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Former NFL Star Nnamdi Asomugha on Directing ‘The Knife’

Former NFL Star Nnamdi Asomugha on Directing ‘The Knife’

Three years ago, Nnamdi Asomugha signed on to star in a film that Mark Duplass was developing. The script, written by Duplass, followed a family over the course of a single evening after a mysterious stranger shows up to their home and sets off a cascade of disturbances. Asomugha, a former NFL all-star who had recently launched his own production company and acted in Crown Heights and Sylvie’s Love, was excited by the opportunity for a lead role and by what felt like a very doable production (an indie film with a well-contained story). A few months later, he was a co-screenwriter and director of what became The Knife. “When you’re an actor, you always want to work with your favorite directors,” he says. “But for me specifically, I had this period of, okay, no one is taking you seriously as an actor so why don’t you become your favorite director? It’s asking yourself: how long are you going to sit around waiting for the opportunities to come?”

On June 9, The Knife — which also stars Aja Naomi King, Melissa Leo and Manny Jacinto — will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, marking a new milestone in Asomugha’s second act. Here, he talks to THR about how he found himself working four different jobs on the production, what he’s learned about the way he wants to show up in Hollywood, and whether we can expect a joint project with wife Kerry Washington.

Can you walk us through your origin story on this movie?

Mark had written this lovely script and he asked me if I’d be the lead, and initially that was as far as my involvement was going to go. Then, somewhere along the way, there was this thought of, “How am I going to enhance this character?” I was getting inside his brain as a Black man and giving Mark notes, and he was like, “Actually, can you write this?”

Did you embark on the rewrite knowing that you would also be the one to make it all come to life?

No. (Laughs) My manager Carol Bodie had been telling me, ‘you need to be directing your own stuff.’ So that was in my head. And I remember Mark saying, we could be going through our list of directors for five years before someone actually signs on — that’s how difficult it is to make a movie. So I just blurted out, what if I do it? Mark was like, why don’t you? And then I immediately knew it was going to happen, even though a second before all that I didn’t think there was a chance I would direct this.

Were you feeling confident about directing from the start?

I had anxiety about it because I equated it to football coaches, who I had observed working constantly. Never seeing their families. Sleeping at the office. Football takes so much out of you, so after getting out of it, I wanted to do things that were fun and enjoyable.

How did it stack up in reality?

It was still all-consuming, but only for the 20-some days of the shoot. So I didn’t find it as challenging as I thought it was going to be. After all, you legally have to wrap the day and then go home and sleep. (Laughs) We did some crazy things with this shoot, though. The story takes place over one night, from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.  We could have shot during the day and just blacked out the windows on set, but I wanted the actors to experience what their bodies are like at that hour, to be able to bring even more truth to what the characters were feeling. So we started our days at 4:00pm and ended at 4:00am. And we had a dog, we had kid actors, all the things they say you’re not supposed to have as a first-time director.

As a producer as well, part of your job is to make sure it’s a good workplace.

I tried my hardest to make it a fun set. The subject matter is not a comedy, so I wanted everything else to be fun. Especially the kids, I wanted to keep them happy and excited and make sure they didn’t go to a dark place. And we gave all the crew the option of staying at a nearby hotel so that they didn’t have to drive home.

Nnamdi Asomugha on the set of The Knife, his debut feature as a director, which filmed in the wee hours of the night during its 20-odd-day shoot.

Tobin Yelland

Did you go to anyone specific for directing advice?

I listened to a lot of interviews with people who had acted in their own directing projects, like Bradley Cooper, Jason Bateman, Kevin Costner, Denzel Washington. I tried to find as many of those nuggets from those interviews as I could. A lot of it resonated, but it also gave me the confidence to know that it could be done. And my confidence builds quickly as I’m working — I think of it like a video game, like Mario. You’re hitting all the mushrooms and it’s building you up.

What has this experience taught you about what you’d like to do next in your career?

You reach a point where your thought process is: If I’m not working with good people, I’m going to find something else to do. It’s such a privilege to do this work, and some people don’t recognize that and can be difficult on set. I’ve been there before, and it’s not something I’m interested in being a part of. I think you can make great stuff without being a jerk to people. But also, being a director made me feel a little bit like, okay next I want to only act in something that isn’t mine. I don’t want to write or produce. And I’m shooting something now and feeling like, oh man I can’t wait to get back to directing and acting and producing at the same time.

Would you ever direct your wife, Kerry Washington, in a project?

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I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that producing together has been great. We actually just produced a play, Purlie Victorious [a revival of the 1961 play by Ossie Davis], that got a Tony nomination. So that has been good for us.

What was it like working with this cast?

I think Aja Naomi King was a big reason for the great energy on set. She’s a phenomenal actor, but she’s also the type of person you just want to be around. When I thought about the hours that I wanted to shoot, the complex ideas that I had, it was no question about who I wanted in her position.

Was she a night-shoot pro, given her time on How to Get Away With Murder?

Honestly, I wonder if those were even night shoots, or if they just created nighttime on set. If anyone has the wherewithal to create that, it’s Shonda [Rhimes]. Can I tell you about casting Melissa Leo? It’s a story I love.

Please.

Initially the detective character was written as a man, and we saw a lot of great actors but I wasn’t getting that gut reaction. Then I was watching Flight, the Bob Zemeckis film with Denzel [Washington] as the pilot, and at the end here comes this NTSB person who’s questioning him on the stand. She’s only onscreen for about five minutes her the way she reels him in and gets the truth, it was so subtle and nuanced and I was like, that’s her. That’s our detective. But who knew if she was going to say yes. I had a call with her and I couldn’t read whether she was into it, and I was like it’s fine she’s not going to do it. but then 30 minutes later her agent called said, she’s in.

Do you have an origin story for getting into this business as a whole? Did you just start auditioning?

I was auditioning for a film, Beasts of No Nation. In the room, it seemed like the producers loved it and I started thinking wow, I’m going to be in a movie. I had only finished playing football a year before. The lead producer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, called me to let me know that they were creatively making the decision to cast only people from Ghana in these roles. But she said, I’m so taken by what you’re trying to accomplish after your first career, do you have any interest in producing? I didn’t even know what it entailed, but she said I’d come to Ghana with them and learn the ropes. I don’t know why she took this liking to me, but I said yes and I went and was doing every job on that set you can imagine. I hit it off with the director, Cary Fukunaga, and he had me shadow. I came back to the U.S. and knew this was my way into the business. And that’s when I started my production company.

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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