Just hours after hearing the news of Sidney Poitier’s death, Mamoudou Athie, an actor who is now walking the road the black cinema legend once paved, hops on Zoom with a thoughtful smile. “Hey how are you?” he asks, and actually wants an honest answer.
Now, in the third year of the pandemic and the world still in dire straits, there could be myriad things to complain about that are usually all shielded behind the ubiquitous “good” response. But that day, Athie, like so many of the characters he’s played – from remembering a young husband in “Sorry for Your Loss” to a budding sommelier in “Uncorked” and his latest, a tormented archivist in the Netflix thriller series “Archive 81” – has a lot on its mind.
Although the Mauritanian-born, Maryland-raised actor and Yale theater graduate is grateful for the many opportunities he’s won, including 20 credits in just seven years, today he gazes solemnly at the late icon. on whose shoulders he stands.
“May God rest his soul,” begins Athie, 33. “Sidney Poitier exemplifies this spirit of dignity and grace.” Athie can’t help but think of her peers who still struggle to open doors. “I think of all the actors who graduated even a few years before me and didn’t even come close to some of the opportunities I had.”
And Poitier must have come out of nowhere. “I was just thinking about the opportunities that were given to me that were completely closed doors to people back in the days of Sidney,” Athie continues. “And I feel like I owe a great debt to all of them.”
Throughout our conversation, Athie often has moments of deep reflection that also help her deepen a role or ground herself as a person living in today’s world. Some characters, like Matt Greer in “Sorry for Your Loss” who only appears in flashbacks after killing himself, demand that Athie do research on topics like mental illness, which he admits he knew about. very little.
“Oh man – I thought a lot about the people in my life who have depression and some of the things I would say to try to help,” he recalled. “It made me a little ashamed that I hadn’t done this research before, if this person I was so close to had this disease.”
But for archivist Dan Turner in “Archive 81,” who spends hours alone in a darkened room staring directly at his own past while restoring increasingly disturbing footage recorded inside a building in 1994, Athie was immediately able to access the character.
“We were in the middle of this pandemic,” says Athie, referring to the six-month filming last year that took place amid the lockdown and as a result of racial reckoning. “We just had the last two years – this summer, the election… I was raw.”
It’s the immense loneliness, however, in his and Dan’s life that has made “Archive 81” a more transparent endeavor for the actor. “Just being alone all this time and being alone on set,” Athie says. “I mean, there are people around and we have people to talk to. But in the end, he felt very isolated and alone. A lot of [the emotional labor] took care of himself. »
Yet what audiences learn is that Dan’s journey, and subsequently Athie’s performance, goes far beyond the resonant experience of isolation. Early in the story, it is established that Dan had already suffered from depression after his family was burned to death in a house fire.
So while he is soon convinced that his late father (Charlie Hudson III), a psychologist, appears in the videos that reveal a cult and the graduate student (Dina Shihabi) documents the events, his past mental instability even causes his best friend (Matt McGorry) to question his truth. Even more troubling, Dan begins to doubt it himself.
“He’s like, ‘Well, I have to be reasonable,'” Athie says of his character. “‘What I see very well may not be the case.’ Ultimately, [he] gets this confirmation. This confirmation is almost a time of joy for him because it’s like, ‘I’m not crazy. And I have this opportunity.
As the actor says that last part, his smile widens in front of the camera because he knows it’s key to getting to the heart of a character in even dark tales like “Archive 81” and opening it wide. – the phase of the acting process that excites him the most. That’s when Dan realizes he can restore something someone has lost and hopefully regain a life. “[He’s] like, ‘Here’s a chance to do something good,'” he adds. “It’s the best.”
It was this display of almost reluctant emotion in even her portrayals of the most internally conflicted characters that captivated “Archive 81” showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine, who already knew her talent after seeing her on “Sorry For Your Loss.” .
“Dan’s character really needs someone who has a vulnerable side,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “But there’s like a wrath wrapped up in them.” For Sonnenshine, Athie has this quality. “He has such an expressive face. There’s a silence around him, and I really felt captivated watching him.
What really matters is the empathy he has – for the fictional characters he plays as well as the world around him. Sometimes he is so deeply affected that he self-records after finishing a production. After “Archives 81”, Athie was slow to break away from the role.
“You don’t work for a while,” he said simply. “You just sat at home. I was like, ‘What’s going to be good for me is to relax.’ I had never felt it to this degree in my life before. I think isolation, and COVID, and everything have a lot to do with it, obviously. But I just needed time to do well.
Then again, he has another moment of clarity during our conversation when he realizes that even when he feels overwhelmed by his creative process, he remembers that he is doing much better than many others. “I’m like, man, people were having the worst year of their lives,” he says. “I was fine. You know what I mean? I was fine.”
Getting into the process of building his performance is what fuels him, anyway. Athie understood that Matt in “Sorry for Your Loss” was an intense empath who, as the actor says, absorbed everything around him and tried to meet it with kindness, which “can be exhausting.” Still, Athie was reading the paper and absorbing each article like Matt would to the point that he could barely get out of bed.
But Athie prefers the artistic process to watching the final product on screen, which he rarely does anymore. “I’m not that interested,” he said. “At first [of my career]I said to myself: ‘I have to do this in order to be able to learn. I need to know if what I think I’m doing is what I was doing. And now I’m much more sure of myself.
Regarding his hard work ethic, Athie credits his father, who was a diplomat for the Mauritanian government before being granted family asylum in the United States amid a dangerous political situation in the African country when the actor was a baby. Well, him and “student loans,” Athie adds jokingly.
“My dad would always tell me – I wouldn’t listen to him and then it became really obvious to me when I was focused on becoming an actor and trying to be a good actor – ‘Mamoudou, every job that you do, you have to treat it as if it were the one you love”, he recalls fondly.
With all this emphasis on fine-tuning a performance, however, you might wonder if he’s a perfectionist. “I wouldn’t call it a perfectionist, but I just learned the difference between taking shortcuts and having no regrets,” he explains. “I don’t want to have any more regrets, because I had regrets. Like, ‘If I had just stayed awake for a bit…'”
Looking back, this method is also what brought him to school and remains his approach as an artist because, as he says, “I fell in love working on it”. It also seems to be what keeps him so humble. “It’s just imagination,” he says, adding perspective. “It’s not like I’m digging a ditch. It’s not that kind of hard, laborious work. It’s more like, how far can you go into that person’s psyche and that person’s circumstances? Because everything takes care of itself.
“Archive 81” began streaming on Netflix on Friday.
The Huffington Gt