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Brooklyn-domiciled actor Gbenga Akinnagbe is most known for his roles on the television series The Wire and The Good Wife. He's also a newcomer on Nurse Jackie, kicking off its new season May 2nd on Showtime. Since the D.C.-born Akinnagbe moved to New York City, he has learned to beware of hidden toxic mold, roommates who urinate out the window, and automobile ownership. Excerpts from his interview with BrickUnderground follow.
How does living in New York City compare to D.C., where you were raised?
NYC never sleeps; DC has a bedtime. I do love DC, as I grew up there, and it is great that both cities are dripping with diversity.
Have you ever lived anywhere else?
I lived in L.A. for a summer and every once in awhile I’m there for a month or two. I prefer NYC to L.A. because it’s easier to maintain friendships and experience a wide variety of cultures. It’s easier not to lose your mind in New York City or maybe lose your mind---insanity or sanity—you can choose. L.A. is a great city but it’s too tied to “the business” and that’s to its detriment. In New York City you can have conversations about other things. I forget that outside L.A. is beautiful and I try to experience that part of the area when I’m there. I also lived in Mexico studying abroad in Guadalajara.
Why did you move to NYC? Can you describe the apartments where you’ve lived?
I moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey in 2003. I would come into the city all the time, and in 2005. I finally moved into a sublet for $700 in Spanish Harlem.
The building and apartment were so run down. But thankfully shortly afterwards I got booked as the lead in the series Barber Shop so I moved to L.A. I always knew I would come back.
Then another show I was on–The Wire—offered me a bigger part and brought me back to Maryland to film. Once the fourth season was done I finally returned to New York in 2006. I lived in Washington Heights in a four-bedroom that rented for $2,700. I didn’t have roommates so I had all the space to myself. The space was amazing. Outside it reminded me of the Dominican Republic without the tropical vegetation. I had a friend who is a realtor who helped me find it. There was a broker’s fee involved. Then after I was gone so much to film The Wire, I got some roommates. I kept that apartment for about three years. After I moved out I still sublet it.
I never wanted to leave Manhattan but by chance I saw something online on Craigslist in Brooklyn. I ended up loving it in Bed Stuy. I rented a one-bedroom housed on the top floor of a brownstone with great light. Back in 2008 it cost about $1,200 per month.
I had that about a year and then had to move because of mold. I didn’t know what it was but all of a sudden I was coughing and my eyes were burning. I ended up sleeping elsewhere and then looked it up and saw all my issues were symptoms of mold. I had an inspector come and we figured out that the roof leaked whenever it rained and created mold in the walls; the owner couldn’t afford to repair it so I had to leave. He let me out of my lease easily. I looked all over Brooklyn and ended up moving a block away still in Bed Stuy.
Do you live alone?
Yes. I like dogs but I leave so much it would not be possible to have a pet.
What’s the best and worst thing about your current apartment?
Best: The light and my neighbors are pretty cool. I have good friends in my area.
Worst: The bathroom is stupid small.
What’s the weirdest [or scariest] thing that has ever happened to you living in NYC?
I had a roommate who was an alcoholic and he would get drunk and pee out the windows and lie about it. Other people would tell me and ask me to do something about it. When I confronted him he’d act like he had no idea what I was talking about.
Oh my! In writing this column, I have heard so many stories that involve errant pee. It’s the tie that seem to join them all together. Onto a better, more appealing topic: What’s your dream home and why?
I’d love a house or a brownstone in Brooklyn or in Manhattan with lots of space. You may not think about it often but there are places in Manhattan with yards. Right now I have no outdoor space. I just have parks.
What is the one thing you’d change about living in Brooklyn?
I love Brooklyn. I’d just have more space.
Do you own a car?
I used to. When I thought I had to go back out to L.A. to do a series I bought a car so I used it in Maryland filming The Wire. I brought the car with me and in a few weeks I had three tickets, it was towed and a crackhead broke into it so I sold it. Now I ride the subway and bike.
On the subway do you get recognized?
All the time. People are so cool. You can always see people looking at you and watch their faces as 3…2…1… they think, “Oh, I know that guy!” One time I was coming out of the subway and a woman was going into the turnstile. I saw her face and knew she was placing me. Without thinking she grabs me and pulls me into her and I get stuck into the turnstile.
You’ve gotten mauled in the subway!
Yes! Sometimes when kids leave school –especially when The Wire was on—they’d take out their cell phones and put them in my face. They’d ask, “I know you aren’t him, but do you know who you look like?” All the while recording my answer on their cells.
What’s your favorite neighborhood and why?
I love Manhattan but I also love Bed Stuy; I just love that there’s life going on close to Manhattan but it is a real neighborhood and you can see little kids going to school, yet there is still a good nightlife.
What tips would you offer to someone just moving to NYC?
A lot of conversations in NYC have to do with New Yorkers finding a new place and leaving a place. Part of who we are here is that we are always moving around. Get ready for a culture that moves. Be prepared to change apartments. I like Craigslist to find things, people, and apartments. Make sure you find a living space you want to go back to. On bad days you want something that you inspires you to return to it.
What are your favorite night-time spots? (Assuming you are a night-life type of guy…)
I have been wanting to go out more at night but I’ve been gone. In the past six months I’ve spent three weeks in NYC. That’s unfortunate. I traveled for work and holidays and was in LA for three months. I love lounges, coffee shops and movies. I would like to go to more clubs. I just want to experience that.
How has NYC affected your craft?
It inspires me every day. I walk around grateful I live here. It keeps my mind sharp which is extremely helpful in acting.
I know you have also done some writing for the NYT. Can you tell me a bit about that? How has this city affected your writing?
My first NYT piece was about my travel in the Himalayas with my agent. My second personal essay was about my foot surgery.
Living in the city gives me more colors to paint with when I write. I see a lot--I’m part of a lot. This is such a literate town; it pushes me and pushes me because the standards are so high. It makes me have to be a better writer.
How is being a single man in NYC?
Ah, being single in NYC is a fascinating thing. You see everything. All stages. People who have been single in NYC in decades. People just arriving here. I try to learn from other people’s mistakes. It’s pretty easy to get a date or meet someone. You can sit down and talk to anyone and approach them. Because there are so many of us and the city is so crowded, we are all physically close; no one takes offense because space is so limited. That makes us both approachable and yet harder. It’s an interesting mix.
What are your favorite food-related places in NYC? In Bed Stuy the eatery Peaches is my favorite; it also does take out. There’s a great café next to there too.
Folllow Gbenga Akinnagbe on Twitter, @GbengaAkinnagbe.
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