Sometimes in film there’s a perfect marriage between director and star. The director finds an actor who fully embodies their vision, while the actor intuitively understands what’s needed – and gives even more. Think Scorsese and De Niro, Spielberg and Hanks. Director Thyrone Tommy and actor Thomas Antony Olajide share the kind of filmic chemistry that marks great onscreen collaborations.
Olajide starred in Tommy’s breakthrough 2016 short Mariner, which played TIFF and made its top 10 shorts that year. And in Tommy’s just-released feature debut Learn To Swim, he plays the brooding, troubled jazz saxophonist at the heart of the film. The 2021 TIFF entry also made TIFF Cinematheque’s top 10 list and earned Olajide a much-deserved Canadian Screen Award nomination for best actor.
“It’s rare to find artistic kin in this industry,” says Olajide. “So when you do – when you find someone who just intrinsically speaks the same language as you – you tend to want to hold on to that.”
Toronto theatre lovers know the Vancouver-born Olajide for his work onstage – both in indie productions like Sia, Black Boys and Iphigenia And The Furies (On Taurian Land) and at Stratford. It was while he was in his second season at Stratford that he heard about the audition for Mariner. He couldn’t make in-person auditions, so he sent in a self-tape, which Tommy vividly remembers.
“I watched the tape and his web series Inhuman Condition,” says the director. “And when he came in for a callback, he was awesome. I remember just knowing we were watching something special.”
While Olajide, Tommy and Learn To Swim’s co-writer Marni Van Dyk and producer Alona Metzer were all at the Canadian Film Centre together, Tommy made a short version of the film, which went over well. Later, when it came time to make the feature version, he figured he would keep his casting options open.
“But I knew, subconsciously, that it was going to be Thomas. There’s a physicality to his performance that is so unique. He’s got this presence that is amazing to catch on camera. You can just allow him into a space, and he brings it.”
Not that Tommy would call him a muse, exactly.
“He’s such an intelligent and all-encompassing person,” he says. “There are so many layers to him. I’ve known him now for seven years, and I feel like I’m still discovering aspects of him. He’s definitely someone who inspires and challenges me as a person and as an artist, and it’s what I adore about him. And it’s what makes me want to continue to build on.”
In both Mariner and Learn To Swim, Olajide plays young men who are haunted by past trauma, which is preventing them from moving forward. It’s up to the actor to suggest – in a look, a line or even in the way he holds himself – what’s eating away at them.
Rather than do a lot of background character work, Olajide trusted that Tommy knew what he wanted.
“I think that trust was mutual,” says the actor. “He trusted that if I had questions about the text, I would ask something. And whatever he wanted to do with a scene, I would show up and just do it. He’d say, ‘I’d like you to go to this table, pick up that glass, drink it, set it down, say this line and leave. And I’d go, ‘Okay, let me do it.’”
Olajide says he focuses less on character than on scenario.
“If there’s an accent, if it’s in a certain geographical place, if a person wears a particular bit of clothing – that to me isn’t character, it’s scenario and context. What ultimately is going to convince a viewer is believing these bodies are actually in this scenario.”
He also got a lot of help from the film’s soundtrack – which includes songs by Chester Hansen and Leland Whitty (from BadBadNotGood), Meagan De Lima, Tika Simone and Casey Manierka-Quaile.
“Where the story was taking shape was carved out by the music.”
While the question of race is a subtle backdrop to Tommy’s semi-autobiographical Mariner – he too trained as a navigation cadet before becoming a filmmaker – it doesn’t figure much in Learn To Swim. That was intentional.
“I wanted to touch on the issue of race in Mariner, but I didn’t want the audience to think the character was going through what he did because he was Black,” says Tommy. “In Swim, it was important to show the vulnerability and sensitivity of a Black man experiencing grief and guilt. The way race and culture come into play is how the characters interact with each other. I wanted to see them live in their spaces and allow their cultures to inform the way they communicate with each other.”
For his part, Olajide loves Tommy’s scripts because there are few opportunities to play multi-dimensional characters who are Black from the onset.
“Often I’ll see a character breakdown for a Black actor, or one for all ethnicities, but you read the part and essentially it’s still Eurocentric,” says the actor, who has a role in the upcoming TV series Interview With The Vampire. “I’m glad there are people looking for other bodies. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, though, because sometimes it can feel like openness and opportunity and sometimes that can translate into generality and condescension.”
Tommy directed two episodes in Amanda Parris’s series Revenge Of The Best Black Friend – one a deconstruction of the fact that the Black character is often the first to be killed in slasher movies, the other a satire of the performance of thug culture.
He recently directed an episode of Murdoch Mysteries, and he’s currently working on a CBC documentary series called Black Life. His episode deals with sports.
Speaking of sports, back in 2001, he played football for the Don Bosco Eagles. His coach? None other than city councillor Rob Ford.
Tommy made a short film about that experience during his time at the CFC, but he’s not ruling out another film.
“A script is floating around my apartment somewhere,” he says, laughing. “Ford was a character, but he wasn’t the person he grew into. We were all a bunch of misfits.”