Meet the British Trailblazer Who Helped Launch the Careers of John Boyega and Letitia Wright
Femi Oguns opens up about expanding London's pioneering Identity School to the U.S. and Hollywood's embrace of diversity: "There is a change that is happening."
With stars such as John Boyega (Star Wars), Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Cynthia Erivo (Widows) and Ella Balinska (the upcoming Charlie's Angels) on his books, actor turned agent Femi Oguns is the man behind the recent crop of diverse British talent laying claim to Hollywood.
It all began with his groundbreaking Identity School of Acting — initially dubbed the U.K.'s "first black drama school," it has grown from 10 students to a truly multicultural mix of 900 — followed by the Identity Agency Group, launched to offer representation for its best pupils.
Now, 16 years after he put his acting career on ice to start Identity, he's looking to do the same for L.A. After opening its doors last fall, Identity's U.S. branch, based in East Hollywood's Thymele Arts center (which Oguns admits he’s “basically taken over”), is buzzing with some 300 – soon to be 400 – students, mostly African American. For $1,500 per term Oguns offers what he describes as "the very best of British training."
Speaking to THR in London on a week when he not only moved houses and offices and got married (the honeymoon is coming after a trip to L.A. to help set up a filming session with his students that will be screened before the industry in November), the 41-year-old discusses inclusivity in Hollywood, battling anti-British sentiment and his fears about getting it right with his very first global star.
How different was the experience of launching the Identity School in the U.S. versus the U.K.? Have you found the country to have different attitudes regarding race?
I'd say that America is more segregated than the U.K. So, for example, if people hear that the CEO of a school is African American, many would assume it's an African American school, teaching about the Black Panther movement or whatever. And that's why about 65 percent of our talent is African American. But with word of mouth, people know that it's a wonderful place for all different races. For us it's been easy — it marketed itself.
You launched in the U.K. after seeing talent from ethnic backgrounds fail to get into British drama schools. Is it the same in the U.S.?
Absolutely. We heard many stories about people going to acting classes and paying ridiculous amounts of money, only to get just a second to show what they can possibly do, in many cases with a washed-up acting tutor. So I think it's been quite refreshing for them to come to a place where not only is it affordable, but it's structured, all-around training.
The Identity Agency Group was launched because you thought your students weren't being properly represented by agents. Are you looking to do the same in the U.S.?
In the British system, we nurture the talent and represent the very best ones. But over here, a lot of our students already have reps. I don't want to come across like we're [in Hollywood] to steal everyone — we're there to help give back to the U.S. But [for] those who aren't represented, we are also there to source out talent who we feel we'll be able to help.
Any clients on your books yet?
That's all going to be kicking off with the screenings in November. That's their opportunity to show me exactly what they can do.
When Daniel Kaluuya was cast in Get Out, there was a bit of blowback — most vocally from Samuel L. Jackson — about his not being American. Is there anti-British sentiment among Hollywood actors?
You can understand the frustration of many people who feel as though they give these jobs to the Brits, but that's what we're attacking. We're saying: You've got an opportunity now to receive the same kind of training. This is your chance.
There's a lot of talk about progress in Hollywood regarding onscreen diversity. How much do you think things have really changed?
I'm not too proud, but I do feel as though Identity had a massive impact and influence in helping shape the whole structure of representation in the industry, without a shadow of a doubt. And I feel that it has shifted. Has is shifted fast enough? No, it hasn't, but there is a change that is happening. There are now countless projects that happen to have actors from ethnic backgrounds driving the central narrative, without compromising the actual money that is made. Because the bottom line of the situation is all about the color — and that's the color green. They've got to see that it's not about race. It's about material, it's about content.
There was some particularly nasty backlash to the casting of John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars. How should Hollywood deal with that kind of overt racism?
This industry is a magnified version of reality. That's all it is. If people have already got their own stereotypical views in reality, it's going to feed itself into the depiction of people. It's all about approaching the gatekeepers, holding them accountable and getting them to look in the mirror and deal with their own prejudices. Until we address those issues, there will always be racism. I train my actors to say, "That's their problem." That's not your problem — you are the architect of your own fortune, and to some degree, your misfortune.
But do you think the industry is getting better at reacting to racism?
Absolutely, and that's the youth of today. They're not willing to just sit down and take it. They're willing to fight for their rights. Americans are very used to fighting for what they believe in. They make things happen. So it's inevitable. But the youth have been a wonderful source.
Since launching the Identity School 16 years ago, was there a moment when you first thought, "We're actually doing something here"?
I was waiting for one person who was going to be an extension of all the hard work, someone who epitomized everything that we stood for as a brand, as a company and as a school. And that person came in the shape of John Boyega. And I said to myself, "If I can get this right, with this absolutely amazingly talented individual, then it's going to have a domino effect on all the talent that we have at our school."
How difficult was it to get right?
It was funny. I took John over to LA for both of our first times. We had all these meetings set up with the major agencies, and they’d have 16 people around the table. And I remember thinking to myself, "I’ve actually got 17 people in the room, the 17th being John." I was sure in his inner monolog he was thinking “I want to see what this guy’s about.” I found myself having to cross my legs just to convince him and myself that I had complete control over the situation.
Do you have any advice for your students and clients when they're just about to hit the big time?
Definitely. It's not just about the craft itself; it's also about the business, and allowing yourself to be — as I said before — the architect of your own fortune. So it's to always [ask] yourself, "Why am I in this game? What is it that I want to do? What are the kinds of stories I want to tell?" It's all about making calculated choices that are going to help move the needle to the right.
What’s next for Identity? Could you start producing?
You never know. It could be the absolute full circle whereby not only do we nurture and develop talent, not only do we represent talent, but we also create and have a platform for them to be a part of something special and tell innovative stories.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.