A glance at Nnamdi Asomugha’s Wikipedia page immediately reveals he’s not like other actors. He didn’t grow up doing the school play or working on tech crew or earn his BFA or even realize an affinity for acting until he was in his 30s. Asomugha hadn't tried theatre because he was focused on something else entirely: football.
Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, but raised in Los Angeles, Asomugha was a natural athlete—and not just casually. After graduating UC Berkeley, where he played for the California Golden Bears, he was drafted in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft to the Oakland Raiders. In his 11-year football career (with the Raiders, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the San Francisco 49ers), he was a star cornerback—voted All-Pro four times, a three-year team captain, and the highest paid defensive back in NFL history. He retired in 2013 (the same year he married actor-producer Kerry Washington); but it was actually football that first got him into the acting game.
Doing commercial work, “and having directors and different people saying, ‘You’re very gifted at this; I know it’s just a Nike commercial but this is something that you should really look forward to doing when you’re done’ really encouraged me,” Asomugha tells Playbill. Suddenly, Asomugha had an idea of one thing he might like to try when he finished with football “because you have no clue what you’re going to do when you finish playing football, so you try a bunch of things, and I knew that this could be one of them.”
Yet, Hollywood came knocking before that. Peter Beg, who had directed him in a Nike commercial, offered him a guest role as a police officer on Friday Night Lights in 2009—at the height of his NFL career. He fell in love with it.
Soon after, he performed in a staged reading of a John Patrick Shanley play at Circle in the Square; he wrote and starred in a short film, Double Negative. While it seemed Asomugha would follow the Tinsel—producing Beasts of No Nation, producing and starring in Crown Heights—theatre called to him.
“With theatre, it’s life for me,” he says. “You’re breathing the same air as the audience. You hit go and you can’t stop until it’s all over. There are no mistakes because it’s just real life. If you drop your brush, you’ve gotta go pick it up. There’s no calling cut, which I love.”
He made his Off-Broadway debut with a lauded performance in last season’s Good Grief at the Vineyard Theatre, and on January 21, he made his onstage Broadway debut in Roundabout Theatre Company’s A Soldier’s Play, where his team mentality has proved crucial in his stoic, yet provocative performance as First Class Melvin Peterson (one of seven Black men questioned by visiting military police officer Captain Richard Davenport about the murder of his troupe’s Sergeant, Vernon C. Waters Charles Fuller’s now Pulitzer Prize-winning play).
“I found him through a lot of help and good coaching from [director] Kenny [Leon] and the other guys in the company,” he says. “They’ve helped shape the character just as much as I have. They’ve been doing plays their whole lives so if they find something that I can tweak that focuses me more into the character then they let me know.” But Asomugha underplays the value and perspective he brings to the role.
As part of a story that highlights the variation within the Black experience, Peterson prefers to call Hollywood (rather than his native Alabama) home. He is a thinker, highly educated, outspoken, respected by his peers in the black battalion at Fort Neal—despite his temper. Asomugha balances the facets of this complex, fully developed man. “The goal was to bring as much warmth to him as possible,” says Asomugha. “He’s very revolutionary and can come across as telling people what to do. But he’s kind of a warm guy, he wants everyone to get along.”
A born leader—and former NFL team captain—Asomugha wields a quiet power onstage. He knows when to catch the light and when to lend an assist. His strategic mind comes into play as he probes Peterson’s philosophical approach to bettering the race as a whole.
“I think the interesting thing is how similar Peterson and Waters are and that they both want the best for their race. They just go about it two different ways,” he notes. “Who’s the good guy who’s the bad guy? By the end of the play they’re kind of in the same boat.”
As the murder mystery of A Soldier’s Play unfolds, Asomugha does well to take the drama moment by moment—as he does in life. His Broadway opening took place during the Sundance Film Festival, where Sylvie’s Love, a film produced and starred in opposite Tessa Thompson, premiered. But his focus never left the building. Asomugha is the kind of person and the kind of actor who doesn’t get ahead of himself.
“The most important thing to do when you go out onstage,” he says, “is to not know what happens next.”