Joanna Schroeder chats with Ellen DeGeneres’ sidekick, Tony Okungbowa, about his new film Restless City, which is the story of a Senegalese immigrant making his way in New York City.
I first met Tony Okungbowa in Hollywood. He was a friend of a friend, and I knew two things instantly upon meeting him, without ever having to be told: First, he is incredibly intelligent. Second, he is deeply kind, but not in a sweetie-pie, pushover way, but rather in an open-hearted, cares-about-the-world kind of way. Tony allowed me (a virtual stranger) to blabber on at him for a while, and he actually listened. If you’ve ever spent time in Hollywood, you’ll know that this is rare.
I didn’t know it until some time after we met, but it turns out Tony is the house DJ on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He’s the one in charge of all the music that Ellen DeGeneres so famously dances to, and he also goes out and dispatches for Ellen at events such as the White House’s Easter Egg Roll. Tony doesn’t ham it up on these excursions, instead he stays sincerely himself: smart, kind, quietly funny.
But Tony’s work goes much deeper than his daytime talk-show life. His latest project is a breathtaking film about a Senegalese immigrant trying to make his way through New York City in pursuit of some form of the elusive American Dream.
Restless City has been described by Variety Magazine as visually euphoric, and you can feel that even from the trailer. As you watch it, you find you want more; you want to eat the images with a spoon, you want to inhale them, and you can smell the exhaust and the restaurants and the pavement as you ride with the main character, Djabril, on his Vespa through New York City’s chaotic streets.
This film is about people, about humanity in both its diversity and in the similarities which tie us together. Variety describes the images like this:
“…it’s not just Dosunmu’s direction or [Director of Photography] Bradford Young’s use of light and reflective surfaces that make “Restless City” fascinating. Both the sound and the creative use of silence are crucial to the film’s impact, as are the faces — melancholic portraits of hope and sadness, which Dosunmu lingers over as if in search of some elusive truth.”
Tony not only serves as Executive Producer and Music Supervisor for Restless City, but he also acts in it. Raised in London and Lagos, Nigeria by Nigerian parents, Tony was classically trained in theater both at University and in graduate school at Lee Strasberg, so he was well-suited for the task.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to chat with Tony and learn more about the film, what makes it so relevant, and why it means so much to him.
JS: Do you think there’s a way in which Restless City is particularly resonant right now, given where our society is in relation to race and ethnicity?
TO: I think it’s constantly resonant, it’s just a matter of whether the media puts it on the front page, as opposed to on the back page… We’re a country of immigrants, whether you like it or not. Immigrants are the make-up and the fabric of America today. The question is simply which immigrants you see and take note of.
These are people you walk past every day on the street if you live in New York, or on the Canal Streets of the world. You don’t take note of them because they’ve become part of the fabric to a degree that you don’t even notice them… But they’re there and they have lives and they have parents and they have dreams and aspirations. I can guarantee you that the Mexican gentleman selling fruit on the side of the road, or the African man in the street selling you your fake Gucci or Prada bag, he didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “this is what I want to do for a living.”
JS: What do you most want people to know about this film?
TO: We share this world with so many people. And the best way to for this world to be healed, whether it be from the economic standpoint or from the racial standpoint, is by knowing who we share this world with. Not just that they’re people, but to know them and to know what they’re about.
This is a look into a world that you walk past everyday. It’s like there’s a shop down from your house and one day you go in and they have motorcars in the back and you thought it was a grocery store. You’ve walked past it and never even thought about what was in it.
You know how they say to take time to smell the flowers? Take time to meet somebody, and know about them. These are the types of instruments you can use to learn about people and their journeys. They too have siblings and loved ones who care about them just as much as we care about ours.
JS: How do you think Restless City will resonate particularly with men?
TO: I think that men will hopefully see parts of themselves in some of these characters. Even in the female characters, because there are qualities and characteristics that exist that make you say, “Wow, would I do that? If I were in their shoes could I do that?” So those types of connections with these characters will hopefully be mirrors to a lot of men.
JS: Music is a huge part of the movie, is that part of the reason you were drawn to it, or did you have a hand in bringing music to be a central theme in the film?
TO: I music-supervised the film, but that was a blessing in disguise that I was able to marry two of my passions: acting and music and it was one of those things as well, where since I know the type of music that we were talking about, it was just an easy transition to be able to do both. Music was definitely a huge part of it for sure.
JS: Speaking of music, how did you come into DJing and get involved in the music world?
TO: It was an outside force, like so many of the best things that happen to us… I was taking bass guitar lessons and I was too impatient to do my scales, I wanted to just jump around and do everything all at once… I loved the beats… and my friend was DJing and he said, “why don’t you try this” and thats how I got into it.
JS: What city was that?
JS: And that’s the place to be, the club scene, the music, the dancing are all so amazing in London. How does the club scene in Los Angeles compare to London?
TO: I doesn’t (laughs). Not even close.
JS: So how did you get involved with working with Ellen DeGeneres?
TO: Through DJing, I was DJing on a photo shoot, which this friend and I decided was a good way to enhance the set while he was shooting celebrities. We met Ellen on one of those shoots, and we hit it off, and she offered me the job. The rest is history, as they say.
JS: So I was Googling around trying to learn more about you for this very official interview here, and I found a completely hysterical clip from Ellen of you falling off a stool. I have to admit that I laughed really hard. Was that real? Were you okay?
TO: I wasn’t hurt, and poor Ellen was so worried about me, but I was fine. I couldn’t have faked it or I’d be looking for work in Hollywood as a stuntman right now.
JS: Funny. And true. So anyway, now I’m going to ask you a few of the Man-to-Man questions that The Good Men Project founder, Tom Matlack, asks of all our interviewees.
JS: Who taught you about Manhood?
TO: My father.
JS: What two words describe your dad?
TO: Loving and hardworking.
JS: How has Romantic love shaped you as a man?
TO: Still finding out.
JS: What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
TO: Don’t look to the media for the answer. The answers are closer to you than you would really know. The people in your life, hopefully, can be better mirrors of what you can be and do as a man than you can find on the television or in the media.
Restless City opens this Friday, April 26th in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. It opens in Chicago, Detroit, Philly, DC and Seattle on May 4th.