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Interview: Actor and Producer Nnamdi Asomugha on Black Love and the Music in Him in ‘Sylvie’s Love’

Nnamdi Asomugha is a former football player who earned critical acclaim for his breakout film role in 2017’s Crown Heights. Asomugha returns to the screen with another terrific part in Sylvie’s Love, which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, opposite Tessa Thompson in a 1960s love story set in New York City.

Sylvie’s Love, which debuted on Amazon Prime Video in time for Christmas 2020, is nominated for an Emmy for TV Movie. Asomugha, who also served as a producer on the project, spoke with Awards Radar about what drew him to the film, the experience of making it and learning an instrument for the part, and the unintentionally poignant timing of its release.

Q: How did you hear about this project and become attached to it?

A: I was on an airplane, I got the script from a friend of mine who’s a mutual friend with the writer-director and one of our producers, Gaby. I think they had just seen a film I did, Crown Heights, at Sundance, sent me the script, and I was blow away. I read it on an airplane, which is the best time for me to read, and the next day, I had a call with them and wanted to see what their sensibilities were around the film. All boxes were checked on both ends, and we moved forward. And that’s when it got difficult, by the way, but that’s how it started.

Q: Tell me more about that…

A: That’s when it got difficult, because the moment you say yes is when you leave yourself open to hearing a lot of nos. And so I said yes, they said yes, we moved forward and tried to build the project. We went into development, we sent it around to studios. We sent it around to financiers. Every single person said no. They said, we can’t, we don’t see the audience for this. This is the Civil Rights era, there needs to be more of the civil rights in it, which was sort of a loaded note a little bit. There’s no audience for it. We don’t know this director, he’s done one thing but it was really small, so we can’t trust that. So all things, it’s valid whatever you want to say, but it just made it a lot more difficult to make in the end.

Q: I’m glad it did get made. What appealed to you about the role specifically?

A: The first thing was – this is very surface level – but just the fact that he played the saxophone. I love roles when I get to learn something, I get to do something new, whether it’s an accent, whether it’s a particular job that I need to learn how to do, if it’s a carpenter or whatever it might be. This was a saxophone. It’s on the surface level, it’s like, okay, so there’s something great to do with this character. But then deeper, I loved how he wasn’t a one-dimensional character. He starts out as a kid, trying to just make it, and then he makes it and then the world changes and that lowers his self-esteem, that lowers his financial situation, that lowers his job situation and he has to pick himself back up. So there were enough layers in the character specifically that I thought it would be cool. And I thought it would be cool to be in a romantic film, a film that focused on Black love during a time period that we didn’t see a lot of it on TV. A vulnerable male character, strong yet vulnerable, just a lot of the things that I would want to see in a film I saw in that character.

Q: You hinted at a question I was going to ask later, which is what musical talent did you bring into the film and what do you feel you’re comfortable doing now after having played the role?

A: The first instrument I ever played was the clarinet. Played the flute for like two weeks, but I wanted to move on. And then I played the piano. I didn’t want to do any of this stuff. My parents got me into all of it. I played the piano for maybe five years and I got really good at the piano and then I stopped playing, which is another story in itself. But after I stopped playing the piano, I didn’t think I was ever going to play an instrument again until the saxophone came along. Actually, that’s not true! Before the saxophone, I got a guitar. I started learning the guitar, it’s right over there, I started learning the guitar on YouTube, because music is still in me, and so I guess seeing that he played the saxophone was cool because it was also an instrument and it’s in me. I didn’t want to do it as a kid, but I fell in love with it. As for what I can do now, it was sadly just preparation for the role. I ended up playing the saxophone for a little over a year, because the moment that I started playing, I was so in love with this project and I just knew everyone else in the world is going to be in love with it, so I’m like, we’re going to start shooting in about eight weeks and, when everyone started saying no, I had to make a decision, do I keep playing the saxophone or do I just think that this project is down the dumps? So I kept playing and it took eighteen more months before we got the project made. So I just kept playing, I really learned how to play the saxophone, I got pretty good at it, but once we stopped the film, I stopped playing sadly, and so I’m sure I’ve lost a lot of the skill to it. But yeah, it was a great moment. I went everywhere with my saxophone.

