Model-Turned-Actress Jaime King Comes Home for Screening of Film She Wrote and Directed, ‘Latch Key,’ at the Omaha Film Festival
When Jaime King made the move from modeling to acting I tried getting an interview with her in early-mid 2000s but I never got a response from her handlers. I guess I always figured I would catch up with one way or the other, and as fate would have it she’s coming to me in the sense that she’s coming back to our shared hometown of Omaha with a film she wrote and directed, Latch Key, which means she’s predisposed to promoting it. Thus, I finally got my interview with her. It was worth the wait. She has a great story and it turns out she’s very serious about the writing-directing track she’s on. It also turns out she gets back to Omaha, where all her family lives, with great frequency, which means she’s been closer than I thought all these years. I should note by the way that the Omaha Film Festival is an ever-growing event that increasingly lands major industry figures. In addition to King’s appearance, the fest is rightfully touting appearances by screenwriter Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man), actress Famke Janssen, who’s apeparing with her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, and actor Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill). This blog is full of my stories on film. Look for my Q&A with Ostby in an upcoming post.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the 1990s Omaha native Jaime King‘s fresh face and lithe body graced the runway fantastic for the likes of Gucci and Alexander McQueen in New York and around the globe. She did provocative shoots for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other trendy mags. She appeared in music videos. She was a Revlon girl in the same media campaign as Halle Berry and Eva Mendes.
Heady stuff for a girl in her mid-teens who left Westside High School to pursue The Dream. She actually began modeling at Nancy Bounds Studios here. A New York agent discovered her at a fashion graduation show.
But when King comes for the Omaha Film Festival this weekend she’s arriving not as a model or actress – the career she’s known for today – but as a filmmaker. She’s appearing with a “deeply personal” dramatic short she wrote and directed titled Latch Key. She shot the movie in and around Omaha last winter, using local youth actors alongside industry veterans, including her husband, director Kyle Newman (Fanboys, The Crazies), who’s also one of the film’s producers.
Latch Key shows as part of a short film block on March 9 that starts at 6:15 p.m.
This writer-director thing is no passing fancy. The directing bug bit her in her teens and she angled for years to make her own films, debuting with the short The Break-In (2011). She now has several film projects in development, including a feature she co-wrote, Polar Seasons, that her good friend Selma Blair (who appears in Break-In) may co-star in. King’s interest in writing – she pens a style column for the Huffington Post – goes even further back, to her childhood in Omaha.
“Before I went to Westside it wasn’t that easy for me. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like a jock or a cheerleader or your typical type of kid in that way. I went through a lot of bullying in school. So I wrote a lot and that really helped me to get my feelings and emotions out. All I did was read and write, that was all I really cared about. I so immersed myself in all of these creative things.
“Writing for me has always been the most freeing part of my life.”
At 14 she turned to the pen when her boyfriend at the time died. That experience informs Latch Key, whose young protagonist, Emma, deals with a sudden loss.
“It comes from me having this experience of being young and losing someone very suddenly, and waking up not understanding how the world can continue when your whole world feels like its been shattered.”
Having to grow up fast the way she did informs another script she’s looking to develop, Life Guard.
“I write a lot about coming-of-age and what it’s like to grow up very quickly and how to handle that type of thing. I guess I’m inspired by what we have to go through to become adults or to make our way in this world, but I guess all good stories are about figuring out who you really are.”
Once considered an infant terrible and party girl, she’s many years sober after battling a substance abuse problem. She long ago made the successful transition from modeling to screen acting (Happy Campers, Blow, Pearl Harbor, Slackers, Two for the Money, Sin City). She has major roles in a pair of films due for a 2012 release: Pardon and Mother’s Day. She also stars in the CW comedy Hart of Dixie.
Does she harbor regrets about having gotten swept up in the high-pressure model subculture, with its ultra-thin obsession, stealing away as it did part of her youth?
“Not at all. I feel very blessed, I feel everything that’s happened in my life has been perfectly on track for me, through the ups and the downs, through everything, and I feel so incredibly lucky that I was discovered and that my parents stuck with me and made a difficult decision to let their young daughter go off into a big world.
“Through modeling I got to travel all over the world and I got to meet some of the most amazing people, and I was smart, I saved my money and I knew I wanted to go into filmmaking.”
Besides, being a model was her idea from the start. Always interested in fashion, style, photography and film, she set out to get noticed, make it to New York and use this platform as a springboard to a film career.
