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Nnamdi Asomugha on ‘Crown Heights’: ‘I Could Be a Voice for Something I Had Been Through’

When Nnamdi Asomugha was growing up in Los Angeles, he briefly hoped for a career playing for the Lakers. “But that dream ended when I was like 10 and I realized I couldn’t compete with the other guys at that level,” Asomugha tells Variety. Instead, the self-professed “curious” guy listened to those around him when they saw his talents and wound up playing pro football for 11 years, mostly as cornerback for the Oakland Raiders. He began moonlighting as an actor in 2008, and has become a producer since the end of his football career, in 2013.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to move from the sports side of entertainment to film and television?

I was maybe halfway through my career, and I was shooting a Nike commercial, and the director came to the trailer and said, “Hey man, you’re really gifted at this. I get a lot of athletes that come in, but you were prepared, and you made everything seem very natural. I really think you should look into this.” And I thought that was great, but I was in the middle of my football career, so there was no way I was even thinking about that. But then maybe four or five months later, I got a phone call from my football agent, and he says, “Hey, the director of that commercial you shot, he wants to put you in a TV show.” And I said, “Oh, OK, what’s the show?” And he said “Friday Night Lights.” The director was Peter Berg. I had no clue what that was at the time. I had to do some research to learn how big of a deal it was. And that was one of the first moments I thought acting could really be in my future when I was done playing. I think any time you get a boost of confidence, it fuels you to do more, and that kept happening for me.

Did you ever consider making a cameo as yourself on a show first, before diving into deeper acting roles?

It’s weird because I kept getting asked to play myself on certain things really early in my career, and I hated the idea of playing myself. When I was a kid, my aunt snuck us into see “Boyz n the Hood.” I was maybe 8 or 9, and I’ll never forget when I left the theater, I kept asking her, “Are you sure that this was fake? Are you sure that this was a movie?” It was so real to me because that was L.A. to me, and I just couldn’t believe that people could transform into fictional characters and pull off a believable performance like that. And so, when I started thinking about acting 20 years later, I never wanted to play myself in anything. I wanted to be doing something other than football. I had to be able to disappear into the life of another person; that was always the goal. Because I remember that that was what blew me away about acting when I was younger.

You’re both an actor in and producer of “Crown Heights.” How did you initially get involved?

Our director [Matt Ruskin] had made a documentary that he was passing around just to show people what he was doing. At the time, I had retired a year or so prior, and I had reached out to 150 directors — people you know and a lot of people you don’t know. I just reached out [and said], “I’m itching for something. Is there anything that we could work on? I’m acting now.” A lot of the people were like, “No, you’re a football player, and we’ve seen this try to work before and it hasn’t.” And then there were a lot I didn’t get feedback from. So it was really at a point when I said I was going to stop reaching out to directors and just continue to train and this will happen whenever it happens. Approximately three weeks later, Matt’s documentary showed up, and I fell in love with it and thought it might be something. I asked for the script. About a month and a half later he let me audition. Initially I wanted to audition for the role of Colin and not the friend. I related to Colin in the sense that he was arrested for something he didn’t do. When I was a kid between the ages of 13 and 16, I was arrested twice, both times for things that I didn’t do, and spent a day in a holding cell both times. That always stayed with me, and when I saw his story, I thought I had a bit of experience in this area. But Matt was not looking for me to play Colin, and finally he let me audition for Carl, and it worked out.

What about Carl did you feel connected enough to to say yes to the role?

The whole project blew me away. I just thought it was a great story, and I want to be a part of great stories. And then I had to do research on Carl. There’s a moment [in the film] where Colin is getting frustrated when they’re in the visiting room, and he says, “I want you to stop. Why are you wasting time on me?” And Carl just says, “It’s not just about you. It’s bigger than that. It’s about all of us.” And the acting coach I was working with, her name was Eden Bernardy and she passed away a few months after we were shooting, she said, “In all of the moments where you’re speaking for Colin and fighting for Colin make sure you’re speaking for your 16-year-old self and fighting for your 16-year-old self.” That brought it back into focus and really connected me to Carl. I could be a voice for something that I had been through as a kid.

How important is it to you to work on such socially conscious projects?

I never come into them saying, “Oh here’s my chance to speak out on this issue.” I financed a project called “Patti Cake$,” I was a part of a film called “Hello My Name Is Doris,” and these are just fun films. So it’s really just being a part of projects that I like. That’s the No. 1 thing for me: Do I like it? Is it something I can get passionate about, and is it a role that I like?

Is there anything you’ve taken from your football career to help you grow as an actor?

My position in football was cornerback, and what your job is as a cornerback is to read the person that’s in front of you — read their body language and anticipate what’s going to happen next. It’s completely throwing your preparation away and basically just focusing all of your attention on the person in front of you. And I didn’t realize how similar that was going to be to acting, [but] it’s the exact same thing: When you’re in a scene, the person that’s in front of you has your utmost attention, and you’re reading their body language, and you’re just going off your instincts. I think I’ve just been blessed that that was my position in football. It’s really helped me make the transition as an actor.

What are your goals for future projects?

I just want each role to be different from the last one, and I want to tell someone’s story in the most authentic and true way. I want the same experience that happened to me when I went to see “Boyz n the Hood” to happen to someone else when they go to see the work that I’m doing in a film.

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