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From the NFL to the big screen, Nnamdi Asomugha seems to succeed at everything he puts his mind to. He’s receiving rave reviews for his performance in the new independent film Crown Heights, which won the Audience Award at Sundance. Today, Nnamdi talks about the important subject of his film, his love of football, and the foundation he founded to provide education to vulnerable populations both in Africa and here in the US.
BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
PHOEBE DE CROISSET You have been very busy at Sundance this year! Three films you worked on premiered; Waiting for Hassana, Patti Cake$, and Crown Heights, which just won the Audience Award – congratulations! Can you tell me about Crown Heights, which you produced and co-starred in?
NNAMDI ASOMUGHA Yes, it was actually my first time at Sundance – I’ve wanted to go for a long time – and to have three projects there, and win the Audience Award, was more than I could have expected. Crown Heights is based on the true story of Colin Warner, a teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. It’s about everything he had to go through, mentally and physically, to stay alive. And it’s also about his friend, Carl King who devoted his life to proving Colin’s innocence, and the community of people in Crown Heights who banded together to support both men.
PC What drew you to this particular film?
NA True stories have an effect on me – I am very interested in following the journeys of regular people, watching their perseverance, and everything they have to go through. So that immediately drew me to this story. And then I watched the documentary that our director, Matt Ruskin made of the film – it was a short 5-minute documentary but it blew me away. I told my manager I wanted to audition for the role of Colin, but I actually ended up auditioning for the role of Carl and got that part.
PC This is such an important story, and one that, unfortunately, is not all that uncommon. What do you hope your audience takes away from it?
NA You know, it’s interesting. When we won the Audience Award at Sundance, I was a little surprised because I didn’t know how the audience was going to react to such heavy material – I was thinking the Audience Award would go to the crowd-pleaser! So it’s difficult for me to say, because the reaction at Sundance changed my perspective on the film. For me, it was just about getting Colin and Carl’s story out. Colin didn’t have a voice for 21 years, and Carl may have had a voice, but no one was listening. So I just wanted to make sure their story was heard, because I felt that would give them some freedom.
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PC And you are a producer on this film as well! How did that come about?
NA The company had actually been shooting the film in New Orleans, and we convinced them to shoot it in NY. Once we did that, I became a producer on it. Producing and acting are two completely different things – but producing helped me a lot in my acting, because I really had to know the entire story. I went on walks with Carl and Colin, and others in the neighborhood who’d lived through it. As a producer, there was the business of hiring of all the staff and everyone working on the project, and scouting locations. The benefit of shooting in Crown Heights, NY is that we were able to film in the exact places where these events took place.
PC Carl is such a strong character – in the film and also in real life! He devoted his life to proving Colin’s innocence, despite having no formal legal education. Did you meet him?
NA I spent a couple of weeks with the real Carl. He is a friendly and “larger than life” type of guy. Given the film focuses on a very tough period of his life, the challenge was finding a way to bring some occasional levity to the character, otherwise it would not have been a true representation of who he is. He was, and still is, a process server, meaning his job is to track down people to serve them with warrants or subpoenas. For two weeks I went around with him in NY, going home to home serving people. We got a lot of doors slammed in our faces, but it gave me a better understanding of his resilience.
PC I imagine Colin’s release in 2001 was bittersweet. Can you talk about where he is now?
NA He moved away from NY. It’s difficult. That’s twenty-one years of his life gone, and there is no way to get that back. Re-entering society is always going to be a challenge, whether you were in prison for two years or twenty years. He has support from his family, but still, I know that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it, either the moments that led him to end up in prison, or his time in prison and in solitary confinement. That’s twenty-one years in prison for something he had nothing to do with. He didn’t even know the people involved. Can you imagine walking down the street tomorrow and you get arrested because someone says you killed someone you didn’t even know in an area of town you weren’t even in at the time?
I learned the importance of hard work, determination, and preparation, and I’ve tried to apply those principles to other areas of my life
PC Do you think he found some sense of closure once his story was told?
NA For both Colin and Carl, the first time that they saw the film, they had this look on their faces – it’s hard to describe. I think it was a very surreal experience for them.
PC I know it’s a big question, but what, in your opinion, are the best ways to effect criminal justice reform in this country?
NA I think there is a real lack of awareness. It’s just that a lot of people are ignorant to what is actually going on, the inefficiencies of the system and the inconsistencies. The more people learn about it, the more we can effect change.
PC Are there any specific projects besides your own that would be helpful for those looking to get involved?
NA There are so many stories – heartbreaking, but educational stories, and if you are someone who really wants to do something, you can help turn things around. Watch the documentary 13TH. It shows the history of it all, how race and class all play a part. Watch “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”, which was produced by Jay Z and Harvey Weinstein. Read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. The stories are there, it’s just a matter of whether we will take the time to tell them. We are all out here, telling the same story through different lenses.
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PC I would like to talk about the Asomugha Foundation, which you founded with your family in 2010.
NA My mom had been doing work in Nigeria with orphans and widows for years before that with her program called OWIN, and while she was doing that, I was working with high school students in the United States – their path to higher education was something that I was really passionate about. So in 2010, we combined forces and put them together under one foundation, with education as its core. My mom, my siblings and I all joined together.
PC Tell me about the Asomugha College Tour for Scholars. What is your goal for these students?
NA I started the ACTS Tour when I was playing for the Oakland Raiders, and this will be out eleventh tour. Each year, we select a group of high-achieving high school students from underserved communities in cities where I spent time during my career – so pockets of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Philadelphia. We receive hundreds of applications and we pore through them, read the essays, and cut it down to twenty-four students. Each year we go to a new destination; Atlanta, Chicago, New York, to name a few, where we visit the surrounding colleges and universities. I created ACTS as a way to introduce these students to the educational opportunities that exist outside of their communities, to excite them about their futures, and to reward them for all of their hard work.
I was taught that education can come in many forms, so it’s not just about the textbook and the classroom, but it’s about having experiences that are outside your realm of thought. So aside from just visiting schools, we make sure to give students a taste of the city’s local culture, and we meet with politicians and dignitaries, we go see a play or concert, and we do a service project. It’s a full week of activities beyond visiting colleges.
And it doesn’t stop there. It’s a full mentorship program. Once the students go on the tour, they become part of the foundation. We have college prep sessions, they learn about SATs and ACTs and financial aid, and then we get them involved in scholarship programs. We follow them all the way through college and they form lasting friendships as well.
PC How many students have gone through the program to date?
NA To date, over 200 students have gone on the ACTS Tour. But we reach over 500 students per year with our programming, which includes college fairs, town hall meetings, and other educational workshops.
PC You’ve gone from being an All-Pro football player to building a promising career in the film industry. Did that feel like a big transition to you?
NC Football prepared me for so much of life. I approached my career as a student, always curious and eager to learn. I worked hard to get better every day – whether that was in practice, studying plays, or watching film. I knew the more I dedicated myself to learning, the better player and teammate I would be. So, I learned the importance of hard work, determination, and preparation, and I’ve tried to apply those same principles to other areas of my life. As both an actor and producer I’ve worked hard to fully immerse myself in the process, taking classes, spending time on set and in the editing bay, learning from those who have been in the industry for years.
Crown Heights will be out in theaters this Fall
The stories are there, it’s just a matter of whether we will take the time to tell them.
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