“I wanted to live a very creative life and not necessarily taking the traditional route of going straight through high school and onto college. I just didn’t feel that was right for me. I needed to be doing something creative. It may seem odd for someone that age but I just knew that was my direction.
“As an adult now looking back I feel a lot compassion and gratitude towards my parents for letting me foliow my dreams.”
King’s made it all happen, too, though walking away from lucrative modeling gigs didn’t set well with her entourage.
“When I told them I was quitting modeling at the height of my career people weren’t happy about that because they were making a lot of money off of me, but I was lucky to have some people who were supportive.”
She still does fashion spreads.
Of the high profile film roles she landed right out of the gate, she says, “It was just one thing after another and I think it happened because I never doubted myself, I went into it thinking that’s what I was meant to do.”
Acting’s worked out better for her than it has for many former top models. And as much as she finds that career satisfying she needs more to feed her creativity.
“I don’t feel completely whole just doing that. I feel whole when I’m writing and directing and acting, when I’m creating material and stories that I feel should be told and will move and entertain people,” she says. “As a creative person you just want to create.”
She could have made Latch Key anywhere but she felt pulled to do it in her hometown, where her entire family still lives and where she gets back to visit a few times a year.
“I have a really romantic view of where I was born and raised,” she says. “I have these very distinctive memories of every single season in Omaha and what it felt like to grow up there and to have a space of your own where you could run along the train tracks and be out in a park or farm by yourself or yet be in the Old Market and go find a great record or comic book or see a great show or concert.
“So much of my creativity started there, and I feel like there’s a great creative community there. I just really want to honor that.”
Her sister, Sandi King Larson, put up Jaime, her husband and two fellow producers and let her home stand-in as Emma’s dwelling.
King says she received excellent cooperation from Young Filmmakers In Nebraska in filling out the crew and from Ralston Public Schools officials in letting her use Ralston High School as a location. King had an inside woman there in her sister, who works at the school. The head of Ralston’s drama department, Todd Uhrmacher, helped King cast via Skype auditions-interviews. Alexis Jegeris, who plays Emma, is among several Ralston students in the film.
King says she was impressed by how her young cast “were really willing to go there for a film that’s very honest and raw and real,” adding, “I cant’ wait to come back for the film festival to show the kids what a beautiful job they did.”
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, Alexander Payne’s Triumphant Cannes Film Festival Debut with ‘About Schmidt’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Nancy Bounds, A Timeless Arbiter of Fashion Beauty, Glamour, Poise (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title
UPDATE: I have no idea if Akoy Agau is even considering Nebraska or Creighton or UNO, but any local hoops fan has to hope that one of the three in-state Division I programs manages to land him. If you saw Agau lead Omaha Central High to the Class A state title against Omaha South the other night then you saw what a difference maker he can be. If you didn’t see him, then all you need to know is that he had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks. That’s right, 14. It’s not the first time he’s put up numbers like these in the state tournament and with his senior year to go and Central returning far more than just him it’s a sure thing, barring injury, that he will dominate the tournament again next year. The University of Nebraska needs him the most. The program is mired in medicority and it needs a boost to go along with whoever the new head coach is going to be because it’s going to be players not coaches who turn things around and Agau is the type of player you can build a program around, especially if you surround him with eight or nine other legit prospects. Creighton is of course a rock solid program by comparison but a mid-major like CU is always in a precarious position and it needs him to infuse local talent into a program whose best players come from Iowa and everywhere else but Nebraska. When Antoine Young departs after this season there will not be a single scholarship player from the state left in the program. The fact that Agau is an Omaha Public Schools student and a rare quality big man would help solidify the program over the next five-six years. UNO is the least likely to get him but imagine what Agau’s presence could do in raising the profile of this fledgling D-I program. He could help turn it from a pretender to a contender in a very short time. Chances are, Agau will not stay home but instead take his considerable upside somewhere else. I hope I’m wrong.
Most of my writing these days covers the arts-culture-creative scene but I still jones to do a sports story every now and then, and here’s a new one for The Reader that I am fond of. It profiles Akoy Agau, a 17-year-old junior at Omaha Central High School, where he is both a top student and a major college basketball recruit whose team is heavily favored to win its third consecutive Class A (largest class in Nebraska) state title. Agau is not only very tall at 6’9 he is highly skilled and athletic, which makes him the rare quality big man in these parts. His story takes on another dimension when you add to it the fact that he and his family are Sudanese refugees who were displaced by war in their homeland and he was only introduced to basketball after he came to the States, where he’s adapted remarkably well and progressed his game at an exceedingly fast pace. He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’sovercome and how far he’s traveled.
