Nnamdi Asomugha (Yes, The Football Player) On Turning Himself Into An Awards Contender In ‘Sylvie’s Love’

Nnamdi Asomugha definitely isn’t the first former pro athlete to become an actor, but he just might be the best at it. We’ve seen athletes become stars, sometimes even stars who act (occasionally even passably), but how many athletes have truly become actors?

Now that we’re on the subject, the “becoming” part is also debatable. More often they simply leverage one form of stardom for another. Showbiz is littered with sports superstars capitalizing on their fame by starring in movies — your Shaqs, your Jim Browns, your Lebrons James — a phenomenon that probably predates movies themselves, dating back to the days when sports page heroes like Babe Ruth played themselves on Broadway.

Nnamdi Asomugha isn’t a superstar cashing in and he isn’t playing himself. He’s an ex-athlete who has reinvented himself as an actor, taking the kinds of dramatic roles young up-and-comers take when they’re trying to build buzz on the festival circuit, not the easy cameos in high-profile action movies.

In fact, we might not be hearing about his latest, Sylvie’s Love (perhaps my favorite movie of the year), in which Asomugha stars as a jazz musician opposite Tessa Thompson, if not for him. Coming off Asomugha’s surprising turn in 2017’s critically acclaimed Crown Heights (for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best-supporting actor) at Sundance, he was passed along Eugene Ashe’s script for Sylvie’s Love, a sweeping romance set in 50s and 60s Harlem. When Asomugha realized the film probably wouldn’t get made on its own, he called on his connections and put on his producer’s hat and helped make it happen himself.

“The same reason why studios and financiers and other producers were saying no to it was the exact reason that I was in love with it,” Asomugha says. “The fact that I hadn’t seen it before.”

How did he get some of those connections? Well, it’s probably easier when you’re married to the actress Kerry Washington. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate someone who seems genuinely motivated by the work and not the fame or money that comes from it. Keep in mind, this isn’t some guy with a brief college or pro career either, a la The Rock or insert pro wrestler here. Asomugha was a 10-year pro and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Raiders, Eagles, and 49ers. He’d never even considered acting until he retired in 2013. And now he’s holding his own alongside Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson? How crazy is that?

With Sylvie’s Love finally hitting Amazon Prime on December 23rd so everyone can see what I’ve been shouting about, I spoke to Asomugha this week, to see if he could explain what seems like his charmed existence.

Was acting something that you came to later after football or was it something that you’d always done that you had to put on hold for a while?

No, I’ve never done acting. It’s very much brand new. The weird thing is, I’ve now been in it for a handful of years, but because I’ve done so few projects it still feels very brand new. But no, this wasn’t a dream of mine as a kid. I mean, I was playing football and my thought was, all right, when I’m finished playing, I’m going to become one of the NFL correspondents, where I sit behind a desk and talk about the games or whatever. That was the plan. I think it was the road that a lot of my colleagues were going down. And, I don’t know, there was some moment midway through my career, where I was doing a commercial, and the director of the commercial just started talking to me about acting, and about how great I was in the commercial. And I was like, “It was just a commercial. It’s no big deal.” He’s like, “No, I see guys all the time. I was just with…” And he’ll name a quarterback or something, “and they don’t have that skill level that you’ve displayed today. I think you should really look into it when you’re done.”

So I put my heart into that. I mean, the other piece of advice that I got from some big-time names, they would talk to me and they would say, “Look, whatever you go into next, you have to really love it. Love it like you love football.” And I always loved movies. I always loved television and watching performances. So I just coupled those two things together, and said this is the direction that I needed to go.

Who were some of those people?

Oh, man! I mean, I remember specific conversations with… I’ll just name names — Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson, Mike Haynes, Charles Woodson, Willie Brown. I remember specific conversations with them, all separately, where they were saying the exact same thing. When you’re hearing it from guys like that, you listen.

So when you were growing up playing football, you never saw people doing theater, and there wasn’t part of you that wanted to do that?

(Laughs) I hated the theater. I really did. Not with a passion, but it was just boring to me. I mean, plays at school, not even that I was in any, but just watching them. I’ll say now as an adult, I hadn’t matured enough to understand theater and musicals and all that, but it just was not interesting to me at all. My parents would make us stand up in front of church — every weekend we would have to recite something from the Bible to the church, or we’d have to put on some performance of the nativity scene or something, and I hated doing that stuff. I really did. Then one day my sister really wanted to see this musical called Wicked. I was in the middle of my career, and I had been that guy that, if I was dating someone and they said, “Hey, I want to go see a show.” I would be like, “Oh, I don’t watch the theater. I’m not going,” and then I’d make fun of it.

But my sister, we were in LA and she really wanted to go see Wicked. And finally I was like, “Oh, all right, I’ll go with you.” And I was blown away by the musical. I mean, she explained to me that this is the Wizard of Oz, but it pre-dates the Wizard of Oz, that we’re following [The Witch] — I was just fascinated by this. I was like, “Why would somebody even think of that?” I got into it. And so, I don’t know, I slowly started to appreciate it all as I got older, this world that I really tried to ridicule or to move away from.

