“I want to leave the industry better than I found it. It is my intention to do my part in ensuring that the industry is more structured and kinder to the young artists. An industry that takes care of its own without exploiting them in any way.” – Peter Kawa
Peter Kawa is an accomplished Kenyan actor and film director. His artistic journey started out sixteen years ago in theatre and later transitioned to film acting in 2010. He has appeared in projects like FIHI, Twisted, Lies that Bind and Sumu La Penzi. He has also acted in ‘Shattered’, a feature film which starred Nigerian actress Rita Dominic, The Real House helps of Kawangware, Waliobaki, and Tahamaki as well as the web series Janjaruka.
After achieving success as an actor in both television and film, Peter Kawa went into directing where he worked on short films like Torture, Witness and Life Guard. Peter won the award for best film director at the 2019 Kalasha awards for his first feature film “Lost In Time”.
Peter Kawa has also been nominated and won awards for his acting roles. He was nominated for Riverwood Awards Best Supporting Actor- 2018 for playing the role of Oscar who is a pimp in Sumu La Penzi and ‘FIHI’ as a rogue pastor (Riverwood Awards Best Actor – 2018).
You may recognize Peter Kawa from some of these appearances – Show Reel 2.
Besides being an actor and director, he is also a talent manager especially for young actors and founder of Spearhead Entertainment, SanaaTalks and Sanaapost which give upcoming artists a platform to showcase their talent and look for opportunities. He is passionate about mentorship and creating a structured industry for the next generation of talents.
How old are you and where did you grow up?
I am currently 36 years old. I was born in Nairobi, moved to Eldoret and then came back to Nairobi. I spent most of my time in Eastleigh. I have basically lived in Nairobi for most of my life.
Where does your interest in acting come from?
I have always been intrigued by the “Transfer of Emotions” which basically refers to using your faculties as a person to evoke some kind of emotion in your audience. As a young boy, I would always try to act out movie scenes in front of my friends and observe how they reacted to my performance. Despite this interest, I never really pursued acting up until form three when someone suggested that I join the school’s drama club. In my first attempt, I won the award for best actor and it was then that I felt that I needed to start taking acting more seriously.
Did you pursue acting in university?
My father had other plans for me, and he pushed me to do a course in information management. I didn’t like being in that class but since I had already started, I decided to see it through. As I was waiting to sit for my final exam, I got a job to do travelling theatre. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass off, I needed to choose between acting and school. I ended up making the decision to drop out of school and follow acting. I never completed my diploma and my parents were not very happy about that.
Have your parents changed their opinion about acting?
They have really changed their perception over the years. Today they are proud of the milestones I have been able to achieve through acting. The fact that they see I can feed my own family through acting and send money to them to help with projects, makes them appreciate my work even more. My younger brother is also getting into the industry and my parents are more supportive of his decision.
Many artists/actors in Kenya struggle to make a name for themselves and earn from their art. What would you say has given you an edge?
The fact that I have always been consistent since I started has really helped me stay grounded in the industry. Setting a clear goal and putting all your effort into achieving it should be something that you do even if you are not in the acting business. When I started off, I never turned down any roles, I have always been tenacious. At some point, I was willing to work for free as long as I was getting a chance to gain some experience and network with other personalities in the industry. I value networking a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for networking.
How important is it for an actor in Kenya to be tenacious?
Tenacity is a value that should be applied in all aspects of life. Unlike white-collar jobs where a salary, health insurance and retirement benefits are assured, acting jobs can be quite perennial. Actors therefore always need to look at the bigger picture and spend everything they get responsibly and with great discipline. I manage eleven talents, most of whom are just getting into the industry. My advice to them is to try as much as they can to diversify on their, skills, talents and sources of income. I tell them to invest in businesses and other ventures which can sustain them during the off-seasons when jobs might not be flowing as much.
Looking back at the jobs you have done, which one stands out as the job that looked small but turned out to be of great significance to your career?
Some time ago I received a call from a stranger and they offered me a role in a short film called Deceit. I accepted the job halfheartedly. Upon reading the script I honestly believed that the project would not amount to anything. At one point I seriously considered bailing out of the project, but the directors convinced me to stay. When it was time to start shooting, I realized that I would be working with Lizz Nyagah, one of Kenya’s most celebrated actresses. Once the film was finished, it went on to win a couple of awards in Africa and was featured in the Durban film festival. It was later nominated for the African Magic Viewers Choice Award in Nigeria (AMVCA). Right after that, I was given a role by the same production to work in a film called September. If I didn’t take that opportunity that seemed small to me, I would not have experienced all the things that followed.
Talking of acting jobs, how hard or easy is it to get a job in Kenya?
From my perspective, getting a job as an actor here in Kenya is not easy at all. Like most actors, I have had to toil to get where I am right now. It has been a long 15years and I am still hungry for more. The experiences might be different for other people because there are those that get big roles on tv at their first attempt without having to do theatre and other gigs like most of us had to do out here. Every actor has a different account of how they got to where they are. Then there are those that couldn’t even get a chance and ended up pursuing other things because it got too difficult for them to sustain themselves and their families.
What has been your biggest job so far?
I did a show called Sumu La Penzi back in 2013. It has been on GoTV, StarTimes and is now being aired on K24. I played a pimp on the show and I went on to receive accolades because of that role. The interesting thing is that in real life I am so different from the character I played. I am actually a born-again Christian; I love and respect women. I loved that role because it gave me an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and explore a darker side of myself as an actor.
Why do you think some actors are apprehensive about taking on certain roles?
