Nnamdi Asomugha: From The Silver & Black To The Silver Screen

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 12, 2020 8:35 am

Usually, when guests come on NPR's comedy quiz show Ask Me Another, Ophira Eisenberg and Jonathan Coulton ask them the questions. Nnamdi Asomugha flipped the script: He interviewed Ophira and Jonathan right back, asked them to make his game tougher, and even made up a trivia question for them to answer.

An actor and former professional football player, Asomugha isn't afraid of a challenge. He played defense with the Oakland Raiders as a shutdown cornerback, which he described as "one of the most difficult positions in all of sports to play."

When he retired and began a career in show business, he knew he was coming in with less experience than his peers, so he made his way by producing projects he could also cut his teeth by acting in.

Although Asomugha made his name in football and as the star of Crown Heights and A Soldier's Play, his first love was basketball. His older brother, however, talked him into joining the football team in high school, and that sent him on a track that led him straight to the Oakland Raiders. He spent the bulk of his career with the team, and The Bleacher Report called him "one of the most coveted free agents" when his contract ran up in 2011. And even after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, and later the San Francisco 49ers, he returned to Oakland for one day, just so he could officially retire as a Raider.

When he left the game at the age of 32, he knew what his next passion was: acting. Previously, he'd made a cameo on Friday Night Lights and been in a few commercials, and heard good feedback about his screen presence from directors. He began producing and acting in projects like Crown Heights and Sylvie's Love, and he made his Broadway debut this year in A Soldier's Play, which unfortunately shuttered at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He explains to host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton how he made the transition from field to stage and what makes a great shutdown corner. A self-professed fan of Christmas movies, Eisenberg and Coulton challenge him to a game about obscure sequels to holiday classics.

Interview Highlights:

On growing up with a Nigerian name and why he has four middle names:

In our family, the ancestors, they'd just give a bunch of names to kids. So I have like four middle names. And I was cool with all of them, and none of them will make sense to you, they'll all sound strange. But I was always fine with it, actually. The main ones that I use are Ezenwa and I use Onyekachi. I said four, but they are, I mean, we'd be here all day. And the crazy thing is, if you're around them, you have to know that that's your name, so you have to answer to it, even though you've never heard it before. They refer to you by the name of their household that they've given you. So if I'm around a group and they say, "Ezenwa," I have to turn and be like, "Hey! How's it going?" Even though I've never used that name, you know? Or we have Ja'chima or Tochi, you know, all these names, you just have to know them.

On learning to play saxophone for his role Sylvie's Love:

I wasn't familiar, but I trained for the saxophone for over a year for this part. Just to get it down and get down the music. I would love to keep playing, but once we finished shooting, I sort of put it down. My entire family was sort of tired of me playing at all hours.

On his love of Christmas movies:

It starts probably that week of Christmas, and then it's non-stop in the house. But it's a rotation of like the same few movies. It's on a little bit of a loop, but it's fun, it's great. I mean, I think we know the words to every one of those three movies. So it's basically Home Alone, It's a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story.

Heard on: Richard Kind & Nnamdi Asomugha: Seriously, Ask Me Another

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here is your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


It's time to welcome our special guest. He's an actor, producer and former NFL player. He stars opposite Tessa Thompson in the new film "Sylvie's Love," which is available to stream on Amazon beginning December 23 - Nnamdi Asomugha. Hello.

NNAMDI ASOMUGHA: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: So, you know, I know from, you know, talking to you through many people that you love Christmas movies.

ASOMUGHA: I do love Christmas movies (laughter).

EISENBERG: Do - are you - have you watched any yet?

ASOMUGHA: No, no, no. It starts probably that week of Christmas, and then it's nonstop in the house.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, it's nonstop. But it's a rotation of, like, the same few movies, so it doesn't...

EISENBERG: Oh, you're on a loop?

ASOMUGHA: Yeah. It's...


ASOMUGHA: It's got a little bit of a loop. But it's fun. It's...


ASOMUGHA: ...Great. I mean, I think we know the words to every one of those three movies.

EISENBERG: Oh, what are the three?

ASOMUGHA: So it's basically "Home Alone," "It's A Wonderful Life." You would call "It's A Wonderful Life" a Christmas movie - right?

EISENBERG: Definitely.

COULTON: Absolutely.



ASOMUGHA: Yeah, "It's A Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story."

COULTON: Yeah. Fantastic - good choices.

