British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the star of several Hollywood blockbusters, having appeared in The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, and in the Thor franchise alongside Chris Hemsworth.
Roles in Game of Thrones, and as "a cannibal with rage issues" in Suicide Squad, the 2016 superhero film with a cast including Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Cara Delevingne, have only cemented his standing. But it was his role in the hit TV series Lost – as the drug runner-turned-priest, Mr Eko – that has left the deepest impression on his fans.
"I've been to corners of the world where people don't speak a word of English," says Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who says he is now routinely referred to as "Triple-A" because of his Nigerian birth name. "And yet they'll recite everything I've said as Eko in perfect English to me."
However, it is not too fantastical to suggest that Akinnuoye-Agbaje's own life story tops anything that he has appeared in on-screen.
Born in London to young Nigerian parents in the late 1960s, he was handed over to a white working-class family to be privately fostered in secret – an informal arrangement known as "farming" that many west African immigrants adopted in post-war Britain, until well into the 1970s. Akinnuoye-Agbaje was just six weeks old when his parents, both studying for degrees in London, made contact with a white couple in the dockside community of Tilbury, Essex, who would bring him up.
If growing up with a white family in 1960s Essex wasn't enough of a culture shock for Akinnuoye-Agbaje, how's this for a twist? To better fit in with his surroundings, he later joined a violently racist skinhead gang.
"If I saw a black person on the street and didn't attack them first," he says, "gang members would attack me. So it was purely a matter of survival. I didn't feel shame until much later."
Akinnuoye-Agbaje's extraordinary story is told in his latest film – called Farming – which he has written and directed, and which features rising British star Damson Idris as Akinnuoye-Agbaje's younger self, as well as an unrecognisable Kate Beckinsale as his foster mother. It's a compelling if sometimes uncomfortable film to watch, and even more difficult reconciling the eloquent 52-year-old actor with the violent story of his past. Yet committing his tale to the big screen was, he admits, "very cathartic. It took me a long time to sit down and really face who I was."
The young Adewale's foster mother, called Ingrid in the film, had been unable to have kids and fostered ten or more children at a time, including Adewale and his two sisters. "As more children came to stay, the less care and attention was paid to each one," he says. "I never got a hug, and my abiding memory of childhood was feeling hungry. I was encouraged to steal and, not knowing where the next meal was coming from, we'd most often have to provide it ourselves."
As the only black children in the area, they were subjected to regular abuse. "One of my first memories was when a policeman called me across the road, so I went over and he smiled, spat in my face, called me a 'w--', and then drove off," he says. "I was about four. I didn't have a clue what happened. I just knew it hurt."
In Tilbury, the threat of violence was never far away. "I even had a dog set on me once," he says. "I still have a scar on the back of my leg."
Even at home, there was little respite. Some of the most shocking scenes in the film feature Ingrid threatening the children to behave, or else they would be "on the next boat to Wooga-Wooga Land".
"While I'm not making any excuses, my mother was a product of the times. In the Seventies, shows such as Love Thy Neighbour were on TV, so those kind of epithets were commonplace. Essentially, it became a breeding ground for my own self-hatred because I had no positive role models or cultural references. I was painfully lonely. I'd retreat to my spot behind the sofa, where I'd just cut myself off from the world and take refuge in my imagination."
At eight, he suffered further dislocation when his birth parents arrived and took him and his sisters back to Nigeria. "Suddenly, I was in Africa with the heat and strange food. It was so traumatising that I stopped speaking. They thought I was possessed and tried various indigenous methods to make me speak [in the film, he is shown having his skin cut repeatedly].
As neglectful as my Essex foster family had been, it was all I'd known, and I yearned to go back. My siblings stayed on in Nigeria, but I was sent back to Tilbury." As young Adewale grew up, the violence around him intensified. "There was a group called the Tilbury Trojan Skins," he says, "and they ran the streets. Just hearing the name instilled fear in you."
His foster father was a long-distance lorry driver and frequently absent, but when Adewale ran home crying after being attacked by the skinheads, "he put me outside and said: 'Either you go out there and fight them, or I'll be giving you a beating myself.' So I picked up a piece of the picket fence in our garden and knocked on the door of one of them. I kept my eyes closed and started swinging, and when I opened them, he was lying on the floor in his blood. I ran home and wept because I knew a part of me died that day."
It did, however, grab the attention of the gang. "They terrorised me for weeks afterwards, but because I always fought back, I amused them. My reputation spread and, all of a sudden, I was being recognised for something other than my colour. I was gaining respect and because I'd known only humiliation and rejection before, it was a lifeline I clung to. That was my version of love."
Thus, he became a member of the skinheads that had persecuted him. "When they'd go and fight rival gangs, they'd throw me on first as their opening act," he says. "It was always an uneasy alliance. Because of my fragile standing within the gang, I had to repudiate any connection to my foster siblings, and if I saw one of them on the street, I'd throw something at them and miss them slightly, just to warn them off. Believe me, that was better for them than getting a boot in the head."
In constant trouble with the police and expelled from school at 16, Adewale was sent by his birth parents to a boarding school in Surrey. "To go from Tilbury to the manicured lawns of Surrey was just as traumatic as going to Nigeria," he says. "I was very cockney, very self-conscious and while the black people looked at me as a brother, I couldn't do the same as I felt guilty about my past. I knew I couldn't go back to the old life in Tilbury because I'd heard that two of the gang members had been murdered. But I couldn't see how to go forward either. I was at my lowest ebb." He attempted suicide, "but I didn't perceive it as death, just as a way to stop all the pain".
Gradually, however, he started piecing his real self together, "and the turning point for me was the passing of my first exam. Having been told all my life that I was worthless and stupid, passing it showed me that I could do something with my life." He went on to gain a law degree from King's College, London, and, after spells as a bouncer and a model, eventually became an actor.
Though his foster parents are no longer alive, he says they had seen a short, early version of the film: "They were supportive of me telling the truth." His birth father is also dead, but his birth mother, "while she hasn't seen the film yet, is aware of it, as I read the screenplay to her. I'm just hoping that it'll be a healing process for my entire family."
These days, Akinnuoye-Agbaje divides his time between Los Angeles and north London, where – rather worryingly, given the shocking violence of his youth – he believes the atmosphere is worse today.
"Back then, there was a code – to have a tool or a weapon was seen as cowardly. But youths are picking up knives and killing each other readily and losing their lives. That's a different level. People did lose their lives back then, but it was a rare thing. Nowadays, you see flowers [of remembrance] dotted everywhere. I live in a part of London where it's prevalent, so, unfortunately, I bear witness to it."
There are many reasons for the increase in such crimes, he says, "but it always starts in the home. Society nowadays is so fixated on material gain to the detriment of compassion, care and raising a family right. Absentee fathers or mothers, broken families… that can be part of the problem, as well as a lack of opportunities.
"But I also think it's basic values," he adds. "We've placed so much emphasis on buying a house and paying the bills, that something has to give. Even something as minuscule as shops being open on Sundays means that Sundays are now for business rather than a bonding time for families. Just to raise yourself well is an onerous task and to raise a child well is hard. Don't have children if you can't raise them, because if you're not giving them attention, someone else is.
"If my film shows anything, it's how young people can end up in life-threatening situations without their parents even knowing."
Farming is released in NZ cinemas on November 21.