Lost: Season 2 interview - Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr Eko)
Compiled by Jack Foley
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Mr Eko) talks about being one of the newcomers on the second seaosn of Lost…
Q. Do you have an explanation why the series is so popular all over the world?
A. I think it’s that primal basic human instinct – you chuck a bunch of human beings on an island and give them nothing, you know, it’s Lord of the Flies… It’s like, what are they going to do? Are they going to kill each other? Are they going to rape the women? Who’s going to become the leader, who’s going to, you know, get all the food? It’s basically survival. Then, if you throw in some sun tans and some pretty clothes and some good music and a few mystical twists …
Q. How do you think you would react if you got alone on an island?
A. Who knows, man? I’d probably go insane.
Q. Your character is one of the most spiritual characters on the show. As you’re a Buddhist can you relate to his spirituality or his faith?
A. Well, for me to play him, I put on my Buddhist beliefs and I just translate them into the Catholic writings that they put in the script, but I chant for two hours before I even go on the set. I’m reading the Buddhist scriptures before I even open my mouth and play Mr Eko. For me, I’m playing myself as a Buddha but dressed in the cloak of a Catholic priest. I took the role because I thought it would be interesting to explore another faith and compare it to my own and perhaps strengthen my own. Also, Hawaii has a large, large Buddhist community which I’m quite an active part of, so it’s very much like home to me.
Q. Do you enjoy playing such an emotionally complex character?
A. Yeah, I do. I like grappling and getting to the nitty gritty of the emotions and the extremities. I find it interesting to play characters who are almost unredeemable, do you know what I mean? It interests me as to why people would act in a certain way and I think what’s interesting about these characters is, okay, they’re flawed, they kill people without a blink, but then they can be the most loving and compassionate people. To me, it’s the range of those emotions. If you’re just bad it’s boring. But to explore what makes them tick, why they act like that, the full process, to me that’s life because I think we all have those elements in us. You could be with your wife of 25 years and I’m sure there’s moments where you want to take her head off but you don’t. So what pushes somebody over the edge to do that? And when they’ve gone over the edge, how do they cope with it? How do they still try and maintain some state of humanity? You know what I mean?
Q. I read somewhere that before you started with acting you worked in London cleaning the streets. How long ago was it you did that?
A. I was a student and it was while I was studying. I was doing a masters degree in criminal law and when you’re a student you try to make yourself eat and so I used to do as a summer job. I worked as a dustman and I used to get up at about 1am and I used to finish about 5am so I could get back for my classes in the afternoon. It was a good schedule for my studying. So that was about 15-20 years ago.
Q. Whereabouts was your round?
A. Barnet, all around there.
Q. It’s been quite a journey for you then? I mean, today you sit here and you’re a part of one of the biggest TV shows and you’ve been working out on the streets. Do you ever think about that today?
A. Always, yeah. I think I have to because that’s the only thing that keeps me grounded. It’s not been a silver spoon or a whisk overnight, it’s been a long, arduous, hard struggle and jobs like this don’t come up every day, this is the jackpot of TV. I mean, I’ve done a lot of gigs but you don’t hit number one, you don’t have 25 million people oogling over you, you don’t turn on the internet and see your name all over it and people saying: “Ooh, is he going to do this or is he going to do that next?” You just don’t get that with every job.
This is a special one because it’s that big and it does, it’s quite surreal because I still have my friends from back in the day who still look at me as the ordinary guy and I have my neighbours who still give me their keys when they go on holiday. I’d never even told them I was an actor and they only realised instantly when they looked at Get Rich and Die Tryin’. But I still don’t tell them because I like to keep a normal relationship. So I never forget where I’ve come from because that’s what makes it all the more enjoyable knowing that you did pick up shit and trash and that now you are on, you know, the toast of the town to some degree.
Q. You say you have your friends still but can you live a normal life today?
A. I think you’d be unrealistic if you thought you could. I mean. I tried my hardest but what it means is, it’s about balance because the celebrity part of it is still something that I’m not really used to. It’s nice to be able to ride the trains, it’s nice to be able to go on a bus and just not be noticed but it’s not going to be that possible for a little while anyway. So that’s the part that you have to trade.
Q. Is it true you were studying law? Did you want to become a lawyer?
A. Well, I was going to do a PhD. I was going to be a professor of law and then perhaps maybe study law as a barrister later but I was young and I did a good five or six years of studying and my head was about to implode so I just said to them: “I’ve got to get out of here and taste a bit of life.” All my friends were having a good time and I was there looking at books this thick. But it paid off in the end.
Q. Why do you think a character like Mr Eko was introduced into the second season of Lost?
A. I think the reason the creators brought the character Mr Eko was to explore the mystical side of the island. I think they already have the philosopher, who’s Locke, and the man of science, who’s Jack, and you see this little triangle vying for power. I think you’ll see that it really comes down to mystical powers and mystical element – pushing the button, exploring the meaning of life and the meaning of existence. As I said right from the beginning, when you put these people on an island in these extreme situations, it’s always going to come down to human faith and it’s always going to be a question of the mystic or the spiritual. How it all comes together, don’t ask me!
Q. When do you think that Mr Eko will be seen as some kind of noble savage because in the beginning he’s really silent and very noble and he doesn’t say very much. Weren’t you afraid of that portrayal?
A. Well, there was a concern but it was very limited because it was an exercise in trust with the writers. We’d had discussions as to where Arthur was going to go and it was just a case of trusting that they would deliver the goods. When I got episode 210, which was Eko’s first flashback, that’s when it was sealed. So any concerns about Noble’s savagery were thrown out the window. I was really concerned to avoid any stereotypes, you know. I chose the stick as opposed to a spear and I changed the name.
Q. Did they originally write him a spear?
Q. I read somewhere that you came up with the name of Mr Eko. Where did you get the inspiration for Eko?
A. The name was originally Emeka and as an actor, the name is very important and it’s like if somebody gives you a pair of shoes, you want them to fit. It just didn’t fit. Also, because I’m Nigerian the name is of Nigerian origin. There were three main tribes in Nigeria, which are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbod and Emeka comes from Igbos tribe, which is a different dialect, and I’m from the Yoruba, so I just said: “Hey, listen, let’s keep it real, let’s keep it local.” I suggested Eko. The writers had initially said, “we want it very mysterious”, so I said, “just call him Mr Eko”. They didn’t really like the idea at first because they said nobody has that title, nobody else has a title. But I said: “Well, that’s probably the best reason to have it!”
Q. You mentioned Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. How was it to work with 50 Cent?
A. 50 was cool. He was just a normal guy. It was just another day in the office. I know he’s a rapper, a big super rapper but on the set as an actor, his job was to play himself and my job was to play his father, or somebody, his mentor and that’s what we were there to do. It was a pleasant experience.
Q. Do you keep contact?
A. I see him. I wouldn’t say I call him every day but we see each other, we see each other when we’re in the States.
Q. Do you know if he likes Lost?
A. I don’t know, I didn’t get to ask him. I don’t know if he watches much TV, he’s probably one of the hardest working men in show business. At the time I was doing it I wasn’t on Lost, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him. Who knows, he likes the gritty stuff, so this might not be his cup of tea.