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Q&A: Dayo Okeniyi of The Hunger Games
With a prime role as Thresh in the book-to-film hit, the one-time Indiana dweller and local grad opens up about his upbringing and his burgeoning career.
On March 23, the much anticipated film adaptation of The Hunger Games hit theaters nationwide, earning $155 million at the box office in its opening weekend. Before starring as Thresh in the movie, Dayo Okeniyi spent his college weekends as any college student in the Indianapolis area would—hanging out with friends in the midtown district. Though he grew up in Nigeria, Okeniyi moved to Indiana as a teen, graduating from Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and earning his bachelor’s degree from Anderson University in Anderson.
Okeniyi spoke with IM on the first full day of his movie’s national release.
Kaley Belakovich: What was your audition process like for The Hunger Games?
Dayo Okeniyi: It was like any other audition. I got a call from my managers and they said, “Hey, we got this audition for you,” and I went in and read once, actually. And then I kept getting calls saying, “Oh, this producer's seen your tape, this producer’s seen the tape.” And then when I was actually supposed to go in for my second audition, I got a call that morning that [director] Gary [Ross] just went in and cast me and I wouldn’t have to audition again. So I only read once; they put me on tape once.
KB: What was the training process like for the role?
DO: It was intense. The book describes Thresh as a physical wonder. So I had two months and a half to put on a lot of good weight for the role. They had me doing an hour and a half of physical training, an hour and a half of stunt choreography, and all kinds of weapons training every day for two months before the movie. So it was pretty intense.
KB: Did you read the books before you auditioned?
DO: Oh, yeah. I mean, I had to. I actually didn’t know much about the books or the story or anything when I got the call that I was going to audition, but in my preparation for the role I got the books immediately and I read them and completely fell in love with the story. I was completely hooked. And I went online and did the search, and I saw that the whole series had a life of its own and a huge fan base, and I was extremely overwhelmed. But yeah, then I became a fan like everybody else.
KB: How well do you feel the movie sticks to the books?
DO: I think the movie does a really great job of sticking to the books. I mean, I think [author of The Hunger Games trilogy] Suzanne Collins put it best. She said that the movie is a great companion to the books. And I completely agree with her. I think it’s always very difficult when you make an adaptation. I mean, there’s only so much you can cram into a two-hour-plus movie from a very big book.
But I think Gary and Suzanne Collins did a good job of pulling the parts from the books that fans gravitated to and that fans hold as iconic, and they did a really great job of translating those scenes and putting it on a grander scale. With a story like The Hunger Games, you don’t want to do too much to the canon. I mean, it’s a great story and they just want to make that live, literally, rather than try to change anything. I think they did a really great job. I’m really proud of this movie.
KB: What brought you to Indiana?
DO: Ah, man. This is the real story: I’m half-Nigerian, half-Kenyan. My father’s Nigerian, my mother’s Kenyan, and they both went to college in Indiana. And they actually met in college in Anderson, Indiana—like, met in the international department or whatever, and then they moved back to Nigeria and had me and my siblings. And then just growing up, I dreamed of moving to America like everybody in a third world country. And when I got the chance to come to America, I wanted to go like to where my folks went to college, and I was like, “Oh, that’s America”—Indiana was my definition of America. I was thrilled to go to college in Indiana and high school and all that. So that’s how I eventually ended up in Indiana.
KB: Do you have a favorite spot to go to in Indiana or in Indianapolis?
DO: Every weekend when I was in college we were in—oh my gosh, what’s it called, I forget what it’s called—with all the bars, Landsharks and Peppers and The Vogue, like all those clubs, I loved all that. And for shopping there’s this really awesome place called Got Sole?, which I used to love to go to because I’m a sneaker fanatic, so I used to go to Got Sole? all the time to get sneakers. So yeah. Broad Ripple! That’s what I’m talking about—Broad Ripple.
KB: I read that you first started acting in elementary school. What was the first role that you had?
DO: The first role I ever played: We had a reenactment of the Nativity scene, and I played Joseph. I was Joseph, the father of Jesus. That was the first role I ever had in my life. I think this was fifth grade, or fourth grade. That was the beginning of my acting career.
KB: What are your post-Hunger Games acting plans?
DO: I’m getting ready to start shooting this pilot for ABC called “Prairie Dogs.” We literally start on Monday [March 26], and I’m really excited about this. I think that fans of The Hunger Games, they see me as Thresh, [but] they’ll see a completely different side of Dayo. I mean, I love comedy, and it’s a half-hour comedy show, and it’s extremely funny. Kal Penn is one of my co-stars, and Dan Fogler and Michaela Watkins. I’m just so excited to actually make this. It’s a really, really funny show.
Dayo Okeniyi photos by Benny Haddad.
Photo of Okeniyi as Thresh in The Hunger Games by Murray Close.
The Hunger Games cast photo via VanityFair.com.