Here at GlobalGrind, we like to feature new actors that you’ve definitely seen, but probably don’t know too much about. Allow us to introduce you to Dayo Okeniyi.
You’ve seen him as Tresh from District 11 in The Hunger Games, you’ve also seen him as Lionel in Runner, Runner. Now, he’s Danny Dyson (son of Miles Dyson) in Terminator Genisys, which hits theaters tomorrow, July 1st.
Take a look.
GlobalGrind: Tell me more about your character in Terminator.
Dayo Okeniyi: I play Danny Dyson, he’s the son of Miles Dyson, and he’s on the cusp of becoming the CEO of Cyberdyne systems. So when we start the story, the period of the movie where we jump into, where Danny Dyson’s character is introduced, he’s about to release this product that I can’t tell you about. He thinks he’s creating technology that’s going to make the world better, he’s kind of like this Steve Jobs-kind of a guy, and when we meet him, it’s the day before a key-note speech, and so he’s talking about this technology and how it’s going to change people’s lives and how it’s going to be amazing. But what he doesn’t know is that’s the Trojan horse that’s going to create the AI, which will become Sky Net, and then the Terminators and all that stuff. So he’s kind of like this very, very ignorant guy—very intelligent, very smart—but has no idea the ramifications of what he’s doing.
What type of steps do you go through to transform into this character?
It wasn’t that hard. Compared to other roles I’ve played, this is more similar to me than anything I’ve done—I’m not trying to say I’m a genius—this guy, I mean Danny Dyson has a crazy IQ and he’s a trillionaire. I clearly don’t have either of those, but I went to college for visual communication design and marketing and computer science, so I went to college for CSS and HTML, and so the whole world of technology and creating apps and all that stuff is stuff I know very well. So to read a script and they say, ‘Oh, we need an actor who can come in and deliver this technical jargon,’ I was like, ‘I did that in college. Yeah, me. Thank you.’
So it wasn’t really that hard and I didn’t necessarily have to draw any source material from the older movies, because he makes an appearance in Judgment Day, the second Terminator movie, but he’s a little kid. If anything, I watched his father, Miles Dyson, that character a little bit, but with the way our story is, it’s a complete, new retelling. It’s almost like…speaking of Game of Thrones‚ that we were talking about before, you know how there’s the book and then there’s the TV series and they’re both the same story, but they’re really companion pieces, they’re telling a story in different ways; the TV show takes a lot of liberties. So our movie is the same way, it’s not necessarily a reboot, it’s a retelling for a new generation. People will instantly recognize characters from the original two movies, but in a completely different way, which I like.
Was it fun working on this movie or was it tedious? How was it on set?
Yes. It was very relaxed; I’ve been fortunate to do a couple of franchise movies, I did Hunger Games, which was my first foray into Hollywood, and that was great, and in between that and this movie, I did a bunch of independent films, and so to go from a huge studio movie to an independent film, it’s like, ‘OK, things are gonna be different.’ There’s no trailer—you’re like sitting on an apple box in between takes. But this was great, it’s a big franchise movie and there’s a lot of money, but it was very intimate on set.
Alan Taylor, who was our director, was chill; like the nicest guy, like the epitome of an English gentleman. Usually on these big movies, because it costs so much, they just want you as an actor to hit your mark, say your line, shut your mouth…this is not a democracy. But on set he’d be like, ‘Do you want us to do your close-up first? Do you want to do the wide? How do you want to work?’ I said, ‘Whatever you want to do.’ But he was really cool like that. So it was very relaxed and very chill and everyone was cool.
You mentioned you had a tech background; how’d you end up acting?
I’ve been an actor my whole life. I did theater growing up, but it was very elective because I grew up in Nigeria in Lagos, West Africa. And where I’m from, nobody becomes an actor, so I didn’t even allow myself to dream about that happening. But when I got the chance to go to college, I got the chance to come to America—that’s when I moved to the States—and even then, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, now I can get to chase acting!’ No, it was like, ‘I’m going to go to school and get a real degree and try to make something of my life.’ I did plays all throughout college as well and my senior year of college is when I was like, ‘Man, I think I should give this a try,’ because I did this play called Nickel and Dimed and it was great experience my senior year of college and I was like, ‘OK, at least I have a degree now so I can kind of use that to buy my parents’ approval. OK, I’m gonna take a year out,’ which is crazy, because nothing happens in a year, so realistically I was thinking like a seven-year plan and ‘I’m gonna go to L.A. and try to make something happen and if nothing happens, then at least I have this degree to fall on.’ That was my pitch. They were like, ‘OK, yeah, but it’s a year, so make something happen or come back home.’ And luckily Hunger Games happened in that first year, and then things just kind of took off.
