Deric Augustine channels Cassius Clay in ‘Godfather of Harlem’


“Godfather of Harlem” takes an historic turn in Sunday’s episode — as Cassius Clay starts his journey to become Muhammad Ali.

Clay has beaten Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown and is has been courted by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), on suspension from the Nation of Islam and looking for a way to get back into the good graces of leader Elijah Muhammad (Clifton Davis). He’s hoping that introducing Clay, a recent convert to Islam, to Muhammad will do the trick.

Actor Deric Augustine, 31, has portrayed Clay over the past two seasons of the series, starring Forest Whitaker as ’60s-era Harlem gangster Elwood “Bumpy” Johnson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Giancarlo Esposito as Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Augustine (“Saints & Sinners,” “Cloak & Dagger”) spoke to The Post about his on-screen alter-ego and about Sunday’s episode (9 p.m. on Epix).

Photo showing Deric Augustine as Cassius Clay and Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X in "Godfather of Harlem."
Nigel Thatch, left, as Malcolm X and Deric Augustine as Cassius Clay in “Godfather of Harlem” on Epix.
Myles Aronowitz/Epix

Is there a lot of pressure to portray a world-famous icon?

I was very concerned with [Clay’s] mannerisms, his voice, his speech patterns; he had a lot of charisma, and to have that on my shoulders was really stressful. You can put your own spin on it, but you’re playing a real-life character and need it to be realistic — and not come off like you’re trying to put on a show. As soon as I got the role I started watching videos of him, interviews … I read numerous articles and I contacted my speech coach in New York and we worked on his speech, his dialect, how he delivered his words — and that’s how I conquered his voice.

Deric Augustine as Cassius Clay trains in a gym next to a punching bag.
Deric Augustine gained 15 pounds to play the role of Cassius Clay in “Godfather of Harlem.”
Myles Aronowitz/Epix

I didn’t know that Malcolm X had renamed Clay as Cassius X before it was changed by Elijah Muhammad.

I knew [Clay] had a significant, brotherly relationship with Malcolm X, who wasn’t supposed to do that. We brush on that in Sunday’s episode, and I think it’s very insightful and informative for viewers. I love how this show touches so many other bases … not just about Bumpy, but about how he has these relationships with public figures. A black man in the ’60s and ’70s was not going to be well-known for graduating at the top of his class or as the world’s greatest neurosurgeon, so when Clay became the heavyweight champ he was more of a public figure and could really leverage his relationships to do what he wanted to do.

Did you do anything special to prepare for playing Cassius Clay?

Once I learned that I booked the role, I trained for two months, gained 15 pounds — I was intaking 6,000 calories a day — and was tanning twice a week, since [Clay] was a shade darker than me and I wanted to look the part. My hair is naturally curly, so I picked it out, washed it, picked it out … and they blow-dried it in hair and makeup, which is pretty much all I needed. When you gain weight it makes you look older.

Is this your first time playing an historical figure?

It is to this degree. I did a movie years ago called “Surviving Compton” and I played DJ Yella from NWA. That’s why I was so nervous, as a young actor, when I found out I was working with Forest Whitaker and Vincent D’Onofrio … it forces you to bring your “A” game and make sure you arrive on the set prepared, and that’s what I did. Working with Vincent was like being in a master class. There’s a scene in Season 1 when Chin’s people kidnap [Clay] and tie him up in a chair. I wasn’t struggling with it, but it was the first scene I did [on the series]. Vincent said to me, “When I’m telling [Clay] that the FBI is going to get a tape and that he’ll never be a Muslim, picture me telling you that I’m going to take your acting career away.” That got me instantly into the scene.

Photo of the real Cassius Clay, posing with his boxing gloves.
Cassius Clay before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Getty Images


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