Tony Okungbowa is known as the resident DJ of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, but the Nigerian native is also an up-and-coming actor with a story to tell. Moving to New York City in 1992, Tony was a struggling artist looking for his big break in acting. But the universe works in mysterious ways and music became his claim to fame after landing the gig that makes Ellen DeGeneres get her dance on every day. However, today, Tony’s dream of acting is revisited with the opening of Restless City in New York City, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Tony serves as executive producer and has a powerful supporting role, "Acting is my first love," says one of the world's most popular DJs.
After creating a buzz at Sundance, Restless City was picked up by Ava DuVernary’s AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement). Directed by Andrew Dosunmu, Restless City is the untold story of Africans who migrant to the Big Apple for a better life, but are soon faced with the realities of the concrete jungle.
In Tony Okungbowa’s first interview with BET.com, he talks Restless City, distribution of indie films and why he models his career after Ellen DeGeneres.
How are you balancing being a DJ for Ellen and pursuing acting?
Everything I do they support me. As it was evident when the film got into Sundance, they sent a camera crew with me. They'll give me a couple days off here and there to go shoot stuff that I need to shoot. Also, we have a hiatus in the summer, which is always good to have three months off to work on projects. It gets a little tricky when it comes to episodic TV, but they are really big supporters of everything I do.
What attracted you to Restless City?
It's the story of the invisible person. People we see every day, be it the guy selling fruit on the corner or the guy you buy a bootleg bag from on Canal Street — this is the story of those people, they just happen to be African, but it's a story that transcends race.
You play a villain in Restless City. Being that you're known as the handsome, fun-loving DJ from Ellen's show, were you specifically looking for more of an edgy role?
Flattery will get you everywhere! [Laughs] No, just the role seemed appropriate. The gentlemen who wrote it, Eugene Gussenhoven, he wanted someone who could do edgy — villains are the most fun to play, as well. You can do things, which I actually did in the movie, that you normally wouldn't even consider doing. It was a fun journey to have. But I didn't set out to do it, it just happened.
You are from Nigeria and London. Was there any piece of your story that you saw in Restless City?
Absolutely! I could relate to some of the stories, not necessarily some of the steps that were taken but the fact that you want to come to get a better life, you don't have papers — I have friends who don't have papers and they have to do all kinds of jobs to get by. At the same time, maintaining that dream of one day their visions will come true. Absolutely, I can relate.
On Ellen, you are often photoshopped in a Speedo. But in this movie, we actually see you in a Speedo! Were you hesitant to do that?
[Laughs] Oh my Gosh! I'll tell you the story, I came to the set and the director said, "You know what? I see this character as a bit more Fela-ish [Fela Kuti]." I said to him, "What exactly are you saying?" He replied, "For the character, for the art — would you do this?" I said, "Okay!" [Laughs] The director is a visionary, I trusted him, went with it and I hope it worked! He could’ve given me a couple months to get in shape — that would've been nice! [Laughs] It went with the character so I was OK to do that.
Tell me the importance of the AFFRM releasing this film?
In my heart of hearts, I really do believe this is the new model for the distribution of indie films. They are doing some incredible things. I don't know if you've followed the press for Restless City so far, but we are a tiny film and we've gotten such incredible exposure. We were in 13,000 taxis, we're on Billboards — it really is amazing. I really do believe this in the new model that's going to develop for independent film releasing. What this means to Restless City is someone who understands and has an investment in your film is distributing it. We've all heard the stories of films that are great, someone comes and snatches them up and we never hear from them again. We never see the right publicity, we never see the right distribution and the film disappears. With this, everything that we want to see in a distributor is what AFFRM and Ava [DuVernay] have brought to the table.
I can only imagine how great it must be to work for Ellen DeGeneres. What has been one of the funniest moments being the DJ for The Ellen DeGeneres Show?
This week — I'm a DJ, I know beats, and I don't know song lyrics. She has now made a game called “Karaoke Tony.” I never thought I would laugh at myself so hard! We were promoting the film and talking about Restless City, which is incredible for such a film like ours. Immediately after that she starts clowning me without letting me know she is going to do that — in a nice, playful way. So the fact that I can laugh at myself is very funny and these things are never scripted, they just happen. So you're always on your toes and she gets me good. Trust me, that is enough to wake up and come to work for. And just knowing that laughter is a medicine that we give and receive as well. But then there are miraculous times when she sent me to President Barack Obama's inauguration.
What's been the best advice Ellen has given you on the entertainment industry?
Years ago, I went into her dressing room and she showed me a lot of the feedback in terms of what people were saying, “My dad is sick but every time your show comes on he gets up and he moves,” or “My mom is depressed and she hears Tony's contagious laugh and she feels better.” She said, "Never think that what you're doing is not affecting people." When she told me that I viewed my job in a different way. Also, just by watching her and the amount of things she tackles, she is branding herself and becoming this incredible person in the industry — I copy her. I definitely do and I’m proud to say I do. I have a great role model, watching her be a CoverGirl, activist, vegan, talk show host and producer. So that for me is the best advice she gives me on a daily basis.
Specifically for the BET.com audience, why is Restless City important to see?
For the BET audience, specifically, it's about seeing yourself on screen. Seeing other people like you in the Diaspora on screen and what their stories are. The journey certain people that look like you and go through just to be here. It's multi-layered, you see the struggles, the beauty — how people go to great lengths to get some of those advantages.
You're a DJ so I expect a good answer from you on this last question: When you get to heaven, what is the DJ playing?
When I get heaven, the DJ will be playing "As" by Stevie Wonder.
Restless City opens in select cities today.
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(Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images)