Nnamdi Asomugha doesn’t just star as a saxophone player in “Sylvie’s Love,” writer-director Eugene Ashe’s new romantic drama with Tessa Thompson. He actually knows how to play the instrument, too. Asomugha took lessons for about a year before filming began.
“I really learned how to play it,” Asomugha says on the latest episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “I watched a lot of documentaries on jazz…I watched a lot of Coletrane on YouTube and Sonny Rollins. I just really had to figure out how to not just to play the instrument, but also how to carry myself.”
This wasn’t his first time learning how to play music. He took piano lessons when he was a child growing up in Los Angeles. But those dreams were dashed when he was 13 and his football coach shamed him in front of his teammates after he was late for practice because he was performing in a recital. “He brought the whole team over and said, ‘Nnamdi was late because he had a piano recital,’” Asomugha remembers. “Everybody started laughing. That was the last time I played the piano. I never took lessons again.”
However, playing football didn’t turn out to be a bad thing. Until he became an actor and producer, Asomugha played in the NFL for 11 years for the Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers before retiring in 2013. His Hollywood credits include executive producing Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation.” He also produced and starred in “Crown Heights,” which earned him a Spirit Award nomination for supporting male actor.
In “Sylvie’s Love,” Asomugha, plays a member of a jazz band in 1950s Harlem who falls in love with the married daughter (Thompson) of a local record shop owner. The two go their separate ways after a summer affair, but reunite years later. The Amazon film will be released on Dec. 23.
“The goal was to make a classic love story,” Asomugha explains. “We shot on backlots in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, so it very much has that feel [and] the music and shooting on film and all that. That was the goal.”
The chemistry between Asomugha and Thompson was instant. “There was no chemistry read,” he says. “There was a rehearsal period but it was very, very easy. We dove into the characters and it wasn’t a struggle to find chemistry at all. A lot of times in romantic films, you’ll hear it’s all about the casting. If you get the casting wrong then the film falls away. I already knew Tessa. We had done different events together and different things like that. We were friends and it was something that we both knew we could pull off.”
Asomugha added that he hopes to continue producing projects that aren’t only steeped in tropes of violence and trauma. “I think if you’re able to carve out that space, take those risks and show people — especially if it’s a project with a majority Black cast or Black directors — that these movies and projects do work. There is an audience for it. I think that’s how you’re able to stand out.”
Asomugha continues working with The Asomugha Foundation, a 10-year-old non-profit for underserved youth, and was on the campaign trail, along with his wife Kerry Washington, in several states for Joe Biden. He says he’s continually asked if he has any political ambitions. “I have no interest,” Asomugha insists. “It always comes up, that exact question, doesn’t matter where I am. But that’s not not in my cards.”
Listen to the full interview with Asomugha above. Find out what he says about Eva Longoria’s musical number in “Sylvie’s Love,” his Broadway debut and more. You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeart Radio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.