Dayo Okeniyi’s portrayal of Charles in Disney+ Rise gets the stamp of approval from the Antetokounmpo family and audiences alike.
For Nigerian-born actor, Dayo Okeniyi, acting was once little more than a fantasy. However, when the self-proclaimed “practical dreamer” immigrated to America with his family and eventually set his sights on Hollywood, it wasn’t without stipulations. If he wasn’t successful within seven years he would return home. By 2012, a mere two years later, The Hunger Games had hit theaters, in which he played Tresh, a competitor in the brutal tournament. Since the franchise’s smash debut, Okeniyi has gone on to play many characters, the most recent being Oloman in the Apple TV+ Series See, Paul in Hulu’s thriller Fresh, and Charles Antetokounmpo in the new film Rise.
Rise, which is now streaming on Disney+ tells the true story of world-renowned basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family. Their patriarch was a cornerstone in the personal and physical journeys of his wife and children and his legacy remains their source of inspiration to this day. The film portrays him much in the same light. Making the casting of the role pivotal to the accuracy of the portrayal. With a story that greatly mirrors that of “The Greek Freak” and talent honed by a decade in the industry, Dayo Okeniyi was the obvious and correct choice. He shines in the role, highlighting the importance of hope amongst adversity.
1883’s Sydney Bolen chats with Dayo Okeniyi about portraying the patriarch, how he’s grown as an actor, his dream project, and more.
Congratulations on the release of Rise. Last time we spoke you were headed to the film’s premiere. How did it go?
It was amazing. The movie is on Disney+, so it was exciting to see the movie in the theatre. That will probably be the only time that I will get to see it with a big audience like that. It was just so exciting. There were things in the movie that I didn’t think worked when I watched it by myself, so just seeing an audience go “whoa” and see that it does play was nice. But the most gratifying part of the movie was right after it was done Gianni, his brothers and their mom literally walked out of the premiere, huddled on the front steps leading up to the theater, and cried for like 10 minutes straight.
Oh, that’s awesome. That means you did a good job.
That happened. It really puts it all into perspective. While you are just having an entertaining experience, people are going through their pasts and are having a cathartic experience. That was very, very gratifying.
I always hate when films based on true stories come out and the people who they are about don’t jive with the way their story was told.
That would be the biggest nightmare of my life. I think Hulu is making a movie or series about Mike Tyson’s life. Mike just came out and was like, “No, I hate this project. They did not seek my advice on it. They’re completely robbing me of my legacy.”
I don’t know how you keep making it after that.
Yeah, that’s tough. Thank god this was not that same thing.
As an actor, does your approach change when you’re portraying a character based on an actual person?
I treat every character I play like they’re somebody out there. You still have to do the research. The only difference is with somebody that actually lived there is more stuff to find. There are people you can talk to that knew them. There are photographs and personal home videos. A couple of movies back I played this guy, Shields Green, who was a real individual that lived in the 1800s. There wasn’t much about him out there other than what people spoke of him. So you’re almost dealing with secondhand accounts when you’re playing “famous” people.
But, the good thing about playing somebody like Charles is that there was some footage of him where he was not being he wasn’t being showy. I got to see what he was like in a very relaxed environment, very candid. I got to juxtapose that with some interviews that he did do. So I could see the leap from somebody who wasn’t conscious of being filmed as opposed to somebody who’s conscious that they’re being filmed. There is always going to be somewhat of a persona being put up there. My process doesn’t change, the difference is you have more fertile ground to search, more stuff to find on the person to build a character.
That makes sense.
I would say that for this movie, Akin Omotoso, our director and incredible human, Arash Amel, our writer, and Bernie Goldman, our producer, very much wanted to create the character of Charles. The liberty there is that he’s not Michael Jordan. He’s not Ray Charles. He’s not somebody that everybody knows what he looked like, walked like, how he acted. That reduces a degree of worry that you have to get someone’s dialect absolutely correct and other similar things. You can focus on the heart of the character and the soul of the person. That was what we ultimately went with. We didn’t want to do any kind of caricature. That really goes for all the characters with the exception of Thanasis and Giannis, who are characters that people know very well. So you do have to get that accent right. Kudos to Ral Agada and Uche Agada who played those characters respectively. I think they did a tremendous job.
Tell me a little bit about the film for people who maybe don’t know the story or haven’t seen the trailer.