Did you seek out people to study acting with? What was the process of learning to do it like?

I did. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go to these conservatory schools, like a Juilliard or a Yale or NYU or anything like that. But I knew that I could find out who those teachers were, and I could figure out a way to study with them on my own. And I could also find online, which you can find, the course study. So like with the catalog, what they go through throughout the year. So I downloaded all of that when I finished playing. I got in touch with individual teachers at these schools for their individual stuff. I had no clue what any of this stuff was, but they took the time to teach me. Obviously, it wasn’t as rigorous for me as those students, because they were in an actual class. It’s completely different, but I just needed the foundation. I needed to understand what I was getting into. And then I sought out acting coaches in LA and New York and just really wanted to figure it out and see if there was a lane for me in there. So that was the initial process.

So then in terms of this movie, you came on pretty early in the process. Right? You came on as a producer?

I did. So I came on as an actor, it was right after Sundance. I had another film that was there called Crown Heights. The woman that was producing this film, her name is Gabrielle Glore. She saw Crown Heights. And it was maybe two days later, I was flying home, and my management sent me this script. And they said, “Hey, we got this script. Someone saw you at Sundance and thinks that you’d be right for it.”

So I read [the script for Sylvie’s Love] on the plane and fell in love with it early. And that was the acting part of it. I would talk to them for the next several months as just an actor, but then it became clear that nobody wanted to make the film. The feedback that kept coming was, “We don’t know that there’s an audience for this type of film. We haven’t seen it. It’s a little risky.”

Now, obviously, they’ve seen a love story. But they hadn’t seen a love story surrounding black people that didn’t have anything to do with the societal issues that you might have in a story about black people. It was just about love. So we got a lot of nos. And I had produced films up until this point, successful ones, and I just talked to my producing partner, Jonathan Baker, and we said, “We have to make this film, or else it’s probably not going to get made.” It was that great a script. So we went in and I became a producer on it.

What was it that you liked so much about it?

I think the biggest thing was the fact that I hadn’t seen it before. The same reason why studios and financiers and other producers were saying no to it was the exact reason that I was in love with it. There was no true metric for it. We don’t see it very often. And it takes place in the fifties and sixties. We can watch The Notebook a 1000 times, but we’re never going to see it with black people in it. We’re going to be looking at Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. And so now we have an opportunity to make this type of film we can see ourselves in. And it just felt like, how do you not tell this story when you have the opportunity? That’s not to say that this is The Notebook or better or worse, it’s just to say, it’s a period film that centers around love. And so it was rare and we wanted to be a part of it.

Well, I can say it. It’s better than The Notebook.

There you go.

On Crown Heights, you played a Trinidadian, and you had a dialect coach. This one obviously is a little different, it’s just set in a different time period. Did you do anything to learn that period dialect at all?

Oh, to learn the dialects, without a doubt. And that was more about just watching documentaries. The main focus was the music. I read the script, it was clear that everything about this guy’s life was music. I started watching movies from that time. Watched a lot of Paul Newman. Remember I watched Paris Blues with Sydney Poitier and Paul Newman as the two male leads, and Joanne Woodward was opposite Paul Newman. And they were in the bedroom and she saw him playing. They were at home, she sees he wrote music, and it’s on the piano or something. She says, “You write music too?” And he says, “I live music. Morning, noon, and night. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”

And I wrote that on my script because that was Robert, that was my character. I knew I had to start with the music. So I watched jazz documentaries, I learned how to play the saxophone. I made sure that the style, the way that I sat, the way that I walked, the way that I spoke, the way I played the instrument, that all of those things were authentic to what I was seeing in those documentaries. I wanted it to be true, even though a lot of us won’t be able to tell.

So when you retired from football, what was that decision like? Did it take a long time or was it just like it came to you right away?

When you know, you know. It’s one of those things where, you know life doesn’t end there. Then you’re able to make decisions a little more clearly. Of course, that didn’t make it any easier. So the question is, did I know? Yeah, I felt that it was a good time, but it didn’t make it any easier. It’s a game that ’till this day I miss, and I miss playing. It’s not that I want to go play again, but I miss so many aspects of it; being around the team, being around the coaching, that calm before the storm. Getting ready to go out to the game, running out onto the field, and the crowd is going crazy. And the thrill of victory. All that type of stuff. The agony of defeat. I mean, it’s all part of it. It’s all a part of the growing process and I miss it. So it wasn’t difficult, I knew that I wanted to do it. I knew that it was time. But like I said, it didn’t make it any easier to do. It’s not my first love, but it was the first love that truly worked out for me. And it’s like, you want that sort of thing. You want that to last forever. You want it to last for a 100 years. And sadly, when it comes to an end. You have to figure out what you’re going to do next. And you have to go into the scary parts of what’s out there. And that’s what I had to do.

Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I can tell you that after I saw the movie, I saw your name in the credits and I knew your name from football. And I had to Google it to make sure you were the same person. Because you were so good at the movie that I was like, “There’s no way that’s the same guy. That can’t be true.”

Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you. And thank you for your too support.

‘Sylvie’s Love’ hits Amazon Prime on December 23rd. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.