Onye Eme-Akwari Talks About His Journey from Childhood in Nigeria to NCIS: New Orleans to Teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in New York City
Onye Eme-Akwari grew up in Nigeria fascinated by drumming, a skill that he continued to refine when his family moved to America. But it was winning a background role in Captain America: Civil War, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that launched his fascination with acting. It set him on a new career course: studying acting, performing on television shows and in movies – in such iconic shows as NCIS: New Orleans and in such notable films as Son of the South, executive-produced by Spike Lee – and now teaching the Meisner technique at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. We spoke with Onye about his extraordinary journey and how his initial love of drumming continues to inform his teaching.
TKS: How did you get from drumming in Nigeria to Captain America: Civil War?
Onye: I lived in Nigeria until I was six years old, when our family moved to complete schooling in the U.S., while my mother was finishing up her medical residency at Duke University. Our family lived in North Carolina until I was 12, when we moved to Atlanta where I went to middle school, high school and college and ultimately appeared in the background of Captain America: Civil War. From my earliest memories, I loved drumming. When I went to church in Nigeria as a child, I’d ask to sit near the drummer and just watch. I always had an affinity for drumming, which to me was the heartbeat of the music. It always felt right to me. Once in North Carolina, I played in the concert band in middle school and eventually played quads and snare drum in a high school marching band. That led to indoor drumline in Atlanta and drum corps with various touring groups, which eventually led to performing internationally and professionally as a drummer. Acting didn’t become an interest for me until after college. I was pursuing a master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Georgia, when into my life came Captain America. My brother had been doing background work in film and television in Atlanta and heard that there was an open call for actors who could speak an African language. We ended up just in the background of Captain America: Civil War, but a new world had been revealed to me on the set. I was not turning back.
TKS: How did you choose to train at a conservatory?
Onye: I chose to study at the University of Georgia, so Atlanta was nearby, and Atlanta has a very active film and theater scene. In fact, I first knew of Terry Knickerbocker, because he had taught some master classes in Atlanta. I began training privately and then enrolled at the Robert Mello Studio in Atlanta, where I first studied the Meisner technique. That became another fascination, and over time I went on to teach the Meisner technique at the Robert Mello Studio. What I love about conservatories – and this is evident daily at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio – is that everyone is there on purpose. They are there for one reason: to study and pursue an acting career. They are not there to get a college degree or fulfill the requirements for a major.
TKS: What led you to Terry Knickerbocker and how did you begin teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Onye: I began auditioning for films and television shows being shot in Atlanta or within 500 miles. NCIS: New Orleans was one of those shows, and I was cast for a guest appearance. I had a manager who worked in the Southeast and New York City markets, and she urged me to consider New York to continue auditioning after some time working in Atlanta. I moved to New York in 2021. Now that I was living in New York, I wanted to teach the Meisner technique in New York. Courtney Ferguson, Associate Voice Teacher at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, had studied at the Robert Mello Studio, and she let me know that Terry was interested in expanding the teaching of the Meisner technique at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. She made the introduction, and Terry and I met about teaching the technique. I became an Associate Acting Teacher in the Fall of 2022. In preparation for teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, I observed Terry’s classes during the 2022 summer intensive. What really struck me from observing Terry – and what I now try to bring to my students – is how involved he is when he’s teaching. He’s all-in all the time. The Meisner technique is very revealing. It requires an intense vulnerability. Having someone guide you through this intensity builds a trust that is freeing. It creates an environment that encourages actors to freely explore their emotional lives without the added pressure of striving for a particular result. Terry’s all-in approach enables his students to be all-in as well.
TKS: What makes the Terry Knickerbocker Studio special in your mind?
Onye: What’s special starts with Terry but extends across the Terry Knickerbocker Studio community. What impressed me most about Terry from a distance was that some of my favorite actors have studied with him: Sam Rockwell and Jonathan Majors, for instance. But what’s so special up close is the sense of community that Terry and those associated with him have created at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. That includes the faculty, the students, the staff and the alumni, including the many actors who have trained with Terry and return throughout their careers to refine their craft. What we all share is a welcoming attitude and a passion for excellence: a simultaneous seriousness and playfulness; a love of curiosity; a fascination with seeing what we can discover together.
TKS: Do you think back on your initial love of drumming in Nigeria, as you teach the Meisner technique in New York?
Onye: Absolutely. There’s great similarity between a musical score and a script, as well as the training required to master an instrument or an acting technique. That relationship continues to inspire me. The main difference is that in performing a piece of music, especially in an ensemble setting, there is a consistent and almost mathematical precision that is asked of each performer. In acting, where living truthfully under imaginary circumstances is the goal, variation is inherent because that is the nature of life. In that variation is growth, and that growth is experienced by the student as well as the teacher. My drumming has led to continuous growth, and that’s a beat that is unrelenting.
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