“I believe that I made the right decisions according to the experience that I had at the time. Knowing what I know now, I would probably make some bolder steps like fighting for better pay and taking on more opportunities. In the end, growth is all about learning as you go.” Brenda Wairimu.
Brenda Wairimu is known for her captivating acting on screen, with roles that make people either love or hate her onscreen personas. The 31-year-old actress made her acting debut in 2009 as Shareefah on the popular television series Changing Times. Since her debut, she has featured in some of the biggest shows in the country and beyond. Her roles in Mali, Shuga 2, Kona, Monica and Selina have made her a household name and cemented her legacy as one of the most talented actresses in the region.
Besides her work in television, Brenda Wairimu has also excelled in movies as well. She was the lead actress and executive producer for the movie Disconnect, a well-received film, which was Kenya’s first romantic comedy. Her role in the award-winning movie Subira showed that she is not only a formidable force in television but in film as well.
The winner of best actress in the 2018 Kalasha awards is passionate about being a mother to her daughter and growing her skills in the film industry. In 2012, Brenda started the initiative ‘Cool 4 Skool’ that aims to raise funds to purchase reusable sanitary towels and provide them to needy and less privileged female students in rural and slum areas. When she is not working, Brenda enjoys spending her free time indoors with her daughter, watching a good movie and listening to Eminem.
Where were you born and how was your childhood?
I was born in Eldoret, but we moved to Mombasa when I was one year old. I pretty much grew up in Mombasa and only relocated to Nairobi to join university. While in primary school and high school, I was involved in music festivals but only participated in the choral verses. At the time I didn’t necessarily take acting very seriously, I did it just for fun and saw it as another reason to go out of school and travel for functions. The most interesting thing is that Wanjau Macharia, who writes for Selina today, was our choral verse director back in high school.
Coming from high school, what did you want to pursue?
I wanted to be an animal veterinarian. It was something I had thought about since I was young. Growing up, I watched a lot of television and my favourite show was Pets and Practice. I felt like taking care of animals was something I could be really good at. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford to pay for the course but I was lucky to be sponsored all through university; even though I ended up doing a course in Marketing, which was completely different from what I initially wanted to do. Later on, after I got into acting, I did an additional course in media.
Did you ever get any kind of fulfilment from the Marketing course?
To be completely honest, I did it just to get through university. I didn’t find the course interesting at all because we were always in class and never got the opportunity to go out and learn in the real world. This I believe, is a big flaw in our education system.
When did you land your first acting role?
I got my first acting job when I was still at university. At the time, my father had fallen ill, and we depended solely on my mother to provide. It was hard for me to ask for money for my upkeep because I knew that my mum was struggling. I saw an advertisement on Facebook that there was an audition for Changing Times, I gathered a few of my friends and we went to try it out. I waited the entire day because so many people had come to audition. I remember seeing Size 8 at the auditions as well.
Two weeks after the auditions I saw Size 8 on the show, and I thought that the producers had picked her for the role I had auditioned for. Thinking that I had lost the chance, I forgot all about the show but the following week, I was called and brought into the show to play Shareefah. When I started playing the role, my acting was terrible. I didn’t think I did the character justice, but the producers took a chance on me and I ended up being a regular on the show. That was basically how my acting journey began. At Changing Times, I met people who ended up being like family and forged very dear friendships.
Did your role in Changing Times open doors to other opportunities?
I got a call from Alison who is the creator of Al Is On productions and she said that she had seen my performance on Changing Times. She asked if I would be interested in a role that would be on a tv series she had been working on. I went in for the audition and that is how I landed a role in Mali.
Do you get nervous before going for auditions?
If you ask me, auditions are the worst thing that can happen to an actor. What happens is, you are either given a script on the spot or just a few days before the actual audition. You have no time to know or even understand your character. Then there is the pressure of knowing that this is your livelihood and your chances of getting work depends on how well you will read out a few lines. Auditions are very nerve-wracking. You can audition perfectly but still fail to get the job because you might not be the perfect fit for the character in terms of age or looks. I have done a lot of auditions, but I always feel like throwing up every time I have to go for one. It is something I haven’t really gotten used to.
Which role propelled you to instant fame?
My role in Changing Times was what introduced me to lots of people because the show was really big at the time. This is not to take away from the other roles I have played because I have been blessed to be in shows that have ended up being very successful. People know me from different roles; some call me Shareefah from Changing Times, others call me Lulu from Mali and Rosette from Selina. If you ask different people, they might identify me from the various roles I have done but the breakout one was definitely Shareefah on Changing Times.
Would you consider yourself a household name in film?
That is interesting because if you are talking about movies, I have only been in two; Disconnect and Subira. The only other film that I was involved in was 18 Hours which I co-produced but only had one line in the entire movie. I could understand being a household name if that is based on the shows that I have been on because they have all been hypervisible. Some people might say that I have been in a lot of projects but as an actress, being recognized for your work is what you always work towards. In Nollywood and Hollywood, actors have pages and pages in their catalogues, my catalogue is only half a page. This being my livelihood, I should be able to pursue as much work as I can without judgement because this is what puts food on my table.
