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Mamoudou Athie on 'ruining takes' and avoiding 'black trauma' in 'Uncorked'

“I can actually differentiate between different kinds of wine and I know what I want now.”
Image: Mamoudou Athie at a screening in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2020.
Mamoudou Athie at a screening in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2020.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters file

All wines pretty much tasted the same to Mamoudou Athie before he took on the role of Elijah, a 20-something who aspires to become a master sommelier to the disappointment of his father, who wants him to run the family’s barbecue business, in Netflix’s “Uncorked.”

“I can actually differentiate between different kinds of wine and I know what I want now,” Athie told NBC News. “My palate has expanded and I developed a real appreciation for wine after filming.”

Yet, while Athie’s knowledge of wine may have been lacking previously, he shared a significant experience with his character: that of feeling somewhat like an outsider in prestigious, majority-white spaces. The Mauritanian American actor graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2014. While known as a premier institution for artists, the current enrolled student population at Yale University, including both full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate students, is about 44 percent white and 6 percent black.

Demographic statistics are more difficult to come by when it comes to wine stewardship. While there are indications that the field is becoming more diverse, it remains one that affords privileges to those from wealthy backgrounds. Candidates sit for the certification exam an average of two to three times — racking up thousands of dollars in bills — and more people have won Nobel Prizes than have achieved the designation of master sommelier.

“A lot of people always mentioned that there was a lot of resentment from the people that live in New Haven because there was this huge school with this huge endowment that could have given back more,” Athie said. “I just remember feeling a way that I'd never felt before … It's hard to describe but I remember feeling very out of place and I was never used to having that feeling.”

Yet, he credits his time at Yale with solidifying his passion for acting. Unlike his character, Elijah, who flits around, unsure of what he wants to do or who he wants to be before deciding to work toward becoming a master sommelier, Athie knew as a child that he wanted to pursue the craft of acting. Yet, his commitment was renewed after acting in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” during his final year of graduate school and finding he was not only “moved” upon reading it, but also “moved” by the community’s reaction to it.

“I had never heard of it before … It was essentially about people, greed and regret and what people are willing to do for money,” he said. ““I saw that the play really affected people and I was like, ‘Oh, this is how I can do this until I’m 80. Doing projects like this and feeling useful and having the chance to affect people.”

His desire to connect with audiences authentically led him to question and research how to ensure he wasn’t overemphasizing or stereotyping Elijah’s background. The movie is set in Memphis, Tennessee, so Athie, who grew up in Maryland, made sure to ask his comrades on the set and others who are from the area about his voice and mannerisms to guarantee they were “culturally specific.”

Don’t let Athie’s serious commitment to acting fool you, however. He still knows how to have fun, as evidenced by the fact that he struggled not to ruin takes while acting alongside veteran comedians Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash, who play his parents in “Uncorked.”

“The whole cast was full of secret comedians,” Athie said. “I remember those dinner scenes. I would just flat-out ruin takes because I would be laughing so hard at what they would be doing.”

The opportunity to work with Vance, Nash and Prentice Petty, director of “Uncorked” and the showrunner of HBO’s “Insecure,” wasn’t the only element of the film that appealed to Athie.

Upon talking to Petty about “Uncorked,” Athie said he “just needed to do the film” because of what the storyline represented.

“His whole goal was to elucidate and show black people in another light than we’re used to seeing and it’s a lot more common than people think,” Athie said. “It’s about an ordinary family with ordinary problems, instead of just focusing on black trauma. It was like, ‘Oh this is just a person going through life’ and it’s really beautiful to see black people going through slice-of-life things because that happens literally every day.”

While the central dilemma of “Uncorked” is whether Elijah will follow his own dreams at the expense of his father’s, Athie says unlike his character, viewers don’t actually have to choose between barbecue and wine as the two “pair wonderfully together.”

“A good red and like some ribs, I mean, come on,” Athie said. “That's great.”