How are you dealing with the momentum and the gradual steps of getting these roles?
I don’t think about it like that, just to be frank. We just go from case-by-case basis. We did Hunger Games, which is a very physical thing, and we said, ‘OK, we want to just go for characters and not caricatures. We don’t necessarily want to play the gang-banger or the thug and that whole thing, or the pimp, whatever the case may be, things that people associate with African-American and Black actors; we just want to play people.’ And so that’s the kind of stuff we sought out.
Even a project like The Spectacular Now, which I did with Miles [Teller] and Shailene Woodley, that wasn’t a character that was written for a Black guy, if you read the book, The Spectacular Now, he’s a blonde-haired, blue-eyed quarterback of the football team, but there was something neurotic about him, like even though he was all those things, he was a very insecure guy. And there’s this great scene when he comes in and he tries to confront Miles Teller’s character; you think there’s going to be a fight, but he comes in and he breaks down. So when I read that, I was like, ‘OK, this is something cool. If someone sees me in this, it’ll be a standout.’ Not because he’s funny, or he’s the best friend or something, it’s because that’s a character that they flipped on his head.
We constantly look for characters that are flipped on their head a little bit. Or even like Runner, Runner with Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck; it was a very small role—I wasn’t even initially gonna do it—but it was written for an Indian guy. They were adamant that they wanted an Indian actor…it was like, ‘Why?’ There’s a stigma that the Indian guy is your tech guy or whatever and I was like, ‘No, I can do that.’ So we’re constantly, my team is like, ‘What will show a different part of what you can do?’ And the same thing for Terminator and the same thing for Shades of Blue, which is the show I’m doing for NBC now.
Do you feel like there’s a changing of the guard when it comes to the roles they traditionally give to Black actors in Hollywood?
There’s definitely a change of the guard. I’ll put it to you this way, because someone was like, ‘You know, is it very hard for African-American actors to get work in Hollywood?’ One, yes. But two, it is definitely changing. And three—because I’ve been in the game for about five years, and in that short period of time, every year there are more and more opportunities. If you look at the landscape of even, let’s say, franchise movies, because those are the ones people say are the toughest to get, like everybody’s trying to get a franchise movie, OK, if you look at actors in my category, actors that I look up to personally, if it’s John Boyega, Aml Ameen, or Michael B. Jordan, we all have our own franchises, right? Like John is doing Star Wars, Michael’s doing Fantastic Four, Aml Ameen did Maze Runner, I’m doing Terminator. There’s enough to go around and they’re good roles.
I want to say five years ago—impossible. Or like Chadwick Boseman doing Black Panther; the fact that in a year, everybody can have work and not be looking at each other like…It’s like, no, there’s enough to go around and I feel like if any one of us hits it out of the park, it’s an excuse to create more and more of those opportunities. But it’s still hard, you still have to go into the room and claim your position, but at least there’s something to be claimed. I definitely think it’s changing, I think it’s a lot better; it’s not fantastic, but every year I definitely think it’s getting better.
You talked about stereotypes earlier. Is that conscious for you as well?
Definitely. It’s definitely very conscious for me, just because especially now, my generation coming up, because I’m from Nigeria and my generation is so adamant to change that persona, that we almost go overboard.
I’ll put it to you this way. Those stereotypes, they do exist. If you look at, for instance, the whole crisis that happened a while ago with the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement that happened in Nigeria. Those were African guys with guns that were doing a whole bunch of dumb stuff, right? Ignorant stuff. So those characters were out there and those views are widely accepted in the rural parts of Nigeria. So it is out there. For us to say, ‘No, it doesn’t exist and that’s not a representation of who we are,’ it’s kind of a lie, because that is out there. But there is also another side that never gets shown.
