A wizard of ''Oz'' becomes a Lord of War. EW chats with actor Eamonn Walker

Eamonn Walker isn’t sticking up for Third World dictators. Still, he notes, ”there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When you live in a Third World country, sometimes they’re more direct about how to get from points A to B. The social niceties aren’t there as much.” Okay, maybe he is sticking up for them, just a bit. But, unlike most of us, the former Oz star was called upon to plumb the depths of the dictatorial mind, in order to play fictional African autocrat Andre Baptiste in Nicolas Cage’s arms parable Lord of War. ”I took on board the cultural differences. Eamonn Walker would have a hard time with [dictatorial behavior]. But I did the research and I understand. Nobody’s born evil.”

Talking to this 43-year-old Brit of West Indian descent, one gets the impression of an actor on a mission to change the world, one indelible role at a time: the title role in a searing 2002 U.K. TV update of Othello, the conflicted commando of Tears of the Sun (a movie that, in the end, proved anything but indelible), and, earlier this year, Marc Antony in Broadway’s Julius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington’s Brutus. The production received decidedly mixed reviews, but Walker got mostly bouquets. (He also appears in Carroll Ballard’s wildlife adventure Duma, which got a spotty release this past April; an L.A. release is planned for September.) But the actor is still best known to U.S. audiences as Muslim leader Kareem Said, unofficial caliph of Emerald City on HBO’s envelope-pushing prison drama Oz. ”That’s what makes me tick. Good, exciting, controversial writing. People get scared easily. You come up with a taboo subject, and people will move off it in a heartbeat. But [Oz creator] Tom Fontana wanted to explore the Muslim black-American experience. Nobody knew how much ground was going to be broken.”

Like many a capital-A Ac-tor, Walker thinks progress — artistic and social — is made only by slipping into someone else’s shoes, whether those of a modern demagogue or a classic, like Antony. ”Julius Caesar was the first time I had been on stage in years,” says Walker, who once ran his own theater company in London. ”But Denzel had one up on me. It’d been 15 for him.” He was touched when his Oz ”family” showed up to support him. ”Harold [Perrineau] was supposed to be doing Lost in Hawaii. I come out the stage door and there he is…with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who played Adebisi. I felt a choke in my throat. We were in jail together. It may have been a set, but it was jail. You smell another man like that…” He pauses to reflect. ”It was my introduction to America.”