©by Leo Adam Biga
A truncated version of this story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In this sparsely populated state where basketball’s never fully taken root, the annual hoops crop is slim pickings, especially when it comes to big men. Only rarely does a promising post player emerge on the high school scene here and it’s even rarer for one to do much at the next level.
All of which explains some of the intrigue attending Omaha Central junior Akoy Agau, the intimidating 6’9, 230-pound inside presence for the two-time defending state champion and season-long No. 1 ranked Eagles. Only recently turned 17, he’s still growing physically and adding to an already formidable skill-set. A scary proposition for opponents. An enticing prospect for the many colleges recruiting him.
With five championships in the last six years, Central’s a dynasty program. Success only begets more, as the metro’s best talent now flocks to the old downtown school on the hill. Despite producing many all-state players, Central hasn’t had a really good big man since star-crossed Dwaine Dillard in the late 1960s. Until Agau.
He’s not only tall, he possesses a huge wing-span, can jump and run the floor better than most kids half his size and shows uncanny timing and instincts for blocking shots. Though he must work on his post moves, ball-handling and jumper, he displays a soft touch around the rim, in the lane and outside.
Adding to interest in him is how this South Sudan native, who never heard of basketball in Africa, came to be in Omaha at all, much less play at a high level. He lived with his refugee family in Khartoum, Sudan and in Cairo, Egypt for the first six years of his life owing to civil war and famine in his homeland.
His Christian Dinka family came to the United States. through a church-based NGO, settling outside Baltimore, Maryland in 2002. All his mother, Agaw Makeir, knew about the U.S. was that it was far off. Fears about not knowing English or American ways were eased by assurances that just as missionaries helped them in Africa other good samaritans would help them here.
“We put that in our head and our heart and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was our dream to come here and for our kids to be able to come here and go to school and have clothes and shoes and sleep at night and not worry about the gun and that people are going to attack you in your home,” she says. “It was a very beautiful thing to come here.”
After a year in Maryland the family moved to Omaha, where refugee relatives preceded them. Omaha is where Agau was introduced to basketball. Central coach Eric Behrens first laid eyes on him when the then-14-year old was shooting hoops one summer day at the outdoor court adjoining the Mason Apartments that the Agaus and other Sudanese families resided in. The youth’s size naturally peeked the coach’s curiosity. Behrens got to know him at Norris Middle School, where Agau attended and where Central often practices. As the Norris basketball team would wind up workouts Behrens and Co would arrive. The two formed a bond. Yet Behrens was surprised when Akoy elected to go to Central because most Sudanese student-athletes were opting for Bryan.
Sudanese players have made their mark in the metro since the mid-2000s. Koang Duluony went to Indiana State. Mading Thok is headed to Ball State. But Agau is, as Husker hoops color man and former player and coach Andy Markowski puts it, “the whole package” compared to those earlier “projects.”
Agau’s made most of his considerable progress since 7th grade, when he first got serious about playing. He’s excelled with Team Nebraska select clubs, balling all over the city, often with older players. The last few summers he’s gone to elite AAU camps and tourneys around the nation to hone his game and raise his stock.
Upon meeting him the first thing that impresses you beyond his size is his composure and confidence. Struggling to survive and assimilate gave him life experiences rare for an American teen.
“It was a wild journey,” he says of the his family’s crucible.
He’s sure the journey wizened and toughened him.
“Sudan’s a lot different than here obviously. We had to work for a lot more things. When we needed to get things we had to go a far distance. I didn’t go to school, it was too far away. It was really hard. I think some of my maturity is because I really had to work hard when I wanted things. My parents taught me you have to work for everything you want. It’s just something that’s carried on and helps with everything I do.”
The war in Sudan did more than disrupt life, it claimed the lives of several loved ones. Akoy’s father Madut Agau lost his first wife. Akoy’s mother lost her father and five siblings.
The tranquility and pristine countryside Makeir knew growing up was shattered by conflict. “Then come the war, you could see all the grass and trees burned down and it didn’t look like home no more,” she says. “A lot died there. We saw a lot of people dying. We couldn’t help them.”
The family fled attacking government forces and warring factions. Once, Makeir fled with 3-year-old Akoy on her back an infant in her arms. Months on foot exposed them to danger and death by starvation, disease, wild animals, violence. Years of subsistence living in tent city refugee camps short on food and water gave way to starting over in America, where the family scraped for every dime and depended on the kindness of strangers until Akoy’s father found steady work at the IBP meatpacking plant in Denison, Iowa. The elder Agau stays there during the week, coming home weekends to be with his wife and children.
