TBB Talks To … Actor Chiké Okonkwo

Chiké Okonkwo is a British-Nigerian actor …

He is known for portraying Lee Truitt in Being Mary Jane, PC Clark in New Tricks, DC Callum Gada in Paradox, and now Ty Coleman in La Brea.

La Brea follows an epic family adventure after a massive sinkhole opens in Los Angeles pulling people and buildings into a mysterious and dangerous primaeval land where they have no choice but to band together to survive. In season two, the Harris family remains separated as Eve is reeling from her son, Josh, having mistakenly gone through a portal to 1988. What she doesn’t know yet is that her ex-husband, Gavin, and their daughter, Izzy, have landed in prehistoric Seattle and now must brave the elements and animals to make their way to L.A.

We spoke to Okonkwo about shooting his hit show La Brea in Australia, voice-over work and much more.

Please introduce yourself …

Hey! I’m Chiké Okonkwo, I’m an artist and activist, born and raised in South London, now living in the US, and always staunchly Igbo.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

Transient. I’ve worked pretty much nonstop since the beginning of the pandemic, for which I’m eternally grateful. Whenever people ask me where I live, I can tell them where my “stuff” is. That’s a mixture of New York, LA and Melbourne.

Tell us about your latest project La Brea

La Brea is an extremely ambitious disaster fantasy drama from the mind of Creator David Appelbaum. It starts in modern-day LA, when a giant sinkhole opens, with people, buildings, cars and all sorts falling into it. When the people who survive the fall wake up, they find themselves still in LA, but it’s now the year 10,000 BC. The vast landscapes that we shoot in are why a bunch of my stuff is currently in Melbourne, Australia, where we have been filming in the outback for the best part of two years.

Chiké Okonkwo as Ty Coleman – La Brea

What’s your role in it/ tell us about your character and how he fits in?

I play Ty, a British psychiatrist who made a life for himself in Los Angeles before the sinkhole. He had a successful practice and a wonderful life there. Until his life starts to unravel. I won’t say too much, but falling into the sinkhole and waking up in 10,000 BC was only the third worst thing to happen to Ty that day.

How did it come about and what made you say yes to the part?

Like anything for a lot of actors in LA, this came about with an audition. I was lucky enough to meet with David Appelbaum, the creator, and our producer Rachel Kaplan at the beginning of the process, and we genuinely got along. The tricky thing was, after being cast, we started shooting in Vancouver, we got 5 days in and were due to come back to LA to shoot the big sinkhole sequence on Wilshire Blvd. They had closed off one of the largest intersections in Los Angeles to film this sequence. You don’t have to be a historian to remember though that Friday, March 13th, 2020, was not going to be a day when that many people could gather in a major American city. Covid shut down production, the city, and the world that day. So it was a year later before we got back up and running, now in Melbourne. It was tough to keep the band together, and I’d had some other offers in the meantime, but the scale of La Brea, the size of the world, and the relationships that were forged before and during the pandemic meant that it was an easy choice to come back to the show.

Tell us the high points, any obstacles when filming La Brea, and how you resolved the obstacles

Without sounding like an ungrateful actor, there are significant challenges to filming so far from home. My family are in London. My life is in the US. So being here in Australia has provided both highs and lows. Highs are definitely the scale of the show, the adventure of being in the outback and filming these incredible set pieces. It’s everything that I wanted when I started acting, to be challenged in that way, and to use my imagination.

Lows, being on a constant cycle of winters. I go from New York in the northern hemisphere winter, to Melbourne during the southern hemisphere’s winter. I haven’t had a summer solstice since 2020! Lol. Solutions; community. Always community. I’ve been so fortunate to make some great friends on this show. Another solution; staying creative. I’ve been really blessed to write some screenplays this year and to do some more of the voice work that I’m becoming well-known for, so it’s nice to keep the creative juices flowing.

Chiké Okonkwo as Ty Coleman – La Brea

Your career has been quite expansive in the past few years not only on screen but also as a voice actor. You play one of the main characters in Call Of Duty: Vanguard and you also join the likes of Regé-Jean Page and Idris Elba in voicing some Sleep Stories for The Calm App. What is it about these types of roles that draws you to them?

My work with Calm also started just before the pandemic, so it’s been one of the creative joys of my life to see how many people, all around the world, have been impacted by the wellness that the Calm app focuses on. I’m not huge on social media, but whenever someone reaches out to say how my voice helped them to find rest during a tough time, I’m always very touched.

Call of Duty was an incredible creative experience too. More than voice, I got to do the performance capture for the role of Arthur Kingsley. So I did my best Andy Serkis impression, got on the body suit and all the gear, and got to perform with some of the best game practitioners in the world. It meant a lot to me to be portraying a real person – Sidney Cornell was one of the first British Paratroopers to land behind enemy lines on D-Day. I’ve long had a lot of respect for the men and women who gave so much in that conflict, and so it was a privilege to put myself in those shoes. The experience impacted me so much, I’m now an Ambassador for the World War II Foundation in Rhode Island, whose mission is to keep the stories of that great conflict alive, just as the very last of the people who were there are leaving us.

Reflecting on your journey thus far, what’s been the biggest eye-opener/learning curve that has helped you navigate the industry?

My mother would say I’m not a hugely patient person. I’ve always had a lot of energy and always had so many outlets to expend that energy as a kid and young adult. The life of an actor is one that can be so active, and then so quiet. So the most eye-opening thing for me on this journey has been the power of perseverance. Just how important it is to keep going. Amongst my cohort, other Black British actors that I came up with, a piece of advice that Chiwetel Ejiofor gave to one of us along the way, was often repeated. “The one who wins is the one who can hold their breath the longest.” That’s perseverance in action!

