In a land where the film industry makes at least Sh1.1 trillion in sales a year, where Sh41 billion was once invested into making a single movie, a young Kenyan-American is trying hard to make an impression.
Raymond Watanga, 26, left Kenya in 2006 at the age of 12 with his mother and elder brother.
This was after his mother won the Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery (Green Card) to live and work in the United States.
Now a US citizen, Watanga has since studied up to university level, tried and failed to make a mark in sports, and has now fully taken up acting.
His dream is to soar higher than Lupita Nyong’o, daughter of Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o who won an Oscar in 2014 for the best supporting actress in the film 12 Years a Slave.
“My biggest aspiration is to become the first Kenyan-born male actor to win a best actor Oscar,” a resolute Watanga tells Lifestyle. “That’s my biggest goal in doing all this.”
That determination can be seen in one of Watanga’s recent roles, which he took in one episode of the action series S.W.A.T. that airs on CBS Television.
In the episode aired in December 2019, Watanga played a Somali man in a team of kidnappers. “I was one of the villains in the show,” he says.
He had to address the other characters in a Somali accent. Accents, says Watanga, are one of his specialities.
“That’s one of my biggest things; my go-to. I’m very good with the accents, languages and things like that,” he notes.
In the S.W.A.T. appearance, his character was a man who was party to the abduction of a woman and her son, but who was reluctant to follow orders to kill the two captives.
In one scene, he says: “Kidnapping them, threatening Zayeed, yes. But killing these two …”
Before he finishes the sentence, a pistol is shoved to his neck, and the steely look on the character Watanga plays provides proof of the talent packed in the budding actor.
“Don’t tell me you are weak,” he is told. “You know how the weak end up.”
Before the captives’ blood is spilt, officers from the S.W.A.T. team (an imitation of the “Special Weapons and Tactics” contingent in the US law enforcement machinery) storm in, floor all the captors, including Watanga’s character, and rescue the abductees.
“It was my first role. It was really an amazing experience. A very professional set and everything. I had a three-day shoot. It aired in December and we got positive feedback from friends and everybody,” he says.
Finding himself in the S.W.A.T. cast was a crucial chapter in his Kenya-US story. After leaving Kenya with his family, they settled in Texas, a state in the south central region of the US.
“Texas has all kinds of people, and it’s one of the biggest states with a huge Kenyan community. It is, I would say, the second in terms of the states that have some of the biggest Kenyan communities,” he says.
He was in Class Six when he left Kenya. And to his relief, he was allowed to continue learning from Grade Seven in the US.
As he progressed to high school, he developed a passion for sport. He would later gain admission at Midwestern State University, where he became a student basketball assistant.
“I was actually going to try play basketball for them. Till I got injured,” he says.
The injury, which he sustained in 2015, was to do with a sprained ankle. “I rolled my ankle really bad. That’s the first time I rolled it really, really badly. So I took some time off basketball,” he narrates.
This injury-imposed absence turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His burning ambition for basketball glory had to be shelved and that is when he reconnected with acting, an art he liked when he was in Kenya.
He ended up enrolling in an acting class, where he met a lecturer who is a movie director based in New York.
In the acting classes, Watanga had a rebirth of sorts. “I was enjoying what I was doing for the first time in like 12 or 15 years,” he recalls.
The New-York based lecturer convinced Watanga to change his university major. The young man was then pursuing exercise physiology, and he shoved it aside to take up theatre.
That is how he ended up changing base to the University of North Texas, an alma mater of former World Wrestling Entertainment professional Steven Anderson, alias Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Fox Sports presenter Dave Barnett, among others.
At the North Texas institution, Watanga fully immersed himself into theatre. He graduated in May 2018. A year before his graduation, he secured himself an acting agent.
In the US, actors usually have agents that look out for available roles for auditioning. “I started auditioning for the serious stuff: commercials, TV shows, movies …,” he says.
The Texas agent connected Watanga to another agent based in Los Angeles (LA). To sign up with the LA agent, he had to attend an audition, where there were 60 contestants.
“Out of those, I was one of the three that were picked to be signed by the LA agent,” he says, adding that he signed with that agent in April 2018.
LA is home to the famed Hollywood, where numerous films are produced each year, and where the film industry is among the most advanced in the world.
In June 2018, Watanga was on his way from Texas to LA. Due to financial constraints and given the financial stature of LA neighbourhoods — most of them inhabited by wealthy persons — he could not rent a house straight away.
His first house was a subleased apartment. He later grouped with three other young men to rent a house, where they have been splitting rental expense and other costs.
In his early days in LA, and with the help of his agents, he participated in a number of auditions, but no opportunities were coming up.
