Industry Star Alex Akpobome Wants To Be The Black Kristen Stewart
Alex Akpobome knows his 'Industry' character is polarizing. But that's just how he likes it.
If you’ve been watching Season 2 of HBO’s Industry unfold over the past several weeks, you know that the Gen Z finance drama has quietly but quickly become unmissable TV, in which creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay have upshifted on Season 1’s suspense, sex, and unintelligible banking jargon with even more precise storytelling and character complexity. New to the Pierpoint & Co. trading floor this season is Alex Alomar Akpobome as Daniel Van Deventer (“Friends call me DVD or Blu-Ray,” he offers) an unnervingly affable addition to the bank’s coked-out ensemble of cutthroats, whose boyish face and apparent lack of vice — unless you count his penchant for corny jokes — disarm even the steeliest of the bunch. DVD’s arrival disrupts the power dynamic of the trading desk, where his positioning between Harper (Myha’la Herrold) and her quasi-mentor Eric (Ken Leung) complicates their already thorny standings and intensifies each one’s insecurities.
Akpobome plays up his character’s aw-shucks-ness with an inscrutability that has kept fans guessing as to whether Danny is truly as square as he seems or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In Industry’s world of ruthless billionaires, blowhards, and backstabbers, it seems the most discomfiting thing a person can be is cordial. As Eric cautions Harper in Episode 6, “It’s the quietly motivated ones you gotta watch out for.” Though Danny has made his share of plays as the season has progressed, it remains to be seen where his guile will land him. As next week’s season finale approaches, DVD’s true colors finally become more apparent, but as the show continually reminds us, all bets are off when someone’s back is against the wall.
In real life, Akpobome is decidedly more candid and warm than his character, but he does share his DVD’s sense of humor. “I think dad jokes are the best thing ever,” he says with a grin over a recent video call. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Akpobome was academically-averse and prone to disciplinary action in his early years but passionately committed to skateboarding, which nurtured an independent spirit and resiliency that benefits him in his work today. After attending drama school in London in his twenties, Akpobome returned to LA and spent years grinding on the audition circuit before landing recurring roles on BET’s Twenties and Apple’s For All Mankind. Joining Industry has been Akpobome’s biggest look so far, but still only a modest sample of what he has to offer.
Akpobome recently took time to chat with NYLON about his creative influences, audition experiences, what he’s learned from his castmates, and how he feels about polarizing Industry fans.
What media was formative to you when you were younger? What were some of the films, shows, or performances that awakened an interest in the craft for you?
Skateboarding was my passion, and the skaters I liked influenced the movies I liked, so I grew up watching Goodfellas a ridiculous amount of times. I still am heavily influenced by [Robert] De Niro’s work in Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and Mean Streets. Those three movies are instrumental in who I think I am as a person. Paul Thomas Anderson was also another [influence], being a California native. I'm such a feeling person, and all his films make me feel things in regards to my parents and my friends, and they all have things that [relate] to the way I navigate the world.
I’m curious how skateboarding informed your creativity as well. Any influential skate videos?
I skateboarded at Hollywood High, and the Baker Skateboards team was there all the time, and they were my heroes. I went to Jim Greco’s house a couple times as a kid, and that was like being in a room with Mick Jagger. They were the rock stars of skateboarding when I was 12, so I was heavily influenced by them and the music they listened to, like Johnny Thunders and The Rolling Stones. It gave me something to latch onto artistically and allowed me to connect to something that was unique and to believe in myself. It influenced me heavily. I look at the fashion, I look at the movies they watched… Most young Black men aren't wearing tight pants and watching Goodfellas at 12. That's not a really normal thing to come across. I look back and I'm like, thank God I found that and I had that kind of artistic influence early on, because I think it allowed me to feel okay being expressive in ways that aren't normalized.
[My favorite video was] Baker 2G. It was so punk rock. We would all squad up, we'd put the tape in, and we'd watch it over and over. I kind of do that with PTA's movies [now], where I can put it on and just watch it. Baker was kind of sloppy and raw. It didn't feel polished.
What was the transition like for you between finishing drama school and landing roles on series for BET, Apple, and now HBO? How did you feel as those opportunities opened up?
I finished school and it was four or five years of “I auditioned, and nothing happened." I was so used to the theater preparation process of [taking] six weeks to rehearse and then you perform. I’d get an audition [for TV] and come into the room the next day, and it just felt so wrong. It was a real adjustment to [understand that film is] a visual medium. You don't have to act so much. You don't have to create a character. You give them a reading of what you would do, and then trust that if they're interested, you can embody that later. They're just getting a sense of you and your rhythms and instinctual impulses, as opposed to [you] delivering some kind of dance sequence. Initially, I was trying to do some kind of choreography, as opposed to being present and relaxed and showing them who I am, without trying to impose, "Look how good of an actor I am. Give me the job."
I stressed myself out for years and years and years, trying to impress people. In retrospect, I see working in film is different than that. It's not this thing of performance, it's more of a vibe. It's more about having a sense of self and then being courageous enough to express that. They'll pick up if you're being honest or not. In the audition circuit, it’s very easy to put up a façade of, “This is what I think you want.” It’s trying to sell somebody on something. I got better at knocking that off throughout the years, and then eventually [offers] started to happen. But every single time it happens, I'm like, "No way." I'm always mystified.
What stage of that development were you at when Industry showed up?
