Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (LLM, 1992) is a British actor, writer, director and musician. He is best known for his roles in the series Oz, Lost and Game of Thrones, and for films The Mummy Returns, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Suicide Squad, Thor and The Bourne Identity. In 2019, he made his directorial debut with the autobiographical film Farming. Adewale talks to InTouch about his path to stardom.
In 1991, Adewale began his master’s in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at King’s. Getting a place on such a competitive course is a huge achievement in itself and few would have guessed what Adewale had needed to overcome to get there. Born in Islington to Nigerian parents, who came to London in the 1960s to study, Adewale’s parents found that they were unable to support their son financially or emotionally while they were studying. So, following a common practice among Nigerian students (which was a traditional cultural habit in Nigeria), they placed an advert in a local paper in order to find a family that would be willing to care for him. The advert was answered by a couple in Tilbury, Essex, who became Adewale’s unofficial, undocumented foster parents, and he was ‘farmed’ out to them for the duration of his childhood and teenage years, where he was later joined by his four sisters.
The truth is, as the film depicts, I had quite a rough childhood. Unwanted and wrestling with an identity crisis, I had skirmishes with the law as an adolescent in street gangs, in a desperate attempt to be accepted and find belonging.
It was this experience that drove Adewale to success as a student, then as an actor and eventually as a filmmaker. 2019 saw the release of Farming, the autobiographical film of Adewale’s early years.
‘The truth is, as the film Farming depicts, I had quite a rough childhood. Unwanted and wrestling with an identity crisis, I had skirmishes with the law as an adolescent in street gangs, in a desperate attempt to be accepted and find belonging. At that time, they’d never really seen black people in the area I was raised. Being farmed, or fostered, out to a white couple in an area that was, at that time, extremely hostile to black people compounded my experiences. There was racism in the home – casual and inadvertent from my foster parents – but also on the streets. I was constantly subjected to racist and physical abuse. I had to grow up able to defend myself and my sisters just to get to school.’
A really important part of the film is that it depicts how I’ve used education to empower myself as an individual and how it became a tool to improve my self-worth. My approach to academia formed the template for how I approach acting.
The film depicts Adewale’s immersion in – and struggle to escape from – this existence. In time, he was able to take refuge in education and this led him to take his place at King’s, which arguably marked the start of the second phase of his life – one where he went from being a student, to working in a designer clothes shop, to becoming a successful model and eventually to being an accomplished Hollywood actor.
‘A really important part of the film is that it depicts how I’ve used education to empower myself as an individual and how it became a tool to improve my self-worth. My approach to academia formed the template for how I approach acting. For my master’s, I was reading three or four books a week, retaining and analysing that information. The need to glean and understand things very quickly was imperative and that’s what the craft of acting is all about too: the analytical skills needed to break down a character or screenplay and adopt a persona, and quite simply the ability to effectively memorise lines.’
Making Farming was a career-long goal for Adewale
‘From start to finish, I’ve been working on it for around 15 years. The desire to create my own film is intrinsically related to my academic career because I think I’d always been encouraged to become the master of my own destiny.’
The film premiered at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in 2018. It received critical acclaim and went on to win Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival as well as the Jury Award at the Braunschweig International Film Festival in Germany. Adewale hopes that the experience of writing and directing Farming will provide a springboard for the next stage of his career.
‘It’s quite exciting because Farming was just one of many ideas that I had been brewing – it just had to be the first. I’ll always continue to act because I love it, but I think that now that I’ve been given a platform to tell stories as well, I’ll be doing both. I’m also proud that, while making the film was personally cathartic, it also seems to have formed a collective therapy for a forgotten generation of black children that were farmed. And I think that encouraged some personal healing for myself and my own family too.’
By sharing his story on screen, Adewale has undoubtedly made an impact on those who shared a similar upbringing. He has also been able to focus the spotlight on an issue many were entirely unaware of. Reflecting on how his time at King’s influenced his journey, Adwale told us, ‘Education was the key for me to transform my life. It has provided the foundation for my success in every endeavour and opened a window to boundless opportunities that I would never have believed possible. My experience at King’s is one that I shall treasure.’