As a child growing up in Nigeria, Dayo Okeniyi was passionate about the theater and often fantasized about becoming a professional thespian one day. However, by the time he moved to the United States as a teenager, he decided that it would be better to pursue what he felt was a more stable career path.
In college, he studied graphic design and advertising but by the time he graduated, the acting bug began gnawing at his conscience and he moved out to L.A. to work toward his true passion. While most aspiring actors struggle for years to land a definitive role, Okeniyi was an instant success. The twenty-something newbie landed the role of Thresh in the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games during his first audition and he says that to this day he struggles to believe that his life isn’t a dream. EBONY catches up with the burgeoning actor to talk about his journey from Nigeria to Hollywood.
EBONY: You have an interesting backstory. How did you end up moving to the United States?
Dayo Okeniyi: I was born to a Nigerian dad and a Kenyan mom, and coming to the States was really academic. I came to go to school and even though I had been an actor my whole life−I had been an actor since I was in Nigeria but when I came to the States I put all that behind me, because if you know anything about coming from a third world country to America it’s like, you have the opportunity to do something with your life so you want to do anything but something "trivial" like acting. I decided to go to school for advertising and graphic design. That was what I was gonna do but acting is that thing, it’s like a splinter in your mind and you can’t get rid of it. So I decided to move to L.A. a few years ago and it just snowballed into this thing called The Hunger Games.
EBONY: Considering the mentality you described about coming from a third world country, how did your family take it when you started pursuing acting?
DO: It’s a funny thing because usually where I’m from, it’s frowned upon. Most folks where I come from want their kids to be doctors and lawyers but I think my parents are different because they also had the opportunity to go to college. They went to college in the United States, and I think that makes them different because they come from the mindset of you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it, which is very unusual for Nigerian or African folks, so they were all for it. It was almost like they knew that that was what I was supposed to do with my life but it just took me a while to figure that out myself. So, when I mentioned it to them and said this is what I want to do, they were like, “It’s about time!” They told me that if nothing happens in a year or two years that I can move back home and start from scratch. When I called them about The Hunger Games I was pretty happy because that meant I wasn’t coming back home.
EBONY: What was your experience like landing the role?
DO: It was a crazy experience. I signed to my managers last year and they wanted to test me for a while. They wanted me to go on auditions to get feedback from casting directors about how I performed in the room. I don’t think they thought I was gonna get the part, they just sent me in to (casting director) Debra Zane’s office to read with her and get feedback. The Hunger Games was the first audition I went on when I signed with them…I had so many moments on set like, “Is this really happening?” I’m a big fan of the movie just like everyone else. I’m waiting to see this just like everyone else, and I think we did a good job on the movie.
EBONY: Tell us about the character you play
DO: I play Thresh and he is the boy chosen from District 11 to partake in The Hunger Games, which is this televised event that takes place every year in Panem, which was once America. It’s no longer the 50 states, it’s now 13 districts and the 13th district had this big revolution (where) they tried to over take the government and they were completely wiped out. So as a form of control the capital decided that they initiate this thing called the hunger games that would take place every year. They would select a boy and a girl from each district to fight to the death. It’s a sick twist on reality TV, because this event is televised. It’s all over Panem and they pick these young kids between ages 13 and 18, and I’m the lucky guy chosen from District 11. There are kids who feel privileged to go to this… but Thresh is not one of them. He’s not bloodthirsty and he’s not going for the glory or fame. He’s just trying to make it back home to his mom and his sister.
EBONY: How involved was Suzanne Collins with the screen adaptation?
DO: She was one of the executive producers and she definitely had a hand in the whole thing along with Gary Ross who is our director…she’s had a huge hand in making this thing come to life and she definitely had her say on how she wanted things to be translated, which is huge because there’s a lot of fans of these series of books who want to get that same experience they got when they read the books. They want to get that same high, so for them to just know that the person who came up with the cannon (a type of P.A. system) in the movie is the person who came up with the series of books is great. That was the best choice Lionsgate made.
EBONY: Some people are comparing enormity of this series to Twilight. Is that a fair assessment?
DO: I just want us to make a great film first. I think that that was everyone’s dream−to make the best film possible. If it ends up being the phenomena that Twilight is, that’s amazing. But I don’t think they said, “Lets make the next Twilight,” but I think people are jumping the gun a little bit. It’s so easy because we have our three main leads, it’s one girl and two guys and the love triangle in our movie is by no means what the book is about. The book is about humanity and it’s set in a very realistic world. With Twilight, you have vampires and werewolves and things that are out of reality but or movie is set in the world we live in. it’s a very real movie with real characters going through real trials, so if it ends up being the next Twilight then I’m extremely flattered about that but that wasn’t our intention. We just want to make a great film.
Have you seen The Hunger Games yet? If so, did you enjoy it? If you haven't seen it, will you? Speak!
Click here to read more about The Hunger Games’ Amandla Stenberg.