Having made it out the other side alive, Akoy exhibits a poise beyond his years. As a tall African refugee with a talent for the game, he’s the center of attention wherever he goes but he seems comfortable in his own skin.
“Very mature, very much so,” says his coach, Eric Behrens. “All those things that make you stand out, you can handle it in one of two ways – either you embrace it and you go the extroverted route or you kind of shy away from it and squeak into the corner. It’s hard to be in the middle when you’re a guy that gets a lot of attention like that. He’s definitely embraced it and fits in really well.
“He’s very outgoing. He knows kids from every different social setting. He’s a real popular kid. He’s good with adults, too, Very articulate. He knows how to speak to teachers. He’s like in four honors classes. He’s a really bright kid.”
And he can play a little, too.
Behrens, a standout at Central himself in the early ’90, says, “I think defensively he has to rank among the all-time greats in Nebraska. His offensive game continues to develop but he has a chance to be really good on that end as well.”
The few big men from Nebraska who’ve attracted power conference suitors and made an impact in big-time college hoops include Rich King, Dave Hoppen and Chuck Jura.
“I didn’t get to watch Chuck Jura or Dave Hoppen or guys like that,” says Behrens, “so limiting the conversation to the last 15 or 20 years, Akoy’s as good as anybody since I’ve been around it. I can only think of Matt Hill (Lincoln Southeast / Texas) who would be in the same conversation as far as big guys go.”
Ranked a 4-star, top 100-150 recruit, Agau’s projected as a legit major or mid-major contributor in college at the power forward spot. The fact he’s come so far in such a short time bodes well for his future hoops.
He was barely 15 when he started for Central as a freshman. He was a factor right away but still largely a role player. His profile dramatically rose in the 2010 state finals when he erupted for a monster game versus Norfolk, recording 18 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocks. His near triple double helped lock up the title and served notice Central would be all but unbeatable with him around.
He didn’t look it, but that big stage freaked him out.
“Well, first of all, that was probably the most nerve wracking game ever. When we were in the locker room Coach Behrens was like, ‘There’s a packed house and probably most of them are for Norfolk.’ I went out ready to warm up, looked up and saw so many people, and I turned around and ran right back to the locker room. I was so nervous, it was the scariest thing. But then once the game started everything was just normal. I basically just played and didn’t think about it.
“And truthfully I didn’t think I had that great of a game. I just went out there and played like I usually do, and then they told me the stats and I couldn’t believe it.”
A year later at state he and his team once again found themselves matched up with Norfolk, only in the semifinals, and this time he got his triple double with a 11-10-10 line. He went on to lead Central to the championship against Bryan.
Norfolk head coach Ben Ries, whose No. 2 ranked Panthers could face Agau and Central again at state this year, says, “He is the most dominating defensive player to compete at our level. His timing, length and athleticism pose a great challenge for every team. What has been impressive is his ability to be unselfish and know his role. When Central combines their athleticism on the perimeter with Akoy’s ability to protect the basket it becomes a struggle to score.”
With Agau and 6’6 Tre’Shawn Thurman choking the paint, contesting any shot launched near the basket, and smaller teammates pressing, Central held foes to a stingy 34 percent field goal mark. In the regular season the Eagles had 153 blocks to their opponents’ 22. They forced 470 turnovers, committing only 309.
At 27-0 entering the 2012 state tournament, Central is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Class A champs this weekend at the Devaney Center in Lincoln. The Eagles dominated the regular season, winning by an average score of 71 to 45, and its most dominating player by far is Agau. He normally puts up modest stats, averaging about 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. But as anyone who’s ever seen him play will tell you, it’s the intangibles that make him a difference-maker on a remarkably well-balanced squad that pressures foes with quickness, height, leaping ability, a deep bench and effective passing.
They get lots of steals that lead to fastbreak layups and dunks.
The way Central shares the ball explains why no one averages more than 12 points a game. Any one of seven guys can go off any given night. Agau could easily double his point total if Central force fed him the ball. He’s cool the way it is.
“We’re all really good players, we’re all capable of 20-plus point games. If any one of us went to a different team we’d be able to score a lot. It’s just something we all know we can do. If a guys gets 18 or 20 points, no one has a problem with it because the next game it’s someone else. Our individual scoring is something we don’t really look at as long as we’re winning.”
