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Man Behind the Monster: Gbenga Akinnagbe

“Chris is just as likely to shake your hand as kill you and not care one way or another,” says actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, who plays Partlow with an intense and terrifying conviction. “It’s all about achieving a goal. It’s like going to a 9-to-5 for him — he just happens to be really good at it.”

But in the last two seasons, series creator David Simon has shown Partlow as more than just a heartless killer. He cares about seeing his family, and he takes under his wing a boy who has been abused by his stepfather.

Akinnagbe is the son of Nigerian immigrants, and he was the first of his family to be born in the U.S. He was kicked out of school for behavioral problems starting when he was in second grade and shifted in and out of special education until high school, when he joined the wrestling team at Magruder High School in Montgomery County.

“I was very fortunate,” Akinnagbe said. He excelled at wrestling and was recruited to go to Bucknell University. That led him back to D.C. to work for the Corporation for National Service.

“After a year or so, I just got curious, and I bought some books and went online to do some research about acting,” Akinnagbe said. “I wasn’t really trying to become an actor — I just got curious.”

He eventually quit his government job and dedicated himself to acting, reading constantly and going to plays almost every night to make up for his lack of formal training.

With “The Wire” ending Sunday (HBO, 9:30 p.m.), Akinnagbe has moved onto new things — movies, TV and theater — but he’s still picky about the characters he plays.

“Most scripts are bad; most plays that are written are bad — and when you can find something that’s good work, as an artist, you have to throw yourself behind it,” he said.

Express talked quite a bit more to Akinnagbe about Chris Partlow and the end of “The Wire.”

» EXPRESS: Going into this season, did you have an idea of what you wanted to see happen with Chris?
» AKINNAGBE: I like the character very much, and I like what we’ve established. I wanted to further explore the depth to him, like they started to do last year in the fourth season. And I just wanted to continue to see different sides to him, which is what they did.

» EXPRESS: What’s your interpretation of this character?
» AKINNAGBE: Chris cares for very few things. He doesn’t care about the money; he doesn’t care about bling. He cares for very few people, and he’s fine with that.

To be truthful, he’s a sociopath. I think that’s the difference between Chris and Snoop [his partner in crime]. Snoop is a psychopath who enjoys killing and enjoys that thrill. Chris is just as likely to shake your hand as kill you — and not care one way or another. It’s all about achieving a goal. It’s like going to a 9-to-5 for him — he just happens to be really good at it.

On top of that, when there are things that come up that register with him — for example, taking Michael [Lee] under his wing and seeing that Michael had gone through some things that Chris had gone through, he gets really passionate about that.

» EXPRESS: When he tells Michael, “Get there early”?

» EXPRESS: Is it tough to not laugh working with Felicia “Snoop” Pearson all the time?
» AKINNAGBE: It is. We’re laughing a lot between scenes. Felicia is crazy, and she’s funny — very, very charismatic and she knows it. She’s charming to be around. I can’t really tell you some of the crazy things that have happened on set, but let’s just say she keeps me rolling. It keeps things lively because sometimes when you’re out there for eight or 12 hours and the material is so dense and so hard, you need some things to make things light even in the small moments.

» EXPRESS: What are you going to miss most about “The Wire” when it’s all over?
» AKINNAGBE: I’m going to miss getting together with such a great, large cast and crew. I’ve worked on a number of shows, and I’ve always had a great experience in this industry. I’m going to miss also knowing you’re a part of such a rare occurrence on television. It’s unlike anything else.

Isiah Whitlock, who plays Clay Davis, I see him a lot. We’re here in New York and in a lot of the same theater circles, so Isiah and I, we talk a bit. John Doman [who played William A. Rawls] I saw last week, and it’s cool when you run into someone from the show because there’s this instant bonding, an instant camaraderie that we’ve formed over the course of the years of doing this show.

» EXPRESS: What are you doing next?
» AKINNAGBE: I have a movie in theaters right now called “The Savages,” which was nominated for two Oscars and some Independent Spirit awards as well. I’m doing a play right now at the Flea Theater here in Manhattan. It’s called “Lower Ninth.” It’s about what happened 24 hours after Katrina hit. These two people are stuck on the roof with flood waters all around them. It’s pretty intense, but it’s a really good play.

