The first thing Abraham Attah, the 15-year-old star of the Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation, wants you to know is that he’s not a “street child.” It’s something he’s heard since the film debuted at the Venice International Film Festival — where he won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging actors — and he doesn’t like it. Though some of his castmates were homeless, Attah was not. In fact, he was in school in Ghana when the film’s casting director found him playing soccer and invited him to audition.
Attah, who had never acted before and now finds himself on the list of potential Oscar contenders this year, plays Agu, a boy orphaned suddenly and violently by war, who is captured by a guerrilla army under the leadership of the formidable Commandant (Idris Elba). Over time, Agu is manipulated into becoming a killer, and the film, directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), tracks Agu at point-blank range as he crosses that chasm.
Casting young non-actors added an additional layer of realism for Fukunaga, who found some truth in how they reacted to the scenes they played. “We found kids everywhere we could that showed natural charisma and could also portray the depth and damage as well from being child soldiers,” he says. “You can see it on the screen.”
On set, Elba took what he calls a “raw approach” to working with Attah and the rest of the child performers. “We didn’t have much time to coddle these actors,” Elba says. “There wasn’t much moviemaking.” Off camera, however, things were a little more easygoing. Elba and Attah, who knew his famous castmate from Thor, bonded over their shared love of soccer.
The result is a startlingly authentic performance from Attah, a reaction he had himself while watching the finished film for the first time. “It seems real to me,” he says. With the film debuting on Netflix (and opening in theaters) on Oct. 16, Attah plans to return to school, but he hopes to continue acting. His dream role: action hero.