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Sallieu Sesay

Sallieu Sesay on Manodrome, Jesse Eisenberg and changing masculinity

Culture

Sallieu Sesay is not any old rising star actor, he's one uniquely determined to make it to the very top of his profession - and clearly nothing is going to stop him.

If you haven’t seen Manodrome yet, you really must – it features Jesse Eisenberg as a man struggling to cope with a new baby and his own demons, who finds solace in a mysterious men’s support group headed up Adrian Brody’s character, only to start down a path towards violence. Think Fight Club meets Taxi Driver. It’s a thought-provoking film about masculinity gone wrong, with some stand-out performances, none more so than Sallieu Sesay who plays the body-builder Ahmet. His scenes with Jesse are, well, unforgettable. No spoilers here, but suffice to say you can’t take your eyes off Sallieu, a powerful performer who is surely set for big things. In fact, no surely about it, as we discovered in our interview with him, where he was hanging in his Los Angeles home, it was apparent that here was a guy of such focus and determination that only big things are possible. Enjoy this extended interview with an inspiring guy…

Can you just tell us about Manodrome for people who haven’t seen it?

So Manodrome is a psychological thriller about a guy named Ralphie who’s dealing with his masculinity, he’s dealing with sexuality, and he’s really struggling with some other issues. He comes across this cult-like group of men and that unleashes some things in him. And then he comes across my character, Ahmet, and that really unleashes something in him as well.

It’s got a lot of twists, got a lot of turns. And I’d say go see it, if you haven’t, it’s on Apple TV. Look, I just had a screening party here on Saturday, in my house. That entire staircase behind me was full of people. The couch had at least a couple of dozen people trying to fit on it, people on the floor, people outside actually on my patio looking in, people in my kitchen standing and watching. And the response? Because I didn’t tell anybody anything that was going to happen in the film, when they saw the climactic scene between Jesse and myself, they were shocked.

My mother hasn’t even seen this film. I told everyone that at my house on Saturday, they were laughing, like, “Oh, my God, your mom hasn’t seen the movie.” I don’t know what her response is going to be. It’s shocking. My siblings saw the movie, my brother drove about when it was in theatres. I didn’t hear a word from him. My sister saw the film with her husband and I didn’t hear a word from them. I’m like, okay, well, good! I guess no reaction is a reaction, right?

But it’s good casting. Jesse Eisenberg was Oscar nominated for The Social Network. And then you’ve got Adrian Brody, who won Oscar in 2004. I mean, it was phenomenal.

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Those guys must be brilliant people to learn from.

Yes, absolutely. Just to get a compliment from Jesse, for example, and John Trengove. John is an award winning director. It’s not his first time at the rodeo. I would call him a fan favourite at Berlinale, where the film had its world premiere. It was my first red carpet. It was a dream come true. It’s something I’ve been working at now for nine years.

I’ve been working at this for nine good years, taking acting classes. I trained with a woman named Ivana Chubbuck. She’s the same lady who Halle Berry gave a shout out to when she won an Oscar for Monsters Ball. I remember being a teenager watching at home, and me being who I was and am still, I went to my room and I wrote her name down. I thought, ‘This lady is helping people to win Oscars? I’m training with her.’

Cut to nine years later, here I am in her class and I’m training with her.

Wow, that’s brilliant. 

Yeah. It’s so serendipitous, man. It also is in alignment with a lot of what I believe in, like, manifestation and prayer and faith. But also I believe in sciences, psycho-cybernetics and epigenetics and quantum physics and these things also. I love autobiographies. I’m kind of going off on a tangent here.

No, it’s great!

I like to speak from my heart. So right now I’m learning about Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman leader. And I see this common thread in all these people where it’s like hard work and determination and persistence always gets you to where you want to be eventually.

And also spotting those opportunities. You must have had something to have written down her name. You must have recognised something in yourself that was seriously determined. 

Exactly. Look, at 15, my father left. He goes back to Africa. We’re from Sierra Leone in West Africa. He goes back. And so my mother’s raising three kids on her own. I’m not even sure I’m going to go to college. But I go to college at 18. I study theatre, I’m loving it. I’m doing plays, I’m doing musicals. But being from an African family, I told my mother, ‘this is what I want to do’. And she’s just like, ‘what? That’s crazy. You’re not going to be an actor. You need to be a lawyer. You need to be a doctor. You need to be a nurse. Otherwise, what are you doing with your time?’

