Edward Kenway might be the star of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, but for many gamers Adéwalé emerged as the heart and soul of the game. That’s partly by design: Kenway’s quartermaster and closest confidant always spoke the truth and often said exactly what the player was thinking. His quiet confidence merged with his imposing figure to cast a long shadow over the charismatic cast of Black Flag, making it an easy decision to send Adéwalé off on his own adventure in the newly released story-driven DLC Freedom Cry. We caught up with the man behind this legendary performance, Tristan D. Lalla, and chatted about everything from his keen insight into the word slave to his enchanting Trinidadian accent.
You’ve acted in games before but this is the biggest game role you’ve done so far. How has the experience been different?
The AC franchise definitely has a whole different energy than any other franchise. I worked on Assassin’s Creed Liberation as well. I played Aveline’s mentor Agate in that. I’ve worked on other games including Deus Ex. But Assassin’s Creed is its own amazing universe that has so much energy behind it. The cast that they assembled – it felt like we were making a full film or a full theatrical experience because we got to see so much of each other over the year. It was such a different experience because we all got along really well, which doesn’t always happen.
You have this great voice that’s perfect for this very commanding performance. But Adéwalé is also a very physical presence. His character has this constant feeling of quiet, controlled menace. How did you convey that?
A lot of it started with the writing and working with [Lead Writer] Darby McDevitt. When we met at the callbacks and talked about our views of the character, we decided to make some choices. Early on in the conversation it started with him being a slave and I just said, “There’s a difference between being a slave and being enslaved.” A slave is a mentality. It’s not an occupation like a doctor or maid or something. You don’t wake up and say I’m going to slave today. Someone who is enslaved doesn’t have a choice.
Adéwalé is not enslaved – mind, body or otherwise. When he needs to speak he does, but he reserves his energy, his voice, his thoughts and everything else for when they are needed. He’s not like Edward, who is ambitious but more impulsive. Adewale is like a big, rooted oak tree. He’s not a slave to the liquor or the dancers or all the other things that live in the world of these pirates. He’s his own man and he makes his own choices.
Charles Vane is all over the place and Blackbeard is crazy, but Adéwalé sees all of this and knows he doesn’t want to become what they’ve already sunk to. Not that he’s better than them, he just sees what can happen. That has a lot to do with the vocal tone of the performance and the physical aspect of it too.
In many ways Adéwalé’s also the heart of Black Flag. He’s embodies the conscience of the player. Is that something you focused on in your performance?
Yeah, definitely. Like any great project – be it a film, a play or a videogame – it all comes down to the plot. With the story, Ah Tabai and Adéwalé help bring Edward onto the Assassins’ side; they open his eyes and show him he has to have some morals and some values. It’s not just all about plunder and riches. Matt [Ryan] and I really had a fun time with that relationship – him going off the rails and me reining him back in and saying, “What do you believe in? What do you stand for? You can’t just fall for everything. You have to stand for something.”
What kind of say did you have when it came to specific details about Adéwalé’s performance? His accent, for example…
Early on Adéwalé was supposed to be from Martinique. After Darby and I spoke for quite a bit, he realized I’m from Trinidad and my whole family is from Trinidad, so why not just make him Trinidadian? The same thing happened with a lot of the characters. We changed where they were from depending on who was playing them.
[See Major Players: Edward Kenway for a similar insight into Matt Ryan’s Welsh accent.]
I know there were early concepts for the DLC, and everything we heard in the beginning had nothing to do with the Freedom Cry that’s now what it is. I like to think what we were doing influenced the way things were being designed afterward, but I have no clue to be honest.
Adéwalé is now moving from supporting character to star in Freedom Cry. Tell us about his journey in the DLC and how you portrayed it.
It’s about 15 years later. At this point in the story Edward has gone off and started his family with his daughter and Haytham. Adéwalé has continued his journey with the Assassins and he is shipwrecked in what we know as Haiti today, Saint-Domingue. A lot of the plot of Freedom Cry is about independence and self-respect and not letting your circumstances define where you end up in life. He sees the people of Saint-Domingue and the Maroon Warriors going through this turmoil of needing independence but not knowing how to achieve it. He, without wanting to at first, offers his services and his insight into helping them gain that. Then he just gets caught up in it and becomes one of them and… maybe falls in love?
Adéwalé shows off his brute-force skills in Freedom Cry, but the real magic of the character is his ability to communicate – with pirates, with Assassins, with the enslaved and disenfranchised. Is that something you really wanted to bring out in the character?
As a gamer myself, I think so often you play games and you hear the player tell you, Okay, now I have to do this task and it sounds really robotic and fake. So I wanted to make Adéwalé not just likeable, but empathetic in the sense that people will hear him speak and not feel like they’re being given an order but rather like they actually want to listen to what he’s saying. He needs a warm, earthy quality to his voice, but not just a command. I wanted to make him a real person that people can say, Wow, I can actually talk to this guy and if I have to fight with him he’s a badass and he can protect me.
You really did pull out a rich, warm quality that goes beyond just a “commanding presence,” and not just in the vocal work…
So often, actors who work on games are referred to all over the internet as voice actors or voice performers. But the entire character, every way he moves – even though he’s not modeled after my face or body, I could see my facial gestures in him. The way he thinks, that’s all me. As an actor, your tools are your body, your voice and your mind. If I were a musician I would use my saxophone or my piano or whatever I was playing. As an actor, I’m playing myself. My body is my instrument. We have to use the tools we have to tell the story. Our vocal tools are especially important because we don’t really see all the other aspects of the movement in the game as a player sometimes. All we really connect with is a voice. The voice has to tell that story.
Back to that voice of yours, though. When did you realize you have a gift? Or was it something you had to really develop?
I couldn’t speak until I was 9 years old. I had a really bad speech impediment. I would stutter and lock myself in the bathroom reading books, just trying to say words. I knew how to say them, but I couldn’t always say them when I wanted to. I used to get nosebleeds just saying words over and over from the frustration of it.
There came a point when I needed to make a decision in my brain somewhere that willed me to click and connect and say, Stop it. You can speak. Your voice can be heard, not just vocally, but the voice you use inside has to come out. So I worked hard and now I get to play the lead in Shakespeare plays and I’m Adéwalé in Assassin’s Creed. There’s a lot that’s come before, it’s been a long journey, but in a lot of ways it’s only just beginning too.
Finally, do you have a favorite Adéwalé line?
My favorite line that he’s said so far? There are so many Trini-isms. We dug through this great Trini dictionary to put all these old Trini words in the game. Darby really went for it and I love it. In one of the early scenes when they first take the Jackdaw, Adéwalé says, Save your singing for Davy Jones, you jagabats. Jagabat is such… It sounds like… What the hell is a jagabat? I’ve seen forums where people are online googling what jagabat means. Just the fact that I got to say jagabat in a game made my day.
Along with other unannounced game projects, commercials and Canadian TV programs, Tristan is working on a Montreal production of the play Gengarry Glen Ross, performing as Detective Baylen. Find out more about Tristan at his official site: www.tristandlalla.com Follow Tristan on Twitter: @tdlalla
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