Journey For Survival: Interview with The Good Lie's Arnold Oceng

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Actor Arnold Oceng

Imagine taking a life-saving leap into a brand new world where things that many people take for granted seem alien to you. Based on real-life events, the 2014 feature film The Good Lie tells the story of orphaned boys and girls who were forced to flee on foot in search of safety as victims of the terrifying civil war in Sudan that began in 1983. Thirteen years and, for some, nearly 1,000 miles later, a humanitarian effort brought 3,600 of these now young adults to the United States of America to start new lives. Among them is a young man named Mamere, played by British Ugandan-born actor Arnold Oceng, who took a journey of his own when it came to booking his role in the movie.

“For me, the casting process began in London,” says Oceng. “My agent received the character breakdown and sent my headshot to the film’s casting director to try to get an audition for me. Unfortunately, casting came back and told my agent they didn’t want to see me because I was too short, which was a bit of a bummer. I guess, though, that they couldn’t find the actor they wanted during the initial audition process, because maybe a month later, casting called my agent and said, ‘You know what, let’s give Arnold a shot.’

“I went to Spotlight in London, where I met the London casting director, put myself on tape, and that was that. I didn’t hear anything for about a month and a half, and then one day my agent got a call from the casting people. They said my [audition] tape was the only one in Europe that they liked, and was I available to fly to Los Angeles for more auditions. When my agent told me that, I said, ‘Even if I wasn’t available, I’d make myself available,’ do you know what I mean? So they flew me to Los Angeles where I had a few more auditions. Those were more nerve-wracking because I had to audition in front of a few producers from Warner Bros. and Reese Witherspoon [the star of The Good Lie], so I’m very glad it all worked out in the end.”

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Mamere and Theo (Femi Oguns) are sons of the chief in their village in Southern Sudan. After their parents are killed and their village destroyed during an attack by the Northern militia, the two boys, along with their sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) and a group of other survivors, leave on a journey that takes them not only into unfamiliar but also dangerous territory. They eventually make it to Kakuma refugee camp, where they meet other children in the same plight and in search of a true safe haven. They had no idea just how long or far their search would ultimately take them. Like his character, Oceng was also stepping into somewhat unfamiliar territory starting out on The Good Lie, but the congenial young actor quickly found his footing.

“The first day of filming we were doing a scene that just involved me,” he says. “I remember [director] Philippe Falardeau taking me aside to give me sort of a pep talk, and it was rather emotional. He told me, ‘Today is the first day of a great movie, and we’re going to have a great time filming it.’ Philippe also said, ‘Don’t forget the magnitude of this film, though, because at the end of the day, you’re helping tell a true story, and with that, there’s a weight and pressure that you take on your shoulders.’ I wanted to make the people back in the UK proud, and also make proud the people whose true story it was. So yes, there was a lot of responsibility being taken on by me and the rest of the cast and the director as well. I’ll never forget the pep talk Philippe gave me, because it helped boost me up and make me turn in my best performance possible.”

It takes a great deal of time, but Mamere and the others are eventually offered the chance to leave the camp to come live in America. Arriving in Kansas, they are met by Carrie Davis (played by Academy Award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon), an employment agency counselor. It is her job to find work for these young men and women, all of whom truly are strangers in a strange land. Each of them, including Mamere, had to grow up quickly, and that maturation process continues once they reach U.S. shores. Oceng relished the chance to join his character on such a journey of development and learned one or two things as well along the way.

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“Mamere is very humble as well as loving and a born leader, too, but he didn’t want to become a leader,” explains the actor. “It wasn’t by choice, but rather a situation that he was thrust into and just had to go with it. I really thrived on playing Mamere. The challenges were big, but as an actor you have to push yourself. I had to play a refugee, and I’m skinny already, but I had to go on a strict diet. They gave me a nutritionist and for all those months I was away filming, I ate three set meals a day, mostly salads and couscous, in small portions that were delivered to my apartment. I went to the gym every day, too, and worked with a personal trainer. We weren’t pumping iron, but doing loads of cardio, running, and rowing machine work so I could get to the proper level of fitness for the role.

“I had to get a dialect coach and learn the African Sudanese accent, which is different from other African accents,” continues Oceng. “I also had to have an accent coach because in certain scenes Mamere speaks a language called Dinka, so I had to learn lines in Dinka. Because I’m not from the same background as some of my fellow castmates and didn’t go through what they did growing up, I learned a great deal from them on-set. Some people have asked me, ‘You’re a professional actor, but for some of your castmates this is their first gig. Did they learn from you on-set?’ I’ve replied, ‘Hopefully they did, but personally, I learned a lot from them.’ Again, the story we were filming mirrored their lives, and no amount of research I could have done could have prepared me for this role, more than listening to the stories of the people right in front of me. So I definitely learned from them every day.

