Dayo Okeniyi has the kind of story that will make struggling actors want to tear up their head shots and just give up. The Indiana native — by way of Lagos, Nigeria — moved to Los Angeles in 2010 with dreams of making it in Hollywood. Before he had even signed a lease on an apartment, he landed an agent, who sent him on his first audition for a little film called The Hunger Games. Okeniyi got the part, and hasn't stopped working since.
After standing out in small parts in some pretty big films, Okeniyi finally landed a role he could sink his teeth into, as a Steve Jobs-esque tech genius in Terminator: Genisys. We caught up with Dayo while he was unpacking boxes in his new apartment in NYC, where he's currently starring opposite Jennifer Lopez in the cop drama Shades of Blue, to talk about the film and his amazing hot streak in Hollywood.
You weren't even born when the original Terminator came out in 1984. Did you grow up with these films, or did you catch up on the phenomenon after you landed the role in Genisys?
I grew up in Nigeria. I thought I was watching those movies when they came out. Honestly it wasn't until after I filmed this movie that I realized that the [original Terminator] came out before I was born. Growing up in Nigeria back in the '90s, we just got stuff late. I saw Terminator probably when I was 6 or 7 and I thought I was hip with the times, but I wasn't.
How psyched were you to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Oh, man, I loved his movies growing up. I was a huge fan. Arnold Schwarzenegger was my idol growing up. My family will attest to this. I watched Commando on VHS until the tape broke in the player. I wore that movie out. I wanted to be Commando. You have no idea, like painting, putting black shoe polish on my face, rolling around in the garden and s***. My mom's like, "Get off my roses! You're not in Vietnam."
You've had amazing success for someone who just started in this business. But early success can sometimes lead to a different kind of pressure — to keep raising the bar. Do you feel that?
Definitely. There's a little word we use in this industry a lot called momentum. You always want to keep momentum going and that's a little bit daunting because we're in the creative business.
There's a lot of criticism that Hollywood is falling way behind in terms of diversity. You seem to be doing fine, but you did get some hate mail for your role in Hunger Games. Do you feel racism affects your career, either from the inside or the outside?
For me I look at it this way, the masters are going to be the masters. People are going to be racist. People are going to feel what they want to feel. As long as we're not getting it from our own industry.
Hollywood's always bucked against the system. I love my industry. I love the Screen Actors Guild. I love the fact that they protect us and they try to create opportunities for us regardless of what it may look like on the outside of what audiences may think, they always want to be in a position to push the boundaries.
But surely you can see that it's not an even playing field...
Look, it's not perfect at all. I don't think actors of color or Asian actors or women for that matter are represented exactly as they are in society. I think that there is a conscious effort to try to do something about it in Hollywood. As long as my industry creates opportunities for me and doesn't care about what people or Twitter says, that's great. It makes me just love my industry even more. I still do believe that there's a long road to go to total equality on the screen.
Have you, personally, lost opportunities or been overlooked because you're Black?
I've had roles taken away. Of course, I'm not going to say which ones but, for example, I was up for a role that was contingent on who would play the lead. I was playing, like, an apprentice to the lead actor and my role was contingent on whether or not he was going to be Black or white. They were like, "If he's white, then yes, Dayo can have the role, but if he's Black, then no because we don't want to have a 'Black show.'" I'm like, what? I've been rejected from even the opportunity to audition for stuff because they're like, "Oh no, we're not looking ethnic at all or we wanted someone Black but Dayo was too Black. We want someone like a mixed race kind of Black." There's definitely stuff that you experience all the time but you just have to develop a thick skin.
OK, since the film is Terminator, if you could terminate one thing in Hollywood, what would it be?
To borrow a term from the film, if you could "reset" one thing from your past, what would it be?
I would go back and I would reset all my anxiety and fear of failure and just ... Every time in life where I decided not to do something out of fear I would go back and just do it.
When was the last time you were star struck?
I get star struck all the time. I'm working with Jennifer Lopez. I'm star struck every time I see her. Of course, meeting Arnold for the first time. He's huge, I was definitely star struck. Jessica Chastain, she probably doesn't even remember this but I ran into her at a premiere in LA and I walked up to her and my tongue was absolutely in a knot. It was crazy. I couldn't even speak to her, I just stuttered.
Terminator: Genisys hits theaters on July 1.
Watch Okeniyi's Shades of Blue co-star Jennifer Lopez in our exclusive interview below:
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(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)