Rise is a story about a Nigerian immigrant family that made a harrowing journey from Nigeria to Greece and eventually to the United States. It’s an amazing story about their children, specifically three of their sons who made it into the NBA, which has never happened before. All three of them are NBA champions. It’s just an incredible story about perseverance through the direst of odds and a family that never let their circumstances dictate their character. They were never bittered by the cards that life dealt them. They are people that stay positive through it all. They almost don’t feel real, because anybody else would lose hope or become bitter or angry with the world but they just stayed true and grounded. As long as they had each other as a family, that was enough wind behind their sails to get them to success and victory. I think it’s also a throwback to the quintessential American Dream, which I know might sound trite but that doesn’t make it any less true. Anybody from anywhere regardless of their circumstances can dare to dream and deserves to dream and deserves to have their dreams come true. Especially in the very cynical world that we’re in right now, I think a little bit of wholesomeness can go a long way.
Is that what drew you to the script in the first place, that aspect of the American dream?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a dreamer myself. Make no mistake, I’m a very pragmatic person, ultimately, but I operate from a place of dreams. I operate from a place of inspiration. I want to tell stories that inspire people specifically from the African in America perspective because I’m African in America. I’m not African American. I’m Nigerian. My father’s Nigerian. My mother’s Kenyan. The specificity of a Nigerian immigrant story- when is that going to come my way ever again? I was so excited to tell this story. I felt it was very much in my wheelhouse. It mimics my story. You know, I’m of Nigerian descent. I moved to America when I was 15 in 2003. My family had to start over again. I decided I wanted to become an actor which at the time was ludicrous.
Now, I’m literally living my dreams making movies and telling stories like this. When I look at Giannis’ story, I can see myself in it. I’m not 6’ 11 and built like a Greek god. I didn’t have to sell stuff in the streets in Greece and am not currently operating off a $250 million 5-year contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. But, the principles of that story directly apply to my story and I completely understand the immigration process and how you can go through an identity crisis through that whole thing. I also understand with family anything is possible. I consider myself extremely blessed to have the family that I have. We moved to this country as a family unit. We stuck together. My mom, my father, my sisters, and myself. It felt like my story. Very few times as an actor, do you feel like this is exactly, as a performer, what I’m equipped to play. All those things drew it to me. Then the fact that it was Disney and they picked a Nigerian director to tell the story. Akin got the best of the best people of African descent to fill all the departments. Everyone had a DNA connection with the material. It was a dream project.
That’s cool. I’m glad to hear that there was that kind of creative authenticity. Going back to the beginning of your career, one of your first films was The Hunger Games. I didn’t know this at the photo shoot, but I feel like I need to let you know that The Hunger Games holds my personal record for the film I have seen the most times in theatres.
How many times did you see it?
Please know I am aware that this is a crazy number, but I was 16 and obsessed with the series. I saw it 17 times.
Yeah, that is a lot of times [laughs]
I know. I don’t regret it though. [chuckles] How do you think you’ve grown as an actor since then?
I think in leaps and bounds. Without trying to sound conceited, or overly confident in my abilities, I was so fresh when that happened. I moved to LA in 2010. In my mind, I was like, “Okay, cool. If nothing happens in six to seven years. I’m going to take my ass back home.” I was in LA for a year hustling, trying to make something happen. I’m telling you the abridged version of the story, but I somehow found myself in an audition for The Hunger Games and booked that role. My career went from zero to 100. That did everything. It opened up so many doors for me. It was my first union film. I got my SAG card off of The Hunger Games. It was my first time on a real set. I’ve done nothing but student films up until that point. I was just a sponge watching Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci work. There were so many heavy hitters in that film. We were quite young in that movie, so I think they weren’t too jaded around us. They could tell we were all young and most of us were doing that for the first time. I remember when we got our first per diem, Jack Quaid who is still a dear friend, was like, “Is this our paycheck?”
I swear to god, that’s a real conversation that happened. I remember going, “I don’t think so though because if I do the math and they’re giving us this every week, it doesn’t quite add up to what we’re supposed to be getting.”
I love Jack Quaid!
Right. I’m thinking to myself, “Jack, your mom is Meg Ryan and your dad is Dennis Quaid, you should know this.” But we were so green. Gary Ross, our director, and everybody on that project was unusually open to the process. More so than I think they would be on other projects. They just gave us so much knowledge on what to do and how to do this job well. One of the major things that I learned on that project from Woody Harrelson was to take your time. We’d shoot 20 takes. On take one I was going 100%. The camera constantly moves and you start with the wide shot and then you come to a two-shot, and then the mid, and then the closeup. By the time I got to the closeup, I had nothing left because I’d been going full tilt. Woody was like, “no, just take it slow. Work on your energy. The closer the camera gets the more you up the energy.” I think I’ve just learned more about the business side of this job. I’ve learned how to plot out a career and have longevity and not necessarily go for the white-hot project. I want to build a body of work that I can be proud of. Those are just a few things because I’ve learned so much since then.
Looking to the future – what is a role you would like to play?