Behrens appreciates his big man not being a prima donna.
“He’s a great teammate. For as much attention and for as many Division I scholarship offers as he has he’s very unselfish. He’s really just focused on winning – whatever that takes, and that’s a really nice thing for us coaches and for his teammates to have, and it’s kind of rare.
“And he’s a real leader on the team. He’s really good at knowing when a guy needs a kick in the butt or a pat on the back. Plus, he’s a hard worker, both in the team stuff we do but also in terms of individual skill work he does outside of that, and that’s why he’s got so much better – he works at it, he works very hard at it. And he works hard in the weight room, so he’s gotten a lot stronger.”
On a team without a star, Agau is its MVP. When he fouled out of the regular season finale versus Bellevue East the Chieftans made a run. He sat out the district opener recovering from minor knee surgery and in his absence lowly Northwest played Central even until the Eagles pulled away at the end, among the few times anyone’s hung withthem that long. The lead is usually double digits at the half and the game long decided before the final quarter.
If Agau leads Central as expected to the Class A title, he will be three-fourths of the way toward a goal he set as a 13-year-old.
“It’s a funny story,” he says. “Since middle school I’ve been saying to my friends I’m going to win four state titles. I have this big thing where I would win four state titles and then when I win the fourth title when they interview you on TV after the game that’s when I’ll make my (college) decision public. But I don’t know if it’ll be all that.”
Local fans would love to see him end up a Husker, Bluejay or Maverick, but his offers extend far beyond Nebraska. He’s not hinting which way he’s leaning, though his mother makes no bones about preferring him to stay close to home.
“That’s something we talk about a lot,” she says. “We tell him if he would go to a different state it would be hard for us. Bur if he goes away that will be fine with us, too.”
Her fondest wish for the family’s move to America was for Akoy, her eldest, “to try and help himself for his future” and for all her kids to take advantage of opportunities unavailable in Sudan.
“I always tell them, ‘You guys are blessed to be here, and you should be happy for what you have,’ because what they have – me and their dad we didn’t have that. We didn’t have good school, good home.”
She’s thankful her kids can “focus on school and education.” She’s thankful, too, that Akoy is thriving and setting a good example for his brothers and sisters. “He’s a good big brother. We hope his brother Magay will follow him.” Magay is a very tall and talented freshman at Central.
The fact that Akoy still retains the Dinka language and some Arabic also pleases his mother, who keeps Sudanese cultural traditions alive at home.
There’s a conspiracy of hearts when it comes to Akoy, whose mother counts as allies and advisors Scott Hammer and Coach Behrens. With so many adults looking after his best interests, she says, “we teach him from both sides.”
Agau says his parents “don’t really understand” the sport or the success he’s enjoying, though his mother understands enough to say, “basketball is good for his college.” A family that had no prior exposure to the sport will likely have part of its American Dream realized through it. None of it may have unfolded under different circumstances but as Agau says, “We don’t dwell on what would have happened if we would have stayed back in Sudan, we just focus on being happy where we are now and what we have. We’re very grateful. Being able to go to school and get our education is most important. Getting to play basketball is an extra.”
Still, he’s keenly aware basketball is his ticket to larger opportunities. He’s also aware of the attendant expectations and hype that come with success.
“I can’t really get focused or take too seriously all these things people are saying about me. I just keep focusing on what I’m doing and just keep going to the gym and getting better because, personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything yet. I’m still in high school, there’s the next step of graduating from high school and then going to college. I still have a lot to do.”
That same low-key, taking-care-of-business attitude permeates the Central program. It helps explain why the Eagles have played consistently well, avoiding the lulls that happen when teams take opponents for granted or get too far ahead of themselves or get too full of themselves. It’s why the pressure to live up to being the Nebraska prep version of the high-flying Phi Slamma Jamma hasn’t derailed them.
Typically, Akoy takes it all in stride.
“That pressure is there now because everyone expects us to be good. We’ve been playing really well, so everyone expects us to win the state tournament. We just have to make sure we keep on getting better individually and as a team in order to be able to win state again.”
He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’s overcome and how far he’s traveled.
- You: Sudan accused of fresh crackdown on Ethiopian opponents (menafn.com)
- Op-Ed Columnist: In Sudan, Seeing Echoes of Darfur (nytimes.com)
- Bombing attacks increase on Sudan border (foxnews.com)
- UNHCR seeks urgent aid for Sudanese refugees (devex.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)