Former Eagle Nnamdi Asomugha tackles his first big acting challenge in 'Crown Heights'

Sometime between retiring as an NFL player and shooting his first big movie role as an actor, former Eagle defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha spent a few weeks as a process server in the outer boroughs of New York City.

He didn’t need the money, but he did need the experience. The work helped him prepare for his role in Crown Heights, opening Friday, the true story of Carl King (Asomugha), a Trinidadian immigrant who sees his buddy Colin Warner wrongly convicted of murder and spends a superhuman 20 years working with the legal system to find an angle to free his friend. (You may remember the This American Life episode based on King and Warner’s story.)

That’s where being a process server comes in. In real life, King took the job to meet lawyers, hoping to find one who would take Warner’s case. Asomugha took the job to walk in Carl’s shoes.

“That was … interesting,” Asomugha said with a laugh. “Knocking on doors, telling people they’ve been served, watching people running, or cussing you out. Or not answering the door, even though you can hear them talking just on the other side.”

If they ran from Asomugha, they were unlikely to get far. The former cornerback once ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and still looks as fit and trim as he did in his days in football —  he played eight years with the Oakland Raiders, two with the Eagles. During his time in the league, he made a Nike commercial directed by Peter Berg, the filmmaker who went on to make Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon. Berg asked him to take a role in his TV show Friday Night Lights (he played a part in the fourth season opener) and was impressed by what he saw.

“He was nice enough to take me aside and say, ‘You have a gift for this. You should take this seriously.’ And for me, that was it,” said Asomugha. “I’m the type of guy who is motivated by things like that. You give me that little nudge, I think, ‘This could be part of my journey.’ When I heard that from him, I decided to do more.”

He got another nudge sometime later when his manager sent him a script for the 2015 film Beasts of No Nation, the critically acclaimed Netflix film starring Idris Elba as a ruthless leader of child soldiers. There wasn’t a role available, but they needed a producer.

“My reaction was, ‘Why would I want to be a producer?’ And my manager said, ‘Just to get your feet wet in the business.’ And I did love the project. My parents are Nigerian, the movie was being filmed in West Africa, in Ghana, it was such a compelling story — children being kidnapped, mistreated, then trying to readjust to society. I knew it was something I would love to do. So two months after my football career was over, I’m in Ghana, on this big movie set. And I just fell in love with the process.”

Through his organization Orphans and Widows in Need, Asomugha provides food, shelter, medicine, and education to Nigerians. At home, he operates the Asomugha College Tour for Scholars, taking teens on college visits. The work brings him to Philadelphia three times a year, and this week, he hosted a screening of Crown Heights for prospective college students in Philadelphia.

I asked Asomugha — named the Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year in 2009 — whether his instinct for service and charity helped him connect with Carl King, who so selflessly organized his whole life around winning freedom for Warner.

Camera icon IFC Films
In “Crown Heights,” Nnamdi Asomugha stars as Carl “KC” King, whose buddy Colin Warner is wrongfully convicted of murder. King devotes his life to proving Colin’s innocence.

“I haven’t consciously considered that,” he said. “I just loved the story, to be honest. But maybe. You always bring a lot of yourself with you to a role, and maybe that’s part of it.”

Crown Heights is a big leap for Asomugha as an actor — his previous film credits include a small part in the Sally Field comedy Hello My Name is Doris and the straight-to-DVD Bruce Willis vehicle Fire with Fire. In Crown Heights, he is essentially a lead, opposite Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out), who plays Warner. Asomugha, soft-spoken in person, projects the same quiet confidence on screen. He said he was not intimidated by the step up in class.

“I’m never nervous when I had a passion for something, and I had a passion for this,” Asomugha said. “And I was prepared.  Football taught me that — preparation, and what it takes to learn what you are doing.”

He studied with acting teacher Eden Bernardy, who died just as the movie wrapped. And he has picked up some things watching his wife, Scandal star Kerry Washington, do her job on movie sets. Asomugha is producing more scripts — there’s one on Harriet Tubman he’s trying to get made, and a few others he can’t talk about.

It’s a good time to be in the business, he said. Beasts of No Nation was picked up by Netflix, and Crown Heights by Amazon Studios. There are more players in the market, which means more options — for everybody, including folks such as Asomugha who are trying to get racial-injustice stories like Crown Heights, traditionally hard to finance, to the screen.

“There are so many more avenues,” he said, “so many more ways for people of color to get their stories out there.”

It keeps Asomugha busy. Does he miss the game?

“I miss that time. I love this city, and I loved playing here. But I don’t want to go back and play again. It puts a strain on the bones.