The former tough guy on The Wire talks about playing a nurse on Nurse Jackie, having Wale as a cousin and why he'll never be a pro wrestler—but would love to play a certain superhero.
(Photo: Darnell Williams/BET)
Government employee. Wrestler. Philosophy student. These were all titles that Gbenga Akinnagbe held before he discovered his true passion: acting. Though he may be best remembered for playing the murderous Chris Partlow on HBO's hit series The Wire, the Nigerian-American actor has tackled roles on other acclaimed shows like Barbershop, The Good Wife and, most recently, Nurse Jackie. The talented actor took a moment to talk with The Mo'Nique Show digital content team about his past professions, his current role as Kelly Slater and why he would be perfect to play the Black Panther in the next comic book superhero blockbuster.
TMS: How was your visit to The Mo'Nique Show?
GA: It was cool. Mo'Nique always shows mad love and it was my second time on the show. So it was like going back to a familiar place. Her band is really cool. It's a very comfortable environment. I had mad fun.
TMS: I'm sure you've been asked this plenty of times, but as a fan of The Wire, I have to ask—how do you transition from playing a ruthless assassin in Baltimore to playing more subdued roles like a pastor?
GA: I think all these different characters, all these different people are parts of who we are as people. The darkness in Chris is in everbody—it just manifests differently. The seeking salvation in Pastor Isaiah or the wanting to help people that's in Nurse Kelly on the show Nurse Jackie, all of those elements are inside of me and inside of people. I guess as an actor I make the choice of who will be amplified that day.
TMS: What's it been like jumping into the nurse role on Nurse Jackie? It's almost a completely different world.
GA: It's true, but my mother was a nurse. I played a doctor on a pilot for Fox. I spent a great deal of time in the hospital doing research for that role. I ended up in a couple of by-passes in the surgery, watching the surgeons open this persons chest and work on their heart. It was amazing. Nurses are people too, it's like anybody that just happened to do this role. Like, I'm an actor, I'm like anybody—I just happen to do this for a living.
TMS: I read somewhere that when you were younger you got into a little bit of trouble. How was it coming up in Maryland and eventually pursuing higher education?
GA: I've been very blessed. College was never on my radar and I fell into wrestling, which brought me to college. When acting came around, which also wasn't on my radar, I was in place I could do it. It's been a number of lives, a number of paths. Some of it's been good, some it's been not so good. I know it sounds cliche, but life is truly a journey.
TMS: Would you ever consider a career in the WWE? Maybe as "Partlow the Damager"?
GA: [Laughs] I would consider it if it were wrestling—that's not wrestling; that's entertainment. As a real wrestler, when I graudated I considered joining one of the teams that sponsors future Olympians and international wrestlers. I love wrestling—I did my last tournament in '07. I still wrestle when I can, but no—I never considered the WWE or WWF [Laughs].
TMS: I know many Nigerian-Americans whose parents want them to pursue medicine, law or engineering. Being the son of Nigerian parents, how did they feel about you being an
GA: I totally understand. Nigerians are only really allowed to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. I remember when I went to college and i told my mom I wanted to study philosophy, she wailed. She had to beg me not to. She said "we've suffered enough." Since college I always had to do really practical thing—things that I enjoyed too, like working for the government.
When I told my mother I was going to do acting, I had already been offered a role. I had to work as an actor at the Shakespeare Theater, for which I had to resign from the Federal government. She saw that it was practical thing. I was able to pay my bills, so she was actually more open to it than I would have guessed. If it was anything else, like if I said I wanted to be a singer or I wanted to be a philosopher, she would have definitely had a fit.
TMS: Which part of the government did you work in? Were you a part of the Bush administration?
GA: [Laughs] I started working under the federal governement during the Clinton Amdinistration. i was there when they transiitioned into the Bush administration and then I left shortly after that. I worked for the Corporation for National Service which is the headquarters for Americorps, Vista, NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), and City Year. Those are volunteer programs that help kids in certain neighborhoods, rehabilitate schools and libraries. I worked in the Congressional Affairs department of that agency, getting reallocations from congress, monitoring hearings on the Hill on behalf of the agency—things like that.
TMS: I imagine this experience helped you when it came to working on The Wire.
GA: Absolutely. You get to see how the world really works. You see how backwards the system really is and how much we're invested in pretending that it's not. It's amazing.
TMS: I hear the rapper Wale is your cousin.
GA: [Laughs] Yeah he's my little cousin. We grew up in Maryland. It's funny cause people are like, "You guys aren't really cousins" or "You might be cousins, but you don't really know each other." We grew up together—I used to hold him as a baby! Now he's this big rapper. i'm very proud of him. It's crazy. What's cool is he doesnt just do go-go. He's scoring hip-hop over go-go beats so he's bringing it out to the rest of the world and it's also relatable. The guy is a really smart musician.
TMS: I'm sure his parents had some things to say when he decided to pursue rap music professionally.
GA: [Laughs] They did initially. He kept it on the low for a while, but it's only so long you could hold back a star like that.
TMS: There's a Twitter campaign for you to be cast to star in the movie about the Marvel superhero, Black Panther. Are you a comic book fan?
GA: I used to be moreso when I had more time. All I do now is work. Yeah, there's this campaign to get me to be the Black Panther [the Marvel comics superhero]. It's really humbling and I'm honored by it. It's wild that people are really into it. I love comic books, I love action, I'm a pretty active person. I was a wrestler for a great deal of my life. And to play the Black Panther? Get out of here! He comes from Africa. He comes from the most technologically advanced city in the world. It's easy for me to do the math.