Mamoudou Athie (above) at the premiere of ‘The Circle’ during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Interview by Journey Rucker
Mamoudou Athie is a rising star in the film industry. The 28-year-old actor has had roles in ‘The Get Down,’ ‘Unicorn Store’ and most recently ‘The Circle.’ He currently plays Basterd in the upcoming film ‘Patti Cake$.’ Spotlight reporter Journey Rucker spoke with Athie about his role and his journey as an actor.
How did you become interested in acting?
Athie: Well…hmm… Let’s see. First when I was a kid I was just repeating whatever my sister wanted to do, and I just landed on acting and stuck with it. But I wasn’t serious about it at all. Then when I got more serious about it I was 19, I was studying at the studio called the William Esper studio. [It is] is a wonderful place where I fell in love with acting. Then, when I went to grad school at Yale, that’s when I really honed in on exactly what I want to do as an actor. [I focused on] how I could continue being an actor until my 80s and 90s, and just doing socially impactful work.
Are there any similarities between you and Basterd?
Athie: I think a lot of people would have a lot in common with that guy. I quite liked him. He is a strange guy, but he is a good guy. I think what he really wants is a place of belonging. He just really wants his friends. There is a moment in the movie where Patti is convincing him to join her band and the last thing she says is, “ Please I’ll be your best friend.” He turns around, and then the next shot is of them making music together. I think he just needs a friend. Someone who really sees him for who he is, and past the exterior. [It is] is a defense mechanism for his extraordinary sensitivity. I guess I am a pretty sensitive person my friends would say, so I think that’s a thing we have in common.
What techniques did you use to prepare for the role as Basterd?
Athie: Well it’s funny I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare because I was doing something prior [to this role]. I got on set, and I was kind of quiet. I am very distant from that. I am kind of animated, so when I was doing it I was like, “I can’t just fake this.” I was certainly a lot quieter. Actually one of the things I was most interested about doing the part was that he doesn’t really say a whole lot. You know, he’s around, he’s present, he’s listening, and I really loved that. I usually play people who really talk fast and have a lot to say, so it was really exciting to be on the screen in that way. I kept that engine going even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Your character is obviously an introvert, but his voice comes out through his screaming music and beats for Patricia. Do you have a passion for a certain type of music like your character?
Athie: I do actually yeah. Currently my favorite band is probably the Arctic Monkeys. I think Alex Turner just writes the most beautiful lyrics, and he has a killer beat. I think they’re great. Every album is just as different and exciting.
What was it like being a black man/actor in a predominately white institution?
Athie: I mean I lived in New York, and I grew up in an area that was predominately black. But I was exposed to certainly a lot of different cultures. When I moved to New York, it was a culture shock. When I was at Yale me and another one of my classmates, (who is actually a politician now his name is Jabari Brisport, and is running for city council in Brooklyn. He’s the real deal.) we were the two black guys in the class out of 17 people. Sometimes someone would say something that we would consider suspect, and just out of nowhere we would look at each other. We would crack up like, “Yep we were on the same page.” I’m trying to avoid the word microaggressions, but that is certainly the most distinct way of putting it. They would also impose these African Americans that sounded nothing like me. I would just call people out on it. But the school is a wonderful place, my best friends are my classmates from there.
What was your audition like for Patti Cake$? What was your reaction when you got casted for the role?
Athie: Oh man, well I intentionally passed off on the audition twice, because I didn’t think it was for me. Then the wonderful casting director, Jessica Kelly sent me the lookbook, and she was like, “Hey I think you should look into this, and I think you would be great for it.” I was like I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t know. I read the script, and the script was amazing, and I kept on thinking about it for weeks. Then I thought by this point they had already casted it, nonetheless I got a call from my buddy. He had just met Geremy (director), and he said I think you should go in and meet this guy. I finally met him and it was awesome. This guy is going to make something very incredible, and he was one of the easiest people to work with. He just gave so much time. We didn’t have time. We had so many different locations and different music, but he just made it happen in the most seamless way. Even if we were running out of lights he would say, “Wanna do another take?” I love him.
What sort of person is going to love this movie?
Athie: I think this movie is for everyone. It’s such a diverse cast. Not only is represented well, but it has these extraordinarily unique characters. However, they have such relatable issues. They have struggles, they’re just trying to get through, and do their thing. I think people who are watching this, even if they have initial doubts, the movie will just make them feel good. In a way that’s not, “We can do it guys!” but in a “I am doing my best, I am putting myself out there, and I am risking failure.” I might not succeed, but fuck it I’m going to try my best. Which I think is relatively rare nowadays. I love when people say what they mean and go after it instead of being cool. Life is too short for cool.
Who are some of your favorite actors, and who are some of your inspirations?
Athie: I love Brie Larson I think she is amazing. I learned a lot from her. Sam Jackson as well. I worked with both of them on Unicorn Store, but I already admired them before. Anything they work on I will go and see, and also they are both good people. Denzel Washington [always] slams it; you can never can lose with that guy. I’m very intrigued with what is happening with black filmmakers. Obviously Barry Jenkins [is important] with Moonlight. I worked with this director Stella Meggy two years ago, and she is now doing some really great stuff. She didn’t see herself represented, and she wanted to change that. It is very useful and important. I am really excited with the insurgence of black filmmakers.
What were some of your challenges while filming Patti Cake$?
Athie: I was so grateful to be working on this movie that the challenges weren’t real. There was nothing that was a bother. There were great people, great script, and it just felt like I was doing something useful. I’d done something else prior and I knew I couldn’t do something like that again because it did nothing for me. It paid me which was nice, so I wasn’t mad about that. With Patti Cake$, I was certainly happy and that meant a lot to me.
What projects are we expecting from you in the upcoming year?
Athie: I am really excited about Unicorn Store (directed by Brie Larson). Brie directed, starred, and produced this movie, and I still don’t know how she did it. There was never an issue on the set. It is more about the project than the paycheck. I believe in a career where you can look back and say, “Yeah I did that.”
Do you have any advice for a young black people that want to get into the industry?
Athie: I’m really glad you asked that question. That is the first time I have been asked that today. Let me think, I have to be very careful. I think you have to back yourself. I remember when I first graduated there was all these parts that were coming to audition for that were thugs, and dumb stereotypes. I was like I don’t want to play them. I’m not the guy and I don’t want to represent myself in that way. I mean obviously there is stuff where there is a truthful story so great. But you know there are other stories out there and we should be fighting for those. [Also] our communities are certainly supporting those movies in the theaters. I heard Girls Trip had done so well, and Moonlight winning best picture. There is a huge push for diversity because it’s past due time anyway. What I’m saying is don’t just take anything.
Patti Cake$ is scheduled for release on August 18, 2017.