder what the true purpose of our prison system is. Is it to punish, rehabilitate, or create a cheap labor force? Governor Cuomo said one thing I actually respected a great deal, and he said it to people protesting the closing of prisons in upstate New York. He said we have to think about if this is how we want to feed our families—keeping prisons open just so people have jobs. I don't want people to be unemployed, but these are human beings’ lives in these prisons too—just because they may have different color skin or be from different classes, they still matter. Secondly, drugs are a big problem because there is no culture in this country. It is a culture of capitalism. Anything that doesn't surround or encourage the dollar doesn't really survive or thrive. Because of this, there's no soul. People are looking for something. Of course, I'm speaking in general here. But you've even got people making hundreds of millions of dollars who still feel empty. How much money does a person need?

SM: You once said, “It's better to hone your craft than to make connections.” You seem to reach the stage in your career, at 34, where you’re doing both. You just acted in or produced three films picked up at Sundance. You are acting in and producing an English-speaking Nigerian crime thriller Render to Caesar. And you'll be starring in USA’s Graceland, one of the summer’s most highly publicized dramas. Have you had a vision or strategy for your career, or is this just how it has unfolded?

GA: It's a little bit of both. I wish I could take credit for being some sort of mastermind of my career. I know I want to be selective and do good projects, and I know that I don't want to come at it from a place of desperation. Plus I know the overall picture of my life doesn't just involve acting. I work with a number of nonprofits, for example. I’ve run two NYC Marathons for Palm Out Africa. I'm involved with Youth at Risk, and Re-wired for Change—this last one was started by fellow cast members from The Wire and is headed by Sonia Sohn who played Detective Kima Gregg's on the show. I work with Streets of Baltimore—this organization takes young kids off the streets, where the odds have been stacked against them everyday, and puts them in the wrestling ring. It's a beautiful thing.

SM: And it's a beautiful thing to see someone “pay back” to their community, to their society, as you are doing. In fact, you were just involved in a high-profile legal battle in Brooklyn, where a judge ruled in your favor, dismissing a case brought against you and three co-defendants by NYPD for public annoyance while protesting Mayor Bloomberg’s Stop-And-Frisk policy in front of the 73rd Precinct House. Tell us about it.

GA: That's right. Well it was a long case for starters—around a year and a half. I had to keep flying back from shooting locations in California and Florida for court dates. Most people can't afford to do this—and the police and the mayor’s office know this—and sooner or later—guilty or innocent—protesters are forced to plead out, often to lesser charges. But to charges nonetheless. Ostensibly the case was about our protest creating a public annoyance but we felt it was really about what we were protesting—Stop-And-Frisk—and that we were protesting. They were never able to prove their case because we were never guilty of the charges. One of the funny things was they kept referring to this video tape they claimed they had of us blocking people on the sidewalk, and on the steps to the precinct house, but when they finally had to produce this tape, after months of stalling, and after all their sworn statements, it showed nothing of the sort. That's when Judge Evelyn Laporte dismissed the case for lack of evidence. But like I said, it was really about Stop-And-Frisk, and our right of free speech to protest such a dangerous policy. Last year alone NYPD stopped, frisked, and interrogated almost 600,000 citizens with no probable cause—most in East New York, and close to 90% of them were either Black or Hispanic. Of course they claim it is a preventative measure that has cut down on crime. Their rationale is if you aren't carrying anything illegal you should have nothing to worry about, and this will keep you from ever carrying anything illegal in the future. The problem is, besides being a blatant case of racial profiling, it is a violation of any and every American’s constitutional rights. Since 9/11 there has been a steady erosion of so many of our constitutional rights, which is pretty ironic since we keep trying to export democracy around the world. If you were to have told Americans a decade ago that these rights would be taken from them they would've been up in arms. But because of the fear of terrorism, and fear in general that has been instilled so shrewdly in us, Americans have forfeited these rights quietly, mostly due to presidential executive orders.

SM: What you seem to be saying is what Orwell said in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

GA: Exactly. Sure, an increasingly elite group are safer in Manhattan, but at the cost of Black and Hispanic American’s civil liberties and quality of life in East New York. And only about 10% of those stopped are ever guilty of anything!


SM: So, the caustic point lurking behind Stop-And-Frisk seems to be sometimes you have to destroy democracy to safeguard democracy. You know, interestingly, that was the point of John Brennan’s master’s thesis about Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. He's the new head of the CIA.


GA: Wow that's scary. Yeah. Whose rights are being safeguarded? Whose rights are being destroyed? And you know, while we won our case in Brooklyn, Cornell West and his group lost their identical case in Queens. We were lucky with Judge Laporte, because often the law doesn't play out justly, it plays out as it is expected to, by the powers that be—and that, in the case of democracy, is a slippery slope.

—Gbenga Akinnagbe for Spectator Magazine, 2012

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