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How Toheeb Jimoh of ‘Ted Lasso’ found his character’s home — and his own

Aug. 9, 2022 Updated Tue., Aug. 9, 2022 at 8:55 p.m.

Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times

Sam Obisanya isn’t a laugh riot on “Ted Lasso.” Rather, it was likely how involving his Season 2 arc was (activism, leadership, love) that earned the actor who plays him, 25-year-old Toheeb Jimoh, his first Emmy nomination. If the dark evolution of Coach Nate (Nick Mohammed) from sweet milquetoast to burgeoning supervillain has cooled the reception to the series’ second outing, Sam’s development could be the show’s new hope.

“The relationship between Sam and Ted kind of parallels me and Jason,” says Jimoh of co-creator and star Jason Sudeikis. “He’s really helped me stand on my own two feet as an artist, just as Ted helps Sam stand on his own two feet as a player and as a person. It’s dope.”

Initially quiet Nigerian import Sam – not superstar Jamie (Phil Dunster) or old-guard hero Roy (Brett Goldstein) – is becoming the ideal player-leader under Coach Ted. Thrown into an environment in which he was doubted and bullied, Sam, like Ted, doesn’t respond with confrontation.

“The fact that Sam leads with love is almost revolutionary,” says Jimoh, speaking quickly as the thoughts flow in his natural London accent. “Coming into a new country, especially the UK, it does feel like there’s this brittle front you have to have just to survive. I think there’s something really cool about it that he doesn’t do that.”

The actor isn’t taking his success for granted, despite an impressive run following graduating from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2018: “In 2019, I got a lot of jobs really quickly. I got ‘Ted Lasso’ and I got (the lead in the BBC movie) ‘Anthony’ and I also got ‘The Power,’ which isn’t out yet, but yeah – I’m kind of riding my luck right now.”

Jimoh was born in London but spent his early childhood in Nigeria before returning to London around age 7.

“The whole thing, identity-wise, is so interesting to figure out, where I call home. I think I’ve settled on a blend of everything. There’s a really cool, newly emerging idea of being a Black Brit. It’s been a turbulent struggle, but … You see (rapper) Stormzy in Glastonbury wearing the Banksy jacket with the Union Jack, and it feels owned. And [rapper] Dave, and Daniel Kaluuya doing what he’s doing is cool. It feels like I’m finding my home in those guys.”

That multifaceted identity served the young grad when auditioning for “Ted Lasso.”

“At this point, I don’t even remember any other candidates for that role,” said series co-creator Brendan Hunt. “We called him ‘Sam’ because we were giving a shout-out to our buddy Sam Richardson, who is Ghanaian. We had asked him for the appropriate Ghanaian ‘thank you’ term [for the script], and Toheeb just confidently changed it to his Nigerian dialect. It’s kind of a ballsy move for an actor to do: ‘This guy’s French? F– it, I say he’s from Luxembourg!’”

“I don’t think there was even a callback.”

“I changed Sam’s nationality,” acknowledged Jimoh. “I changed the dialogue, spoke a bit of Yoruba. It was a bit of a risk, but I thought I could better serve this project if it was something I felt completely tied to. And that’s kind of become the through line with Sam. Being Nigerian is such a big part of who he is. You know, high risk, high reward, and now we’re here.”

Jimoh didn’t change it up just to stand out at the audition, he said. “I want to influence the way Nigerians are seen in the public sphere. Especially in the UK, in the media, Nigerians are painted very negatively. That’s why putting in the language is important: I think a lot of people feel seen by that. I know a younger Toheeb would have.”

That made him eager to take on perhaps Sam’s key scene of the season, with a little help.

“He has taped (over the Dubai Air logo) on his shirt, he’s about to speak to the British press, who historically especially hate when Black players speak out. This is a brilliant example of ally-ship. Ted is supposed to have this press conference, but instead just allows Sam to have this platform. I think that’s the moment where Sam steps up and almost becomes a man in Season 2: ‘I’m not here to talk about football. … Football’s not the most important thing to me right now.’”

“This was the summer of 2020 and we had just had the Lekki toll gate massacre in Nigeria. I was thinking, ‘People are dying, fighting for their rights back home, and I’m here in London.’ So to have that opportunity (as Sam) to stand up in that press conference – ‘Are you openly accusing the Nigerian government of corruption?’ and Sam says, ‘Yes, yes I am.’ Sam’s speaking for me, Toheeb, and speaking for Nigerians everywhere.”

“Filming it, everybody knew what the significance was for me. Jason was there even though he had shot his part of the scene; he still stood there and was with me, the same way Ted was there for Sam. Jason was there for me.”

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