So I did get a degree in nursing and also did theatre at the same time. As soon as I graduated, I moved down to LA. I rented a room from a woman who was a real estate agent, and this lady was very fond of me, and she said, look, Sallieu, you really should buy your own home in LA. And I thought to myself, I don’t know if I’m ready, but I’m glad I did because it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Not just financially, but also to really ground myself here in LA. So I was really grateful for her advice and just for the way everything panned out.

So to have your own home was important in an uncertain, tough industry, with a lot of competition, a lot of rejection.

Oh, my God, tell me about it. Look, the other day, I had one of my agents or my manager, she said, I want to get one of your self tapes. I said, like, which of my 650 self tapes would you like to get? I keep all my auditions.

And like an athlete, whenever I’m training for a role, I’ll coach privately with Ivana, and then after I’ve coached, I’ll come home, and then I’ll tape myself. After I tape myself, I’ll watch it and I’ll take notes and I’ll say, okay, well, this rang true, or, this needs more work. I’ll just repeat, repeat, repeat this process until I feel like I’ve got something tangible.

What do you do in terms of looking after yourself. You are a big guy in Manodrome.

I do gym pretty regularly, but for that film specifically, I gained an extra 15 pounds of just muscle mass. I tweaked my diet, started lifting heavier so I could really bulk out and I reduced my cardio by about 30 minutes.

What were some of the other things that you put into that performance?

Well, different characters lead with different body parts, right? Like, you’ve got people who you see in life who kind of lead with their heads when they walk. Then you got some people lead with their groins when they walk. A different sort of a swagger. I kind of worked on different animal exercises to see where this guy carries his weight and how he moves. And he’s almost like a gorilla, with the heavy upper stature and the kind of movement and sort of delivery. So there’s a lot of that.

I’m a big researcher. When I get an audition, there’ll be things in there that I’m completely unfamiliar with that I have to then go to Google and look up. Last January, I played a character who was Muslim. I’ve got family members that are Muslim. But actually, I had to learn some of the prayers just for my own personal benefit. Learn how to pray, how to wash, learn how weddings are done, how proposals are done, marriages are done, just so I can really have an understanding. You’re almost like a detective, really, when you’re doing your research.

And of course, when you get on set there’s Ivana. She teaches twelve steps and then you throw everything away. Once you’ve had your beats, your actions, you’ve got your scene objective, you’ve got your character’s overall objective, hat do they want most from life… Once you figured out all these things and all these elements, they’re in your body and you just kind of have to trust that they’re there. You have to trust that when you get to set, they’ll just kind of come to the surface.

So when it comes to action, you have to free up from it all?

It needs to be. I’m always kind of changing things up between takes to see, okay. Just to be able to give them something to the editors and the directors. But it was great working with Jesse because he’s very experienced. And he’s very charismatic as well. And because of the intensity of our scene – I’m not trying to give away any spoilers – but we had to have a level of comfortability between the two of us. And obviously we had an intimacy coordinator.

There were other experiences that I really valued. For example, once we’d finished our screening dinner with Adrian Brody, I was able to kind of muster up the courage to go talk to him. I said, ‘What advice would you give me?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, for one, you’ve got to persevere.’ He told me about a story when he was in a film and he was excited, and he goes to see it with his mum and his dad. But they’d cut him out! He told me that at that moment in time he could have just said, you know what? I’m done with this. But he just persisted. Now look at where his career has got him. He’s got practically everything he’s wanted.

I’ve got that level of perseverance. Literally. I just got off work last night. I work night shifts. And I came home and I had to stage my place because I’m getting ready to list one of my properties. There’s a level of self sacrifice you have to make in order to get to where you want to, especially in LA. A place like Los Angeles, man, where there’s some of the most beautiful people in the world – who doesn’t want to maybe go out on a date or something? But you have to set all these things aside and realising that I’m on a mission and when the time is right, the right person will come along. You have to really have to focus on yourself and what you’re here to accomplish. That’s my advice to all the single men out there.

