Kelechi Ehenulo interviews Black Box star Mamoudou Athie about his latest horror outing, his upcoming roles, and UFC.
Mamoudou Athie is no stranger to eclectic roles, and the Emmy-nominated actor has already built an extensive palette on his CV. He was Grandmaster Flash in Netflix’s The Get Down, played Basterd in the critically acclaimed Patti Cake$ and starred opposite Hugh Jackman as AJ Parker in The Front Runner. But in Welcome To The Blumhouse’s horror anthology, Black Box – his latest feature film – his character couldn’t be any more different.
He plays Nolan Wright – a single father trying to regain normalcy after suffering severe memory loss from a car accident that tragically kills his wife. True to Blumhouse’s reputation, the twists and turns are aplenty, pushing Nolan through the emotional gauntlet as he tries to regain his identity. As for first impressions and what attracted Mamoudou to the role, it presented another acting opportunity to test himself.
“I got an email with the script and an offer from the director,” he chimes. “It was one of those things where I got to do this. It’s vastly different and I’ve never played a character like that before. It felt as if I don’t do this, then I won’t really get to. It’s one of those things where it was a fascinating challenge that I couldn’t wait to figure out.”
Working alongside director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour was certainly another factor. Having screened his short films at Cannes and Toronto, Black Box is Kuffour’s first feature-length film. In the age of big budgets and massive productions, there’s an assumption of pressure on the young man’s shoulders, but Mamoudou had nothing but complimentary things to say about the upcoming director.
“He was so incredibly prepared. He had such an empathic point of view with his characters, like all directors should with the characters they create. You know the first time for a feature film director, there’s such an energy to that that’s so exciting, especially when you believe in them that you just want to help them realise their vision.”
That vision played its part is how Mamoudou approached playing an amnesiac.
“My research was primarily script based because there were certain things that weren’t in line with reality, so I just accepted it as a different reality. The technology doesn’t exist, and that kind of memory loss can exist for sure, but in this particular case, it appears for a very different reason. These are an imaginary set of circumstances, so I’m going to try and do as much work as I possibly can to realise this into a kind of reality that I can actually play rather than try to superimpose reality’s restrictions onto it because it wouldn’t really apply.”
Subsequently, Mamoudou began empathetically resonating with Nolan’s emotive journey. “Even though I’ve never experienced this in the way that he has. But his well-simmering rage … imagine not remembering who you are or who your daughter is, your wife or your vocation – you are just lost in the world. Can you imagine just going through life and not really connecting to anything? I can’t imagine that kind of frustration.”
For the interview, we tip-toe on conversational eggshells trying not to spoil Black Box’s terrifying reveal. I mention to him that I was freaked out on occasion – a feeling that was certainly felt during filming. “It’s horrifying,” he recalls, “I mean Troy James [who plays the Backwards Man] frightened me every single time, there was not a day where I was not like –”… and it’s at this point where he takes a nervous laugh at the memory. “He’s the real deal. Troy doesn’t play games. The stuff he can do is incredible. That’s not CGI.”
On a busy day of junkets, our interview is casual and friendly – so relaxed that he chatted about his love watching Israel Adesanya’s UFC fight on September 27th, wanting to give out a respective shoutout to the victor. Throughout, his occasional laughter helps breaks from the on-screen terror his character faces in Kuffour’s film.
But just like his impressive CV, he’s very attuned with the work and process. Expectation is a recurring theme in the film, in which he finds plenty of parallels with his own career. “I always want to do my best and when I don’t provide myself with the circumstances to do my best, then I get frustrated because I’m like ‘oh, you played yourself’. And that’s something I’ve always have to re-adjust. But my primary goal is not to get to a comparative mind, which is very easy to do in this industry, but it doesn’t help you any way. So, I would just like to be with my friends, support each other and concentrate on doing what I can do with the talents and gifts that I have.”
Currently, he’s filming Jurassic World: Dominion, a film that will be wrapping production shortly (although it’s just been hit by another slight filming interruption). But it’s immediately telling through our phone conversation that Mamoudou enjoys being part of an on-set family.
That same joy is reflected in Black Box; working with Amanda Christine (who plays his daughter Ava), calling her an ‘incredibly talented young actor’ who he can’t wait to see what she does next. With Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, Empire, Creed), he calls her the ‘real deal Holyfield’ when it came to working alongside acting royalty. And collectively, they add to the emotional core that runs through the film and seeing Black characters in a science fiction/horror film where they’re not seen as sidekicks or stereotypes, but as leads, was a refreshing change.
“I think it’s great to tell stories with Black people. Like the script and the material, we were working with is the thing you see immediately, but in the micro sense of what my personal mission is, I want to work with good people and want tell Black stories in a way that doesn’t have to do with micro-trauma. It’s just personal stories. That’s something that is very important to me.”
As to whether his experience on Black Box changed how he views technology, he laughs at the question. “No. I knew what it was! I know how humanity can pervert things that can be used for good and use them for their own designs. If they took a second to see how this would affect everyone in the future, they can see how horrible it can be, but they do it anyway.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find Black Box on Amazon Prime Video here.
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