Best known for his acting in films such as Suicide Squad, Thor: The Dark World and Concussion, and TV shows such as Lost, Game of Thrones and Oz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a true renaissance man, fluent in multiple languages and with a Masters of Law diploma hanging in his office. He now mines his own childhood and troubled youth as a skinhead with the feature film, Farming – a term for West African families sending their children to white foster parents, in Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s case, a struggling English family.
How did it feel making a film about your own life?
It was surreal. I remember the first time that I walked into the house that I was raised in. We had an amazing production designer, Miren Maranon, who created to perfection the house that I grew up in. I remember having to sit down for a while before the crew and cast got there, just to take a moment. It invoked all those memories and experiences that I’d encountered as a child. It was very emotional, cathartic, and also challenging. There are scenes that I was in and it’s very surreal, because I chose to play my father. It was a way of me being able to see how life was and to look at me, but from his perspective.
Those are moments that were very profound for me. I had to tell him, ‘This is not about death, this is about life at that time’. If you can imagine having no way out and wanting to stop the inner torture and torment, the only way that you could do that is to free yourself from it. So, you look at it from this perspective and it’s freedom, it’s not death. It just totally changed the resonance of his performance and he got it done. In order to get him there, I had to relive all of the experiences with him daily and that was very, very challenging.
At what point did you say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to take this horrible, horrible experience and channel it into something creative’. You’ve said that you wanted to do this story for a long time. When was the watershed moment?
The genesis of the project was really because I couldn’t sleep at night. There was a point where I was having a lot of success in my acting career. I amassed quite a bit of success on shows and films, and was able to have a comfortable life and some money in the bank. All those things I felt would fill the vacuum, but I’d never been more unhappy in my life and I couldn’t figure out why and I couldn’t sleep.
I started writing 10 pages a night and that enabled me to sleep. By the end of about two weeks I had a 500 page manuscript. Obviously, being in the industry for 20 years as an actor, it was very visual. I shared that with the producer I was working with at the time, Tom Fontana, who I respected a lot. He read it and really liked the authenticity of it. He suggested that I go into the Sundance Lab to workshop it. I took it there and I was a mentored by Catherine Hardwicke [Twilight], Susan Shilliday [Thirtysomething] and Braulio Mantovani [City Of God].
It was a really important part of the journey for me, because it really enabled me to take an objective perspective on some very subjective material. They were brutal. They tore it apart and gave me their comments. Then I went away and re-honed it into more or less the screenplay that you see.
What year are we talking about? The sleepless night years?
The sleepless night years were kind of in my thirties. These were things that were chasing me, and like you do, you fill your life with things that will give you an escape. A car, a house, all these kinds of things. But, they never did. And I found that once I had amassed all of that, there were some things I actually needed to go and take a look at that I’d been running away from. I felt I’d been in denial about a lot of the experiences that I’d been through.
For instance, I felt that I should feel very appreciative of my upbringing in a way. But in hindsight, I was in denial, because I had been traumatised and abused. It was a very racist experience. I didn’t want to be disloyal to my foster parents. I struggled with that, and that’s part of what I was struggling with over the years. And I just said, ‘Well, actually no, this is what in fact happened’. I addressed it with them as well. I spoke to them and I shared the screenplay with them, and I said, ‘I’ve been writing this, and this is actually what I felt’. It was a big moment. They said, ‘You can only tell the truth’.
And your birth parents as well. Are they still alive?
My mother is. Again, I shared the screenplay with her. It was just as tough for her to support the process because of her own experiences. We talked about them. I think one of the most wonderful things that came out of sharing this project with her and going through the process was, we’ve had many conversations about what my experience was in a foster home. Given away at six weeks where people were neglectful and racially abusive. Albeit for reasons that may have been justified because of their ignorance. The impact was nonetheless no less severe on me.
I shared that with them. I think they were going through quite a bit of denial and kind of shut it down and said, ‘Well, we did it for you for the best’. But when I did finally share the project with her in its full fruition, the conversation that she shared with me was that she wished that she had tried and fought hard enough not to give up her child. I think if that revelation is the only thing that came out of this film, then it was worth it.
Can you talk about you joining the skinheads?
You say joining, which is a very nebulous term. I want to explain it. I think Roots was on the television at that time, I was the Zulu, the nig-nog, the sambo. The BBC were espousing these terms as well on Love Thy Neighbour, Alf Garnet, Jim Davidson. That was the common fodder. When you’re getting that in the house and outside on the street and you just want to belong… I remember being around the skinheads and being abused and attacked for my skin colour. My father saying to me, ‘Look, this is how it’s going to be for you. There is nowhere to run in Tilbury. I’m a lorry driver. I’m not going to be around here. So, you’re going to have to deal with it’. He pushed me out of the house and said, ‘You’re going to have to go and fight them, stand your ground’. It was a terrifying moment because he didn’t come with me. It was a life changing moment, because it was a loss of innocence.
I got a reputation of being able to give a beating and take one. I became a form of amusement, like a brutalised pet. And so, they didn’t get rid of me. They were just charmed. Over the course of several years, of course I grew and was able to defend myself. I became a formidable tool when we’d find other gangs. And of course, being the black person, your reputation spread. Badger was my street name, and so people knew of me. By the time I was 15, 16, I was pretty much running.
Have you ever seen any of those guys again?
Two of the most prominent members died the moment I left. They had some brutal deaths. And the rest I haven’t seen. I just interviewed one of them – a rival skinhead in the documentary I’ve been putting together. One of the most moving moments at the end of the interview, he just said, ‘Listen, I just really want to say sorry for calling you a coon’. I said, ‘Oh, that’s okay’. Then he said, ‘No, I’m really sorry. I had no idea of what it meant to you, what it would do to you’. Again, that’s why I made a movie about this, because of things like that.
What would you like your Nigerian audience, who participated in farming, to take from the film?
It’s about love. Is what you’re going for worth what you’re giving up? Is the grass greener on the other side? Is it about education or is it about becoming happy? Those are questions. It’s a real, honest re-evaluation of what it is we want as a quality of life. These are done with the best intentions and as I’ve said, colonialism played a large part and influenced a lot of their decisions. But ultimately, whether you have PhDs and LLBs and LLMs, is that what makes you happy as a mother, daughter, as a father, son. You can go out there and be the most professional person, but where there’s no connection, where there’s no love, no emotional support, you have these fractured relationships. Most of these children experienced the farming phenomenon. You look at them in their forties and fifties, they are not even families, they’re not married. It’s one of the consequences of these fractured relationships and commitments.
I would like my own people to honestly evaluate their parental attitudes with their own children and decide really what’s important about life. Is it happiness or is it status?
Farming is in cinemas November 21, 2019