Oh, man. I’m just a lover of film. I’m more excited about filmmakers than I am about roles. It’s directors that I want to work with or actors I want to work with. Denis Villeneuve is number one. I love Josh Brolin. I love Denzel Washington. I love the Coen brothers. I love Ava DuVernay. I love David Oyelowo. There are so many filmmakers that I would die to work with. Writers are the salt of the earth. They are the pearls of this universe. There’s nothing I can dream up that a writer couldn’t beat me to in terms of imagination. I really believe in the power of manifestation and all that, so I don’t want to sell myself short and be like, “this role is the end all be all and if I can’t get the chance to play this, I’ll die.”
I just feel like the universe has bigger and better ideas than I do. Filmmakers are the conduit of that. I would rather chase really talented filmmakers because they can take even the most mundane characters and turn them into something really magical. There are really no roles that I would love to do and there’s no size of the project. I love big films and I love little films. Rise is a pretty small film compared to The Hunger Games. I’d do a tiny little movie and turn around and say, “Yes, Kevin Feige, I want to be a marvel. Throw me in there.”
It’s good to look at it the way that you do so you don’t pigeonhole yourself.
Alongside acting, you are also the co-founder of Positive Vibes Only. What inspired you to start the collective?
Positive Vibes Only is a lifestyle brand that I started with two of my best friends. I remember I just moved to New York. I was on a TV show called Shades of Blue with Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, may he Rest In Peace. He just passed away this year, which is still insane to me. But, I just moved to New York for that show. I reconnected with some of my friends from high school and we just wanted to work together. We all have things that we do personally, but we all had a little bit of spare change lying around. One of my friends was like, “whatever we do, we have to call it Positive Vibes Only.” I liked that. It speaks to everything that I’m about.
My partner is Chi-Na-Sokwu. He talked about when he was going through a tough time mentally in college, a counsellor told him he needed a mantra. He came up with positive vibes only. We wanted to give that to other people. How can we give people a space where they can be unfiltered, a space that’s inclusive, a space that celebrates excellence, and celebrates people being the fullness of themselves? We threw parties in college. We threw parties in high school, so we knew it had to be a party. I think what separates PVO from any other event company or festival is that we have a charitable component that’s aligned with what we do. We go into a city, whether it’s New York or Atlanta, London, Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria, Ghana, or LA, and throw an event. We partner with a local entity in that city. In Nigeria, for example, we partnered with African Health Now. Its mission is to curb the infant mortality rate in Lagos, which is the second highest in the world for no reason other than a corrupt government. They mitigate that. We partner with a nonprofit and will give kickbacks of 20% to 25% of what our event makes.
Oh. That is so cool.
Yeah! In New York, we work with Cool Kids. Their whole mission is to keep inner-city youth off the streets. We also do a scholarship fund there as well. In DC, we partner with Distant Relatives. They give haircuts to the homeless and prepare homeless people for job interviews. Our whole thing is you can come to our party, have a really great time and when you wake up the next morning, pull the receipt from your pocket and are like, “I spent that last night.” You can then be like, “well, okay, at least a little bit of it is going to help someone.” We also do other things. We have a mental health dinner that we do with Johnnie Walker specifically for black men. To change the narrative around men speaking about mental health and being vulnerable. We have a podcast as well, the PVO podcast. We dabble in everything a little bit.
That all sounds great. I love events, so it’s cool to know what’s out there. I have just a few more questions to bring things back to Rise. The first is if you could give Charles a piece of advice, what would it be?
I would like to ask him for advice on my life. How did you just manage to keep your family so positive? How did you not let them become bitter at the world because they’re such positive people? They always thought they would make it even when there was no evidence of a way out. They just always felt like tomorrow will be better. They’re still that way today.
If I could give him a piece of advice, it would be that everything is going to be okay. I can’t imagine that he wasn’t nervous. I can’t imagine that as a man he didn’t have low self-esteem for not being able to provide for his family at certain points. A man without a purpose is a broken man. I know this from myself. If you go a year without working and you call yourself an actor, it seeps into everything, your relationships, your self-esteem, the way you see yourself. That’s the way the world is designed, but the truth is we are all worthy regardless of what we do for a living or regardless of how much money we have, or our circumstances. Every human being is worthy of happiness and worthy of bliss. I think it just comes down to worry. I would tell him that everything’s going to be alright, trust me. But I think he already knew that because they are just oddly special people. I think that’s what makes them unique.
They sound great. It’s heartening that those kinds of people actually exist. Lastly, if you could pick the perfect starting 5 for your fantasy basketball team, players past and present, who would you choose?
Okay, starting five. Kobe, Larry Bird, Allen Iverson, Shaq, and LeBron.
You did that so fast. [both laugh]
I don’t see anyone on Earth beating that team. That’s a solid five. I’m actually really impressed that I did that as quickly as I did.
Rise is out now on Disney+.
Interview Sydney Bolen
Photography Mallory Turner
Styling Sky JT Naval
Production Sydney Bolen