Reese Witherspoon may be the most famous face in The Good Lie, but the film’s real stars are the actors who play the four Sudanese immigrants at the heart of the story: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, and Kuoth Wiel. Set during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged from 1983 to 2005, the film follows four children who survive the slaughter and then walk 800 miles to a refugee camp in Kenya. Though only two are biologically related, they become the only family any of them know, and 13 years later, they immigrate to the U.S. as part of the group that’s become known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
The story is a fictionalized account of an ordeal suffered by approximately 20,000 people, and so director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) hoped to cast Sudanese people with a link to the story’s historical threads. After a worldwide casting call that attracted some 1,000 submissions, he found his dream team in the form of one professional actor, two real-life Lost Boys, and a refugee. Here are their stories.
Arnold Oceng (as Mamere)
Arnold Oceng has been acting in British TV and indie films since he was 6—something that worked both for and against him when he pursued the role of Mamere, the eldest of the four refugees in the film. Born in Uganda, Oceng was raised in London, where he grew up far removed from the Sudanese culture and language of his father, who died when Oceng was a toddler. Falardeau worried that the actor was too Westernized—and, at 5’ 10″, maybe even too short to play the group’s unofficial leader. But then the 27-year-old auditioned with Witherspoon, and the two had such natural chemistry that Falardeau put his concerns to rest. “Mamere has to carry the movie’s scenes dramatically,” the director says, adding that he knew he could push Oceng. “With the others I would never do that—especially because they were dealing with real-life emotions.”
Oceng was determined to rise to the challenge. He adopted the stiff, contained walk that he had observed in his Sudanese castmates, and lost 10 pounds. And he set about mastering Mamere’s dialect by both working with a vocal coach and following his Sudanese costar Emmanuel Jal everywhere. “Dude, it was hard,” he says.
Though his British upbringing sometimes made Oceng feel like a bit of an outsider to the atrocities his costars had suffered as children, acting with them brought him closer to his heritage. “Doing this film was a massive journey for me to learn about my culture, my people,” he says. “The one thing that connects us all in this story is we are all affected by war.”
Emmanuel Jal (as Paul)
Unlike Oceng, Emmanuel Jal is all too familiar with the darker side of Sudanese history. Born in Sudan, he became a child soldier for the rebels at age 8 and lost much of his family, including his mother, to the genocide. A British aid worker rescued Jal when he was 13 and smuggled him into Kenya. But it was music, Jal says, that saved his life. He discovered hip-hop in Nairobi and embraced it as a powerful emotional outlet, soon performing and making a name for himself as an activist rapper. In 2005 he traveled to the U.K. to participate in the Live 8 concerts to fight global poverty. He now calls Toronto home.
Jal’s music is also what led him to The Good Lie: Falardeau saw his videos on YouTube. “There is a natural charisma to Emmanuel, and something in his eye—when you look at him you can see that thousand-mile stare,” the director says.
Jal landed the role of Paul, the angry and unsettled survivor who has the hardest time adapting to life in the U.S. “For me to actually bring the story out, I have to remember my village burning down. I have to remember how my mother was crying,” says the musician, 27. “I have to remember all the terrible things that happened so I could bring tears of anger into my eyes.”
Jal wrote two songs for the movie and is about to go on tour to promote The Key, his new album (out Oct. 28), which features Nelly Furtado and Nile Rodgers. (Proceeds from the tour will go to African entrepreneurs striving to help children.) “Music has always been a painkiller for me,” he says. “But acting has opened new doors. It’s a different form of therapy.”
Ger Duany (as Jeremiah)
Ger Duany also lived through the horrors of his homeland. After rebels forced him to become a child soldier, he escaped to camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, then immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 without his family. He was just 15. Duany moved from Iowa to South Dakota before settling in Bloomington, Ind. “I’m a Hoosier,” he says with a laugh.
Striking and skyscraper-tall at 6’ 5″, Duany found success modeling, and in 2004 he earned a small role as a refugee in David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees. (He also appears uncredited in Russell’s The Fighter.) Since then, he says, “I’ve been eating and living and breathing—and doing a lot of work.” That work has included some independent films and a documentary about his life. In 2010 he returned for a visit to South Sudan and was reunited with his family after 18 years.
In The Good Lie, Duany, 35, plays the soft-spoken Jeremiah, a man who conveys an almost unbearable sadness in his eyes. “I know what it is like to suffer. I know what it is like to not have a country. I know what it is like to not have an identity,” he says. “There were a lot of moments in the movie where you have to get there—you have to unlock your feelings to dive into the story, otherwise the camera would tell something different.”
Kuoth Wiel (plays Abital)
Kuoth Wiel had always wanted to act, but it wasn’t until she saw The Good Lie casting call for Sudanese actors on Facebook that she ever thought she’d get the chance. Born in an Ethiopian camp to Sudanese parents, she immigrated to Minnesota when she was 8. Wiel plays the sole woman of the group—the sister figure who’s separated from her adopted brothers after they arrive in the U.S.—and The Good Lie allowed her to come to grips with the tragedy that had happened right across the border. “I’m the only member of my family born in Ethiopia, so for me it’s an identity issue,” she says. “You’re born in another country because your country is at war.”
Shooting an emotional scene with Witherspoon on her very first day was taxing but rewarding. “Oh my God—she taught me so much!” Wiel, 25, gushes. Even more meaningful was the discovery that Jal had fled the rebels with her own brother, a fellow ex–child soldier. “One of my brothers had died on the journey with him. He was Emmanuel’s good friend,” says Wiel, who hopes to continue acting and working with the South Sudan Women United charity. “That was the strangest thing ever.”
Sharing stories and experiences bonded the four actors in a way they didn’t expect. Says Wiel, “Now we are all family.”
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Oct. 10 issue.