Dana Abraham knows a thing or two about taking risks. From packing up his car to study acting in Los Angeles to starting a production company, the 31-year-old actor, writer and producer seems to have lived several different lives. With Neon Lights, the upcoming thriller he stars in opposite the legendary Kim Coates, Dana pours his soul into crafting a white-knuckled, heart-pounding tale.
I recently had the privilege of chatting with Dana about what inspired him to create Neon Lights, what audiences can expect, his experience working with Kim Coates and his incredible origin story.
This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Origins of an Artist
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Dana Abraham’s origin story?
Dana Abraham: My family and I, my mom and three sisters, immigrated to Canada in 1997. My father abandoned us in Canada. He took our passports and went home to Bangladesh. He had a whole other family my mom wasn’t aware of, with children. What transpired thereafter was difficult. My mom was a single parent in a foreign country and barely spoke English. We lived in homeless shelters for the first two years in Canada. We’d go to food banks.
In September 1999, we moved to Oriole Crescent in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s the fourth-worst neighborhood in the country. Naturally, I started getting into trouble and getting bullied, so my mom put me in boxing.
Throughout my teenage years, boxing was my primary focus. Then, education took more emphasis as I played football in high school. By 18-19, I put boxing on the back burner and focused on school and football. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in December 2014, and I was supposed to pursue law school.
I was preparing to write my LSAT. I watched Will Smith on Oprah Winfrey‘s show and he was talking about this book, The Alchemist. So, I read it. Lo and behold, the following year I was in Egypt and I was looking for my purpose. I felt trapped — I didn’t want to be in poverty anymore, and being a lawyer was my escape from that.
President el-Sisi just took over after ISIS ruled Egypt for a year with so much destruction. When I got there, there was a curfew. By 10 o’clock, everybody had to be inside. You could still see blood stains on the road, and there were blown-up buildings and tanks.
On March 3, 2015, I returned from Egypt, and on March 5, I took up acting classes. Honestly, I was so bad. I failed the first class I took. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the class that failed acting, but I loved it.
That led me to research acting classes in America I felt would help me establish a foundation. It started with Will Smith, so I looked up who he trained with and I found Aaron Speiser. His studio is Speiser/Sturges in Los Angeles. On December 31, 2015, I packed up my car and drove to LA by myself, couch surfed for several months and trained at Speiser/Sturges where I established a lot of friendships. At that point, I learned to write screenplays and network with like-minded people, and started creating short films.
About a year later, I returned home and made a short film called Prisoner of Fear. That short catapulted my career because I traveled for about two years from festival to festival and got opportunities to meet a lot of people, one of whom is now my business partner at Red Hill Entertainment, a production company we co-founded together.
Through the pandemic, we made three feature films, one of them being Neon Lights. We’re on our fourth film now with a fifth one on the way, and we’re developing a television series.
MM: That’s an incredible origin story. That deserves its own film adaptation.
DA: I will have to write a book because it’s so much. I feel like I’ve lived many different lives and I’m only 31 years old.
MM: Let’s talk about Neon Lights. Can you tell me what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?
DA: I actually wrote Neon Lights in the back of my best friend’s truck on our way home from New York City in August 2018. Then, the pandemic hit, and it’s now June 2020. We finished Maternal, our first feature film under Red Hill Entertainment, with Amybeth McNulty and Colm Feore. That was in post-production.
As we were figuring out what to do next, and, at this point, I wanted to be the lead in the film (Neon Lights), I met Rouzbeh Heydari, the director. I said, “I have this thriller I could adapt into something that’s more contained. It takes place in a small town but I could make it in a single location. Let’s make it about something provocative and meaningful.”
We came up with many things we wanted to talk about in this film. Mental health, financial instability and romanticism. All those stages of life took a massive hit during the pandemic. So, real life became a film about a tech tycoon named Clay Amani who’s battling a mental health disorder while trying to overcome childhood trauma.
At the instruction of his psychotherapist, he meets the family he grew up with in his adoptive home, and they try to maneuver through the traumas they developed together, but people start going missing and Clay tries to figure out why they’re disappearing.
MM: Describe Neon Lights using three words.
DA: Interesting. Colorful. Exhilarating.
Getting Into Character
MM: How did you get into the headspace to play Clay in this high-stakes setting?
DA: We were in the pandemic. I think we were all in that headspace.
MM: For sure.
DA: It’s challenging for a performer to get an opportunity. You get a small role, and you basically play yourself for five, 10 years, and then you get a role where you might be able to adapt. I wanted to do the toughest thing any performer can do right from the jump. I felt like I needed to do this right away, otherwise, how long am I going to wait to play something resoundingly difficult?
I spent about three months doing activities like going to restaurants alone. How does he behave? What would he think about certain scenarios? Then, we spent a lot of time researching individuals who have mental health disorders. I’ve suffered from depression and mental health issues my whole life and I’ve tried to come up with ways to cope with it, so it’s a mix of personal adversity with the development of outside feedback and information that’s available.
MM: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
DA: I hope people can see a film that’s a masterpiece. I want people to appreciate the art we created, as well as the aspect of shedding light on mental health disorders, financial failures and romanticism, all of which we face every day.
Outside of that, it’s a film that talks about some of the most challenging adversities every human being experiences in aspects of their lives. I hope it motivates people to reflect on who they are and what life means to them.
Working With Kim Coates
MM: What was it like getting to play alongside Kim Coates?
DA: I grew up idolizing him. Not only because he’s a superstar, but he’s done films I love. I grew up loving Black Hawk Down and Sons of Anarchy. So being in the same space, breathing the same air, working with him, learning from him and seeing how he respects people on set will profoundly impact me for the rest of my career.
He’s a person that empowers everybody around him to feel confident, and that is a trait of somebody that’s not only a good person but somebody who is well experienced in our industry. I’ve met several performers, both large and diminutive in stature, and not all of them have the level of confidence Kim has. He gave me the confidence to continue with that same personality and take that into every film.
MM: What can audiences expect when they watch Neon Lights?
DA: A lot of twists and turns and a sense you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
MM: Do you have advice for emerging artists breaking into the industry?
DA: You have to make your own content. I remember watching Actors on Actors years ago and Ryan Gosling saying that. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to put things out in the world, then nobody else will.
What’s on the Horizon
MM: What else is on the horizon for you, career-wise?
DA: Since Neon Lights, we did our third feature film, A Hundred Lies. It’s a movie starring Rob Raco, myself, Humberly González, Stephen Tracey, Michael Xavier, Brandon McKnight and Jessica Amlee. That film is about the volatility of Toronto’s music industry and it should be premiering sometime over the next several months into 2023.
We’re on our fourth feature. It’s another screenplay I’ve adapted, entitled Black Cat. It’s the adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story The Black Cat, about Sukeeb Paul, a 34-year-old tech tycoon who finds himself in the middle of a generational haunting, starting with his mother and grandmother. Very similar in nature to Neon Lights but completely different. That should start shooting in October of this year.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting lately?
DA: I’m addicted to The Offer on Paramount Plus. It’s about the making of The Godfather. Everybody is incredible in this series. It’s nonstop chaos and ups and downs. I love that show so much.
MM: Name your top five favorite films.
DA: My number one film, hands down, is Titanic. I watched that with my mom in 1997. Right after that is Top Gun, the original. I love Gangs of New York. I could watch that movie over and over again. Prisoners and Nightcrawler.
MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Dana! Congratulations on Neon Lights!
DA: Thank you, Melody!