With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football
The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit
Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.
There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.
He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.
At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.
For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.
But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.
Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.
His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.
He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.
Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.
“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”
His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”
Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close.’ …”
Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”
Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”
But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.
“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”
He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.
“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”
Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.
“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”
For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.
He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.
“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”
Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”
The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.
“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”
That preparedness was crucial.
“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film!’ And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”
There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.
The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.
“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”
And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.
“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”