Arthur Kingsley in Call Of Duty: Vanguard. Credit: Sledgehammer Games.

Acting is not where your talents end, you are hugely involved in activism. Can you tell us about the causes you are involved in?

When I moved to New York in 2011, it was to really understand how I could use my art, and my skills as a storyteller, to impact issues that were close to me, and those around me in the real world. Growing up in the UK, I was constantly aware of the veil of social and institutional racism, but it was so obfuscated, so covered up, it was difficult to know where to start to address that with art.

In America, the challenges in that space are similar, they’re just much easier to see. There’s also an entrepreneurial spirit that runs through art and activism there. It meant that I was able to meet Bryan Stevenson along the way, and think about stories within the prison industrial complex that would impact the real lived experience of a lot of Black people in America. It meant I was able to meet Nate Parker along the way, who offered me a role in The Birth Of A Nation, a film that goes to the heart of the Black experience during the enslavement chapter of American history. It meant I was able to meet Gabrielle Union along the way, who I had so much fun with making Being Mary Jane, a singular show that spoke to the Black professional woman’s experience in America.

Now, although this art isn’t activism per se, it has enabled me to connect with Restorative Justice organisations in the US, and I have spent a lot of time inside and outside of prisons talking about how we can reimagine the American Legal System. It has led to me working with organisations in the Native Community, helping to impact how the original sin of the Americas, the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples, quietly continues with oil pipelines and disparate social outcomes. It’s enabled me to speak to the economic racism that has impacted millions of Americans and to ensure it doesn’t continue with my work as Ambassador for One United Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in America. All of these causes come back to the same thing. Once racism, institutional, environmental and economic, is no longer as strong a force as it currently is in American society, we will live in a fairer and more equitable world. Where America leads, a lot of the world follows, and ART is one of the most powerful tools there is to affect this change.

What’s your current plan B?

Hopefully, I’m a little far gone now to be thinking of plan Bs. But being the child of Igbo parents, education was imperative for us growing up. It meant that I went to University and got a Business and Computer Science degree, even though I had great prospects at great drama schools at the time. What Uni taught me though, especially on the business side, is the importance of having a plan, and executing it. I don’t think actors can any longer be JUST actors. It’s on us to be part of every facet of the storytelling machinery. So I will continue to do that! It’s why I’m so proud to partner with a new streaming platform MANSA (now in the app store) which is a curated platform of Black culture, for a global audience. I truly believe spaces like this will help to not only empower artists around the world, but also give us as consumers a space to exist in where we are catered to, and where we can have a community around the things we love to watch.

Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane & Chiké Okonkwo as Lee Truitt – Being Mary Jane

What’s made you sad, mad and glad this week?

Sad this week has been the idea of the shifting of power in the American mid-term elections. I tend not to get too mad these days, I try my best to focus on things that I can affect. Glad, has been starting the final episode of the second season of La Brea. There is something so bittersweet about finishing a job. I used to hate it. Now I embrace it. New beginnings are afoot.

What are you watching right now?

The White Lotus. I was sceptical that Mike White could not top season 1 but so far, season 2 is incredible. Also watching Station Eleven on HBO! What an incredible and nerve-wracking show.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished a novella by an Igbo writer Nnedi Okorafor, called Remote Control. I love African-futurism and try and find new stories in this space as often as I can.

What are you listening to right now?

I think Dave is an actual living breathing genius. In the truest sense of the word. I constantly come back to his work, and his newest album, We’re All Alone in This Together, is fire.

The last thing you saw on stage?

I saw Oklahoma at the Young Vic, and The Glass Menagerie in the West End when I was back for 3 nights this past summer. Both were excellent. I’m about to go and see my friend Constance Wu in the LA production of 2:22 when I’m back in LA.

What’s on your bucket list?

For me, it’s mostly work-related. Directors or producers I really want to work with. Stories I really want to tell. I want to do as much action and adventure stuff as I can before these knees get too old.

Celebrate someone else – who do you rate right now?

I have been thinking a lot about my dear friend Jimmy Akingbola of late. He just had a documentary of his life air in the UK. It’s called Handle With Care. Jimmy is one of the brothers that I’ve shared almost every step of this journey with. He’s created community wherever he’s been and championed artists his whole career, and so to see him be so open and vulnerable about his journey in the foster care system in the UK is simply so inspiring to me. Find Handle with Care wherever you can.

Celebrate yourself … (make us proud of you)

I’ve lived in America for such a long time now. One of the things I felt I had to do along the way was to get better at “self-promoting” the adage going that no one else will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. Well, I’ve been around that roundabout and realised that I’m far too Igbo, and far too British to change my essence, so I’m still both deeply sceptical and massively averse to celebrating myself too much. I will say though that I’ve been a fan of the British Blacklist for a long time, so I can celebrate speaking with you guys! How’s that?

Where can we find you / watch/listen/read your project?

La Brea is on Paramount + in the UK, and because I’m not a huge social media user, I’ve just gotten on board and partnered with a new platform called MUSE. Muse.io/chike is my homepage for everything, and has a mission to give every human the tools to unleash the power of their creativity. So you can find me there, and keep up to date with everything I have going on, and coming out. See you there.

La Brea Season 2 premieres Monday 26th December on Paramount+ UK.


Latest articles

Related articles