Q: The costumes and sets in this film are pretty incredible. Do you have any favorite outfits or locations?

A: Well, the location part of it is interesting. I’d say all of the locations, but I’ll tell you why. We were supposed to shoot in New York and we were supposed to shoot in New York in the summer. And we were dealing with a scheduling issue from Tessa, who was the lead, who played Sylvie, and she was getting ready to do Westworld, so we had to move up to February. We had to shoot in LA, and because of that, we had to shoot on the historic backlot, so was shot at Warner’s, we shot at Paramount. All of the lots that you see in the films from sixty, seventy years ago. That was just great. I loved what that did for the film and for the aesthetic of the film. It really transported us. And so I loved all of that, shooting on the backlots. In terms of costumes, just the fact that the guys back then would dress up with a collar, some higher-waisted pants and some dress shoes to go to the grocery store. That was enough for me. I loved all of the costumes. I don’t think that today I ever wear my pants that high, but it was great to do it for camera. I really loved it.

Q: Were you familiar with Tessa’s work beforehand?

A: Yeah. And we were friends beforehand, and when she was cast, we hadn’t seen her do this before, but because I knew her, I knew that there was a quality about her that was in this character. A lot of times, I think that’s why actors don’t really get a lot of opportunities outside of the opportunity that made them a big deal, because people don’t know them. They don’t give them that opportunity. I knew that about Tessa, that she could embody that, and that’s why the casting sort of took off. It was less about her work and just more about the fact that I know she’s an amazing actor and I know she’s got Sylvie inside of her. And then she showed it, ten times, a hundred compared to what I was even expecting.

Q: The film premiered at Sundance a year and a half ago. What was that experience like?

A: Oh, that was a tough experience for me, because when I got there, Kobe had died. And I knew Kobe. So it was a difficult, sort of an out-of-body experience for me being at Sundance. I couldn’t even focus, and I don’t remember a lot about Sundance that year. I do remember the premiere. I don’t even know how much I actually watched or paid attention to the movie. It was just such a big thing. I remember right after the premiere, I got on a plane and I left. So that was a tricky Sundance for me and, at the same time, I was in the middle of doing a play on Broadway, so my mind was in a bunch of different spots. But I had been to Sundance before with the film Crown Heights and we won Sundance, so I knew the experience was great and I held on to that. But I can’t really tell you much about the Sylvie’s Love experience. But it was great to premiere the film and show it in a theater, which was what we intended on what we made it.

Q: The film ended up being released around the holidays almost a year later on Amazon. What was that like?

A: Well it’s crazy because nobody knew the pandemic was going to hit. There was a little bit of being bummed out that this wasn’t going to be in theaters, but then we got the opportunity to work with Amazon. They were just the most collaborative partners that you could ask for with our film, and we came into a date. It was many conversations, but we fell into the Christmas Eve date, I believe it was. No one could have predicted that George Floyd would be killed or Breonna Taylor, or all of this stuff, and the pandemic, and everything that we were dealing with as a country and especially what we were dealing with as people of color. Coming to the end of the year and getting a film where you’re looking at Black people falling in love, and that’s all that it is, we really lucked out with that one. It couldn’t have been better timing. I was completely grateful that it turned out that way because it ended up being exactly what we needed culturally, to be uplifted at the end of such a difficult year.

Q: The film is nominated for Best TV Movie at the Emmys. Have you seen any of the other films in contention?

A: I haven’t seen any of those. I’m sure they’re obviously good films. But yeah, we had no clue we were going to be a TV movie either. You make a film and you’re like, it’s going to be a film. And then Amazon’s like, no, we have another idea for it, and again, that idea ends up being an Emmy nomination. So now we’re Emmy-nominated producers, which is just mind-blowing. All of these things just sort of worked out. We just continue to knock on wood. It’s been a tough road, but man, there have been some really beautiful things that have come for me.

Q: What do you have coming up next?

A: Just rest. And work. We continue to develop stuff. I came in as an actor, but in order to get work, I had to become a producer, so that I can make my own films and actually hire myself. So, there’s a lot that we’re developing right now and hopefully those get through.

Sylvie’s Love is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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