When the producers of Lost first conceived the character of Mr. Eko, he was simply a gentle, upstanding Nigerian priest. And after an onscreen career full of drugs and thugs, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje jumped at the chance to play such a role. ''When you're a large black man in Hollywood, the obvious stereotype is one of force and menace,'' says the 39-year-old actor, whose 6'2'' build and hulking shoulders are just as imposing in person. ''I thought I wouldn't mind showing a different facet to my character.'' The good news? Once the producers saw a tape of his breakthrough performance as prison bully Simon Adebisi on HBO's Oz, they knew he was the man for the job. But his sheer power in the role compelled them to give Mr. Eko a new complexity, to add a darker edge, to make him...a former drug thug.
It was as if Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself had been plopped down in the middle of an irony-filled Lost flashback. The switch, he says, came as ''a bit of a shock. I was devastated.'' But he ultimately embraced the backstory, in which Eko assumed the identity of his Catholic clergyman brother, Yemi, who'd been killed by government troops when he tried to stop a drug deal. ''This guy murdered and plundered to stay alive, but he traded his soul for his brother's,'' explains Akinnuoye-Agbaje, referencing Eko's childhood decision to kill a man so his brother wouldn't have to. ''He's running around in his priest outfit still killing people. If you're an actor, that's just delicious.''
As soon as Akinnuoye-Agbaje arrived in season 2 as part of the ''Tailie'' invasion, Eko's struggle to embrace his dual nature instantly helped make the character a looming presence on Lost no easy task on a sprawling series that at the time featured 14 regular cast members, including some scene-stealing Emmy nominees. Eko made such an impression on castaways and fans alike that his Nov. 1 death after the island's mystical smoke monster gave him a brutal bashing was all the more unexpected.
Though producers say they envisioned Eko's death from the beginning and knew Akinnuoye-Agbaje might not be sticking around for the long haul, the actor is the first Lost star to vote himself off the island. (He's the fifth series regular to leave the show.) After Eko's first flashback episode aired last season, Akinnuoye-Agbaje felt ''the character was complete. It was such a well-written episode that I knew I would be able to sew him up in a season.'' Says exec producer Carlton Cuse: ''In a perfect world it would've been great to have Mr. Eko for a little longer. But it was the best time to go our separate ways.''
Tearing into a lobster at Cafe Med in L.A., Akinnuoye-Agbaje looks more like a pre-priesthood Eko, sporting braids, ripped jeans, and a white tank top. He sprinkles his speech with casual references to his devout Buddhism, but exudes a high-energy charisma that's nothing like Eko's Zen state. He also talks more a lot more than his character, and often explodes with deep laughter.
Speaking in his native British accent (which he's never used in any role), he explains why leaving ABC's hit show was actually a ''joyous'' moment. His heightened profile, he says, has opened doors to potential financiers for his longtime pet project: Akinnuoye-Agbaje plans to direct and star in an autobiographical film he wrote about growing up in foster care and on the tough streets of London. (Africans who emigrated to England in the 1960s and '70s often willingly placed their children in foster care while they adjusted to life in a new country.) ''People that I'd approached [for funding] are now approaching me,'' says the actor. ''It's an opportunity I can't miss.''