EISENBERG: OK. Those are - yeah, those are great.


EISENBERG: I have a soft spot for "Scrooged."

ASOMUGHA: Oh, "Scrooged." Oh, I love "Scrooged."

COULTON: I feel like that is an underrated...

ASOMUGHA: I love that one.

COULTON: ...Christmas movie that I always forget about, but it's a good movie.

EISENBERG: Yeah, it's a good one. There's a...

ASOMUGHA: Oh, it's so good. I think I know all the words to Scrooged, too. I'm being honest with you. I think I do.


ASOMUGHA: That is a great one. Oh, man. Jonathan, give me one. What's your fifth?

COULTON: I mean, those are the ones for me. But, you know, my kids are, I mean - they're getting older now. But for a while we were held hostage by what they wanted to watch. And so they got...



COULTON: They got started early on all of the stop motion - on all the weird, like, Rankin/Bass stop motion ones.

ASOMUGHA: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

COULTON: ...From the '70s, which...


COULTON: Which a lot of those don't hold up all that well. And if you have to watch them over and over, they start to make you a little crazy.

ASOMUGHA: You're talking about, like, "Rudolph" (ph) and...

EISENBERG: That's what I was thinking. Yeah, "Rudolph" (ph).

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, "Rudolph" (ph) was the one. Yeah.

COULTON: "Rudolph" (ph). There's a one where Mickey Rooney plays a young Santa Claus.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

COULTON: It's like the origin story of Santa Claus, but it's all stuff that I've - you've never heard of before.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

COULTON: That one is particularly trippy for some reason. I don't know why.

ASOMUGHA: (Laughter) Right. Right.

EISENBERG: Nnamdi, so you were a professional football player, and now you're an actor. How did you find your way to acting?

ASOMUGHA: How did I find my way to acting? I - look, I'd always loved movies. I always loved - I mean, when I was a kid, you know, there was a period of time where we had one TV in the house, and I lobbied my parents to have that in my room.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).


ASOMUGHA: So I shared a room with my brother, and we got the TV. I mean, we got it for about...

COULTON: That is - that's amazing (laughter).

ASOMUGHA: It was great. And we got it for nearly a year until it was taken away from us. But I think it was one of those things that was always sort of inside of me, something I always loved. And when you finish playing a career that you've kind of been doing for about 20 years and you have to find something new, I mean, it's important to find something that you love. So I went into - to this field because it was something I loved.

EISENBERG: Right. So, OK. So as a professional football player, you played for 11 seasons. You were considered one of the best shutdown corners in the NFL. Now, as I say those words, you might notice I don't know what they are.

ASOMUGHA: That you have no clue what you're saying.


ASOMUGHA: That's hilarious. I'm like, does she have any idea what she's saying?

EISENBERG: So - but anyways, I actually do not know. For our listeners and me, can you tell me what a shutdown corner is?

ASOMUGHA: It's basically, the cornerback position is that you're on defense. Obviously, you know who the quarterback is - right? He throws the ball to a guy...


ASOMUGHA: ...And hopefully they get a touchdown. So your job on defense is to make sure that the guy the quarterback's throwing to doesn't catch the ball. And so - and so when you're a shutdown corner, that means that you predominantly play - boy, this is about to go right over your head. But...

EISENBERG: I'm ready. I'm ready.

COULTON: I love it. I love it.

EISENBERG: I love it.

ASOMUGHA: It means you predominately play in a scheme called man to man, which means you have little to no help.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: And you have to - and you have to do this. So basically, they're going forward. They know exactly where they need to get. And you're going backwards, and you have no clue where they're trying to go.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: But you have to get there before them, you know? So that's the - I think it's one of the most difficult positions in all of sports to play. So it's...

EISENBERG: Yeah, it sounds impossible.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, that's a shutdown corner. It's - yeah. But you learn some tricks along the way, and you figure it out.

EISENBERG: OK, so you're in this...

ASOMUGHA: Ophira, I have to ask you - I have to ask you a question. Where does your name come from?

EISENBERG: My name - it's a very old Hebrew name.


EISENBERG: And it's typically popular in Israel, but even in Israel, nobody names their kids Ophira.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Ophira. OK (laughter).

EISENBERG: Old and unpopular.


ASOMUGHA: Got it. Got it. OK. And did you - so with that growing up - because I also have a name that's, you know, not common.


