When NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (pronounced NAHM-dee AH-sem-wah) quit football in 2013, the same year he married “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, he’d already dipped his toe in acting. A commercial here. A “Friday Night Lights” episode there. A small role in the Sally Field vehicle “Hello, My Name is Doris.”
“When I retired,” he told me the other day at a downtown restaurant, “people started asking me: ‘What do you wanna do?’ ” I said: “‘Films. I really love film. I’d like to executive produce, produce and act.’ And they all said: ‘Well, you can’t do three things. Gotta stick to one.’”
That didn’t work out, which is another way of saying: It worked out.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured three movies directly made possible by Asomugha’s budding career in Hollywood. He raised crucial production funds for the indie “Patti Cake$,” for which he received a “special thanks” credit. He executive-produced and financed the documentary short “Waiting for Hassana,” a project about kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls that spoke directly to Asomugha’s Nigerian-American ancestry.
“Crown Heights,” the Sundance ’17 audience award winner which he produced, co-stars Asomugha as Carl King, whose valiant, 20-year pursuit of justice freed King’s best friend, the wrongfully convicted Colin Warner. The story was first popularized by “This American Life” in 2005.
“Three years after retiring,” he says, with quiet matter-of-factness, “I had three films in the same film festival. So I debunked that theory.”
Like a lot of small-scale, fact-based dramas, “Crown Heights” took a semi-eternity to get off the ground. After shopping his script around for seven years, according to Asomugha, writer-director Matt Ruskin made a five-minute documentary on the Colin Warner case. Asomugha’s manager received a copy, asked for a script and Asomugha liked what he read. He auditioned for the King role, successfully.
Another producing team was already in place, and filming was set for New Orleans, where the tax credits are plentiful but very, very few of the streets look anything like Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y. By this time Asomugha had served as executive producer on the Netflix-produced drama “Beasts of No Nation,” shot on location in Ghana, West Africa. He started talking to Ruskin about the necessity of filming “Crown Heights” in New York, not New Orleans.
“And that,” he says, “was the moment I became a producer on it as well as an actor.”
Asomugha spearheaded the fundraising (in the $2 million range). Then it got made, and Sundance took it. His performance in “Crown Heights” is good: relaxed, confident, low-key.
He says he wouldn’t have been ready to take on the role a few years back. “As a football player, there’s a shield, I guess, a … masking that becomes a part of you. You have to close yourself off emotionally, even when you give interviews after the game. You want to scream and cuss people out, but you don’t; you can’t. ‘We’ll be fine, wait for the next game.’ But when you’re auditioning (for a film role), that won’t work. They want you to be open. I needed a few years to be able to open myself up to it, to the possibilities and the vulnerability.”
And now? “Now, I want to focus on becoming a better actor.”