If you’ve seen any of the marketing around Call of Duty: Vanguard – and let’s face it, it’s the biggest entertainment product in the world, so you’ve seen it – you’ll already know Chiké Okonkwo. He’s the face, voice and performance behind Arthur Kingsley, the leader of Vanguard‘s special forces team.
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You can play as him in Vanguard’s campaign and even drop him into the battle royale smash hit Warzone, if you pre-ordered.
Chatting to NME over Zoom from New York, Okonkwo said his brother thinks it’s the coolest job he’s ever done.
“I’ve been an actor for my little brother’s whole life, basically. He thinks it’s cool, but he’s never been as excited about a job I’ve done as this: I think it gives him incredible street cred with his mates.”
Okonkwo’s little brother has plenty of reasons to brag. The established actor, who’s already established his acting chops in The Birth Of A Nation and more, is one of the best parts of Vanguard’s campaign. He helps to tie the whole thing together, digitally stealing any scene he appears in. It’s not just his little brother that’s played the games, either – Okonkwo’s dabbled in a few himself.
“I remember playing some of the early Call Of Duty titles around 2005 / 2006 and really enjoyed them, but I never really kept up with the games and I didn’t really throw myself in the Black Ops or Modern Warfare ones,” Okonkwo explains.
“It was always the World War II games early on, and then when I was cast in this title I went back and played the last World War II game that Sledgehammer Games developed. To see the advancement in that time has been, like, mind-blowing. It’s a different world to the one that I grew up with.”
Okonkwo adds that he’s always been “drawn to the stories” of World War II, and “always imagined – as an actor – I’d get the opportunity to be in one at some point”.
Something that Okonkwo is particularly keen to praise with Vanguard‘s campaign – and his own role in the story – is the fact that it tells the events of World War II across a number of different perspectives, using a wider lens that captures the experiences of people across the world.
“I’m a big fan of the campaign in Call Of Duty, and this storyline of the campaign is epic. It’s very traditionally Call Of Duty – it’s going back to what they do best, but then putting this great spin on it where we get to see it from these four different perspectives – four different fronts of the war. It’s amazing that one player gets to go through all those different journeys.”
In fact, Okonkwo feels that Call Of Duty is the “perfect place” to explore these perspectives – particularly the stories of those who have continued to be under-represented, despite decades of games and films taking aim at World War II. The main playable characters in Vanguard‘s campaign are all based on real people that fought in the war – Arthur Kingsley is based on British paratrooper Sidney Cornell – but you’d be forgiven for not recognising them, as the media has rarely shared their stories.
“When you’re telling any story, there’s a frame that you’re framing. There’s sort of, you know, your vision is aligned on a particular thing. With war stories, especially around World War II, that vision has been specifically on a very male Euro-centric white perspective.
“But these are worldwide wars, so if you shift perspective slightly in a different direction, you’ll get to see a whole plethora of things we haven’t really focused on before now. The story of many black men and women who fought in the war. The many Russian women, the many Australian and New Zealanders who fought in the World Wars is a perspective I wasn’t fully immersed in before now. None of us have been. So, for Call Of Duty, one of the biggest franchises around, to be able to approach it and attack it? I think it’s the perfect place for this story to be told, pretty much for the first time.”
Okonkwo is particularly impressed with the way these perspectives are tied into the very core of Vanguard‘s plot. If you haven’t had a chance to play through it yet, the general gist is that a handful of elite soldiers are pulled together to form the world’s first special forces – for a game about telling new stories, there couldn’t be a better angle.
“We’ve got a great tradition in the UK with the SAS, and the Americans have with the Navy Seals, but we haven’t ever really looked at the genesis of those special units. Again, a lot of the World War II stories are a bunch of white guys turn up on a beach and then, you know, some of them get their arms blown off. Sorry, don’t mean to be flippant, but that’s the approach that these games and stories have taken. Now, with Vanguard, we had these five very skilled technicians in different ways. One’s a munitions expert; one’s a great pilot; one’s this sniper, and Arthur’s this great leader. So, it’s really nice to see the birth of special forces.”
Speaking of Arthur’s place in the Vanguard team, Okonkwo is happy to see that his leadership and character are reflected in the game.
“There’s this old theatre game we used to play, and it happens a lot when you’re doing plays. The game was, there was a deck of cards, and you’d walk around with one on your head. You weren’t able to see it, but you could see other people’s cards, and so, if they were a two, you’d respond to them in a certain way. If they were a king or a queen, you’d respond to them in a certain way. Then, at the end of the game you’d have to line up and think about where you are in the line.”
“Status isn’t something you can play, it’s something the other actors imbue you with. You know who the king or queen is because of the way others treat him or her. Arthur Kingsley, he was always the king. He was always the person who was deferred to.” you can see this in the individual scenes, where he steals every scene like a force of gravity that drags you in.
On helping to deliver the full depth of Arthur’s character and place in the team, Okonkwo credits Laura Bailey, a fellow Vanguard actor who he affectionately calls “the Meryl Streep of video games”. She plays Polina Petrov alongside Kingsley, and Okonkwo says it was “incredible to just be able to learn from watching her”.
If you’ve finished Call Of Duty: Vanguard‘s campaign and been left wanting more of Okonkwo’s performance, don’t worry – it’s unlikely to be the last you’ll ever see – or hear – of the actor. Okonkwo is currently lending his voice to reading Sleep Stories for an app called Calm, and he’s appearing in a show called La Brea, which he says has been a “wonderful experience”. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a busy few months for Okonkwo – but that’s exactly what he’s been looking for.
“I came to America to tell big stories like this, so it’s nice that audiences are getting to see the work that’s been done.”
Additional reporting by Andy Brown.