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‘Industry’s’ Alex Akpobome Wants To Be More Than The Black Executive Archetype

Alexander Alomar Akpobome stars as Daniel "Danny" Van Deventer (aka DVD) in Season 2 of HBO's workplace drama "Industry."
Alexander Alomar Akpobome stars as Daniel “Danny” Van Deventer (aka DVD) in Season 2 of HBO’s workplace drama “Industry.”
Simon Ridgway/HBO

Join us for a Twitter Spaces conversation with “Industry” writers and creators about the HBO hit series, how they infused their lived experiences as ex-bankers into the show and what to expect from the new season. Tune in Aug. 23 at 2 p.m. ET. Sign up to be notified when it begins.

Unlike his “Industry” character, Daniel Van Deventer, Alex Alomar Akpobome was not this polished, privileged teen from the Upper West Side with a ticket straight to the Wharton School. The son of a white accountant and a Nigerian insurance salesman was raised by his mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.

He described himself as a “bad kid,” one who was kicked out of multiple schools and was more infatuated with skateboarding than institutionalized education. However, he was good at one thing: performing in school plays. Some of his earliest memories are acting in his school’s rendition of “The Runaway Bookmobile” and getting written in as Gollum in “The Hobbit.”

“They would never give me a part. They would always write something for me, which, I think, says a lot about who I am. I was really good, and I was 12,” Akpobome said. “I was always in trouble and constantly in the principal’s office. I did that performance, and she came up to me after and said, ‘I hope I don’t have to kick you out because you were really great in that play.’ That’s one of the only things I remember from my childhood so vividly.”

Two months later, Akpobome’s principal kicked him out. After bouncing from one boarding school to another, his mother eventually homeschooled him. Upon finishing high school at age 18, he briefly attended Los Angeles City College, but something was gnawing at Akpobome’s spirit.

“I just was kind of at that point where you’re 18 and you go, ‘Well, what’s the next move?’” he said. “And you don’t know, so you think back. ‘What did people tell me I was good at?’ And there was that one thing.”

“I was always in trouble and constantly in the principal’s office. I did that performance, and she came up to me after and said, ‘I hope I don’t have to kick you out because you were really great in that play.’”

– Alex Alomar Akpobome

So Akpobome decided to pursue acting. From waiting tables to dominating the trading floor on “Industry,” Akpobome’s ascent on TV has proved that he’s more than just good. The thirtysomething actor has mastered the art of the archetypal Black male corporate executive. He starred as Hollywood careerist Ben Okwu in Lena Waithe’s “Twenties” on BET, and he now portrays Danny (a.k.a. DVD), Pierpoint’s wunderkind turned executive director who is tasked with getting the London office up to snuff, on HBO’s “Industry.”

Charming but “mad corny,” as Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold) rightfully pointed out, Danny seamlessly commands every room he walks into as a member of the proverbial boys’ club. Despite being new to the London branch, DVD casually interrupts managing director Eric Tao (Kenneth Leung) in a meeting. While Harper stands by the door, Danny assumes his rightful seat at the table.

Though his introduction to the bank lent itself to exploration of whether Black solidarity could exist in Pierpoint, Danny may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He somehow manages — or, more likely, pretends — to get along with everyone while barely divulging anything about himself.

Harper and DVD dish about their New York upbringings and how their last names aren’t “very Black.” Danny makes a point to remember the minutiae about people, including Harper and her brother’s whereabouts. He’s critically aware of the chip on his shoulder and, in true corporate executive fashion, his religion is to survive and advance.

When Eric Tao goes on a screaming rampage at Harper, Danny defends her, positioning himself as a mentor or ally of sorts. But any sort of progress is dashed when Danny, who looks 10 years her senior, asks Harper for drinks under the premise of her inability to “leave work at the office.” She rejects the questionable pass DVD makes at her. But in Episode 4, the two eventually have sex.

A New York-bred wunderkind turned executive director, DVD is tasked with getting Pierpoint's London office up to snuff.
A New York-bred wunderkind turned executive director, DVD is tasked with getting Pierpoint’s London office up to snuff.
Simon Ridgway/HBO

“The way the character description was written was DVD’s just this good influence. I thought, ‘But that’s too simple.’ No one is just a good influence. I always look for the tragic flaw in a character. A thing I’ve been exploring as a person is if you’re upfront about being selfish, is that more honest? The illusion of being a giver can be selfish in and of itself,” he said.

Akpobome and his character Danny could not be more different — he has never worked in a corporate environment. His first job was far from the fast-paced lucrative thrills of the trading floor but a mere 15 minutes from Hollywood.

“I had this weird idea, which I think every actor does, where they go, ‘Why am I in school? I should just go work in a restaurant, and a producer is going to see me and I’m going to get a job,’” Akpobome said with a laugh. “And I genuinely believed this. So I quit that college, and I went to a French restaurant in Los Feliz. I worked there for five years, and nobody gave me a job.”

Quickly he realized he needed an agent to get his first credits — but to get an agent, you need to already have credits. Akpobome decided that for him to take his craft seriously, the next step was to attend an acting conservatory. At that point, he said, his grandparents had died, leaving behind a sum of money. His mother told him if he wanted to pursue that route, he could use the remaining funds to pay tuition. Akpobome said he applied but was “super naive.”

“I didn’t have a sense of the competition. I did prepare pretty hard, but I got laughed at. I remember I did an audition for Juilliard, and that went terrible. I got dismissed right away. I tried the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art,” he recalled. “I remember I did my audition monologue, then they sat me down and they said, ‘So, what do your parents do?’ I told them, ‘My dad’s an insurance salesman and my mom’s an accountant,’ and they snickered at the table. They’re expecting people who come from a very different background.”

