Gbenga Akinnagbe talks HBO's 'The Deuce' — a series on the porn industry's rise in '70s NYC (S&A Fall TV Preview)

September 8th 2017

To celebrate the fall television season, Shadow & Act is bringing you exclusive sit-downs with the cast and crew behind some of your favorite shows that are returning and new shows that you can't wait to check out!

This feature is a part of our Fall 2017 Preview Series.


George Pelecanos and David Simon — the dynamic team behind HBO's The Wire and Treme have returned to television with a breathtaking drama. The Deuce is a '70s set series that follows the rise and legalization of pornography in New York City's Times Square, once termed 'The Deuce.'  As always, the creators present a meaty and fully fleshed out cast, encompassing everyone from sex workers, cops, pimps, journalists, mobsters and beyond to lend their perspective to this time.

Starring James Franco as identical twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino; Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-made prostitute Candy, Gary Carr as pimp C.C., and Gbenga Akinnagbe as the vicious pimp Larry Brown among many others, The Deuce is certainly a timely piece that comments on the misogynist- filled era that we live in today.

Ahead of the series premiere, Shadow and Act's Aramide Tinubu sat down to speak with Akinnagbe about The Deuce, returning to Pelecanos and Simon and what he discovered about himself from embodying Larry Brown.

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Aramide Tinubu: What intrigued you about The Deuce overall, and why did decide that you wanted to work with David Simon, George Pelecanos and the team from The Wire again?

Gbenga Akinnagbe: That's my Wire Family. I love working with them. I grew up on TV working with them, so they've influenced how I tell stories, the stories I like to watch and be a part of. Aside from that, we all remained tight even off screen for years. Knowing the quality of the work that David and George do, I knew that this show would give an interesting perspective to people who are easily dismissed as one sided criminals on TV -- pimps, hooker, gangsters. And also, the time period, the '70s -- those clothes, come on.

 

AT: It's fantastic to look at. The series is really rich in texture as well. How did you come on board The Deuce to play Larry?

GA: I went in, and I read for that, and that's how that worked. I was fortunate enough to book the role. Initially, I read for a different character and then they brought me in for [Larry]. It just kind of clicked. It made sense.

 

AT: Can you tell me a little more about Larry? What interested you about him specifically? He's a pimp in New York City in the '70s which is very different from your character Chris from, The Wire. However, both men have that same level-headed ferociousness that drives them.

GA: Larry is very different from Chris. Chris was very methodical, and he wasn't a drug dealer. He didn't really care about those things -- the fancy things. He was a sociopath but [he] looked out for his boys and the people he cared about. Larry is in for the business of it. He's much more of a business man. He's got hopes and dreams and aspirations, and he's going to do what he needs to do; apply his skill set, which is pandering sex to get what he wants. Chris did what was necessary. Larry does what is flashy. There's a drive there obviously with Larry that's complicated, and it unfolds throughout the season.

 

AT: How has Larry changed you as an actor? Was there something in the script that he did or something that you've learned about yourself when portraying him that changed how you work or how you think about yourself as a man?

GA: That's a very interesting question. To put it in the most frank blunt terms, so many of our interactions are exchanges -- things that we need, whether it's love, affection, [or] money. Depending on the society, depending on what culture you're in, some of these exchanges are looked down upon, [and] some of them are normalized. There are so many different things that bring people to make those decisions. These are complicated human beings with complicated lives just like the rest of us. How has it changed me? I think it's made more compassionate. I think it's made me more understanding of people and choices they make and how ... they're not worse people at all. I may make different choices [but] that's one of the best things about being an actor. I get to put myself in other people's shoes as much as possible. I don't get to fully live it as these real people, but I get to start to learn to empathize.

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AT: Can you talk about fashioning this time period? Obviously, Time Square looks nothing like it did in 1971. I understand you actually shot in Washington Heights. What was that like to see this reimagining of the city over 40 years ago?

GA: It was amazing because this is the New York that I always heard about from people who lamented the loss of the edge and the danger of the city. I got to experience it that way and in some ways relive it or live it for the first time. But it was fascinating. It was interesting. Obviously, the danger is [threatening] to the citizens, but there was this energy in the city where anything can happen good or bad, that kept people on their toes. It wasn't so Disneyfied as it's become now. I love New York. It's an amazing city, one of the best cities in the world, and the energy is palpable. But I do understand what a lot of those folks who were in the city in the '70s and the '80s -- what they talked about as far as the good qualities that are now missing from a very sanitized New York. In this show, we get to bring that back and not in a sensationalistic way, which is even more palpable. That makes it even more visceral because it's real. I always describe it as, it's the early '70s before the drugs, the music, and the sex start to kill you. Everyone was just indulging.

 

AT: I thought it was really fantastic that Michelle MacLaren directed the pilot. Obviously, this is a show about pornography, sex work and about sex. To have a woman at the helm, especially as you open the series, I thought was extremely important. Working with her did you see any nuances or differences in the way that she chose to portray the women on screen-- especially the sex workers?

GA: She directed like a director. If there was a difference because she was a woman, she was seamless about it. She shot the hell out of it and told the story. I just wrapped a film called Egg, and it was mainly woman crew, mainly woman production. That was starkly different because it just ran... especially for an independent film, it ran pretty smooth. Things that would normally happen differently on a set with mostly men were not issues or just handled in a much more efficient way that kept the production moving with a mostly woman set. It was quite amazing. I think Michelle may have brought that and brought it in a way that was not even noticeable to me because she just knows that she has to keep things moving.

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AT: Over the course of these eight episodes of the first season of The Deuce, what are we as an audience going to see?

GA: It grows. It grows. It goes into different seasons, different years. It's all of the real progression of 42nd Street and the porn industry over the years. People can't stay doing the same hustle as the city changes and as the sex business changes.

 

AT: You mentioned your independent film, Egg that just wrapped. Is there anything else that you want to tell our readers about that's coming up after The Deuce?

GA: I really appreciate Shadow and Act and them being so supportive in our community. I'd love to encourage the readers to go to Liberated People, which is weareliberated.com. We're doing fundraisers for the Trayvon Martin Foundation, and we have to sell 5000 hoodies to raise $50,000 for the foundation. We also have a partnership with Planned Parenthood on Mother's Day. We have a liberated woman shirt, which $5 for each shirt goes toward the part of Planned Parenthood that works with women of color in urban neighborhoods. We also have the "Patriarchy is a Bitch" t-shirt, which raises money for Black Women's Blue Print, which helps older black feminists who spent their lives fighting, and may not have built a great deal of capital as they've gotten older. This helps them live with food and all the necessities they need. Check it out.

 

The Deuce premieres on HBO Sunday, Sept. 10 at 9 p.m. ET.

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