Photo by Tony McGee

For six seasons (1997-2003), fans of HBO’s hit prison series Oz watched Muslim imam Kareem Said struggle with the tensions between being a man of faith and simply being a man. As portrayed by Eamonn Walker, Said had a conviction that bordered on cockiness. But it was in Said’s foibles that Walker located the character’s humanity. Grappling with lust, ego and power trips, Said became one of the show’s most dynamic points of connection and Walker one of its most riveting actors. Originally trained as a dancer (until a leg injury ended that dream), the forty-ish Walker has won acclaim for both his film and theater work (he appeared with Denzel Washington earlier this year in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar). A father of three, he juggles his creative impulses and socially-conscious mandate with the desire to make work that his children can also see. Striking the perfect balance are the recently released Lord of War, in which he plays a prototypically villainous African dictator, and the wonderful Duma, a nature/children’s film in which he plays a mysterious traveler of dubious intentions. (Duma finally arrives in Los Angeles theaters today, after a long and winding road to distribution previously chronicled in these pages.) In a phone interview from New York, Walker spoke about the course of his career and the liberating aspects of unfettered creativity.

LA WEEKLY:How has your training as a dancer paid off in your acting career?

EAMONN WALKER: I use it all the time. That whole way of being that I had as a dancer informs almost every character I play. Every single character has a different way of walking, of moving. I don’t know if I could create a three-dimensional character without my dance training.

When you realized you’d pursue acting instead of dancing, what sorts of goals did you set for yourself in your new profession?

I didn’t really have a goal as an actor because of the way that I changed over [to acting]. I had an operation on my leg which stopped me dancing, so there was a big six-month depression. Acting on stage was something thrust in front of me to abate me of the depression I was under. It was me trying something new and fortunately it clicked. But there weren’t any real goals. The goals have developed as I’ve come along and become an actor.

Watching Lord of War and Duma back-to-back, there’s a way in which they have a dialogue with one another. Through fiction, we’re given the scope of Africa, from corrupt and genocidal politics to the staggering beauty of the country itself. In shooting the films so close together, were you aware of the ways in which they formed complementary parts of a whole?

Very much so. When you’re on that creative journey, one of the most amazing things you can do is be present and in the moment. And when I was in the Kalahari Desert filming Duma for four-and-a-half months — with a little boy called Alex Michaeletos who had never acted before and five cheetahs which we pretended were one — all sorts of things came flooding to mind. The concerns about the business of making movies weren’t present. A cheetah doesn’t care and a little boy who has never acted before is unaware of the business. And that was completely freeing for someone like me. We were sleeping in tents and waking up with the sun. I had to conquer my fear of sitting next to a wild cat which is the size of a large Doberman. But it’s not a dog and there are no rules. You can’t talk to it and tell it to sit. And this 12-year-old boy taught me how to be with wild animals, which is something I will never forget — that a boy had to teach this grown man about having to go deep inside oneself and just be animal to animal, to relate in that way.

The beauty of that place, and of listening to [director] Carroll Ballard talk about film in the way that he does, because he’s a complete artist. He uses film like it was paintbrushes in his hand. That was a journey in itself and there was nothing to distract anyone on the crew from that.

Lord of War was much more about business, meaning I was filming several things at the same time, I was flying in and out. But then I got time for me and my personal interests. I consider myself a bit of a sponge and I like to drink in what the world has to offer, so I was talking to South Africans and visiting townships and I could get a bit of history from their perspective of living there 10 years past apartheid. So, yes, all that stuff was very present. I loved it.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned a sense of social and political obligation when choosing the roles you do. Was that part of what made Duma and Lord of War appealing?

Without getting into the philosophy of what I do, or what an ancient profession it is, I think the job of a storyteller is to gain as much knowledge as you can in order to put it back out there, to help society move forward. That’s what storytellers have always done. I’m fortunate that I am an actor, that I am able to get those experiences up close and firsthand, so that people can share the knowledge, because it’s all about knowledge at the end of the day — and beauty, pain, controversy. It’s about providing entertainment, social consciousness, political awareness. Basically, I simply want to touch people.

LA Weekly