ASOMUGHA: And so growing up, did you - was that a weird thing for you? Did you not like your name?

EISENBERG: Oh, I hated it. I hated it.

ASOMUGHA: OK, got it. Got it.

EISENBERG: I wanted to be a Tracy or...

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, sure, sure, sure. Sure.

EISENBERG: ...A Sarah so badly. I thought they were all better than me.


EISENBERG: That's probably - yeah. So I felt - yeah, so...

ASOMUGHA: But now you've embraced it - right?

EISENBERG: Sorta. Sorta.


COULTON: That's why you ended up on NPR. It's like a perfect NPR name.

EISENBERG: That's right. It's true. How did you feel about your name growing up?

ASOMUGHA: I was actually fine with my name growing up. Like, in our family, the ancestors, you know - they just give a bunch of names to kids. So I have, like, four middle names. And, you know, I was cool with all of them. And none of them will make sense to you. And...


ASOMUGHA: ...They'll all sound strange. But, yeah. It's - I was always fine with it, actually.

EISENBERG: So, Nnamdi, what are your four middle - did you say four middle names? Do you have four middle names?

ASOMUGHA: The main ones that I use are Ezenwa, and I use Onyekachi. I said four, but there are - I mean, we'd be here all day. I mean, there's...


ASOMUGHA: You just have a ton of - and...


ASOMUGHA: And but the crazy thing is, if you're around them, you have to know that that's your name. So you have to answer to it, even though you've never heard it before. If they're calling you...

COULTON: They call - they refer to you by one of your middle names as a test?

ASOMUGHA: They - it's a - they refer to you by the name of their household that they've given you.


COULTON: Oh, I see. OK.

ASOMUGHA: You know? And so you kind of - like, if I'm around a group and they say, Ezenwa, I have to turn and be like, hey, how's it going - even though I never use that name, you know.

COULTON: Right, right.

ASOMUGHA: Or, you know, we have Ja'chima or Tochi, or - you know, all of these names, you just got - you just have to know.

EISENBERG: Jonathan, how has your name affected your mentality?

ASOMUGHA: (Laughter).

COULTON: Well, you know, it's interesting. My father's name was John. My grandfather's name was John.


COULTON: And my mother and everybody wanted me to be John III, but my mother was like, absolutely not. His name is Jonathan (laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Wow. Yo, I love it. I love it (laughter).

COULTON: Which is just like a little tiny twist of the knife.


ASOMUGHA: I love it.

COULTON: So that's sort of the origin story behind my name, which - I don't know what that says about my personality now. But (laughter) - slightly different, but not too much.

ASOMUGHA: There you go (laughter).

EISENBERG: So you're in this new movie, "Sylvie's Love." You star opposite Tessa Thompson, who plays Sylvie. And your character Robert is an aspiring jazz saxophonist who meets Sylvie and then starts working in her dad's record store. And it's set in New York in the late '50s. So - and then your character in the movie plays tenor saxophone. I'm just wondering - what kind of, you know, tutoring or education did you have to give yourself? Unless you were already familiar with playing that instrument.

COULTON: I mean, that's also like playing cornerback. It's the same thing that...

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, yeah. It's the exact same thing, Jonathan. The exact - no.


ASOMUGHA: No, I wasn't familiar. But yeah, I trained for the saxophone for over a year for this part. Yeah, just to get it down and to get down the music.


EISENBERG: Have you decided that you want to keep playing?

ASOMUGHA: I would love to keep playing, but I don't...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK.

ASOMUGHA: I don't - I mean, once we finished shooting, I sort of put it down.


ASOMUGHA: I - my entire family was sort of tired of me playing at all hours.


ASOMUGHA: So I just stopped playing. And hopefully one day I'll...

EISENBERG: Like, could you stop with the saxophone?

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

EISENBERG: You're like, all right, fine.


EISENBERG: OK, Nnamdi, you know, before we have a segment with a celebrity, we usually ask them, you know, what are they - what are you into? Some people don't say anything, and some people say things that are very specific - like you, because you said that you like Christmas movies. And what a time to say that. So many Christmas...

ASOMUGHA: What a time to say that - that's right.


EISENBERG: What a time to say that. What an ideal time to say that.

ASOMUGHA: I love it.

EISENBERG: So many Christmas movies are so popular that, of course, someone tried to make a sequel. So in this game, Jonathan, I will give you the plot synopsis of the real sequel to a classic Christmas movie.

