More often than not for a budding actor, the chance to work with a director comes after a proper audition; for Mamoudou Athie, that moment came in a poorly lit pizzeria in the East Village.
“Long story short, I’m like ‘s–t, I’m running out of time’ but every place is closing,” Athie says with a wide smile. “Starbucks was too loud and that’s annoying. Finally, I found this fluorescent-ly lit pizzeria and I’m sweaty, and I’m like ‘f–k it.’”
That Skype call — with Brie Larson — landed him a part in her directorial debut “Unicorn Store,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is seeking distribution. It’s been one of several projects over the past couple of years that have propelled Athie to be a face to watch as 2018 gets under way.
Born in Mauritania and now a resident of Harlem, Athie moved to the U.S. with his family at six months old, settling in Maryland.
“My dad was a diplomat for the Mauritanian government, and there was a genocide of black Mauritanians in Mauritania, and he noticed people in his office disappearing,” he says. “So he sent us over and my mom’s the type of person who makes friends with everyone, so she made friends with this senate Republican’s daughter, somehow, and their powers combined got us to the States and got us asylum.”
Athie studied at the Yale School of Drama, where he realized acting might be something he could make a career out of.
“I did this play called ‘The Visit’ and I was like ‘oh, this is how I can do this for the rest of my life,’” he says.
He starred on the much-buzzed, short-lived HBO show “The Get Down” as Grandmaster Flash and had a role in indie darling “Patti Cake$” earlier this year.
He owes much of his success, in part, to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, his costar on “The Get Down” who guided him toward both “Patti Cake$” and “Unicorn Store.” “I should give him 10 percent,” Athie jokes.
“Unicorn Store” tells the story of a not-quite-ready-to-grow-up young woman finding herself amongst a fairy-tale fantasy world. Athie describes the film as “kind of bizarre and right down my lane,” which is not to say that he sees himself being limited to indie projects moving forward. He is filming Jason Reitman’s “The Frontrunner” with Hugh Jackman and will be seen in “Underwater” in the new year alongside Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel.
“I realized that I’m drawn to a strange combination of idealistic and misanthropic characters,” he says. “It’s generally the story and what it has to offer the world, like ‘I need to tell this story over and over and over again.’”
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