Could say he had us at “your questions are thought-provoking – like a lengthy conversation over good whiskey” but truth is Mugambi Nthiga already had our attention by then. Even before we noticed his e-mail signature which says “Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly.“ This Kenyan actor-and-more-much-more moves freely between different creative forms of expression and the journeys of his sharp mind are conveyed in very rewarding eloquent odysseys. Mugambi is worth your time and attention and we are very happy to share this awesome interview with you. Prepare for some true brain candy. Meet Mugambi Nthiga!
Mugambi, you are a well-known face and name in Kenya. But how would you describe yourself to someone who is not familiar with you and your work?
MN: You started with a compliment. Thank you very much. (MiKe: Something that becomes apparent when e-mailing with Mugambi, he is very NICE. It’s very cool.) I’m in the arts. Since this needs to be followed by quick clarification, I say Writer, Actor, Director, working freelance. The last one averts a horde of further questions. What led you to becoming an actor?
An epiphany. A shift in the stars. Destiny. God. Coincidence. It was all of those things. I fell into it and somehow, of all the things I’d done before, it felt most right. Like when you have a huge bunch of keys and one lock to open, and you enjoy that satisfaction of the right key finding the right lock.
You do much more than acting however. Tell us about that, how do you feel about the different roles from acting to directing to writing – and how do they influence each other? Is there a direction that you see yourself focusing on in the future or is it the combination of creative forms of expression and arenas that you like?
MN: You’re right on the money. It’s all connected. I found acting first, then directing, then writing. These are art forms of similar souls. Meet any actor nowadays and they’ve likely been good at other artsy things – drawing, dancing, weaving, carpentry… Many of us choose acting because it’s what we love to do. But there are painters and athletes and poets inside us still. I’m still trying to indulge those people in me.
Oh, and I was an advertising copywriter and strategist before I went into acting full time. Even in that industry, we asked the same questions I ask now. Who’s our story about? What do they want? What’s standing in the way? What are they doing about it? Where do I come in? They used to ask that in advertising a while ago. Not so much these days. It’s simple, one-size-fits-all communication now.
I’m grateful for finding acting.
Tell us about projects you are currently involved in?
MN: Right now, I’m co-writing a film with One Fine Day Films. They brought you SoulBoy, Nairobi Half Life, Something Necessary and Veve. It’s a hard job – this writing. But it’s exciting learning so much. I’m also acting in a series that’s coming to Maisha Magic soon. You’ll know it when you see it.
I want to make a return to the stage. I’ll make noise about that when I land on something nice. : )
You have worked both in Kenya and abroad so a question now about knowledge exchange across cultures. What do you bring home with you from the experiences abroad and vice versa – which experiences or tools from working in Kenya do you share with your teams abroad?
MN: The work ethic abroad is quite something. They show up and work hard and go home. They have a healthy separation between work and life, so I’d meet actors who loved to travel and hike and play in bands and cook and read plays and write. And they’d do all these things. They have a way of working that’s efficient. But it got too theoretical and over-academic many times.
Here though, we work from the loins. Our expression comes from a very real place. Back when I started, we were all self-taught and theatre-trained. We had only a rudimentary knowledge about the acting craft, but we threw ourselves into it anyway. And we put on some memorable stuff. For those who take acting really seriously now, who are taking advantage of the learning resources available to us, a terribly amazing career awaits. Heart, soul and brains – that’s what the worldwide industry is looking for.
As a public person, do you think you have a responsibility to serve as a role model and how do you cope with being a public figure? Do you prefer to protect your privacy or rather to use fame as a platform to be outspoken and influence?
MN: We all have a responsibility to inspire people to be better – whether we have a public persona or not. Still, I prefer the calm of obscurity to the madness of celebrity. Kenyans are good at fostering the former, thankfully. There’s not much of a fame culture here as, say, Tanzania or Nigeria.
Everyone in Kenya knows Nairobi Half Life and as a foreigner you will see this title appearing here and there. But to someone who never saw it – how would you describe Nairobi Half Life?
MN: It’s a coming-of-age story about a young man who leaves his country home to pursue his acting dream in the big city. He quickly realizes that it’ll take more than his eagerness and charming wit to get by, and soon, he’s subject to the city’s get-or-get-got code.
Nairobi has a very unique creative climate. Things are happening all the time and it does appear that creative from both the same and different fields are very supportive of each other. Would you agree? How does this creative climate influence you? And do you have any advice on how to stimulate this kind of dynamic climate in other big cities?
MN: Creatives here are very supportive of each other here. Go to any event put together by a creative, and the crowd will likely be other creatives mostly. I’ve seen some really cool stuff in Nairobi. Grungy concerts on rooftops in obscure parts of town, peculiar exhibitions, experimental multimedia plays… it’s happening. But there’s a need to make this sort of entertainment more mainstream. It’s unfortunate that it’s still considered more prestigious to blow thousands at a fine bar than pay for entertainment some creatives put their souls into. You could always go to the bar after the gig.
Where do you find inspiration?
MN: To be honest, if I knew, I’d go there all the time and this would be a different conversation. I’m spending more time looking than finding. It lurks in quiet places most of the time, so I retreat to them every so often hoping I’ll get lucky. The shower also. Magic has happened there.
What gives you confidence?
MN: The assurance that whatever I’m up to, it’s going to work. And if it doesn’t, at least there’s a safety harness – be it family or friends or the grace of God. I’ve experienced more of the safety harness in the last couple of years.
Also, to have people acknowledge what you do… you can’t put any sort of measure on the fulfillment that brings. Just a couple of days ago, I was in traffic and a street boy comes up to the window and asks for money. I shake my head and he asks if he’s seen me somewhere, then asks if I’m the dude from Nairobi Half Life. I ask him where he saw it and he says at his aunt’s house. The kind of interaction that happens after a conversation like that can only be honest and encouraging.
What are you looking forward to in 2015?
MN: Challenging, fulfilling, definitive work. Also, I said this to a friend on New Years Day and we almost cried together at the thought – more money for fewer hours. : )
Do you have a dream project?
MN: Yes. A solo stage performance that will tour Kenya and Africa and Europe and America and Asia. It’ll last about 70 minutes. In one scene, I take off my shirt, revealing a lean body, and I perform a dance. The audience joins in.
Why do you love doing what you do?
MN: I feel useful. I’m doing something. And I’m doing something for someone who appreciates what I’m doing for them. I really feel that it was written in the stars that I’d be doing this. There’s an incredible satisfaction and security to that. It beats the get-money, live-large convention.
Our standard significant last question: What do you wish the world knew about Kenya?
MN: Forget the wildlife and holidays and business opportunities for a moment. People discover their best selves here when they commit to do so. True story.
(MiKe says… Yes.)
Is there such a thing as “typically Kenyan” and if yes – what would it be?
MN: Typical Kenyan? No such thing exists. There are definitely typical Kenyanisms that show up in the way we speak, the way we work, and the stuff that makes us collectively happy, like the local memes one finds all over Twitter and Instagram (even after such tragic stuff as the teargasing of children). Still, every time I think we’ve landed on a singularly Kenyan attribute, someone shows up and changes everything. Like Mike Sonko. Or Kanyari. Or Prophet Owuor. Or (thankfully) Lupita Nyong’o.
Asante sana Mugambi for taking the time to talk to MiKe and share all that great stuff that goes on in your creative brain!
…if that was not enough… Some Mugambi magic in motion in this awesome video by the enchanting Kenyan songstress Mayonde!