ASOMUGHA: Oh, yes.

EISENBERG: You tell us the name of the original film.

ASOMUGHA: OK. Good, good, good. What do I get if I win?

EISENBERG: You get a recording of this appearance.


COULTON: You can keep the recording. Otherwise, you have to throw the recording away.


ASOMUGHA: All right, all right.

EISENBERG: So what I'm saying is that the stakes are high.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, that's right. That's right.



EISENBERG: OK. I think this first one's going to be a total gimme (ph). But, you know, we're just setting a stage here.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I need that.

EISENBERG: OK, here's your first one. Kevin McAllister's parents separate, and Kevin must defend his father's girlfriend's mansion from the same criminal who attacked him in the first two movies. This made-for-TV movie features none of the original cast.

ASOMUGHA: Oh, this is - you know, what's interesting is I never saw the third one. So you're talking about "Home Alone 3," I believe, right?


ASOMUGHA: Wait, you're talking about "Home Alone 4"?

EISENBERG: I mean - yeah, you just - exactly. You already got the property, "Home Alone," so you get that.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Is there a "Home Alone 4"?

EISENBERG: There's a "Home Alone 4" (laughter).

ASOMUGHA: No way. I didn't...


ASOMUGHA: But I didn't even know. I thought - I was like - wow. OK, so there's a "Home Alone 4." I haven't even seen "Home Alone 3." I've only seen the first two.

EISENBERG: Actually, so there have been five "Home Alone" movies. The third and the fifth film are about different families (laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Oh, man.

EISENBERG: It's like at a certain point, they just named something they had on the shelf "Home Alone."

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, that's right (laughter).

COULTON: All right, here's another one. Set in...

ASOMUGHA: By the way...


ASOMUGHA: By the way, Jonathan, "Home Alone 2" is one of - to me, one of those sequels that actually could be considered better than the first one.

COULTON: Really?

ASOMUGHA: Just like "Godfather II" (ph). Yeah, that's how I feel.


COULTON: It's - "Home Alone 2" is "The Empire Strikes Back" of "Home Alone."

ASOMUGHA: There you go. There you go. There you go. OK. There you go.


COULTON: All right, here's the next one. Set years after the events of the original film, Ralphie is now 15 years old and pines for a used 1939 Mercury 8 convertible.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

COULTON: While ogling the car, he sets off an unlikely sequence of events, resulting in a plastic reindeer smashing through the convertible's roof. He and his pals scramble to raise enough money to fix the car before Christmas.

ASOMUGHA: So I did not know there was "A Christmas Story" sequel. I did not.

COULTON: We're learning a lot of things in this game.

EISENBERG: We're here to give you things.

ASOMUGHA: What is happening right now? Like, what...

COULTON: "Christmas Story" is correct, yeah. This was the second...


COULTON: This was the second sequel in the "Christmas Story" universe. So there was a sequel called "My Summer Story" that came first.



COULTON: But this one, "A Christmas Story 2," completely ignores the events of that film. So it's a strange...



EISENBERG: We have a trailer, though. You want to hear the trailer?

ASOMUGHA: No, no, no. I'm OK.




COULTON: It's like, no, thank you. No, thank you.

EISENBERG: Sorry, I didn't mean it as a question. We're going to hear the trailer.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, that's right. That's right (laughter).



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ralphie?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ralphie?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Ralphie?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now he's a bigger kid with an even bigger wish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Oh, jeez.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's "A Christmas Story 2" - the official sequel. The timeless tradition continues.

EISENBERG: Yep. Timeless.

ASOMUGHA: That was rough. That was rough. But I...

EISENBERG: OK. Here's your next one. In this...

ASOMUGHA: Don't say - hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Try - is there a way to say it without saying the character?

EISENBERG: Oh, you want me to make it harder? Yes, there is.

ASOMUGHA: Do you know what I mean? OK. Let's try that.

EISENBERG: I think so. OK.

COULTON: Yeah. All right.

EISENBERG: In this 1977 prequel to an animated classic, the titular villain terrorizes a small town populated by people with goofy hairstyles during a different holiday. This time, it's Halloween.

ASOMUGHA: But it can't be the Grinch, right?

EISENBERG: Oh, yes. It can.

ASOMUGHA: It's the Grinch. Wow. Wait...

EISENBERG: They made "Halloween Is Grinch Night."