I was shooting the second season of Twenties and I was also doing a short film. I was going back and forth between two sets. Then I got this audition [for Industry], and it was pure business jargon. It was a foreign language. I didn't put pressure on myself to get it right, because it was so far removed from my own experience, [and I was already focused on] two projects. I said, “I'll read it, but I'm not going to get it.”
Then there was a callback. Then there was a chemistry read with Myha’la. To be shooting two projects and trying to read for an HBO show was so overwhelming that it was kind of liberating, because [I didn’t] have time to overanalyze. I was just trying to give them a sense of who I was as a person and what I would do with the part. Then I got the call and it was like, “Alright, you're moving to Wales for six months. You have to leave in three days.”
All of that trickles back down to the idea that there was no time for me to create an idea of what I thought people wanted. I was like “This is me,” and they responded to that.
You seem to have a naturally rebellious and creative spirit, but your character Danny is so straight-laced and square. What is it like to flip that switch?
My friends watch the show and they don't recognize me at all, which is obviously a huge compliment. Watching it back, it is kind of jarring. The audience has a very similar response as I do. The responses I've heard [have] been like, “I really enjoy [Danny], he's a breath of fresh air,” and other people are like, “He's boring. He's awkward. He's vanilla. He's corny.” That’s great. I purposely made the character slightly off-rhythm. I thought, “What if Michael Cera was a stockbroker?” That's funny to me.
He's not a sex symbol. His button is always a little too tight. His jokes are bad. Everyone else in the show [is] a bad ass and a little bit snarky. My character either speaks in business jargon or he's talking like some kind of self-help book. I've never done a performance that feels so polarized, and I think it's dope. As long as people are watching the show, watching what Mickey and Konrad have created, and they have a feeling, even if the feeling is, “I hate the actor in it. He's awkward and he makes me uncomfortable,” that's great. Perfect. Just keep watching, because it's a great show.
You know how Kristen Stewart is very polarized? I think she's a terrific actress, but some people just hate her. It seems like I provoke that in people. If I can be like the Black Kristen Stewart, [that would be] great.
“I thought, ‘What if Michael Cera was a stockbroker?’ That's funny to me.”
I think people are unsure what to make of Danny because we’ve seen that every character on the show has some pathology or secret they’re trying to hide, but it hasn’t yet been revealed what that might be for him. I’m curious if you know. What did Mickey and Konrad share with you about Danny’s background and motives?
There was [initially] a lot more about his relationship with Eric… Lots of instances of their dynamic, and experiences [Danny had] that were similar to Harper’s that they connected on… but because it doesn't really help the narrative, they had to cut it. It's not DVD's story. DVD is there to forward the narrative for Harper. It's Harper's story. Obviously, the end result has been great. I'd rather sacrifice bits of my own story to feed everyone enjoying a good piece of entertainment.
Those missing pieces make it harder to suss out whether DVD’s earnest exterior is for real, or whether it’s a front. Would you say we’re seeing his true self?
I think it's so much more interesting to leave that open. I don’t know about anything in life. I have no clue.
Because of DVD’s ambiguous history with Eric, your scenes with Ken Leung are always a treat to watch. What is Ken like as a scene partner, and what went into finding the adversarial chemistry between your characters?
He’s just the best. He has a way of being a mentor without talking down to you or making you feel any kind of way. We love to play. He's changed my whole point of view with acting, because he set that as an example. He is always playful. We did a scene on a telephone, it's an intense scene, and he's supposed to be threatening me. Every take, he would do something weird. Sometimes he just wouldn't talk and I'd be like, “Hello, Ken?” or he would provoke me, or he would burp. I love working like that. I love making it feel fresh, and playing in an imaginary world with actors who are responsive and sensitive and innovative, and he brings all of those things as well as being a leader.
I like the way he operates through the world, and he continues to help me grow into someone who is not so obsessed with my own image and sense of success and feelings of importance. He has such an ego-less and non-judgmental view of others. I don't want to say the L-word, but I do love him as a person.
Myha’la Herrold is a powerhouse as well. I’d love to hear about your process of getting to know each other as people and performers, and figuring out the dynamic between DVD and Harper.
Myha’la is so brave. She’s a pro. She’s a real boss. We complement each other [with] our acting styles, [but] I'm improvisational and she's very precise. She knows to take ownership of herself in a way that I'm learning to do. When we worked together, she could see me getting in my own way and she'd be like, "Alex, stop. Come on. Let's go." She's got that confidence that I'm learning but don't always have. She's very encouraging in that way, and she’s so intuitive. She's about as good as it gets. Her detail, and even the way she moves her body, she'll do little things and I go, "How do you do that?" I'm astounded by the level on which she's really thinking about the minutiae of storytelling, and how expressive she can [be with] her face and her body language.
Our [characters’] dynamic shifts pretty quickly. The romantic scenes were a lot more fun [than when] we had to go head to head. I’d be like, “Oh god. Go easy on me today.” It’s intimidating. She's a heavyweight. Acting can feel like boxing at times. You prepare, and then you forget all of the work you've done, and you're in the ring, and you better bring it, because she's not going to settle for anything less. [That’s] kind of the mood she dictates. She's just a grade A professional. I think Myha'la is one of the best actresses working today.
Outside of Industry, are there other upcoming projects you’re excited about that you can share?
I think I'm going to go to the skate park later today. That's exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.