As executive producer and lead actor of Jono Oliver's debut feature Home, Gbenga Akinnagbe proves that determination drives success. Commonly known for his role as Chris Partlow on HBO's award-winning series The Wire, Akinnagbe transforms himself into Jack Hall in this new movie about independence, love, forgiveness and triumph. In Home, Jack is recovering from a mental illness that triggered arrests and hospitalizations and landed him in a group home. He has a steady job and he's free to roam the city as much as he wants, but his release from the group home is dependent on "the plan" to find and maintain his own apartment. While what seems like derailing hurdles in his search of a stable home might spoil his progression and spirits, his genuine efforts to help uplift others amidst his own trouble becomes a reflective lesson in the film—quite like, Akinnagbe's real life.
Despite growing up in the D.C. metropolitan area, Akinnagbe wasn't exposed to a lot of just or political matters. He lived in shelters and group homes but says "maybe that's part of what inspired me. When I started to learn and see more of the world is when I realized that things could be better and that I could effect change." His clothing line, Liberated People, highlighting the liberation dates of nations around the world and supporting local non-profit organizations like Baltimore youth wrestling program Beat the Streets that work towards "improving the quality of life of their participants," reflects that idea. Even with his busy schedule with new projects including Newly Weeds, Graceland and Home, Akinnagbe still manages to support Liberated People, both literally and figuratively speaking. Just like Jack.
Below, Gbenga Akinnagbe discusses social justice, his behavioral struggle as a youth, and why the role of Jack in Home was important for him "as a man."
ALIYA FAUST: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Home.
GBENGA AKINNAGBE: I read the script and the script was amazing. It was probably the best script I've ever read at that point. It was just a beautiful story about this man trying to build his life again. I auditioned for it. I didn't hear anything for a while, then I auditioned again and they called back for me so I came on to do it as an actor. Through production, I came on as an exec producer too.
It's obvious to us who watch what your role is in the movie, but for you playing it, how would you describe your role?
Jack is a man just trying to rebuild his life. He suffered from many instances of being hospitalized because of his illness and it affected his life and the people around him. He's probably let them down several times, so he's got a lot to prove. Watching him deal with the simple things in life, I think that's what kind of throws us to be engrossed in the film, because it's not a sensationalized picture of mental illness. It's a very real portrayal of it. Jono Oliver wrote a great script. Both his parents were social workers, so he had a lot to draw from.
I'd say family, independence and a sense of home are three things I got from the movie, because Jack was so instrumental in a lot of lives throughout it despite his troubles and trying to figure his own life. And I'm sure a lot of people can relate to that, but how about you? Are there any similarities between you and Jack?
Definitely. Growing up, I was in and out of trouble in group homes and other institutions and when I was 14 I was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for a number of months for behavioral problems. It was initially supposed to be a two-week evaluation, but I got in a fight in the ward. I got into trouble, as teenager do, and they ended up committing me and drugging me with all types of drugs. Being in an institution and heavily medicated, I related to that experience.
Wow, I didn't know that. So having sort of been in that situation made you want to take on the role more?
[Laughs] Part of it made me not want to take on the role. But, what made me want to take on the role more so than that was I empathize a great deal for people trying to do the best they can in life, given their limitations. I feel that. So whether it's someone struggling with mental illness, someone struggling with poverty, or struggling with their own limitations in their social behaviors, for some reason, I'm drawn to characters like that. That made me want to take it on. And I can't pretend that at somewhere, some level, having gone through similar experiences as Jack, the project didn't speak to me on a deeper level as well.
Speaking of the role in itself, how was it transitioning from your roles in projects like The Wire, Lottery Ticket, Nurse Jackie, Graceland—stuff like that where your sort of always in control—to your role in Home where your control is situational? There's a difference in the way you carried yourself.
I think it was good for me as an actor to play someone who was as vulnerable [as Jack]. I think it was good for me as a man, a black man, to play someone so vulnerable. You know, people are uncomfortable seeing men that way. I don't get that many opportunities to play roles like that so I think it was good to exercise those muscles and just open up and be exposed that way. It's also part of who I am as a person. Again, I don't always necessarily get to be vulnerable in my everyday life, even though that's part of who I am, so Jack was a good outlet for me.
Did it take any extra steps for you to get into that role? Grooming patterns, studying behavior?
My posture changed. And the way I moved physically in the world. I'm a very physical person. I'm very tactile. I wrestled in college so a lot of my communication with the world comes through physicality—what I take in and what I put out there. So for me, what Jack ended up becoming, started in how he walked differently than I did. There's his shame. You can see elements of the medication, you can see elements of him trying to walk in the face of the things he may have done in the past when he was having episodes and trying to provide for himself. I think you can see all that in the way he walks. And the way he dresses. He's trying to be professional. Whatever that means. With his tie, his briefcase, all those things to fight back what he had become.
What would you say is your biggest motivation in your career as a whole as it embodies parts of acting, producing, freelancing and working with non-profits organizations?
Social justice. It's something that's a part of me in every way. I was told once that Sagittarius' always point out what is wrong. I get indignant [laughs]. That's part of who I am and I hope people will listen when I'm ranting about the wrongs of the world. I honestly feel that we as people can fix these things. I think it was John F. Kennedy who said that 'our problems are manmade and they can be solved by man as well,' but we have this idea that things are so much bigger and the problems are so much bigger and the government is so much bigger. The truth is, these are all human beings behind all of this so it's attainable. See, I'm doing it now, we can change things!
'Home' is now playing in theaters in New York City/Los Angeles, and will be available on DVD/VOD in March 2014. To learn more about Gbenga Akinnagbe and his Liberated People clothing line, visit WeAreLiberated.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @GbengaAkinnagbe.