» EXPRESS: Also, you grew up in D.C., right?
» AKINNAGBE: I was born in D.C. My whole family is from Nigeria, and I was the first one born here. My older sister came over from Nigeria when she was eight. Me and my younger brothers were born here. I was always in and out of schools and eventually I went to Mark Twain [in Rockville], and that’s a school you have to earn your way out of, which I did — many times, and got put back in.

» EXPRESS: What did you do to get in and out of Mark Twain?
» AKINNAGBE: I think it had something to do with that man I killed. No, just kidding. Mark Twain was a very interesting experience. It’s special ed, and it was this whole school that was for that. I was kicked out of school for the first time in second grade. Once you’re deemed a bad kid, it’s not easy to get rid of that no matter what you do. True, I wasn’t getting along well in school — I got in fights, my social skills weren’t exactly all that developed. And once you go to schools with programs like that, they generally don’t get better; they just got worse. There’s a lot of fights and stuff like that.

» EXPRESS: And so you said wrestling got you back on track?
» AKINNAGBE: Yeah, I was fortunate. When I got to high school, I was still at Mark Twain but I mainstreamed out for a few periods, and I wanted to do an after school activity and it was wrestling season. I went out for the wrestling team, and I had done everything they said I should do, turned in my forms, was following the rules, but once the principal at Magruder found out I was at school during after school hours, he just said I couldn’t do it. So, eventually, I wasn’t allowed to do the after school activity, the wrestling, and eventually I got back in trouble and was kicked back to Mark Twain.

Fast forward a couple of years to when I was in Magruder full-time, and I started wrestling then. I was fortunate. I was really good at it, and I was recruited Division I the next year, my senior year to Bucknell to wrestle.

After a year or so, I just got curious. I just got curious and I bought some books and went online to do some research about acting. I wasn’t really trying to become an actor — I just got curious. I found information about auditions, still not really wanting to be an actor but just wanting to see what it was like.

Then, one day I got a call from one of the auditions at my office in D.C., and they offered me a role at the Shakespeare Theatre. I just kind of freaked out and I said, “I’ll call you back,” and I hung up. Five seconds later, my uncle called and said that my father died. I just went into my supervisor’s office and resigned — it was just a sign to me that it was time to go.

» EXPRESS: And so you took that role at the Shakespeare Theatre?
» AKINNAGBE: I did. I resigned from the government, and it was a weird week because, one, it was like a fog — I have all these mixed feelings about my father — but on top of that, one week I’m working at the government, and the next week I’m picking out funeral plots and setting things up like that, and at night going to rehearsal with people I grew up watching on television and me never acting before. It was a very weird time.

» EXPRESS: What was that role?
» AKINNAGBE: I was literally like the third soldier from the right. They did all three of the “The Oedipus Plays” set in Africa, and I was third soldier from the right. I was part of the chorus. It was fascinating. It was really good — my first foray into acting. There were a lot of great actors who helped me a great deal.

» EXPRESS: Anyone in particular?
» AKINNAGBE: Avery Brooks was Oedipus — a lot of great people, and I’m still in contact with many of them. Tracie Thoms was actually one of the leads of “Grindhouse,” the Quentin Tarantino movie, and “Rent,” the movie. So she’s been doing great. There were just a lot of great actors who I could watch and see and work with every day.

On top of that, after the whole funeral thing, it was actually a really good time for me. I’m in this new thing I’m passionate about, acting. I always fell behind because everyone I worked with had training, and I just threw myself into it. I would read a contemporary play and a classical play every week. I would go see plays almost every day. And at night, I was in my own play at the Shakespeare Theatre. I was just submerging myself in it and it was just a fascinating time for me.

» EXPRESS: Do you prefer theater to TV and movies?
» AKINNAGBE: I don’t have a preference. I like good work. Most scripts are bad; most plays that are written are bad — and when you can find something that’s good work, as an artist, you have to throw yourself behind it. So I don’t have a preference. They’re very different and I get very different things from them.

Photos courtesy HBO