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'Echo Park' Star Tony Okungbowa on Culture Clashes, Interracial Dating, and the Revolution in Diasporic Cinema

Features
by Jai Tiggett
June 10, 2014 10:10 AM
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Tony Okungbowa and Mamie Gummer in 'Echo Park'
Echo Park Films 'Echo Park'

Premiering on Saturday, June 14th at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Echo Park is an understated indie romance starring Mamie Gummer and Tony Okungbowa as Sophie and Alex, a pair whose shifting lives and relationships mirror the gentrification shifts in their Los Angeles neighborhood. They find themselves drawn to each other as Sophie contemplates the end of a previous relationship and Alex considers a move back to his native London.

Okungbowa, who also produced and co-starred in Andrew Dosunmu's acclaimed dramas Restless City and Mother of George and is familiar to some as the former in-house DJ on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, made time to talk with Shadow And Act about his role in the new film. As a British-Nigerian native who grew up in both places and has also lived in New York and LA, he had lots to say about the cultural undertones of the film and the movies at large.

JAI TIGGETT: Many know you from the Ellen show, but you were a trained actor first. Tell me about transitioning back to acting full time.

TONY OKUNGBOWA: It was sort of a planned thing over the last few years, from Restless City to Mother of George, and then doing a bit of television as well. And it's been really good, somewhat strange of course, because you walk into a room and some casting directors are like, "Oh, I didn't know you were an actor." Because they're used to seeing me on the TV show.

JT: I imagine it's been helpful as well, in terms of the notoriety you’ve gotten from the TV show?

TO: To a certain degree it has. Because if you think of a small film like Echo Park, it's a teeny tiny budget but I was able to go back to Ellen to talk about it in front of a worldwide audience of seven million people. To get that kind of exposure on a movie this small is next to impossible. And then I did an episode of NCIS LA with LL Cool J and we went on the show to publicize it as well. So it's kind of an added bonus. I'm hoping it's something positive that people will say, "Hey listen, we can use this to our advantage as well," as long as I do the job correctly. That's the first and most important thing.

JT: How did you get involved in Echo Park?

TO: It's actually a story I came up with. It was loosely based on a couple of situations and people I know. People who, even though they're British or from Europe, they still have immigration problems, work problems, or money problems and they have to move back home. A couple of my friends have literally had to uproot their whole lives and move back to Europe. So they were just vignettes of things that have happened.

It's interesting because the other day I was watching Spike Lee's famous rant about gentrification, and it's happening in every neighborhood. Echo Park is the new hot spot. You can't walk down the street without seeing new apartment buildings or something being turned over. I moved to Echo Park in 2003 and I guess I was part of a wave of gentrification, but a wave that could withstand its rough edges, so to speak. So I wanted to tell a story that was just about real people. I came up with the story, I met Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, the screenwriter. She wrote a great script and Amanda Marsalis came on board to direct and that was it.

JT: Gentrification is everywhere. I just had a similar conversation with RZA when Brick Mansions was released. And with the characters in Echo Park, you have one of them lamenting how much the neighborhood has changed, and missing what it used to be. How do you feel about the issue?

TO: My view on it is somewhat reflected in the film, which is that no matter where you're from, you come to a neighborhood and you respect the good that is there. People don't just own homes in a neighborhood and let it go to hell. There's good that goes on there, and every neighborhood has its own culture. For instance, if they have a block party every 4th of July and they shut the street down and they've been doing it for years, let them do it.

If you come into a neighborhood, you see the good that exists and support that. And then you push out the bad, whether it's drugs or whatever it is that's detrimental to the neighborhood, those are the things you get up in arms about. But you don't just come in and as Spike says, bogart your way in and say, "This is how we're doing it from now on." That's where the friction lies, when you come in and try to dictate as opposed to respecting the good that's been done and building upon it.

JT: The female lead in Echo Park seems very much in charge and driving the relationship, which is different from what you see in a lot of romantic comedies. Did that also come from your experience?

