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How Yetide Badaki And Dayo Okeniyi Prepared To Play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Parents For The Disney+ Film Rise

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Disney+ Rise heavily focuses on the journeys of Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as they attempt to break into professional basketball. However, the NBA sports biopic also places great emphasis on their parents, who risked a lot to give their children good lives. Veronica and Charles Antetokounmpo are extraordinary people, and two talented actors brought them to life – Yetide Badaki and Dayo Okeniyi. Of course, there’s a high level of responsibility that comes with portraying real-life people, and both stars certainly put in the work while preparing for their work in front of the camera. 

For those who need a little bit of backstory, Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo were both born in Nigeria but eventually made their way to Greece during the early ‘90s in order to build a better life for themselves. In the process, they were forced to leave their oldest son, Francis, behind. As the couple had their other children, they were forced to remain in hiding due to their lack of visas. But their world would really change once Giannis and Thanasis began to show aptitudes for basketball. In time, the two parents supported their kids’ ambitions, and the rest is history. 

Rise (which sits alongside some of the best movies on Disney+) tells this story in a way that is both compelling and respectful to the family at the center of it, and the actors do a masterful job of portraying them. Yetide Badaki and Dayo Okeniyi were clearly conscious of how important their roles were, based on our conversation at the movie’s recent press junket. In regard to Badaki’s turn as Veronica, I asked the actress about how much time she was able to spend with the Antetokounmpo and, though they didn’t chat too frequently, the American Gods alum expressed appreciation for the conversations they did have:

I would love to say that I spent every minute of every day [with her], I would love to say that, I don’t know how much Veronica would have enjoyed that. But she was incredibly generous with her time and with information, and our director, Akin Omotoso, said, you know, ‘You must speak with Veronica, Mother of Kings. You must speak with her.’ And so he did set up that, we were able to exchange phone numbers and get on the phone. The family has just been so supportive. And the wonderful thing is that there’s been this whole concept in creating the characters, where Akin has said, ‘You know, we really want to focus on the essence of the character. We want to focus on bringing the essence of Veronica, bringing the essence of Charles, of the Antetokounmpos.’ And that was, again, part of the generosity of the family that they allowed us to do that, in the kindest way. So I have been very lucky to be able to get on the phone with her, but actually today, this morning was the first time I was able to meet her in person. It was quite joyful to meet the Mother of Kings.

Unlike his co-star, Dayo Akeniyi was unable to speak with the man he played on screen, as Charles Antetokounmpo unfortunately passed away in 2017. The actor also explained that there wasn’t too much footage of the late patriarch that was available to him. So how does a performer proceed in such a situation? Well, as he explained, he took advantage of other resources, and he and the production team settled on a cerebral approach to the role:

Obviously, you start from trying to get as much information as you can. In terms of just resources out there, YouTube is the greatest resource on Earth, honestly. So I think there’s like two interviews with [Charles] online, that amounts to like maybe four minutes of footage total. And so [it] was in the audition process, definitely studied that and tried to, you know, create something that was exactly like him. But after getting the role, Akin and myself and even Bernie Goldmann, our producer, we kind of sat down and decided that we didn’t want to do a complete imitation of life in terms of like, you know,mimicry. We wanted to build a character from scratch for the film. And like Yetide said, just be more concerned with authenticity in the essence of the character, which is, you know, it’s kind of an advantage, because Charles was not a very famous person. It’s not like doing a biopic of Ray Charles, or Michael Jordan or something, where if you don’t get it absolutely right, people will pick it apart. So that gives you a luxury, you know, that gives you some creative liberties.

Biopics can be incredibly tricky to nail due to the astute point that the Fresh star brings up above. When a famous person is being portrayed, critics tend to dissect the small details, making note of what works and what doesn’t. (I’m currently praying for the actor portraying Lebron James in his biopic). That isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to someone who’s not as well known. I’d imagine that Dayo Okeniyi found comfort in that. Nevertheless, he went on to say that he still had to give a performance that was “honest” to the spirit of the loving father and husband: 

But it is absolutely crucial to be honest to the truth of the man within, and what was the energy that he created within his family. You know? So yeah, there was a whole process. …You take that little four minute clip from YouTube, and you kind of expand it, and then you do a little bit of, you know, really calculated guesswork. And of course, I had access to Veronica as well, so I could reach out to her and she gave me information on different things as to his personality, things like that.

A lot of work certainly goes into this aspect of the production. One, of course, can’t understand the effort that goes into crafting basketball sequences (which in this case were influenced by a Ben Affleck movie). But at the end of the day it’s the performances that truly make a story like this work. Kudos to Dayo Okeniyi, Yetide Badaki and co. for doing their due diligence when it came to depicting the heads of the Antetokounmpo family.

Rise is streaming now (opens in new tab), so be sure that you have a Disney+ subscription so that you can check it out. Also, do yourself a favor and take a look at CinemaBlend’s schedule of new movie releases to learn about what else is headed your way.

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