I grew up in Lagos. Lagos is a city, I’m a city kid. I moved to America, I remember I was in class in high school and someone gave a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reference. So everyone laughs in class and I thought it was a funny joke, so I laughed. And this girl in class felt like she had to explain the joke to me,
‘Well, you see, Uncle Phil is like his dad…’ I said, ‘I know the show.’ She thought I just came from Africa…I’m like, ‘No, we grew up on the same stuff you guys grew up on.’ All the same TV shows, same music, so culturally there’s no boundary there. And so we want to show that side of Nigeria, the side that’s culturally up to par with whatever is going on here, and it’s very interesting because even though a lot of that Western culture is seeping in, there’s still a lot of traditional stuff that we want to hold onto. It’s a very interesting niche part of the Nigerian culture that we want to be more dominant than the stuff that you see on CNN or BBC that Hollywood feels like, ‘Oh, those are the stories we need to be telling.’
Tell me about your character in Shades of Blue.
I play Detective Michael Loman and, again, vastly different from anything I’ve played. I feel like all the characters I play were very confident characters, but Michael is way in over his head. He’s a rookie detective, he just joins this unit that’s lead by Ray Liotta’s character, Wozniak, and he goes on this first ride-along with Wozniak. Then puts me and Jennifer (Lopez) together, it’s kind of like a Training Day kind of a thing, like the Denzel, Ethan Hawke kind of relationship… take this rookie around, show him the ropes, and a really, really bad thing happens my first day on the job and I find out that my unit of detectives are very crooked, because when it happens, I feel the need to turn myself into internal affairs and Jennifer’s character is like, ‘Mmm…no, you’re not going to.’
So there’s this big cover-up and the show basically deals with morality, like how much of bad justifies the end result and even in the world of law enforcement, people that we’re supposed to look to protect us and to give us a sense of well-being that everything’s going to be fine, even they can sometimes cross the line. And it’s such a relevant show because it’s also, of course, dealing with stuff that we’re seeing today. When I read it, it was very culturally relevant and it wasn’t a procedural show, it’s not like a Law and Order where it’s every episode you have a case. It’s very character-driven and it’s very serial and it’s kind of story-telling. They’re not all good people…there’s shades of blue. It’s a very, very cool show.
Are you one of those ‘Guys From That Thing,‘ or do you think everyone’s about to know you as Dayo?
I don’t mind it. All the actors I grew up emulating, people I wanted to be like, they’re not necessarily people the American public would instantly recognize. Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis, I feel like in our small niche of Hollywood everyone knows who Daniel Day-Lewis is, but if you go to Iowa or Oregon, I don’t necessarily know if people saw his picture they wouldn’t necessarily…He could blend in. People like him, Ben Foster, these great character actors that their work is amazing and people who’ve watched them love their work, but they don’t even know who they really are because they just kind of blend in. Those are the people that I want to base my career off of. So I won’t necessarily want to be recognizable…on the streets or whatever, if I go to the mall, everyone is…Thresh from The Hunger Games. The demo is like girls from ages of 8 to 19 or whatever, it’s always Thresh. Which is cool, but in general no, it’s always, ‘Where do I know you from? Did we go to high school together?’ And then they’re like, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m an actor.’ ‘Oh, what were you in?’ Never. I’m not gonna recite my resume to you. If you don’t know, you don’t know, let’s just keep it moving.
Actors can let their work speak for themselves whereas musicians could never do that. Is that where you want to go?
Yeah. I have no problem with my anonymity. I want to be able to go to Bed, Bath and Beyond and get some sheets and not have problems. I’ll give you an example. My first day on set with Jennifer Lopez, we get to set, Jen is five minutes out, I’m sitting and looking at my lines and I’m looking across the street, and people are gathering on the streets. I’m like, ‘What’s going on? Is something happening?’ Then her car pulls out and she comes out and people scream, ‘Jennifer! Jennifer Lopez!’ And I swear to God that I forgot that I was going to be doing a scene with her later that day. Because sometimes when you’re so close to a situation, you lose perspective a little bit. I read the memo and learned my lines, now I got to do a scene. So now I’m freaking out because not only am I doing a scene with her, but I’m doing a scene with her and there are billions of people lined up on the streets watching. And she came out of the car, like it was a Tuesday. And I was kind of looking at her trying to see the insecurity or trying to look presentable because people are watching. She doesn’t care, because she’s so used to it. I’m sure it took a long time for her to get to that point and I don’t…I’m way too insecure to be that famous and not lose my mind.
PHOTO CREDIT: Pete Monsanto // Fly Life Images, GlobalGrind.com