Starring as the child soldier at the center of Netflix’s first original feature film, Beasts of No Nation, first-time actor Abraham Attah has received critical acclaim for his performance opposite Idris Elba in the Cary Fukunaga-written and -directed movie. Attah, who was discovered skipping class and playing soccer in Ghana, has already received an award for his work in Beasts, taking home the Marcello Mastroianni prize for best new young actor or actress at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, where Beasts premiered.
The movie began streaming on Netflix on Friday and is also playing in select theaters through a deal with Bleecker Street and Landmark Theatres. In its opening weekend, the film grossed an estimated $50,699 at the box office, from 27 theaters in 30 markets, for a location average of $1,635.
Read on to find out more about Attah, his work in the film and what he’s doing now.
He Was Discovered on a Soccer Field in Ghana and Impressed Fukunaga and the Casting Director with His Ability to Tap into his Emotions:
Attah was skipping class and playing soccer on a school field when casting director Harrison Nesbit walked over and asked him if he’d be interested in auditioning for a movie.
“We were playing football in front of a school, and a white man came and said we need some boys for a movie,” Attah said during a press conference at the Venice Film Festival. “So we went and we auditioned at a TV station in Ghana, and I was cast.”
In truth, the process was a little more complicated than that, as Nesbit and Fukunaga have explained in subsequent interviews.
Fukunaga told the L.A. Times that the casting announcements they sent out on TV and radio in Ghana attracted mainly wealthy families whose kids didn’t have the skills needed to play Agu or the other members of the film’s army of child soldiers. So Nesbit visited schools and soccer games in Accra.
“Every slum has a broken-down school that’s just way overpacked with kids. And in one of these, where we found Abraham, each classroom would let a certain amount of kids go to speak with me, and I wasn’t really finding anyone that I felt was very interesting, so I took a walk around and there were a bunch of older kids skipping class it looked like, at least,” Nesbit told Indiewire. “I saw that among the older kids was this young-looking guy, maybe 13 or 14. I asked him if he was interested in auditioning for a film. He said, ‘No, not really.’ I guess he was shy. But later, kids kind of pushed him to do it. And once he got on camera, he just started rapping and there was just this kind of a charm about him, and we invited him to come to a callback session.”
Nesbit auditioned about 1,000 kids, he told Indiewire, becoming impressed with Attah’s charisma and emotional range.
“Cary had an image of what he wanted Agu to look like, so I had that in mind. And for that matter, I was looking for kids who had some sort of charisma,” Nesbit told Indiewire. “He just has such a soulful presence about him and he has an incredible empathy, I think, with how he was acting. That he wasn’t pretending, that it seemed like he was going back to things he had seen or just using his crazy imagination to put himself in these roles or in that position that we were asking. We were asking these kids to go to some pretty dark places pretty quickly, and Abraham had the emotional capacity to do that, and it was evident.”
Fukunaga, who added at the Venice Film Festival presser that Attah was “playing hooky from school” when Nesbit discovered him playing soccer, explained there that he was impressed with the way the untrained actor was able to tap into his emotions.
“He improvised a scene in which his sister was taken away and he cried,” Fukunaga said. “It just showed that he had access to his emotions in a way that we were looking for when we’re casting a movie. We need people, especially kids, who can access that part of their imagination very easily in front of a camera.”
He Wasn’t Scared by Beasts‘ Violence While Filming, But He was Afraid of Idris Elba and Snakes:
Attah told the New York Times that despite the movie’s many disturbing, violent scenes, he wasn’t scared acting those out, noting that while his character becomes a killer, in reality, “No one died.”
Even talking about the scene in which Attah’s Agu kills a man with a machete, the actor said, “It wasn’t a real machete. I was holding a rubber machete.”
Still, he was “scared” of Elba, who appeared quite large compared to himself.
“I was scared of him, because he was, like, very giant and I was small,” Attah told The Times. “So I was afraid of him, but after he played football with us on set, it became normal for me to work with him.”
Attah went on to tell The Times his favorite and least favorite scenes to film, comments he echoed during the film’s Venice press conference.
“My favorite scene was [when] we were in the jungle, and I was in front of the audience, and behind me, we were going to kill the people who live in the village. So I was the commandant,” Attah told The Times. “And the scene I hate was we were shooting in the jungle, and I was wearing shorts and slippers and Cary told me to pass through very deep bushes. And I was afraid to see any dangers that were in the bush.”
Those “dangers” included snakes, Attah and Fukunaga revealed during the Venice press conference.
The Shy Teen Has a Seemingly Stable Family in Ghana and the Publicity Grind is Getting to Him:
Despite early reports that he was a street vendor, Attah has a more stable family life, the L.A. Times says. The teen lives in Accra with his five siblings and parents, according to the New York Times. His mother works in a market and his father at the port, Attah told the N.Y. and L.A. Times in separate interviews. In the L.A. Times interview, which took place at the Telluride Film Festival, Attah seemed happy and was interested in the town’s skate parks. But the teen, who’s been traveling with a guardian, admitted he missed his parents.
A few weeks later, speaking with the New York Times, it seemed as though the film’s press tour and having to answer the same questions over and over again has taken a bit of a toll.
“I know everything they’re going to ask me, so I’m tired,” he said. At that point, Attah was a third of the way through a three-month press tour. But he might have many more appearances ahead of him if Beasts becomes an awards contender. Attah told The Wall Street Journal he’s never seen the Oscars, but in Ghana, he’s becoming famous, at least according to his friends.
“[People] are talking, but only my friends on Facebook,” he said. “They’re telling me I’m famous in my country.”
Attah is Focusing on His Education Now But May Continue Acting:
Fukunaga explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter at the Toronto Film Festival that Attah and some of the other kids from the film have been put into boarding schools and that education is taking priority over any consideration of an acting career.
“I want [Attah] to enjoy this experience, but I also don’t want him to be traumatized if the attention he’s getting right now disappears. So education is the first thing. We put him and a couple of the other kids in the film who were actually homeless into boarding schools,” Fukunaga told THR. “A lot of them are just trying to get caught up to other kids their age. Abraham was luckier because he still has his mother and father, but he still comes from a very rough, poverty-stricken neighborhood. Making sure his education keeps going is the priority. If he wants to continue acting, we’re trying to create a support network for that.”