EXCLUSIVE: Nnamdi Asomugha Steps Into the Spotlight With ‘Crown Heights’

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nnamdi asomugha crown heights
Photo: Getty Images

Widely known as a former NFL player -- notably as a cornerback with the Oakland Raiders for seven years -- and Kerry Washington’s husband, Nnamdi Asomugha is about to change all of that with Crown Heights, a new film about a wrongfully convicted man who spent 20 years in prison that Asomugha both produced and stars in as the best friend who fought to prove his innocence. It’s a powerful film debut for a former professional athlete who has spent the past decade slowly transitioning into a budding Hollywood player.

“You walk into a room and there’s already judgment. You know, like football players can’t act or you’re going to come in and be stiff,” Asomugha tells ET during a conversation at The New York Edition Hotel about the stigma facing athletes like himself who want to expand their careers into acting. The former athlete, who retired in 2013, explains that the game requires players to shut themselves off emotionally, not to “react to the pain.”

“When you do that much of your life and then you want to go act, where you have to be emotive, you have to be open and you have to be vulnerable -- it can be a difficult thing,” Asomugha explains. That has led him to proactively reach out to various producers and filmmakers to ask them to let him audition. He recalls telling them, “Just let me show you what I’m doing.”

In the decade since Asomugha made his acting debut in a scene on the CW sitcom The Game, he’s slowly built a resume of bit roles in Friday Night Lights, Leverage and Kroll Show, all of which were filmed during off-seasons. “There was no real sort of focus,” he says, admitting that since retiring he’s been able fully focus on Hollywood. “I was able to go right into becoming a student and training and learning. For it now to be three years later, it feels like I’m starting to get a little bit of momentum.”

That surge has largely been spurred by his offscreen career behind the scenes. With his production company iAm21 Entertainment, Asomugha has produced or financed Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation; Halfway starring The Blind Side breakout Quinton Aaron; the Sundance hit Patti Cake$; and the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic starring Cynthia Erivo. Crown Heights, which he signed on to as a producer after he was able to securing filming in New York City, is essentially Asomugha’s debut; it’s certainly his first true showcase as a performer and will be the driver of his acting career moving forward.

In the film, he plays Carl King, who spends much of the story banging on doors and filing appeal after appeal, hoping that someone will take notice of Colin Warner’s wrongful conviction. He eventually teaches himself the law, and with the help of William Robedee (Bill Camp), is able to get the verdict overturned. 

Arrested twice as a teen for crimes he didn’t commit, Asomugha has an immediate understanding of Warner’s story. “It obviously stays with you,” he says. He initially wanted to portray Warner in the film, before auditioning to play his best friend. “It turns out Carl did more for me than I could imagine, because it was really me playing Carl that gave me the voice to speak out for all the people that have been in this situation, including myself. That’s where the real healing came from.”

It also speaks to the larger impact of this film. Following 13th, Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary, Crown Heights showcases the flaws of the United States prison and criminal justice system. “This is a bigger issue that I’m trying to help fix,” Asomugha says, hoping the film will be viewed as “activism through art.” 

“It wasn't the intention going in, but you start to see how you're changing people,” he says, recalling stories of people who, at screenings of the film, told stories of family members stuck in prison following wrongfully convictions. 

Marsha Stephanie Blake and Nnamdi Asomugha

Marsha Stephanie Blake as Briana and Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in a scene from Crown Heights.

Photo: IFC Films

He’s also hoping his success here will lessen the stigma faced by other athletes who want to get into acting. “Hopefully, as I continue to get better and develop, it can really change the narrative for someone else to come into this business,” Asomugha says, “and not come into it with so much judgment because of what you were doing before it.”

While not directly involved in Crown Heights, Washington, star of Scandal and Asomugha’s wife of four years, is given special thanks in the credits. It’s a rare moment of public acknowledgement of a relationship that two have worked hard to keep relatively private from the media. They reportedly met one evening after Washington’s Broadway performance in Race, and the two eventually married in 2013 and have since had two kids, Isabelle Amarachi and Caleb Kelechi.

When asked why he wanted to thank Washington here, Asomugha says it’s an acknowledgement of her continued support. “I know so many people who’ve been through situations where they’ve gone from one career to another and have had such a tough time because they didn’t have any support doing it. I just know how important it was for me, so that’s the reason.” He says his wife’s support has been “helpful for me.” 

But now that Asomugha is making a splash with Crown Heights, don’t expect him and Washington to suddenly appear onscreen together. He doesn’t think that’ll happen -- at least not any time soon. He has even less to offer on the end of Scandal, which is drawing to a close after season seven, saying that “our feelings on that are better left private.”

For now, he’s continuing to train and see what projects come from the response to Crown Heights. As a producer, he’s also working on an untitled film about the first black banker in the U.S. As for what comes next, it’s just a matter of finding something he’s passionate about, otherwise “it’s tough for me to come in full steam,” he says. “But when that project comes and I’m in it, you’ll know.”