"I’d never seen a wrestling match, but it was wrestling season, so I went out for it. Wrestling enabled me to go to college and changed my life."
The story of Gbenga Akinnagbe (Ben-gah Ah-kee-nah-bay) '00 makes becoming a rising star of stage and screen almost sound easy. With a recurring role as assassin Chris Partlow on HBO's series The Wire and a starring role as Nigerian barber Yinka in Showtime's series Barbershop, there's no doubt that Akinnagbe's acting career has come a very long way in a very short time. "I've been fortunate," he says.
The first American-born child of Nigerian parents, Akinnagbe grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. As a restless teen with no positive direction, he decided to participate in an after-school activity. "I'd never seen a wrestling match, but it was wrestling season, so I went out for it," he says.
This led to two successful years on the team, with a high school coach who encouraged him to think about attending college. He chose Bucknell University, went to summer wrestling camp and was recruited by the school. "Wrestling enabled me to go to college and changed my life," he says.
After graduating, Akinnagbe worked for the federal Corporation for National Service. An interest in acting led him to "read lots of books about what actors do," and he began auditioning. He soon landed a part in the 2001 Washington, D.C., Shakespeare Theater production of The Oedipus Plays. Seizing the opportunity, he resigned from his job and began life as an actor.
After appearing in regional productions of Romeo and Juliet and Cyrano de Bergerac, among others, he enrolled in a master's of theatre program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. During his second year in the program, he was called by a casting director to audition for the HBO series The Wire. He was offered the role of a drug lieutenant, which he initially turned down because he wanted to finish his master's degree. The producers, however, eventually convinced him to join them as a lead character, Chris Partlow. The Wire finished its fifth and final season in 2008. Akinnagbe also played the educated, yet naive ladies' man on the Showtime series Barbershop in 2005. His film credits include The Savages (2007) alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman; The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) with Denzel Washington and John Travolta; and The Edge of Darkness (2010) with Mel Gibson. Most recently, he appeared in seven episodes of the 2011 Showtime series Nurse Jackie. || Akinnagbe's complete filmography
As his acting career gains momentum, Akinnagbe still finds time to pursue another of his passions: travel. An article about his trip to Nepal to climb Thorong La, a pass 17,769 feet up in the Himalayas, ran in the The New York Times in September 2009.
"My life doesn't seem real," says Akinnagbe. But he's enjoying every minute of it.
Updated Summer 2011
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