Thriving in one area is very hard to master. Being successful in two areas takes a fair degree of talent and dedication. Lonyo Engele is one such achiever. Already a success in music, achieving a top ten hit with his single, Summer of Love, he has turned his hand to acting. In his first film role, he won the award of Best Actor at the American Black Film Festival, beating such well-known names as Vivica Fox, Billy Zane and Michael Madsen.
The film for which he won his award, David is Dying, is showing at the British Urban Film Festival, amongst other films which feature a broad range of subjects. Ahead of its premier, The London Word caught up with Lonyo to discuss music, acting and runs along the Thames.
Can you tell us what David is Dying is all about?
‘David is a successful hedge fund manager who, as a young boy, was brought up by his mum. As he is growing up, he realises that he is in love with her but she subsequently passes away. So when he becomes older and becomes successful in his job, he aims to replace her with a new partner and subsequently, in that search, has affairs through work with various women and he’s got a partner that becomes pregnant. During a routine health scan, he discovers that he is HIV-positive and this destroys his whole illusion that he has been building up. It also reveals to his partner that he has been cheating on her with various women.’
How did you first get involved with the project?
‘It’s funny because it’s my first main acting role, I hadn’t received any training although it was something that I was looking to get into. A producer friend of mine remembered me from a Nike commercial and said that I had the look of what they were going for. They had no idea whether I could act but they invited me to audition and I read a bit and they asked me to cry. I remembered something that was particularly sad to me and I thought about that time. I delivered some lines and hey presto, they gave me the role.’
David doesn’t comes across as a very likeable character. How did you try and make him more empathetic to the audience?
‘I think that the first trick was that the director never let me see any of the rushes or any of the takes, so I was a million per cent unconcerned with how I looked. So when I was delivering my lines, it was in real time how I was feeling so even though that David didn’t read as a likeable character, I think you could see the emotion and the demons he has to fight in the film so I think even though you might want to hate him, you realise what he is going through.’
You’re originally from London. Whereabouts did you grow up?
‘Mainly in west London: Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith, Fulham, places like that. And I didn’t veer too far away from that, in that I went to Roehampton University, mainly because it was a sports university and because it was close. Even when I got offered a scholarship from the States, I just liked being close to home and that area. I now live in Queen’s Park and I’ve always been in west London.’
What’s the attraction to that part of town?
‘Well Thandie Newton lives on my road, so that’s never a bad thing! Plus I travel a lot with my work so it’s only 20 minutes on the train to Heathrow, it’s 10 minutes to the M1 and it’s central without being too hectic, so it’s like a little oasis.’
Your background is originally in music. How did you get started with that?
‘I started DJing in college and university, throwing boat parties, mansion parties, balls, mainly for a source of revenue because university is so expensive. I couldn’t see myself working in normaly student jobs. Through DJing, the natural progression was songwriting and then onto singing the songs myself. I went on to have a top ten hit, I did all the shows, Top of the Pops, live TV shows, all over Europe, Brazil, I just went everywhere. The garage scene was just coming up and so I was lucky to be one of the pioneers of that genre. But whilst I was doing that I was still DJing and did parties for Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyonce, Rhianna, all that lot.’
Are you still involved in music?
‘Sure, music has always been a passion of mine. I listen to music every day, different genres, classical to jazz. I’m still songwriting, I’ve got a production team and I’ll send them material and see what they do with it. But it’s hard, I did everything that I wanted to do with music, I’ve done all the music shows and performed up to 120,000 people at Love Parade and that’s not going to happen again. I was young and enjoying it and now I want to be behind the scenes.’
How do you think London’s music scene has evolved during your time in it?
‘When I was coming up during the garage scene, record labels were throwing a lot of money at garage artists. It was almost like every label had to have at least one garage act and they were prepared to pay six-figure amounts for singles, which is just ridiculous. I think how it’s changed now is that artists now realise the power of the internet and they can create their own heat, sell ten thousand units and it all comes back to them because they’re not having to deal with labels. People like Wretch 32, Tinchie Stryder and Chipmunk are able to generate their own heat on the street and labels are now asking to be involved rather than the other way round.’
Coming back to the British Urban Film Festival (BUFF), do you think that it’s helpful for black filmmakers in terms of promoting their work or an impediment in terms of them being pigeonholed as ‘black filmmakers’?
‘The film industry is very hard to break into and there needs to be some kind of recognition of black filmmakers. That’s not to alienate them, it should be used as a positive. In America, at the American Black Film Festival, I was astounded that such an event was put on by a black organisation and it was so big. The prizes were big, the event was big and it was a recognition of the black film culture that’s over there.
‘Obviously it’s a lot smaller market over here but I think that one supports the other. There’s going to be black filmmakers who want to make film and there needs to be an organisation that supports them where maybe BAFTA might not recognise them just yet. But just because BAFTA or any other organisation haven’t got something in place, it doesn’t mean that if BUFF do something, it should be seen as a positive, in that we have set something up.’
Part of the film was filmed in London. What was that like?
‘It was great because we got to film in places like Brixton, which was an experience. We had to close the square just outside the Ritzy Cinema and you had the locals to deal with. They were using quite colourful language saying, ‘Why should we be moved on?’ We also filmed in Brick Lane, in the City and on Brighton beach.’
What do you like to do outside of work?
‘I like to watch films, when I was at uni I had a job in the cinema as well as DJing and I would just watch movies, movies, movies and stuff I wouldn’t get out on DVD. I also box and I do that four times a week. I got bored with football but now I’m a bit older, I need something more than running. I still DJ, I run the biggest R&B night in London, Different Strokes at Cherry Jam. We’ve had everyone down there: Alesha Dixon, Kano, Jessie J, Chipmunk was there last night.’
What are your favourite parts of London?
‘By the river, whether it’s Hammersmith, Chiswick, Chelsea Wharf, right down to Westminster. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cold day or a warm day. When I used to live in Fulham, I used to run down to Hammersmith, round again to Putney. That run along the river was great so anything by the river is great. I hate the traffic. I thought New York was bad but London really is bad.’
What are your future projects?
‘Without giving too much away, I’m working on a script with some directors from Atlanta. I’ve got some meetings lined up with NBC and HBO about some television series that they’re interseted in. The music is still DJing and developing new artists.’
Lonyo’s film David Is Dying makes part of the British Urban Film Festival, which takes place from Thursday to Saturday. Tickets are free but to get your hands on them, you need to visit the website.