Interview: Meet Abraham Attah, star of Beasts of No Nation
Ivan Radford | On 16, Oct 2015
Beasts of No Nation is remarkable for many reasons. It’s Netflix’s first original film. It’s the first movie by Cary Fukunaga since True Detective. And it could be the movie that earns Idris Elba his first Oscar nomination. Most of all, though, it’s the first film for young Abraham Attah. The 15-year-old Ghanaian actor plays Agu, a child recruited to be a soldier by Elba’s Commandant in an unnamed West African country.
It’s a tough role, not least because of what Agu has to do in the film – it’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to kill a man with a machete. Military training to use weapons is challenging enough, after all, even without Idris Elba towering over you.
“At first it was hard to work with him,” says Attah at the film’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival. “I was shy of him.”
In person, though, the breakout star seems far from it. He smiles readily, all teeth and enthusiasm. Then again, by now he’s a veteran of these kind of events: he did the premieres in both Venice and Toronto, he tells us.
Does it get weirder or easier? “Easier for me,” he nods. “Venice was my first time being on a red carpet and there were huge people there. I was quite shy and I tried to walk on the red carpet. Because I’ve seen many people, it feels normal for me to walk on the red carpet now.”
He speaks with the kind of confidence you’d hope for, after such an extraordinary performance – in Venice, he won the Marcello Mastroianni Award. But go back several years and all this hadn’t even crossed his mind.
“It’s like 3,000 kids was fighting for the role!”
The legend goes that he was cast in the streets, but “that’s not the right story”, he explains.
“I was in school on Friday and a white man was standing there watching us play football. And he called us to come for an audition.”
Attah and his friends didn’t even realise it was for a movie, let alone what the movie was about. “We thought it was a football thing!” he continues. “We went for an audition and I was chose with some of my friends.”
They were invited to one of the television stations in Ghana for the next stage, which saw tons of youngsters trying out for the chance to go to Hollywood.
“I was working hard because I knew it was a movie – like a Hollywood movie – so I had to work hard,” he adds. It certainly paid off: where he lives in his school, he was the only one who was cast.
“It’s like 3,000 kids was fighting for the role!” he adds.
Do they all hate him now? He grins with the satisfaction of getting something well-earned. “I was working hard. That’s why I got the role.”
It might not seem like much of a victory, though, given the horrors that were then endured on set.
“I got malaria, about a week before we started shooting,” confirms director Cary Fukunaga (also at the premiere), who has been trying to bring the project to the screen for almost a decade.
He downplays it, adding that it was “actually pretty convenient, it meant i had an extra week to work not he screenplay”, but it was just one of several setbacks. After having to relocate the entire production early on to a country with not much in the way of movie-making infrastructure, Fukunaga’s cameraman was injured, leaving him to operate the camera himself throughout. Then there were the supplies needed to create such a nightmarish conflict zone – and the troops.
“We were doing a war film, we needed to bring in ammunition and special effects, which is essentially bomb making materials in a peaceful country,” he says.
“We also had young kids cast out of Liberia and when they were all busing over to take part they got arrested in the Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries. It took us about four days to figure where they were! I was having to re-write the script as we went, write new characters in and write other characters out…”
On top of all that, Idris Elba famously fell off a cliff during filming, narrowly avoiding death.
“I was happy to go to set every day.”
But for Attah, who hadn’t been away from home before, it couldn’t have been a more enjoyable experience.
“I didn’t know about malaria!” he laughs. “I knew about malaria, but I didn’t get sick on set. I was happy to go to set every day!”
It’s a mark of perhaps how carefully looked after Attah and the other youngsters were that he is so positive about the reported ordeal.
“We were having fun every day!” he continues, completely at odds with the movie’s subject and tone. “We had this white man who lives in Ghana and sometimes I would be rapping and he would be dancing… It was fun! We were playing football. We were having fun on set.”
Even the daunting shadow of Idris was dispelled easily: “Sometimes he played football with us,” he says. “It became normal.”
What about the character of Agu, a child soldier who commits horrific atrocities? Was that difficult to confront?
“I did some rehearsals with Cary and my acting coach,” says Attah with a winning simplicity. “I read the script so I knew what I was going to do on set, so it was not difficult for me to do.”
It’s that kind of attitude – casual, determined, charmingly matter-of-fact – that suggests the astonishing young boy has a bright future. Are the acting offers coming in now? “My manager’s working on it,” he smiles. “She’s ok.”
But there’s little doubt in Abraham’s mind that he’s got a career ahead of him – possibly even several.
“Yeah!” he replies immediately when we raise the subject of doing more movies. “I want to be an actor. And at the same time a businessman.”
What kind of business? “Any business!” he laughs. “Yeah, any business!”
Beasts of No Nation is now available on Netflix UK. Read our review here.
For more on the London Film Festival, visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff