I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lonyo Engele, subsequently after he won ‘Best Actor’ at the American Black Film Festival for his stunning performance in Stephen Lloyd Jackson’s intense psychological drama ‘David Is Dying.’ The film follows David Brown (Engele), a young, successful hedge fund manager who has just been told that he is HIV positive. He is informed of the possibility that his unborn child could also be infected and so too the child’s mother, his long-term fiancée, Carla.

Through an intense therapy session with his psychiatrist, David takes us on a pernicious journey that starts twelve months prior – the women, the sex and the demons. Check out what he had to say about the film below.

How did you get into acting? I know you’ve been involved in the music industry.

Lonyo Engele: It was by accident really. I had always done a little bit of acting – on a real small scale. I used to be one of the featured extras on ’Dream Team,’ that football show on Sky One. I was mainly on there for my football ability, I did that for five years. Because some of the actors weren’t great they wanted to make sure the featured extras could actually play football. From being on set then, I picked up all of the language that the camera men and the directors were using when they were giving directions to the main cast.

It was always something that I thought one day I’m gonna give a bash, but it’s hard to get an opening, especially when you’ve been doing one thing, sometimes it’s not easy for people to take you seriously when you want to try something else.

The role is extremely challenging, especially for a first feature film. How did you go about playing your part?

Lonyo Engele: Yeah, it’s funny because I was basically just dropping someone off – I sort of knew one of the producers who was there, they said to me “why don’t you read?” I was like “I haven’t really got any acting experience, although I’d loved to have had some, I don’t really wanna hold anyone up.” I was thinking that I didn’t just want to just wing it, there’s talented actors out there. But they were like “you’ve got the sort of look we might be looking for, just give it a try.” So in the audition process they wanted me to cry, so I had a few moments to prepare myself, I just thought about Liverpool losing (laughs) – I’m a big Liverpool fan, it brought up all these emotions and I delivered some lines. They were like “this kid might have something.” So from there I had a meeting with the director Stephen Lloyd Jackson, he said “we’re gonna give you the role, but before we do we want to let you know that it’s very challenging, it’s physiological, it’ll take up a lot of energy, you have to have your whit’s about you. But if you manage to pull it off, you‘ll be able to do anything, or you‘ll be able to go into other parts without much fear.” I said “I’m up for the challenge,” and they went for me.

I’m not a trained actor, even though I’ve been taking some courses since because I‘m taking this seriously, but luckily they went for me. It was excellent, it’s always good when you’ve got a director who’s able to really direct you. He gave me so many instructions into how he wanted certain things to be delivered, he had a strange way of working though, he’d never let me look back at what we’ve filmed, he never let me see anything, the first time I actually saw the film was when I came out to Miami for the festival.

You won the big award for it, how did that feel? From not even seeing the film to winning a prestigious award for it days later.

Lonyo Engele: The festival’s over three days, there’s master classes by Bill Duke, Robert Townsend, there’s seminars, it’s very positive. They show your film twice, once at the beginning and once at the end. When I saw it for the first time I was like “this is not too bad” – you’re always gonna think it’s better than what it is, I had a few friends with me who told me I was really good in it, sometimes you think they might be gassing you up because they don’t want to tell you that it’s not that great (laughs). But to see authentic audience reactions, the people in the cinema were actually enjoying it, that’s when I thought at least we haven’t come here and embarrassed ourselves. There were some great films there, films starring Billy Zane, Vivica Fox, Michael Madsen in Black Gold – we were up against big films. When they called my name out I couldn’t believe it, I honestly, honestly didn’t believe it. It was an absolute shock.

What sort of research did you do for the character?

Lonyo Engele: I didn’t want to overload myself because in one sense I’m trying to learn acting techniques, as well as learning acting technique – because it was put on me quite quickly, I had two weeks to prepare, two or three weeks. I was trying to learn various acting techniques in the worst way, a crash course, which you can’t really do. Then I was doing some research on HIV, it wasn’t so much driven about the disease, it was more about the reaction to the disease, that helped me. I spoke to a few people, read a few journals about how they felt when they were told, how they reacted. I was kind of lucky it wasn’t more about the disease and it was more about the reaction to being told.

What did you find the most challenging? Was there a particular scene?

Lonyo Engele: Yeah the love scene. They’re not as glamorous as people think they are, trust me! When I read the love scenes I thought “damn!” Then when you actually do them you’ve got the camera woman there, the assistant director, the boom guy, the make-up lady, the director, it’s not as glamorous as it looks. That was a bit challenging, I had done nothing like that before.

What else can people expect from you coming up?

Lonyo Engele: This was a bolt out of the blue really. Like I said I wasn’t expecting to win an award, I was hoping just by being nominated that it would open a few doors – sometimes it’s a shame we have to come across the pond to get recognition. You’d always like to blow up in your own back yard first and get the recognition. But to be honest, for me, it doesn’t really matter, I’m not political like that, I just hope that it opens a few more doors. It’s not a given that just because you won an award that people are gonna give you more work. It just means that they may possibly take your phone call.

Many UK actors have got real recognition in the states before really blowing up in the UK, Idris Elba with The Wire is the most obvious example.

Lonyo Engele: Yeah, obviously it’s a bigger cake to cut up, you’ve got more of a chance to get a slice of it – it’s the same with music, you’ve got people like Floetry, Soul 2 Soul, Loose Ends…… It’s not a new formula, Idris came out to the states, he did really well and now he’s come back to do stuff in Britain, he’s done Luther which is a brilliant, brilliant series – I know Idris, you can see the model, I’m sure he saw somebody else’s model before that. You just have to mention Idris’ name out here and people lose their minds, particularly women (laughs). In terms for what it can do for you, you just hope for the best. I think there was something different about our film that they liked, we got lucky, I got lucky because I was in the film, my first feature film, my first speaking part.

Have you got any last words, any shout outs at all?

Lonyo Engele: Yeah, I dedicated the award to my Dad, my Dad passed away a month ago. It’s a shame because I’d liked him to have obviously seen it, but there was a little part of me which felt he was there with me, as cliché as that sounds, honestly it did. This was one in a million, there’s no way I expected to win. My thing is if you want to do something, then don’t just think about it, go and do it, just go and do it. The worst that can happen is to say at least I gave it a try.