“There’s no pretense. It’s about money and doing your job. I gave myself permission to just eat like a broker, to live like a broker. These people aren’t going to the gym. They eat not because they’re hungry, but they eat to stay awake….The interpretation of DVD was conservative. It was practical.”

– Alex Alomar Akpobome on becoming “Industry” character Daniel Van Deventer

But in 2013, at age 23, he finally enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. There, Akpobome studied the classics, from the Jacobean to Shakespearean era dramas. When he sought television roles post-grad, though, he recalled that it was “a whole process of unlearning” habits acquired from theater school.

Shedding the formalities, he worked on being more present and more natural during auditions. He said he auditioned for five years straight, nabbing roles in short films and small projects. He never felt like giving up, even if it meant auditioning until he was 60.

Eventually, he stumbled across the casting call for “Twenties.” On his birthday, Akpobome auditioned for the role of Chuck, the supportive picture-perfect, husband-to-be who grappled with his sexuality. While Jevon McFerrin landed that role, to his surprise, the casting team called Akpobome back for a mere two-line audition.

“I was changing agents at this point, and I started telling them, ‘I’m going to be one of the main people in ‘Twenties,’” he laughed.

Akpobome starred as Ben Okwu, a pragmatic and image-conscious studio executive with big Hollywood dreams who was competing against his only Black colleague, Marie (Christina Elmore). Although his ploy initially worked and an agent agreed to represent him, Akpobome was stressed. With only two lines in the pilot, he was unsure whether that would be enough to guarantee success. But then he received the scripts, realizing he had booked his first series regular role.

Alex Alomar Akpobome at the “Twenties” premiere on March, 2, 2020, at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles.
Alex Alomar Akpobome at the “Twenties” premiere on March, 2, 2020, at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles.
Leon Bennett via Getty Images

“The character was expounded upon drastically,” Akpobome said. “He was in almost every episode except for one. It went from two lines to a full-fledged part. If they had actually had me audition the classical way — going in and reading a bunch of sides — I probably would have failed. Because I was able to audition with a two-line role and then for them to trust me and write something bigger, that’s just luck.”

While working on “Twenties” and another short in which he portrayed a pimp, Akpobome got the audition for “Industry.” He was overwhelmed by the dense dialogue and financial jargon in the script.

“I read it on the page. I just thought, ‘No way.’ I just thought I don’t know what this means,” he recalled. “It’s like reading Portuguese. I just don’t speak that language.”

The role went against his natural cadence and his strengths, but Akpobome filmed his tape nonchalantly, reading off the page, and even writing in an improvised line that he thought was funny. He went back to shooting two projects at once, then got feedback.

“Then they said, ‘Well, producers like it,’ which, again, doesn’t happen to me often. But they said, ‘You’ve got to learn your lines.’ They wanted me to do callbacks and chemistry reads. I would shoot from seven at night until two in the morning, finish shooting at two, then, because of the time difference, I would have a callback at 8 a.m.”

“If you write a young Black man, he’s the optimistic best friend; that tends to be our function. There’s a lack of cynicism, sarcasm or mischievousness. They don’t really write Black troublemakers unless they’re thugs. And that frustrates me, because they exist. I am one.”

– Alex Alomar Akpobome

He was overjoyed to finally book the role of Danny. He asked co-creators and ex-bankers Konrad Kay and Mickey Down for literature to immerse himself into the world of a trader. Akpobome received “Liar’s Poker,” a novel by Michael Lewis about a young trader working his way up at a firm called Salomon Brothers. He quickly learned that unlike Ben Okwu navigating the vanities of the entertainment industry in “Twenties,” the business world portrayed in “Industry” is another beast.

“There’s no pretense. It’s about money and doing your job. I gave myself permission to just eat like a broker, to live like a broker. These people aren’t going to the gym. They eat not because they’re hungry, but they eat to stay awake. If you look at this clothing I’m wearing in ‘Twenties,’ there’s a vanity. Ben’s character is wearing these floral shirts. I was allowed to have my earrings in ‘Twenties’ and my tattoos. I’m producing movies, and I had a little bit more suaveness. The interpretation of DVD was conservative. It was practical.”

Albeit nuanced characters, Ben and Danny still possess similar spaces and roles as Black male corporate executives. Akpobome said the draw to these characters is reflective of how people perceive him visually. When asked if he felt like he was being typecast, he gleefully said, “I hope so.”

Akpobome said that he may have one more suit-and-tie character in him, then he’d love to venture into a role like Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” What he desires more than anything is the ability to expand beyond what people commonly write for a young Black man.

Created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, the hit workplace drama "Industry" returned to HBO on Aug. 1 for its second season.
Created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, the hit workplace drama “Industry” returned to HBO on Aug. 1 for its second season.
HBO

He often asks himself about the state of Black character actors, inquiring why there is no “Black Robert De Niro or Black Christian Bale.” He attributes it to the stereotypes infused into how people write Black characters.

“I think as African American actors, we’re not given the opportunity to change in that way. Why can’t I put on weight to play a character, get really thin and transform myself? Or really make myself ugly for an audience?” Akpobome said. “If you write a young Black man, he’s the optimistic best friend; that tends to be our function. There’s a lack of cynicism, sarcasm or mischievousness. They don’t really write Black troublemakers unless they’re thugs. And that frustrates me, because they exist. I am one.”

As his relationship with Harper is changing throughout this season, Akpobome is rightfully skeptical of Danny and his trajectory.

“There’s a good line that I’m glad the writers put in, where my boss goes, ‘Is this about you trying to change the system or your promotion?’ We’re constantly doing things and saying things that we don’t think or feel in order to achieve something. But I think viewers should come to their own interpretation. I have my own experiences and ideas of the entire thing. And I don’t want to put that on anybody else. I want them to just have that experience.”

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