“When it comes to character development, Mamere grows immensely throughout the film. You see him go from a boy to a man. There are flashbacks in the movie where they show him as a child and what he went through, so therefore you understand his emotional trials in the film. As an actor, getting to play Marmere was such a blessing because he goes on a tremendous emotional roller coaster ride, from having to deal with his village burning down and the loss of his family, to having to deal with being an alien in his new home of America, and coming to terms with the whole notion of trusting new people. It’s just crazy for him, so throughout the film you grow with him and, hopefully, understand the emotional ups and downs he experiences as well.

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“One of my favorite scenes in The Good Lie is where Mamere basically loses himself and ‘the plot,’ too. He breaks down after having a fight with his brother and you get to see another side of him. Mamere usually bottles things up and just goes with the flow because he’s the leader and has to be the one who looks after everyone else. However, in this scene he loses it and confides in Corey Stoll’s character of Jack. I remember filming that scene was quite difficult because I had to get into a particularly emotional frame of mind. Philippe did a wonderful job of directing me and I also had Corey there to help me. So I enjoyed filming that scene and thought it turned out very well onscreen.”

While no stranger to filmmaking, The Good Lie marks a milestone in Oceng’s acting career and he could not be more pleased with the outcome. “Working with the cast was amazing,” enthuses the actor. “Again, I learned so much from them because of the storyline. As for those already well-established in the industry, like Reese and Corey, I learned a lot from them as well. Reese is a perfectionist; everything she does is strategically planned out in her head. She knows what she’s doing, what she’s going for, and is like the one-take queen. Sometimes Reese comes on-set and can shoot a scene in one take, and that’s because she’s a seasoned professional.

“As for Philippe Falardeau, I could not have asked for a better director with whom to have made my Hollywood movie debut. He knows how to execute his ideas, and one of the things I like most about him is that he knows how to direct his actors. Obviously he’s a director and he has to be able to do that, but from what I’ve seen so far in my career, not all directors can direct their actors in a way that they are able to get the right emotions out of them. Philippe managed to do just that, and it was a challenge for him, too, working with some new actors, including some who had never acted before. He’s a fantastic director and I think he succeeded in getting the right performances he wanted out of everyone.”

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Oceng began practicing his craft at a young age and broke into the business as a child. “I was taken on by a kid’s [talent] agency in London and worked my way up,” he says. “Before that, at family times like Christmas and birthdays, I’d always be dancing, performing, and basically being a clown in front of my family. Even at school I was the class clown. I loved to entertain people, and even as a youngster I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living. So to have been given the opportunity to come to America and be in a Hollywood film is a dream come true for me.”

The actor made his TV debut in 1999 when he was hired to play the regular role of Calvin Braithwaite in the BBC TV series Grange Hill. “There are landmarks in your career that you will never forget, and Grange Hill is one of those for me,” says Oceng. “That was my first ever lead on what was a popular children’s BBC TV drama, and the thing is, I never went to drama school. I learned my craft on the job and during my six years on that show we had so many directors, writers, and producers who went on to do other things. I loved every minute of my time spent on Grange Hill and I could never replace what it taught me personally as well as professionally.”

Guest-spots on The Bill and Sold, along with a recurring role on Casualty, are among Oceng’s other TV credits. On the big screen he has appeared in a variety of other films such as Adulthood, Victim, The Knot, Payback Season, and the upcoming Circle of Revenge. While he may have enjoyed his first taste of a big Hollywood movie with The Good Lie, the actor is not about to let himself get all “starry-eyed” by such an experience.

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“Everyone knows that acting is one of toughest and also one of the most unpredictable professions you can go into,” says Oceng. “When some people find out I have a little brother, they’ll ask me if I would like him to follow in my footsteps and become an actor. I always say no, because it’s so difficult and unstable.

“What has been the most rewarding to me are my achievements so far and being able to look back and see how far I’ve come. I don’t think I’m anywhere near where I want to be, but I’m very grateful and humble as far as where I am in my career and what I’ve achieved. To be honest, for a lot of it, I have to give credit to my mom. She has always been there for me and been very supportive. So the other reward for me is just making my mom proud and hearing the words, ‘I’m proud of you,’ from her.”

Please note, all photos from The Good Lie copyright of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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