EISENBERG: We have a TV commercial clip for that. Let's hear it.

COULTON: (Laughter).



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They don't talk about it much in Whoville. But before he stole Christmas, the Grinch haunted Halloween.

ASOMUGHA: That's it?

EISENBERG: That's it. That's it - not even...

ASOMUGHA: Oh, wow. That's a...

EISENBERG: ...(Singing) you're a boo one.

ASOMUGHA: Nothing - there was nothing.


ASOMUGHA: That's - OK.

COULTON: I'm going to pass on that one.

EISENBERG: Yeah. No, I don't need to see that.

ASOMUGHA: I'm going to pass as well.


EISENBERG: Here's your last one.

ASOMUGHA: Aw, man.

EISENBERG: You've been doing amazing.


EISENBERG: You doubt your answer. But you get them right every single time.

ASOMUGHA: Yeah, yeah.

COULTON: That's right.

EISENBERG: So here we go. The original crossover event of the century, our hooved, heroic misfit teams up with a snow thing. I'm trying to take the person, the people out - teams up to defeat the evil King Winterbolt on their journey. Our heroes must travel to the circus by the sea and the cave of lost rejections.

ASOMUGHA: I'm so disappointed right now.


ASOMUGHA: I don't think I have this one. Rudolph? - no.


ASOMUGHA: Yeah. Rudolph and Frosty, I guess?

EISENBERG: Yeah. So the original was, of, course "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." And the second is called "Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July."

ASOMUGHA: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Oh, OK. What is it? Oh, we have a clip from the beginning of this movie to prove that Rudolph and Frosty know each other. All right. Let's hear it. Let's hear it.

COULTON: (Laughter).

ASOMUGHA: Oh, dear.


BILLIE MAE RICHARDS: (As Rudolph) Hey, Frosty.

JACK VERNON: (As Frost) Hey. Rudolph.

EISENBERG: Wow. There you go. They all know each other.

COULTON: They're old friends. They're old friends.

ASOMUGHA: They're old friends.

COULTON: They're friends from the various Christmas conventions that they have.

ASOMUGHA: That's right (laughter).

EISENBERG: I love the cave of lost rejections. That is my favorite thing.

ASOMUGHA: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: I have a email inbox of active rejections.


EISENBERG: That's where I go. That's where I go during the holidays. All right. So I...

ASOMUGHA: I have one for you guys.


ASOMUGHA: All right, good.

COULTON: Because I was waiting for it, and it didn't come. And I don't even know how to describe it. But I'm just going to - I'm going to describe the first one.


COULTON: A guy discovers he's - and I can't say who he discovers because that'll give it away.


ASOMUGHA: And the question is, who is the lead actor in the film?

EISENBERG: OK. Jonathan Coulton, I feel like you must know...

COULTON: I think I know the answer. Yeah. So I think you were talking about "The Santa Claus," right?

EISENBERG: Well done.

COULTON: And it's - Tim Allen is the lead actor.

ASOMUGHA: Well done, Jonathan. Yeah. And...

COULTON: What do I get?

ASOMUGHA: Well done. Well done.


ASOMUGHA: You get a recording of this...

COULTON: That's fair. That's fair.

ASOMUGHA: ...This interview. That's right.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: No. You win. You win a recording.

COULTON: You win the...

EISENBERG: It's all in the phrasing. It's all in the phrasing.


EISENBERG: You got the bow. You did...

ASOMUGHA: I did - thank you.

EISENBERG: ...Perfect. You did perfect.

ASOMUGHA: Aw, thank you.

EISENBERG: You assumed - I feel like you just assumed the whole thing ahead of time since that's your superpower...

ASOMUGHA: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...And figured out our strategy.

COULTON: You read our body.

EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So...

ASOMUGHA: That's right.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much. Nnamdi Asomugha's new film "Sylvie''s Love" will be available on Amazon Prime December 23. Thank you so much for joining us. It was a blast.

ASOMUGHA: Thank you, guys. Aw, this was great. Thank you very much.

EISENBERG: Pleasure.

ASOMUGHA: All right. See you.

EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzle's written by our staff along with Camilla Franklin, Carol Lee, Cara Weinberger and Emily Winter. ASK ME ANOTHER's produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Barber, Rommel Wood and our intern Sam Yellowhorse Kesler.

COULTON: Yells reseals homework.

EISENBERG: Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neal. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. We'd like to thank our production partner, WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.