Discovery: Arnold Oceng

By
Photography Vita Hewison

Published October 6, 2014

ABOVE: ARNOLD OCENG IN LONDON, SEPTEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY VITA HEWISON.

Ignore the posters; The Good Lie is not about Reese Witherspoon’s character, a slightly cynical, Middle class American woman who is transformed when she meets three young refugees. Witherspoon’s Carrie is a secondary player. The film’s focus is on those three young men: Mamere, Paul, and Jeremiah.  

Orphaned by the Second Sudanese Civil War and confined to a refugee camp in Kenya for their entire adolescence, Mamere, Paul, and Jeremiah are finally allowed to immigrate to the U.S. just before 9/11. Mamere is the leader of the group—a role he took on reluctantly when his older brother Theo sacrificed himself to save them from guerrilla soldiers, and finds difficult to maintain in their new home of Kansas City, Missouri. He is soft-spoken and crippled with guilt, and played with great empathy by Arnold Oceng.

Both of Oceng’s costars, Emmanuel Jal (Paul) and Ger Duany (Jeremiah), were born in Sudan and victims—to say the least—of the Second Civil War. Like their characters, they were orphaned and trekked across Sudan towards Ethiopia; unlike their characters, they both became child soldiers before making it across the border. Oceng, however, is the odd one out. Born and raised in London in a Ugandan family, Oceng began acting as a child. By the time he was 14, had a regular role on the British, Degrassi-esque tween soap Grange Hill. When we talk with him over the phone he is riding a London bus. The person sitting next to him recognizes him and asks for a photograph together. 

AGE: 28

HOMETOWN: Brixton, South London. It used to be a place that had a bad rep; people considered it a ghetto, really. But now the government’s pumped a lot of money in and it’s totally changed. It’s a really cool, trendy place to live now.  

CURRENTLY LIVES IN: South London

FAMILY LIFE: I have an older sister and a younger brother; my younger brother’s 10, and my older sister’s 30. We do totally different things. My sister’s actually a diplomat for the Foreign Office. I don’t really get to see her that much, because she’s in Vietnam at the moment. Before that she was in Afghanistan.

My father unfortunately passed away when I was two. He died when I was so young, it’s not really something I miss—you don’t miss something you never had. But I’m a bit of a mummy’s boy. My mum is my everything. She’s my best friend. Especially when it comes to African families, if you say you want to act, they really frown on that. They want you to be doctors, lawyers—all that sort of stuff. But my mum, from day one, she’s been the one who has supported and pushed me. Everything I do, I just want to make her proud. I’m being soppy…[but] when we have the London premiere [of The Good Lie], she’s definitely going to be there by my side.  

THE BEGINNING: I went to a Roman Catholic primary school in Brixton. Around Christmas, we acted out scenes from the nativity. I was King Herod. One of the kids in my class, his mum was a child agent, so she came to watch her son in the play. At the end she came up to my mum and said, “Your son’s got talent, here’s my card.”  

I started acting when I was six, just doing commercials, adverts, and music videos for a few British bands. There was a group in the ’90s that was really popular called Blur. Do you remember a song called “Parklife”? I was one of the kids playing football in the background…way in the background.  

THE BREAK: My big break came when I got asked to play Calvin Braithwaite in Grange Hill. It was a massive deal for me—when we were young, coming home from school, the two shows you’d watch were either Biker Grove or Grange Hill. When I was in secondary school, I was in Grange Hill as well. Everyone was cool about it. I got into a few ruffles and tuffles coming from Brixton, but that’s just part of adolescence and growing up. A few teachers weren’t that nice about it—if I came late to class, a teacher might say, “Ooh. This isn’t Grange Hill you know.” Giving me slight digs. But apart from that, it was cool.

THE FILM DEBUT: [There have been] big moments in my acting career where things have come to fruition and helped me keep the acting flame alight. I’ll always remember Adulthood (2008), because that was one of the moments it turned again. I was on Grange Hill for six years, so I was comfortable knowing I had work constantly and, because I didn’t go to drama school, being on Grange Hill taught me my craft. I learned on the job with different producers and directors. When I left Grange Hill, I just jumped from TV show to TV show. I did a couple of episodes of Casualty, Holby City, The Bill, and so on and so forth. But when I got Adulthood, that was a moment in my life where I was like, “Okay, now I’m a film actor.” And no one expected Adulthood to do as well as it did. I remember when it came out, all the cinemas here were packed. It got to number one at the box office. It beat Sex and the City. It was a massive deal for me. I was so happy.  

THE GOOD LIE: [Originally] they didn’t want to see me because I wasn’t tall enough. It was a bit of a bummer. A month and a half later they called my agent back and were like, “You know what, we’ll see him.” I had to put myself on tape and I didn’t hear anything for about a month. Then my agent just called me a said, “They said your tape was the only tape they liked in Europe. Will you be able to fly out to L.A.?” I said, “Are you crazy, of course! Even if I wasn’t available, I’m coming.” [laughs]  

THE COMPETITION: We were actually all put up in the same hotel. When I landed and met the other candidates I was up against, I emailed my mum straight away—of course my phone didn’t work out there—”You know mum, I’m not going to get this one.” When I looked at the other actors, to me they fit the spec of what was wanted: tall, dark skin, majestic. Later on I realized that some of the actors I was up against were Sudanese guys who had gone through the storyline [of the movie]—it’s almost a reenactment of their life. When I heard that I was like, “Yeah, I’m not getting it.”  

You’ll be friendly with them but at the end of the day they’re competition. I know some of them were trying to psych me out. But you keep it professional; everybody was nice. On the last day, when all of us were going to have our last audition, they wanted to go out and have drinks to celebrate the fact that we’d gotten this far even though we had a casting the next day. I declined. I wanted to go out, ’cause it’s L.A, I wanted to enjoy L.A., but I knew I had a job to do, so I stayed in and I just learned my lines even more and I was ready for the next day.  

UNDERSTANDING MAMERE: I like to think of myself as a manly man. I’m not, but I like to think of myself as that, and I cried three times. And I didn’t cry for the fact that, “Oh, that’s me on the TV.” I cried because the story is just super sad, man. It’s proper emotional.

I picked [the other actors’] brains a lot. I’m the only one who hasn’t been through the experience—the girl who played Abital [Kuoth Wiel], my sister, she is from that background as well. All three of them were actual refugees. Emmanuel [Jal] was a child soldier. I was the only fake one there, so when it came to filming, I picked their brains a lot and I learned from them. I didn’t want to ask them [at first], but I think they knew what was at stake if we were going to make a really amazing film that informs people of what people of the South Sudan went through, and make it realistic and tap into those emotions. They chose to open up to me and tell me everything. And I’m grateful. Stuff they told me was so heart-wrenching. But they explained everything to me. I didn’t really want to ask, but they came to me and they said, “You know what, Arnold, this will help.”  

ACTING ROLE MODELS: I used to really aspire to the greats like Al Pacino and Danny DeVito. I still do, but more now with the journey I’m taking, I’m looking up to actors that have come from my background and are doing well in the States, people like Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s a London guy; David Oyelowo; Idris Elba. As well as the new, young cats—which I hope I’m in that same division as —like John Boyega, Jack O’Connell, Aml Ameen, David Ajala.

THE GOOD LIE IS CURRENTLY OUT IN THEATERS.