Seems like you have a good, single-minded approach…

I’ll tell you something else, man. When I did this film, I had another project come along. I was in Africa at the time, and the producers reached out to me. It was a direct offer, so I didn’t have to audition. So that was already flattering. Then I fell in love with the script, the story, the character’s arc. It was a role I wanted to play next because it’s so different from the role I played in Manodrome. This guy starts out healthy, but then he gets Lugaric disease, a disease that affects your extremities and eventually your central nervous system. And you asphyxiate. This character becomes crippled and sick. And I thought, that’s the role I want to play. I’ve got a scene in there that I just love where I’m telling my son, he’s got to be the man of the house now. My reps were saying, no, you really shouldn’t take this role, the pay is really low. I thought to myself, who cares about the money right now?I want nice, juicy roles that I can my teeth into that are transformational. For that role, I lost 15 pounds of weight.

Interesting that you’re playing these different types of men. It feels like there’s a whole new world of that happening now more than there ever has. Is that the way that you feel about it?

I do. Because growing up, it was never cool to cry or be vulnerable. You always have to be the tough guy. Something very interesting happened when I was 15 and my father left. Prior to him leaving, we were at, like, office depot or someplace like that, and he was buying supplies for his business. And I went to the back, and I saw a CD. It was Tupac’s album, All Eyez On Me. He’s looking like a badass. He’s got the vest, he’s got the Death Row chain. And my dad saw that and was like, no, I’m not buying that for you. So we left.

But we had to come back because he forgot something, so I ran to the back again, I got the CD, and I said, ‘Dad, please buy this CD for me, please.’ And he’s like, ‘OK’. Shortly after, he left. So my big brother/father figure was Tupac. So I grew up, he’s got lyrics in there like, ‘In the time of danger, don’t freeze, time to be a G, follow my lead’.

Whenever I had hardships, I would kind of recite his lyrics in my mind or whenever I went to school. I didn’t go to a bad school, but there were gang members at school You’d be walking around minding your business, and somebody would come be like, ‘Yo, so and so want to see you after school, cuz’. And you’re like, what? You’re going about your business, and all of a sudden, somebody wants to fight, you have to defend yourself.

His lyrics also had some sentiment, which is why he’s one of my favourite artists. I don’t know if you heard the track, Dear Mama. It brings me to tears almost every single time I hear because it’s so poetic. And I could relate as a young man, being raised by a single mum, without my dad around. No leadership. So that was my idea of masculinity. I got in a lot of fistfights. I got in a lot of trouble. Was suspended from school many times, arrests, all kinds of crazy things, right?

But what I’m teaching my eight year old son now is that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and identify what you’re feeling and figure out how to work through it. We used to be like, ‘you can’t feel anything, you got to thug it out and just be a tough guy’.

Masculinity is changing. I also have an eleven year old daughter, and I think about the kind of man I want her to be with. I don’t want her to be with the kind of man who’s like, ‘oh, I’m the man, you listen, blah, blah’. I want her to be with the type of person who can express himself and have a peaceful dialogue if there’s a disagreement. It doesn’t have to be a bullying sort of situation.

That’s amazing to hear, on a personal level of how you’re dealing with your children, but also looking at the bigger picture, especially after being through such tough times as well, having the wherewithal to be able to look back on that and go, okay, don’t want that to happen to other people.

And that’s a great point you bring up. The wherewithal to look back. I’m big on making sure I have time either the beginning of the day or the end of the day, preferably both times, to just really sit and reflect and write things down. I find that it’s extremely helpful. I use a specific planner too. I’ve got years and years of these planners and I see how I’ve written goals about being with a specific agency or be with a specific management company or having an IMDb page connected to my name. It’s nice to look back and say, wow, I’ve done that. Now write down new goals and set new goals and accomplish those as well. That’s what it’s about, really.

I’ve also learned that it’s the person you become. And once you become this person, you can have whatever it is that you’re aspiring to have, but you have to become the person first. A lot of people think once I have this thing, then I’ll be this person. Like, no, you’re the person first. And then you attract that stuff to you.

It’s a troubled world right now, I’m sure, in the States, there’s a cost of living crisis over there as well. And so it can become quite hopeless sometimes, can’t it? And that lack of feeling not in control can be quite a horrible one.

It really can. And I think that’s why it’s so important for people to really focus on what it is they do have and what it is they do have control over. And what you have control over is your mentality, like how you think. And counting your blessings is a big part of what I do in the morning, like my health, my kids, my relationships, my friends, my family, my job. The fact that I’m a homeowner. That’s something that I can really be proud of. Just counting my blessings, really.

Manodrome is on Apple TV now.

Shoot Photographer – Nogen Beck – https://www.instagram.com/nogenbeckphoto/

Ashley Cain

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