I started off as such an actor. I was very principled and would put my foot on the ground about not wanting to play roles that didn’t match my beliefs. Not to say that these days I compromise my morals, but with time I realized that with a bit of creativity here and there, I could pull off dark roles whilst still upholding my principles. For instance, in preparation for the pimp role, I approached my directors and shared with them how I could successfully portray the character without touching the women inappropriately, hitting them or even using coarse language. The directors appreciated my input and we implemented the changes.
Because of the role, I was nominated for best actor at the 2018 Riverwood awards. That is proof that you do not have to go overboard to portray a character. In my 15 years of acting, I have not kissed or had a sex scene with a cast mate. I believe there are other ways to show love onscreen. I would encourage actors to take on roles that challenge them, but they should also not stray too far from their principles.
What do you do for fun?
I like watching movies, any time I get some free time I catch up with a new film or rewatch a movie that has left an impression on me. After watching the movie, I like to also watch behind the scenes to see what went into making the movie. It helps me appreciate the craft even more. I also like spending time with my daughter, we play games and take walks almost every afternoon.
Tells us about the work you do with Spearhead Entertainment.
Spearhead has been in existence for eleven years and it started out as a theatre group. Initially, it was my mentor’s creation and once he retired, he gave the group to me and I changed the name from Foresight Productions to SpearHead, to symbolize the fact that I wanted to be a leader in our industry and bring about the change we so much needed. We were on the road doing theatre work for around one year, but I put the group on hold to so that I could get a better strategy of operating it. In 2013 I had already started gaining a lot of interest in mentorship, so my wife suggested that I turn it into a real job. That’s where Spearhead came back to the picture. This time as a casting agency and a film production company. In order to sustain Spearhead and the artists I was mentoring, I created Sanaapost and Sanaatalks.
How do Sanaapost and Sanaatalks help artists?
Sanaatalks is a talk show on KU tv. It involves artists sitting around a table and talking about their businesses in the industry. My idea for the show was to give people an inside scoop about the entertainment business and for them to see how serious it is and most importantly, that it should be treated as a real career.
Incase tv stations were not willing to air Saanatalks, I had already created an online platform in the form of Sanaapost which is a website where artists can go and share anything that is art-oriented. I basically celebrate artists and create profiles which they can use to hunt for jobs. All this is offered free of charge. An artist’s profile includes their photos, biography, filmography and all other information that an employer is looking for in an artist. It is in many ways a portfolio where you can refer an employer to find all your information in one place. Whenever someone reaches out to me for mentorship, the first thing I tell them is to subscribe to Sanaapost because that makes it easy to present them to opportunities.
What should young artists expect when they join your mentorship program?
They are going to get a professional angle about how to handle themselves as artists. Many view acting as a passion but at the end of the day, you need to convert that passion into a money-making venture. Knowing how to present yourself is a skill that all actors must have. That is the training I take the young artists through so that they can hold themselves on a higher standard and increase their chances of getting work.
A good example is Azziad Nasenya who I manage. Even before she went viral on Tik Tok, she had already been working hard to build her brand. She was taking photos, setting up her social media platforms, opening a YouTube channel; all the things that an upcoming artist should be doing. Since the success of Azziad, I have had many people calling me to manage them. I supervise her social media platforms, conduct communications and negotiate deals on her behalf. This makes it easy for her to have less stress and do the creative work that makes her happy. When you work with me, I will give you direction and show you which path to follow. Her Captivating Smile Captured Our Attention: Find Out More About Azziad The Kenyan Tiktok Creator
Talking of Azziad, how does it make you feel to see one of your proteges reach the heights she has?
It is a proud moment for me. Having seen her grow into the person she has become has been very humbling. Azziad and I have a good working relationship and it would be my greatest joy to see her achieve even more success. The job has come with its share of stress because my peers already know about my experience and networks in the business and thus, they expect me to guide her into becoming the best creative she can be. I rarely sleep nowadays; I am always trying to come up with ideas to further her career and create more opportunities for her. But it’s a good thing, a little pressure never hurt anyone.
It is hard to imagine how it would be like for me if the other ten artists would blow up like Azziad did. In preparation for their success and the avoidance of me suffering a capacity crisis, I am in the process of setting up a team that will help me manage all the other artists concurrently.
I want to leave the industry better than I found it for those that will come after me. My younger brother is getting into the business and I wouldn’t want him to go through the same things that I went through. I went for gigs where I did not get paid, others I got short-changed because I didn’t know my rights. Now I have studied the business and understood it. It is my intention to do my part in ensuring that the industry is more structured and kinder to the young artists. An industry that takes care of its own without exploiting them in any way. Right now, there are artists who are struggling to pay their rent, yet this is an industry that added to the country’s GDP to a tune of 8.2Billion shillings last year. There is a lot of potential in our business we just need to have better structures.
Do you have any regrets so far?
I am a very optimistic person by nature, I use every experience as a steppingstone to take me to my next glory. I can’t pinpoint any one instance that tore me down or left me with regrets. In most cases I find myself learning from the situation and knowing that I should make better decisions in future. So far, there isn’t a project that I regret doing.
What projects are you working on that we should look forward to?
After doing my first feature film last year, later going to Morocco to shoot another film and getting a lot of success from it, I felt like it was time to take a break and focus on developing my talent programme. I had already decided that I wouldn’t take on any acting jobs in 2020 but I had to compromise my plans to take up the role of assistant director in an upcoming film called Medicine Man which is scheduled to be shot in Embu. In the meantime, however, all my time and energy are directed towards developing my talent program.
Brian Muchiri is a passionate writer who draws his inspiration from the experiences in his own life and of those around him. He is candid and he seeks to inspire society to be more pro active and vocal about the social issues that affect us. Brian is also actively involved in pushing for awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities through his foundation; Strong Spine.