For more than a decade Edi Gathegi, a Kenyan native has been steadily building a career for himself in Hollywood, landing roles in blockbuster movies and hit television series that have catapulted him into global fame.
However, this week the 38-year-old actor returned to Kenya – his third visit to the country – to holiday and get back to his “roots”.
“I’m inextricably bound to my roots, I know exactly where I came from and you can’t take that out of yourself,” he told Lifestyle in an interview.
GONE BABY GONE
It is also a perfect time to meet the legions of his adoring fans and thank them for their support. “I’ve worked so much this year that I made this into a holiday, and when I realised people follow my work here we decided to do interviews,” he said.
Since 2006, Gathegi has been landing coveted roles in television and film, most notable being X Men: First Class, Gone Baby Gone and the Twilight movie franchise which grossed over one billion dollars.
However, it is his roles in television programmes like acclaimed crime thriller show The Blacklist which earned him a main role in the spin off Blacklist: Redemption. He is also cast in another crime thriller called Startup where he is the main character.
Like every other actor of colour in Hollywood where diversity is a major issue, Gathegi has had to chase for roles and fight for them with equally good and accomplished actors. So what does it feel like to be a Kenyan American actor in Tinseltown?
“No matter who you are, what you are made out of or where you come from, this industry respects hard work, so if you’re willing to put in the hard work you are going to get somewhere. And how far you go or get is just a matter of fate, chance, luck and God,” he said.
PLUNGED INTO DEPRESSION
Gathegi was born in Nairobi on March 10, 1979. One of three children, Gathegi’s family moved to the United States when he was young and settled in Albany, California.
As an undeclared undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he was more interested in playing basketball and was good at it, until he injured his knee. This plunged him into depression and, so he took up an acting class as an “easy course”, but eventually dropped out of college.
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as this is how he discovered his love for acting. Gathegi started his acting career with his involvement in theatre. He worked in plays which include Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Two Trains Running and the Twelfth night.
He graduated from New York University in 2005 and landed his first major role the following year, appearing as a Haitian Cabbie in Crank, staring British actor Jason Statham and actress Amy Smart.
The young actor quickly earned roles alongside Hollywood A-listers, performing opposite Kevin Bacon in Death Sentence and as Cheese in Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Amir Mann’s The Fifth Patient – all produced in 2007.
As Gathegi’s career began to flourish, he received a suggestion from a casting director about auditioning for a role as a vampire in the upcoming Twilight film. Although initially skeptical, Gathegi went to the audition and earned the role of Laurent in the film adaptation of Stephemie Meyer’s best-selling novel.
Twilight (2008) was an international success, and Gathegi went on to star in the franchise’s second film, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, in 2009. He earned another high-profile role in 2011, as Armando Muñoz/Darwin in the film X-Men: First Class.
In total, he has featured in more than 35 films and television programmes since 2006.
As one of the most highly regarded actors from Kenya, Gathegi says he only feels it when he comes back home where fans follow and are inspired by his work, on social media and when his relatives tell him he has been featured in newspaper articles.
However, he was accused by some fans of reinforcing western stereotypes of Kenya and Africa in the 2015 US television series Proof, where he played Zed, a medical intern from Kenya.
In the series, Gathegi interns under Doctor Carolyn Tyler, who is asked by a cancer-stricken billionaire, Ivan Turing, to find out all there is about life after death and near death experiences.
When asked about life after death by the dying billionaire in one of the episodes, Zed said that he comes from a culture that believes Aids is caused by evil spirits and can be cured by rape.
In the series, he also explains that he comes from a poor family and that it was his local chief, who paid for his university studies and internship in the US and in return he would marry the chief’s daughter in an arranged marriage.
Some local viewers of the show thought that these two instances painted an outdated picture of the Kenyan society – not the country that is celebrated worldwide for its technological innovation in mobile phone banking.
Although he appreciates local productions, he said it has been difficult to keep up with the Kenyan film and television scene because of his heavy work schedule.
In the highly competitive world of Hollywood, many excellent actors often lose focus without even noticing and careers end prematurely. Gathegi said he is working hard not to fall in to this trap and is constantly pushing his limits.
It’s only this year where he says he can afford to step back and take a break. His focus for the past 12 years has been to solidify his place in the acting community, to have his name known enough that he can stop continually fighting for roles and instead have them come to him.
“Things could be so different for me and right now, I get to be the master of my own fate in a lot of respect, if I want to bring together great minds and create a project, I’m at that place where I can get it done,” he tells Lifestyle.
YET TO WIN
It does not bother him much that even with his impressively vast body of work, he is yet to win any of the industry’s prestigious awards such as the Emmys or Oscars, like his fellow Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o did in 2013.
“You know they don’t hand them out like candy,” he jokes. “They are really hard to get and from what I understand it’s really political for someone to get a nomination or a win. I just focus on the work and you basically win a personal Emmy when people respond to your work. I have a phrase, ‘if you’re not enough without an Emmy, you’ll never be enough with an Emmy’
Gathegi coincidentally shares an agent with actor Samuel L Jackson who has starred in over 100 movies and is one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood. Like so many people Gathegi was star-struck by Jackson when they met, and the icing on the cake was that he (Jackson) follows his work.
“When I was graduating from school I went on IMDB (an online movie website) to find out who the agents for my favourite actors were, and I remember saying ‘I want Sam Jackson’s agent to represent me’ because he works the most, he’s always working and I want to work all the time. Eight years later I was doing a play in LA and Sam Jackson’s agent was in the audience and she signed me. I met him at a party just before I came to Kenya and it turns out he has been watching my work, we hugged and said let’s stay in touch,” he said.
Gathegi has also met Don Cheadle who follows his work as well. “These experiences, meeting these African American icons is cool because maybe there’s a kid out there who’s coming up and they meet me and I could perhaps serve as an inspiration to them,” he said.
He however says that right now, his biggest struggle, since he identifies himself as an artiste is not being given the opportunities to create the kind of art that he wants to create. Still he is starting to realise that he is in control of it (his art).
“We are living in an age where anybody is the master of their own art, if you have a cellphone, good friends and a vision you can shoot a movie on your phone, it’s easier said than done but I’m so much happier now that I know I can create whatever it is I want to,” he said.
In the wake of sexual harassment scandals in Hollywood where the list of powerful men accused of acting improperly towards young female actors continues to grow, Gathegi says it is about time those implicated become accountable.
“It’s a natural thing that should have happened a long time ago, people start to look at how and why society allows these things to happen, too many cultures come from a patriarchal perspective and we don’t treat women with respect and over time it has been ingrained in our societies that it’s normal,” he said.
He added: “These horrible things happening now are serving as cleaning house, now we are aware that men abuse power and now we’re going to hold men accountable for the abuse of power.”
Off the set, Gathegi spends his time travelling, playing sports, reading and watching movies, and prefers to spend his time in New York: The actor once told Vanity Fair magazine that New York City is the only city he’s lived in that has “felt like home.”