You have probably seen him in one of your favourite TV shows or even in an ad, Blessing Lungaho is not a guy you can easily dismiss – his charisma comes across on screen. We caught up with him on the set of This Is Life, a Kenyan series set to be released in April. Blessing Lungaho’s acting career began in Nairobi in 2013 when he stumbled across Nguta, a man who would be instrumental in setting him on the path he is on now.
He started out doing commercials and billboard advertisements and has done almost 300 advertisements both locally and internationally. He has worked with the likes of ‘Sportpesa’, ‘Kenya Breweries Limited ‘ and ‘ Zuku Fiber’. Eventually, the commercials led him to TV and Film. Here he has starred in films such as ‘Power of Belief’ and ‘Torture’. He has also appeared in other films such as ‘Checklist’, and Chasing The Light’. His acting skills have earned him a couple of roles in TV series as well. He has gotten to act alongside famous actors such as Nigeria’s Desmond Eliot in the show ‘Santalal’.
Additionally, he has acted in other shows like ‘Sweetest Taboo’ airing on Star-Times, ‘Kookoo Inn’ and ‘Makavazi’ on KBC. He is currently on the famous show ‘Mother in Law’ which airs on Citizen TV. Blessing Lungaho is also part of the main cast of the soon to released series ‘This is Life’. To add to his already wide portfolio, he has also been part of some music videos including ‘Vanity‘ by Daddy Owen, ‘Bokodo’ by Navy Kenzo, ‘Teren Teren’ by Vivian, ‘Ya Kale Yamepita’ by Muikia Joseph and ‘Mawimbi’ by Nana.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a very simple guy from a place called Kapsoya in Eldoret. I started out as an accountant. In 2012 I switched to acting. I have told this story so many times and every time I tell it people believe me a little less. I was walking to work when a guy stopped me on the street and said hi to me. He told me he was casting for a commercial and he thought I looked like a person whose face should be on billboards. I just started laughing because I was sure I was getting conned.
So the guy could obviously see me and him were not on the same page at the time so he told me his name, gave me his card and told me to look him up claiming he worked for Snap. I get to the office and somehow I left the card he had given me on my office desk. A colleague and friend saw the card on my desk and recognized the guy as Nguta and confirmed that he actually did cast for advertisements. After a while, I called him, then quit my job a month later.
So did you quit because of the money or because you wanted to join the industry?
Well, I have been acting since class four but I will be honest. The money played a part in pushing me to quit my job. I realized I could make more money doing a lot less. Because when you are following your passion you are not really working. Like today, I am not here to work. I am here to have fun with my friends.
Having started acting when you were in class four, what was your first experience like?
I was a very shy child growing up. I used to be very reserved. For me, acting was a safe space. So it was a somewhere I went to get accepted. Going to rehearsals for church skits and plays was more about feeling like I belonged. It was my driving force. The first role I was cast in was in a Christmas skit in my church where I played the Wise Man- Balthazar. I did not remember any of my lines. (laughs). We all start somewhere.
How long have you been acting since you quit your job?
It has been five years thus far.
Who are your acting influences? Which actors do you look up to in the film industry?
Locally, Allan Oyugi, a Kenyan director, and Raymond Wafula and actor. They have been acting ever since they could as adults and they have never stopped. Everyone says how hard it is to be a Kenyan actor and these guys have been doing it. They show me that there is nothing that is impossible. Internationally, I think Samuel L Jackosn is cool. He is literally in all movie films.
What advice would you give to acting beginners who are nervous?
There is this lie that talent overcomes everything. That is the biggest myth in the world. It is 90% hard work, 5% talent and 105% God. It is more about the effort you put in than the talent you have. For nervousness, the answer is simply repetition. It never really goes away. You will never have that day that you are not nervous. I am always nervous.
Every single time the camera rolls I am nervous. If you lose the nervousness, you lose the energy. The day I walk out on stage and I am not nervous, is the day I quit acting. I like that energy. I embrace it because it shows how much the project means to me.
What has been the biggest break in your acting career?
I do not think I have broken out yet. But if I was to pick a moment where I felt very proud was when I was involved in two projects. One was an advertisement for SportPesa on a Friday. Later I was also called to do a music video for Daddy Owen’s ‘Vanity’. Two weeks later both projects came out the same day. I got about 200 calls that day from people. I was so happy. From then I have never had to audition a day in my life for any of the roles I have gotten.
Do you act only or do you also write scripts?
Not really. Right now all I do is act. I have thought about it but maybe later in life. I still feel like there is so much left to learn in this craft. Looking at acting from outside you think it is pretending but there are so many levels to it. I am still learning my way through the levels. So once I have made my way through all the levels, I will move on to the next. I am not a jack of all trades. I learn, perfect and move on to the next thing.
Are you this funny in real life?
I tend to think I am funny in real life. Of course not all my jokes are a hit. 87% do not but the other 13% do great. Like twice a year, I get a good laugh. (laughs).
How long does it take for you to internalize a performance after reading the script?
It takes a while. After I get a script I break it down to understand how other characters relate to my character. Then finding the guy behind my role takes a lot. Finding out what is his voice, his demeanour and who he is takes a while. It takes a lot longer because I really have to dig deep. So I take like a week or two to know my character.
Acting is about fitting into the role of someone you know so you are not pretending. It is simply acting like a person you know. Like being told to mimic a person in your life. So it takes a while to get to know a character like that. It also depends on the script. Some scriptwriters make it easy for us. So you just know when you get the script. Some it takes a little longer.
What is the easiest and hardest character you have ever played and why?
