Entertainment of Wednesday, 19 January 2005

Source: Story Credits Henderson State University Oracle

Nana Gbewonyo Makes Big Screen Debut

...Alongside Samuel L. Jackson In "Coach Carter"

A taxi driver slows amid traffic to greet another driver. Two girls run across the streets holding hands. On the other side of the road, merchants have lined up their multicolored glass beads on wooden tables under a scorching sun, leaving little place for customers.

Two women dressed in wraps and scarves wind their way through the aisles, carrying heavy baskets on their heads and exchanging jokes with the sellers. The heat does not seem to kill the friendliness around Accra's Makola market, as a woman and her toddling son hug their relations one last time before loading their baggage into a waiting taxi.

Born in Accra, Ghana in West Africa, Nana Gbewonyo left his native land at the age of three. With his mother he moved to California, where they joined his father. During his high school years, Gbewonyo played football, and as he got older he tried out for basketball in California. His talent and devotion attracted the attention of the coaches across the country, including Joe Redmond of HSU, who tried to recruit him.

Gbewonyo ended up joining the Washburn University basketball team in Kansas, but during his last year, Gbewonyo contacted Redmond and asked him if he was still able to join the HSU team. Redmond welcomed him with open arms for the 2002-2003 season.

But how did the young man from Ghana go from college basketball player to Hollywood movie star? For Gbewonyo, the change came as a real surprise.

After his last HSU basketball game, an agent Gbewonyo had met in California tried to call him. The agent reached Zavier Lewis, a senior education major, and explained that the director of an upcoming movie called 'Coach Carter' was looking for a young male to act the part of a teenage basketball player.

Coach Carter is an inspirational account of a controversial high school basketball coach, Ken Carter, played by Samuel L. Jackson. In Richmond, California, he received both high praise and staunch criticism when he made national news in 1999 for benching his entire undefeated basketball team for poor academic performance.

The agent asked Lewis to help him reach Gbewonyo and see if he wanted the part. Soon Gbewonyo was on a plane back to his home state, where he filmed the movie.

'Gbewonyo and I joked and laughed all the time. He reminded me of myself. A care-free guy,' Lewis said.

'When Xavier told me about the movie, I didn't think I would have any chance,' Gbewonyo said. 'I almost didn't go.'

But he finally went for the audition. His personality and friendliness won the hearts of the directors, who offered him a part.

Even then, 'I did not know how big it was,' Gbewonyo said. After having a personal conversation with the producer and the director, the 23-year-old Reddie began to realize that he was experiencing a 'dream come true.'

He learned that a major producer of the film, in which Gbewonyo plays the ordinary high school kid facing adversity, was basketball legend Michael Jordan. When he arrived on set, Gbewonyo met his main movie partner: Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the title role of Coach Carter.

'I was hesitant at first, but I realized that Samuel L. Jackson is a great guy,' Gbewonyo said. 'From the first meeting he called me by my first name and broke the ice.'

As a new recruit in the movie business, Gbewonyo had a few difficulties acting, but the crew and other actors helped him along.

In Coach Carter, Nana plays Junior Battle, an outstanding player who doesn't go to class.

'One of the main challenges on set was working with Jackson. He jokes around a lot, so it is hard to keep a straight face,' Gbewonyo said. Beyond the fact that Jackson's jokes were a challenge, they also proved a source of relaxation for the movie rookie.

Among other celebrities in the cast of Coach Carter is Ashanti. Gbewonyo exchanged a few words with her off camera, but he does not really get to interact with her on set. Rob Brown, who starred in 'Finding Forrester,' was another actor Gbewonyo got to know.

Despite the fact that being first-time actor was difficult, Gbewonyo realized that the directors, the hairdressers and the other workers in the background faced bigger challenge in the making of the movie. 'Their work requires a lot of thinking, patience, and sometimes manual labor,' he said.

After some days of filming, Gbewonyo found an opportunity to interact with the rest of the actors during several outings.

HSU basketball coach Redmond said Gbewonyo has always acted very cordially, and that is one of the qualities that he first noticed.

'Nana is social butterfly,' Redmond said. 'He made friends with everybody on the team and also people that were not athletes.'

Gbewonyo's other strengths noticed by Redmond are his work ethic and his obedience. Gbewonyo would spend long hours on the court practicing and perfecting his talent, he would listen to the coach's instructions, and he played as hard as he could during the games, Redmond said.

'Nana always talked about wanting to be in a movie, and he would joke about it,' Redmond said. 'He is the kind of person who, when he sets his mind to something, he will do it. I am really happy for him.'

According to Redmond, Gbewonyo used to tease him about his height and call him a kid. During a team visit to Orlando for a tournament at Disney World, Gbewonyo asked a steward to bring a child seat and a pacifier for the coach.

Gbewonyo says his personality and behavior will remain the same despite his movie stardom. He also cautions those who don't know him not to associate him with the character he plays, who is not always admirable in his actions.

He remains eager to see where his acting career will go after this film's release. 'If it not for this movie, it would not have happened.'

Coach Carter begins showing on Friday, January 14.

-Picture shows Gbewonyo in Coach Carter.