Interview with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for POMPEII

We caught up with the star of Paul W.S. Anderson’s new movie…

Some of you will know English actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje best as Mr Eko in LOST, others for his intimidating role as Simon Adebisi in OZ, and others still as Kurse in THOR: THE DARK WORLD. The actor has long been playing commanding roles on screen, and this week sees him play a gladiator in Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest film, POMPEII. caught up with the actor to find out more about POMPEII and Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s inspirations for his role as the majestic and imposing slave gladiator, Atticus.

What drew you to the film?
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I had a fascination fro the phenomenon, growing up in school, I think it was piqued when I watched a documentary about the mummified relics of these people in their last embrace. I just thought it would be wonderful to do a movie like that. Obviously, the other element was to play this heroically iconic character of Atticus, the champion gladiator of Pompeii. To me, it was just such a delicious character to play; textured and layered with nobility and ferocity and compassion, all in the same vein.

You mentioned you knew about the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD – the eruption which was catastrophic for Pompeii – did you have to do much research for the movie?
AA-A: My knowledge, initially, was very limited. It was just vague that it happened, it was a volcano! [laughs] Obviously, doing my research for the movie… Just the catastrophic devastation that it caused… Pompeii wasn’t even the only city to be destroyed, it was Herculaneum [first]. The domino effect that it had with the tsunami, the earthquake, the pyroclastic gases… It was just like, wow! I learned an awful lot about it when I did my research; delving into where a character like Atticus would have come from, how he would have been enslaved and captured. Things like that were of big interest to me.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with the story of Pompeii?
AA-A: I think it’s two things; it’s the fact that we have the evidence today, preserved in our museums of these mummified bodies. That’s always going to be something of a phenomenon. Also, human-kind has always been fascinated with the end of the world, with the very prospect of death and what you would you do if you were faced with impending doom; would you run for your life, would you embrace your loved one? What would you do? All of these primal questions are raised in this epic and we get to see what people did do. We get to go back thousands of years to 79AD, and see what they did, see how they lived, and also that it wasn’t too dissimilar to how we live today! It was very advanced for a civilisation. It’s fascinating, and we can learn things… One of them would be not to build a city beneath a volcano again! [laughs]

Did you get to visit the ruins of Pompeii when you were preparing for the movie?
AA-A: No, but as a consequence of the movie, I was given an award at the Italian Film Festival in LA, by the Minister of Pompeii and I have subsequently been invited to go, which I will this Autumn. I am probably going to do a screening for some of the school kids down there, which will be fun.

The role is very physical – after all, you are playing a gladiator! How did you prepare for that?
AA-A: Boot camp. Gladiator boot camp; four weeks prior to the beginning of the movie. You enrol in that as part of the process. When you and the audience hear the world ‘gladiator’ you have your expectations, and we have to deliver. To do that, we had to go to gladiator boot camp, which consisted of four hours working out a day, two hours of swordsmanship, an hour of weightlifting, an hour of cardio… Coupled with this 1,800 calorie diet. That is what got us in that Adonis-like shape. There are no ifs, buts, ands or maybes about it, that’s what you have to do! [laughs]

Rather you than me!
AA-A: [laughs] It was gruelling, but it’s like anything, when you put in, you’ll get out a great result, and I think that’s what this movie does. It not only gives you the image, but it also gives you the action. We don’t just look good, we were physically primed to be able to actually perform these intricate fight scenes that make it so real.

You mentioned that we have a certain image in our minds when it comes to gladiators, so was there anywhere in particular that you drew inspiration from?
AA-A: There was. I remember, growing up, there was a great character played by Woody Strode in SPARTACUS, opposite Kirk Douglas. I will never forget this Adonis-like figure; I always wanted to emulate him [laughs] as a child, and here in POMPEII, I hope I have. He was a great, towering figure of silence and he had such majesty, and he never really spoke much; it was just the way he stood and his incredible physique. I think I probably took a lot from that, and of course BEN HUR; that was a great movie as well.

In the film you go from swordfights to climbing buildings and warning people to run away from a tsunami…
AA-A: [laughs] That was a nice side to the character that you didn’t expect… He’s running for his life, but he stops and saves the child. That’s what I loved, because POMPEII is so many movies all in one; you’ve got the gladiator aspect, which is absolutely dynamic, but then you’ve also got this disaster movie and this guy running from tsuamis, saving lives, climbing up buildings, avoiding lava splashes and cracks in the earth. It’s just all these movies rolled into one, and to be able to play that, as a character, it’s so much fun!

… So out of all of all the action and emotional stuff that you got to do, what was the biggest challenge for you on POMPEII?
AA-A: I think one of the biggest challenges is always playing opposite special effects because we are only given a tennis ball with a red X on it; the rest is for you to conjure in your imagination. There was also one scene where I am running from the tsunami, bodies are actually falling over in front of me, I am carrying this baby, running at full pace, the ground is wet, I’m running on cobbles, people were falling in front of me, I am looking over my shoulder into the camera, so I am not even able to see in front of me, still instinctively knowing when to hop over the bodies that are falling and not dropping this baby and then have to hit a mark before two tons of water falls on top of me! [laughs] That is why I signed up! That is why I am an actor [laughs] You only get one shot at getting that right, because it takes hours to set it up again!

That sounds like terrifying fun!
AA-A: It is quite tricky, because there is a lot of potential to get hurt, and you have to be extremely focused and just get it right. And we did! That’s when it’s fun; you get it right, look back and think ‘YES!’.

What’s next for you?
AA-A: I have just finished shooting a pilot for NBC called ODYSSEY, which is a great conspiracy, espionage thriller. We have got ANNIE coming out at Christmas, which is a very different, light hearted kind of movie, where I play opposite Jamie Foxx and get to sing and dance!

A bit of a change then!
AA-A: Yeah, a bit of a different side [laughs] and I am doing a couple of animation projects that I am quite excited about. It’s a full spectrum of diversity there, and something to look forward to!

POMPEII is in Irish cinemas from April 30th.

Words: Brogen Hayes