Born in London to a Nigerian couple, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was given up to a white, middle-class family at just 6 weeks old. When his birth parents decided to take him back to Nigeria at age 8, Akinnuoye-Agbaje wasn’t accepted because he only spoke English.
So Akinnuoye-Agbaje returned to London, where he struggled with his identity. He joined a local skinhead gang and turned to a life of violence before a suicide attempt at age 16 served as a wakeup call. The actor, now 50, went on to graduate law school and discover modeling before landing in Hollywood.
Now as the star of ABC’s Ten Days in the Valley, Akinnuoye-Agbaje feels fortunate to be playing the drama’s complex, hard-nosed cop opposite Kyra Sedgwick.
“I’m always drawn to the character and how it challenges me creatively,”Akinnuoye-Agbaje tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I wanted to play one that had a texture. That’s where I’m at in my life.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje also notes that his character, Detective John Bird, was originally written as a white role.
“When the script came out, I read it and I was really drawn to it,” the Lost vet recalls. “But the character was written for a Caucasian. I asked my team to do what they could to get me in, and eventually I got what they call a chemistry test with Kyra Sedgwick and was given the part shortly afterwards. They played somebody totally against the type to make the chemistry work.”
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Next up, the Brit will focus his efforts on writing and directing Farming, a film based on his troubled youth, in which he’ll also star.
“I’ve been developing this story for more than 12 years,”says Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who’s also appeared in Suicide Squad and Game of Thrones. “I feel ultimately that is going to liberate me and allow me to be free of what I’ve actually been carrying for many, many years.”
With stars like Kate Beckinsale and Beauty and the Beast‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw already tied to the project, which doesn’t yet have a release date, the Oz alum hopes his movie can enlighten viewers on the British phenomenon of “farming” children out in the mid-1900s.
“Farming was a term I heard as a young child growing up in England,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje explains. “After that second World War when immigrants used to come to Britain from the West Indies, West Africa and India to help rebuild the economy, many of the immigrants, once they were working and studying in England, they would have children. And they were doing double shifts, so in order to help raise their children they would foster, or ‘farm,’ their children out to working class families all over England.”
He continues, “People will be surprised that something of this nature could occur at such vast volume. Even people who grew up in England will be surprised, because it’s a phenomenon that occurred on our own doorstep that is somewhat unknown. And I think many of the children and families that many have undergone it may well be healed from this story.”
Ten Days in the Valley airs Sundays on ABC at 10 p.m. ET.