The British actor Obi Abili remembers what he was wearing (a Michigan Wolverines jacket, because anything American was cool) and who he was with (the hot girl from his high school, because he had wangled a date with her) the first time he saw the Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction.”
“And within 10 minutes,” he said, “she had just receded into the distance, because I was like: ‘What are these dudes doing? Why am I laughing when someone’s head’s being blown off, and who is this cool guy with the Jheri curl? I want to be like Sam, man!’”
By Sam, of course, he meant Samuel L. Jackson, the “Pulp Fiction” star who last month criticized Hollywood for hiring black British actors to play African-American roles. Mr. Abili is currently working off Broadway, not in films, but he is winning praise for his portrayal of an African-American: the violent flimflam man Brutus Jones, the despot of a Caribbean island in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Emperor Jones,” at Irish Repertory Theater.
Mr. Abili’s presence in the Irish Rep production comes courtesy of a fluke of timing. When the director Ciaran O’Reilly called the casting director Deborah Brown a few months ago, to ask if she knew of anyone who could follow in the footsteps of John Douglas Thompson, who played Brutus in Mr. O’Reilly’s lauded 2009 production, she drew a blank. “I just said, ‘Good luck,’ and I sort of hung up the phone on him,” she said.
Then she met Mr. Abili. “When you see someone with that kind of charisma and that kind of mind, you just know,” she said. “They don’t come along that often, leading men who are classically trained.” Mr. O’Reilly felt the same instant certainty. There was no audition.
An experimental play from 1920, “The Emperor Jones” is often perceived as racist; Brutus’s language, rendered in dialect, reeks of caricature on the page. But Mr. O’Reilly’s production makes the opposite case, and Mr. Abili has come, through his research, to be a fierce defender of the play and its author, who wrote a complex role for a black actor at a time when that was groundbreaking.
“Some African-Americans are like, ‘I still think the play is racist, but you’ve humanized the character,’” Mr. Abili, 40, said over a pot of chai tea in Chelsea one afternoon last week. “If I’ve humanized the character, then that’s inherently in the play. I haven’t done that on my own.”
He sees O’Neill as a consummate outsider, like himself: “Forget black and white. He was interested in humanity — the thing that we’re all up in arms about, all this tribalism all over the world at the moment. He could see past all of that.”
As an undergraduate in the war studies program at King’s College London, Mr. Abili thought he would become a journalist covering conflict zones. Such an adrenaline-spiked career would have been a good match with his turbulent childhood.
His life began in material comfort in London, because his father had means, then descended into “rank poverty” during four years in Nigeria, where his mother took him and his siblings after their parents’ breakup She left them there with relatives. By the age of 12, young Obi was back in England, living with his father, but that didn’t last. He spent his adolescence in foster homes. At 17, he was ejected on his own into public housing. He worked for four years at a sneaker shop before he went to college.
“I had a life of just loneliness, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and my family weren’t around, and so I turned inward,” he said. That’s when he became an obsessive cinephile, inhaling so many movies that he quickly exhausted the stock of his local video shop.
Film, not drama, was his point of reference when a friend dared him, in his final year at King’s, to audition for a theater society production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” He got a nice part, and soon someone introduced him to a weekly play-reading circle.
“So I turn up at Sloane Square, around the corner from the Royal Court, this beautiful house,” he said. “This very beautiful girl opens the door, very tall, dark hair. She says, ‘Hi, I’m Rebecca.’”
It was Rebecca Hall, and the house, lined with drama books, was her father’s. If Mr. Abili had ever heard of him, the renowned director Peter Hall, that might have been intimidating, but theater was brand-new to him. And the others in the little group — including Ms. Hall, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Khalid Abdalla and, making occasional appearances, Benedict Cumberbatch — were all just starting out.
For Mr. Abili, who performed last season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Ivo van Hove’s “Antigone,” starring Juliette Binoche, it is easy to remember his lost young self. That may be one source of his humility, a quality that made Mr. O’Reilly swear as he mentioned it with gruff affection. “Emperor” has a cast of seven, and he wanted Mr. Abili to make a solo entrance at the end for a separate bow.
“He absolutely, categorically refused,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I had to have a cast intervention for him to even accept where he steps forward for a second and does it. The cast all said, ‘If you don’t step forward, we’re going to step back.’”
After “Emperor,” Mr. Abili has some work waiting for him back in Britain (Dawn French’s television series “Delicious”), but mostly he would like to stick around. He would like, in fact, to become an American — in which case Mr. Jackson’s criticism of casting British actors wouldn’t technically apply.
Mr. Abili said he had met Mr. Jackson once, very briefly, when he was a drama student, and Mr. Jackson was promoting a film in London. “He was very nice to me, really cool guy,” Mr. Abili recalled. “And he said to me,” he added, slipping into a dead-on impression of Mr. Jackson’s baritone, “‘Next time I see you, you better have a job.’”
Mr. Abili laughed, and then, in his own voice, issued what sounded like an invitation: “So if I see him, if he wants to come, I’ve got a job.