Okeniyi's Nigerian parents met while they were students at Anderson University in Indiana and later moved back to Nigeria. He grew up there but wanted to go to college in the U.S., so the family returned to the U.S. when he was 15 and a junior in high school. He went to the same college as his parents, majored in visual communications and graphic design, and then pursued his real dream — acting. Now 27, he's had parts in The Hunger Games and Terminator Genisys and now he's in his first network TV series.
In an interview with Goats and Soda, Okeniyi talked about why Nigerians make good actors and why he didn't end up changing his name to be more Hollywood.
First of all, how does it feel to be shot by J-Lo?
Amazing! That's the only thing people are texting me about: Dude, you got shot by J-Lo! It really feels like getting shot by anyone else, but you get to look at her face behind the trigger.
So you studied design — but took a different path?
I've always been an actor. I was a closeted actor. But I felt I needed something to fall back on.
Did your agent tell you to change your name?
I had a list of names, but one of the first things my manager said was, "Your name is so unique, don't change it." I was really happy about that. Nigerian names mean so much, hold so much weight.
What does your name mean?
Dayo means "wealth in the form of joy." Okeniyi means "sent from heaven."
So the full name means ...
Our wealth from heaven is in the form of joy. I think it's a pretty sick name.
Do people have a hard time pronouncing it?
I've got to get Hollywood to learn how to say o-KEN-ee-yee. People stop after the "ni" — they forget the "yi." I've heard "Okinawa." It's not Japanese, honestly!
Nigeria has its own version of Hollywood — Nollywood. And you're not the only actor with Nigerian roots who is making it big now.Is there anything in the Nigerian character that relates to acting?
We are very ostentatious people. Go on Google and search "Nigerian wedding" or "Nigerian birthday" and you'll see what I mean. We're just showmen. There's something about our nature.
Do you think you've been passed over for roles because of your heritage or because your skin is dark?
Marginalization happens when you're an actor of color or not of American descent. I've definitely been rejected for roles because I'm dark-skinned or African. People look at my name and assume I'd come in with some kind of accent. At the same time I feel change coming. Hollywood has been as good to me as it has been rough.
I don't hear any accent.
I do have a Nigerian accent — it's very aggressive, more British in a way. But we grew up watching a lot of American television, so the American accent has been in my ear for a very long time.
What shows did you watch?
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Beverly Hills 90210. No other country has a better PR program than America. They sell themselves very well. You're watching the American dream every single day: Oh my God, I just want to go to America!
Because of the lifestyle?
We'd think everybody in America lives like that. You get here and you're like, whoa, that's not the case.
Any other projects coming up?
I made a movie called Good Kids — a coming-of-age story about a bunch of kids graduating from high school, trying to find their place. I'm Conch, the most affable kid in high school, captain of the football team, class clown.
And after being shot by J-Lo (in the bulletproof vest, I should add), how does your character fare in Shades of Blue?