“I was auditioning, but unfortunately I wasn’t getting anything,” he recalls. His first engagement there was a play that was staged from September to December 2018.
The play was about the history and the people of the Californian city of Boyle Heights, and Watanga was impressed by the feedback received.
“There were a lot of elderly locals who grew up in Boyle Heights. They were coming to us and were like, ‘you guys reminded me of my childhood’. That was really fun to see. Especially for me, being from a completely different world — Nairobi, Kenya — and putting a show for people who were born and raised there and telling me that I remind them of when they were young. It was a really fun experience, and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
The year 2019 had a mixed bag for Watanga. It was until October when the S.W.A.T. role registered on the radar.
His agent sent him information about auditions for S.W.A.T, and he was intrigued, not least because he is a huge fan of the series.
“I finished watching Season Two in September and then out of the blue, my agent sends me the audition for S.W.A.T. and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is my favourite show; I have to get this.’ So, thankfully, I ended up auditioning and got the role. That was my first breakout role,” narrates Watanga.
His engagement with S.W.A.T. ended with the episode he took part in, but he has been told it is possible to return later.
“I just talked to one of the writers and was told that they can bring me back in for a different role. That’s the good thing about TV. They can bring me in for a completely different role if they want to bring me back.
They said that if you’re not as recognisable, if it’s not easy for people to recognise you, they can bring you in for a different role. Which is really cool,” he says.
Watanga is a big fan of action movies. Besides S.W.A.T., he also dreams of having a role in Chicago PD or Mandalorian — all that pack action drama.
“I like those type of shows,” he says about his love for drama and thrillers. “I really like those cop shows.”
One of his latest projects is a film where he played a detective. It will be out later this month.
On the side, Watanga has trained on handling guns, even though actual firearms are hardly used when shooting films.
“I’ve been to the shooting range by myself,” he says. “I know how to handle a gun.”
He dreams of a day he will reach the heights of Don Cheadle, his role model. Cheadle, an American aged 55, was the star of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, and has also played a role in at least 14 movies, some of which have won awards.
“Don Cheadle is my inspiration because, first of all, people tell me every time that I look like him,” says Watanga with a chuckle.
“And in terms of somebody to emulate, he is the perfect person for me because we’re almost the same height, and we do almost all the same things. He is good with accents and languages,” he adds.
Watanga has been studying Cheadle a lot and has watched almost all of the movies involving the creative, who is an actor and also a film writer and director.
Watanga has also been drawing lessons from Lupita and Edi Gathegi — another Kenyan-American actor, who has been making moves in Hollywood.
“I love Lupita. If you don’t like Lupita, something’s wrong with you. She is a good example to look at,” he says.
“I love Lupita’s work. I love what she does for charity and other things because, obviously, when I get to that point, those are the types of things I want to focus on too.”
From Gathegi, a 40-year-old who has had roles in at least 18 American films, Watanga draws inspiration to improve his craft each day.
“I pay attention to those guys who are ahead of me and try to draw inspiration from them,” says Watanga.
In between waiting for auditions, Watanga takes up studies or gets busy with the jobs he has to do to sustain himself.
“Unless you’re a superstar, you have to do something else. So I’ve been hustling since I came here (Los Angeles). I’ve got many different jobs but obviously I can’t keep every job because they require you to stay, and sometimes I have an audition during the day and I have to leave. So I’ve had to quit a lot of jobs because of that,” he says.
He credits the support he has been receiving from his family for helping him stay afloat in LA, a place he says is very expensive.
“People end up becoming homeless. There are a lot of people on the streets; a lot of people are living in their cars,” he says.
He goes on: “Their (mother’s and brother’s) support has been very huge. It would have been 10 times harder if I didn’t have their support: financial and whenever sometimes I’m feeling down, whenever I’m frustrated, my mum and my brother are there.”
It can be frustrating, he says, because sometimes an actor can go for a month or longer without even an audition call.
“It is very unpredictable,” he says. “Some days are better than others; some months are better than others. It’s just very hard to tell. But obviously, once you get that audition, you try your best to make sure you get that one because you don’t know when the next one is coming.”
This period between February and May, he said, is the busiest for actors, and he is gearing up for any opportunities that may arise. “A lot of important auditions should be coming in between now and May.”
Watanga has chosen an industry that churns out superstars and operates in big money.
According to a December 2019 article by London’s Telegraph, the earnings from film in North America for 2019 were projected to hit $11.4 billion (Sh 1.1 trillion). The 2018 figure stood at $11.8 billion.
“Here, people see it as a job. It’s not something that’s seen as just a hobby or whatever,” says Watanga.
“When you say you want to become an actor or a director, actually people take it seriously, because it is a career,” he adds.