How do you deal with the negativity that sometimes comes with being in the public eye?
I could say that you just have to grow a thick skin, but the truth is that sometimes I can have a hundred comments that are positive but be affected by one or two negative comments. It is not easy, especially in our line of work as performing artists. The negativity can easily affect your ability to work but in my case, I have learnt to switch all that off when I am on the stage. As soon as the director calls action, I immerse myself into the character and everything else ceases to matter. On social media, you just learn how to take it. Of course, it affects you because you are human, but you have to trust that it will always pass. Other times you just block certain people if you have to.
You play the bad girl character really well as Rosette on Selina, what do you consider when choosing roles?
When you are an actor especially here in Kenya, you don’t have the luxury of choosing the roles you want. Most times you are just happy to have a job. In my case, the fact that I have grown my audience and can engage in other money-making ventures aside from acting makes life a bit easier. In terms of acting jobs, I haven’t had work since September last year. If I was to get another bad girl role today, I would take it very fast because I need to work.
Do you have a dream role that you would like to play?
As an actor, I naturally want to be in all the good roles. I have always wanted to play a role where the character appears to be both good and bad and when Rosette came along, I checked that off my list. I would love to act in a horror film and do a voice-over for an animation movie. Doing a show where I play a cop is also something that is on my bucket list.
You were the executive producer and lead actress for the movie Disconnect. Do you plan on taking on both roles in other projects?
I would definitely want to get more involved in creating films but that would require me to have enough money to fund the project because that is what an executive producer does. I would love to work on projects that interest me and those that I feel have good stories. I hope to do more of that in the future.
What is the craziest thing you have ever done on screen?
I once did a movie that had a scene where someone was supposed to suck my toes. From the moment I read the script, I could not stop thinking about it because I had not done anything like that before. The scene never happened because it was cut out from the movie. Other than that, I don’t think I have had to do anything crazy on screen.
You have won some prestigious awards in the past. Does this affect how you negotiate working contracts?
In acting, I have learnt that you are only as good as your last role. That is what affects your rate card more than anything else. You could win the biggest award in the country and still struggle to find work; this shows that awards don’t matter that much in the real world. What producers are looking for before giving you a job is how good you were in your last role; whether you pulled crowds, portrayed your character well and if people enjoyed watching you. Receiving an award is good in the sense that it is a recognition for your work, but it doesn’t affect your bargaining power.
If you could go back in time, would you change anything in your journey?
I have always trusted the process. I believe that I made the right decisions according to the experience that I had at the time. Knowing what I know now, I would probably make some bolder steps like fighting for better pay and taking on more opportunities. In the end, growth is all about learning as you go.
What are the unique challenges that women in the film industry face?
There is a lot of sexualization of female actors. Even in romantic scenes, it is always the woman who has to show her nakedness while the man could be fully dressed. Off-screen, I know of women who have been asked for sexual favours in return for roles. I have been lucky to have good bosses that have not subjected me to that kind of environment. Female actors are also paid less than men despite the workload being the same. The same issues that women in other fields struggle with are the same issues that can be found in film as well.
Tell us about the MOMMY101 show.
I pitched the idea to Ebru TV a long time ago and we did over a dozen episodes. The show was well-received, I got to work with a lot of children and their mothers. However, at the time, the environment at Ebru TV was not the best so I had to leave. Since then I have been trying to get the episodes back which are mine according to the contract, but all my efforts have been futile. I went back to Ebru to do the Let’s Talk show. I loved working with the amazing ladies on the show, but it didn’t feel right to sit around a table and talk about other people’s lives, so I decided to leave that as well.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not on the screen?
I can be a bit boring sometimes because I don’t like going out of the house unless I have to. When I am not working, I enjoy watching a good movie, I am a mum now, so I am passionate about raising my daughter. I still wish I could become a vet at some point. I love listening to Eminem, he and Tom Hardy are my biggest crushes. If I ever make it to Hollywood, I hope I can get the chance to meet them.
What advice would you give to upcoming actors and actresses?
It is hard to say one thing that will apply to everyone because the world is always changing, and situations are so different. Preparedness would probably be one of the things that are constant for everyone. Every actor should always ensure that they acquire all the tools necessary to prepare themselves for any opportunity that may arise. Doing one show is not enough. Keep learning and pushing for more. Prepare yourself for your destination so that once you get there, you will know exactly what to do.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have some projects that I am scheduled to be working on with a few friends. We want to give the audience fresh and fun content, but all plans have been put on hold because of the threat posed by the Coronavirus. Once things get back to normalcy we will definitely work on the projects and I can’t wait to share them with everyone.
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.