TO: Well it didn't pan out in real life as it did in the movie, thank goodness. But I really believe that as long as you don't play a victim, you can play anything. And also the way that black men have been portrayed on screen, we never are shown to be subtle or vulnerable. Strength is okay, but I wanted to show a different side of us, a side whereby we show that vulnerability and complexity. And while she's driving the relationship, I hope people get a sense that it's about more than that for him. It's the fact that he's losing her, he’s losing his best friend, and he's lost. Eventually he realizes he has to take a stand for himself.

Echo Park
Echo Park Films Maurice Compte and Tony Okungbowa in 'Echo Park'

JT: It's an intercultural, interracial relationship - British, American, black, white. But that isn't directly discussed in the film.

TO: A couple of people have said that. When I look at my neighbors, three of the four neighbors around me are Mexican. One of them has the keys to my house, the keys to my car. We all have each other's phone numbers and we just exist as a community. His mother's in the hospital, I go see her. I go out of town, he watches my dog. It's just a sub-community that is formed out of the larger community.

And then coming from England, I just have been brought up to date whoever I fell for. Now in America is where I have lifted my eyebrow a bit when it comes to dating. But generally, I always thought that if a person likes me and I like them, we've got a lot in common, let's consider it. And we didn't want to make an issue of it in the film.

JT: It's interesting to hear about the difference in interracial relationships in the UK compared to the US.

TO: Yeah and I think, without getting into the deep racial context of it, you have to take into consideration how African Americans have come to be here. Their experience is one of being forced to be here. It's one of abuse and discrimination that has existed through years of slavery to Jim Crow. But it's not the history of many other people in the Diaspora who come here, who have seen kings and queens and presidents and captains of industry who are the same color as them. So they walk into a room and say, "I can date you, why shouldn't I be able to date you?" That's kind of what I think feeds the ability to think like you belong and you can date whoever you want.

JT: Right, there's the idea of not being limited by race. But you've also got the issue of representation in movies and the fact that it's rare to see black couples in films to begin with. I think about the aesthetics of a film like Mother of George, which was rare.

TO: [In the film] I have romance with a beautiful black woman, Yaya Alafia. It was a truly romantic thing and we had so much fun exploring character in that situation. As an actor I want to show the diversity of my ability of course, and I also want to show the realities of life. The irony of it is that Mother of George is set against the backdrop of Africans and Echo Park is set against the backdrop of modern day America.

But they are all different love stories featuring the complexities of black people on screen. And so when a role comes up and it's something different, that's a good muscle to flex. It's also the reality of my world.

JT: You've worked on a couple of Andrew Dosunmu's films. Do you plan to work together again?

TO: Andrew and I hope to contribute to the revolution of people of color telling stories of the Diaspora. We have some amazing things on the table, including Fela Kuti. We're working on a bunch of stuff.

JT: How did the two of you get connected and start working together?

TO: We went to rival schools in Nigeria. When I say rival schools I mean academics and sports, mainly soccer. We knew a lot of the same people and we both worked in fashion over the years and we just bonded. When I used to live in New York, I lived in Fort Greene [Brooklyn] and he lived in Prospect Heights. There was a whole community of us back then who used to just hang out. Isaach [de Bankole] was in that neighborhood as well.

JT: Any other upcoming projects that you can discuss?

TO: I am in process of funding a feature right now, which is very timely and deals with a number of issues, from sex trafficking to death row to misogyny. We should know in the next couple of weeks whether we're funding that. And then I'm developing a movie that crosses between Hollywood and Nollywood. And in between that I'm developing vehicles for television, because that's where I've been known. I guess as an independent filmmaker the best thing one can hope for, besides the success of their films, is to create vehicles that continue to generate income so you don't have to continue looking for financing.

But I'm not a believer in art for the sake of art. I believe that when you live within a community you do have somewhat of a responsibility to that community. That's just my belief, I'm not putting it on anyone else. When I do things I really hope to contribute to society in a way where conversations can be started.

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