My process is almost the same for all characters. However, they are those I enjoyed more than others. Like the role, I am playing right now. I am a bad boy; he has no moral centre. It is also harder because you have to talk to your friends on set but then in character, you have to switch and talk to them like they are beneath you.
At some point, it takes a toll on you. You do know you are acting but you still have to do it so convincingly. Especially if in between takes when I have been laughing with my friends then I have to insult them a couple of minutes later. And I still have to be at 100% because if I am not at my very best, the audience can tell. It is easier to act like a good guy rather than a bad guy but for some reason, everyone casts me as a bad guy.
Would you like to take on more good-guy roles?
Even though it is easier playing the role of a good guy, I tried a few it and I was kinda bored. It is fun being a bad guy.
Have you ever been so bad that people loved you?
I play a bad boy on the show Mother In Law which airs on Citizen TV. Everyone I know stops me on the streets because of that role saying how cool I am.
Having been in the industry for five years, if you had a chance what would you change?
What I would change I would change as a whole, all over Kenya. We do not consume our own products. We are the only country in East Africa that does not consume our own products. Starting from the smallest things such as toothpicks.
The same goes for films. We make very amazing films in Kenya but you will visit someone and find them with a full album of Tanzanian films but not one Kenyan film. Even our quality, in my opinion, is way better.
Have you ever tried to find out why people would rather watch films from our country as opposed to our own?
Honestly, I am normally too angry to ask. But I should make it a point to ask. However, look at it from this point of view. When Lupita was acting here, not many people even knew of her. Then she took the same acting skills to Hollywood and won an Oscar. Now she is our hero.
We have very many people like that here. The moment they make it, we will want to know them. Like Watu Wote, the Kenyan movie which was nominated to the Oscars. People only wanted to see it after they had heard of its nomination. You see the trend.
What challenges have you faced as an actor and how have you overcome them?
It is like any other job really. You get an existential crisis. Sometimes you give 100% and the audience gives negative reviews and you question why you are doing what you are doing. At the beginning of my career, dating was also hard. You would tell ladies you were an actor and they would automatically think that you were broke. It was either that or they would think that you were lying.
Also, you can do a job right now then you get paid months later. And sometimes, you deal with people who think that paying you is doing you a favour so they take their time before paying you. The landlord does not understand that you do not have a monthly salary. All he/she knows is that he sees you on TV and on billboards.
It is really difficult to explain to people how money works in the industry if you are not a creative. And sometimes when you get paid you have so many debts, half of the money goes to paying debts, the other half into celebrating the fact that you are debt-free. However, it gets easier. After five years I have learned a thing or two about managing money.
It is extremely difficult to be a working actor anywhere in the world. Moreso in Kenya. Especially if you decide this is your career. People think this is easy. Very few people get to live their dreams in this industry. Getting jobs and keeping jobs is what is hard.
Then the industry is very public so people tend to confuse what I do and what I am. Just because I play a bad guy doesn’t mean it is who I am. You would not believe how many times I have had to explain to people that I am not the bad guy they see on TV. Even in family meetings. They think that I am embarrassing the family with my career. Like before this show, I was bald and I would get offers from hair companies asking if I could be their brand ambassador.
Do you think creatives need to get somewhere where they are taught how to manage money?
Kenyans, in general, should be taught how to manage their money. This should be done from a very young age. In class four instead of drawing locusts(laughs), we should be learning how to manage money. The thing is, it is not just us. Where I come from, you find people who have worked their entire life, but when they retire they are broke and go to disturb people in the village. So it is not just a creative’s thing. It is hubris to think that it is just us with the issue.
As for creatives, I have not been acting throughout my entire career. Like for the first two years, I just did advertisements. So we should have a conversation about managing our finances a little better. Because we are all human, you could be waiting for payment for months then cheques come in at the same time. So you start calling your friends offering to buy them lunch. It is just how it goes.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Blessed, grateful, kinda funny.
What would you hope to have accomplished in ten years?
I have wanted to be an actor ever since I was ten years old so if I am still acting by then. I do not mind. So all I do is wake up and work on my acting today so that in ten years I am still doing it. I would actually love to do an action film. And also star in a horror movie.
Can someone learn how to act or has it to be inborn?
Acting is a skill. Even if you have the talent, you have to improve. Hard work beats talent.
What are your thoughts on the future of the Kenyan acting in the global space?
Definitely, more Kenyan movies being nominated for awards like the Oscars and actually winning. Moving along, it will not be crazy if we actually win an Oscar every year. The show I am doing right now is going to be the biggest show in Africa. Quote me. This is a really good show. It is very well written and very well shot. When it comes to storytelling there is no better show than what we are doing right now.
Do you think that we will ever get to a point where Kenyan investors are actually investing in the industry because they believe in it?
Kenyans are the kind of people who practice ‘the wait and see’ approach. So there will come a time when Kenyans will become aware that there is money in filmmaking then all Kenyans will flood here. And I believe that will be very soon. Because this year we are doing projects like this that will not air on TV.
Before we used to do movies targeting broadcasters. Producers like Jennifer Gatero are doing projects that are targeting the audience. And if you can bypass the middleman, that means you can make more money. One person will make a profit and then you will see 20 Kenyans rush into the market.
Why do you think this series is important?
I am sure as Kenyans we are tired of buying series from other countries. We can not sit down and watch a whole 13 episodes of a Kenyan film. With shows like this one, I feel euphoria. I fell like this is finally the time I can share with my friends. I can call them up and ask them to come over and watch This is Life with me. Because it is a really good story.