Vanessa Okeyo is a multifaceted budding household name. She has taken over the local TV scene starring as Sinde Lang’at in Second Family. She plays the daughter of Ian Mbugua’s Leo and is set to inherit his milling company. From a child performer to one of the most recognizable faces on Showmax, Okeyo is a talent to watch. With the second season of Second Family now streaming, Potentash sat with Okeyo to learn her story.
1. Talk to us about your background, where did you grow up? How did you end up becoming an actor?
I was born and raised in Nanyuki, Laikipia County. I began my career as a child performer, I used to sing and rehearse Bible verses in church. And in school during talent day, I would model and sometimes sing, also during Easter and Christmas. I used to be on plays organized by the church. Most of my life was built around the church coming from a Christian family, hence most of my performances growing up, I wasn’t really in the drama team in school though I loved to see them perform and at some point wanted to join in.
I can say I was a bit shy and chose music which I thought was a safer option. I love singing, don’t get me wrong so whenever I would go back home I would immediately engage in plays it made me feel safe and whole. Also, I love reading, so it’s like reading a novel falling in love with the characters, and being one of the characters, it’s amazing.
I made my debut portraying the role of Sinde but before that, I did a mini-series called PAA for Sky Girls and made a cameo on Single Kiasi as Sintamei’s secretary. My first role ever was for a small film where I played an assassin called Tandu. I didn’t know I could throw kicks and punches till I had to do it.
So becoming an actor was like a work in progress because before I joined the industry. Of course, I went for training, and I’m very hard on myself. I was looking for perfection. I really wanted to be an actor and I didn’t want to take it lightly because deep in my heart I knew I wanted to do it and that made me go harder.
Before joining the industry, a year prior, I would do monologues, and look for directors. I talked to Neil Schell so much and he helped me with my acting. Actually, he had a class called Acting 101. He recommended books that I could read, I would send monologues he would correct me. Also, he referred me to someone called Melchizedek who really helped me with my acting journey. He would send me monologues, and acting tips. We would be in a meeting for hours talking about how I could perfect my skills. I did the monologues so many times I did them over and over again until I achieved what I saw looked good and what he wanted.
2. Can you share the story of how you came to work with Showmax?
I heard about the auditions online and that was right after I was done with shooting Sky Girl. I was contemplating it because, again, I’m very hard on myself. So, I really didn’t want to go there and make a fool of myself because they said everyone should come with their own monologue. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. I wasn’t told what I was auditioning for, so I went in there blindly, not knowing anything about the show.
When I got the callback months later and I had to do the second audition that moment I thought maybe it was just a normal role or they were looking for other characters, I didn’t think so much about it. The next day I received a call, and they told me I’d gotten the lead role for an original Showmax telenovela. I honestly could not believe it because before that my day was going terribly, I was having the worst day of my life and with such good news, I didn’t know how to react I was shocked, but I was also so happy I was really grateful by the end of the day I get to do what I love.
3. Has it been challenging playing Sinde?
Yes, it has been challenging playing Sinde. I think mostly because of the way her life just changes and there are different parts of her. She’s struggling to be this perfect child, this good child that everyone knows and loves, trying to keep her father‘s name. She’s seeking validation from everyone, and she’s a strong believer in family. Trusting family and family have your back. Whether it’s the stepsister, stepmother, or stepbrother, she went in thinking this is my family. I trust them. I believe them and they have my back. She was wrong.
Clearly, it has its ups and downs because when she started, she was just this really shy girl from the village very naive. Though she has my master’s and she’s book smart, she’s still from the village. Definitely not a town girl, and not street-smart at all. There’s a way she thinks so coming to town and now getting to know people her workmates her own family is just so naive. It’s like she doesn’t know who she is anymore or what she wants. She’s having an identity crisis for sure because she doesn’t know who to trust or where to go. She’s just going with the flow because honestly, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. But one thing she has clear intentions about is the company her father left her which is in shambles and it frustrates her because she doesn’t know what to do. She has gotten rid of everyone who could help her. She is one confused human for sure.
4. The reception of Second Family has been very positive and it is very popular. What’s one thing that surprised you that you did not expect?
How Second Family was received by people and how many people watched it. When I visited Rwanda and Zanzibar, so many people watched the show and they loved Second Family. I have had incidents where I’d go maybe to the nail salon and someone would stop doing their nails and come to me and ask “Are you Sinde Lang’at?” Or they just shout, “Sinde Lang’at!”
Sometimes. I’d go to a restaurant and the waiter the waitress would just start freaking out. I’m like, my God what’s happening? They start asking about the show because they want spoilers and people really love it. It’s really really shocking but I’m happy about it. Honestly, it is such a beautiful story it’s just an amazing piece. It’s beautiful.
5. Do you have any roles that you’re doing or you’re just focusing on Showmax and Second Family for now?
My main focus is on Sinde but I have another role that I am doing. That show is coming out in April next year. That’s all I can say about it.
6. Do you have any dream roles that you would want to play outside of Showmax?
I would die to be on Bridgerton and work with Shonda Rhimes, and love everything about Shondaland. I also love Tiana, I grew up as a Disney kid, and am very obsessed. Also, something like Wonder Woman or Black Widow, and anything set in Wakanda, for sure.
7. You are also a model. How did you get a start in that?
I started my modeling career back in primary school where I would model during talent days, and talent shows. I’ve always loved fashion so much. Growing up whenever there would be a red carpet event like the Oscars, or the Emmys, and they would air it on E!, I would catch every episode, and would watch it on the Internet if I missed it on the TV. I would make sure I watched each and every one of them. I still do. I’m just in love with fashion. It’s part of me. I love the walks, the clothes, and the models. It’s just beautiful. It’s art.
8. You are a mental health advocate. What inspired you to become one?
So two things that made me want to become a mental health advocate. Being someone who has struggled with mental health before, I don’t think I can share that story now. But something else that motivated me, for lack of a better word. was when I lost my best friend to depression. She died by suicide. You know, having spoken to someone like the previous weekend or the previous day just talking about life, chatting and knowing this person is okay and the next thing is getting news about their death. It’s a mess. She was one of the happiest people. It’s not the kind of news you’d want to hear any day of course.
The news was like a slap on the face. I was hurt. I was shocked. She wasn’t just my best friend. She was like a sister to me. When I got the news it got me into depression. I’m not gonna lie. It’s why I always talk about kindness on my page and being nice to each other because you really don’t know what someone is really going through. I lost two people at the same time and for a very long time, I was in a very dark place.
To be completely honest, that’s the kind of pain I never want anyone to experience. I never want someone to be alone or to feel alone. I want to create a community where we can talk about our issues. where we can just come and have a conversation and just let it out. Let’s just talk about the things you’re going through because people go through a lot of things that they are afraid of or they really don’t want to talk about. Losing people who are really close to me like that really messed me up and knowing the events that led to their death is hurtful because you honestly start blaming yourself and wish maybe you listened more or done something different. Having gone through depression I always want people to know it’s okay not to be okay. Appreciate the little things in life, always smile, be happy about everything, and try to see the good in everything.
9. How did your career in the limelight help with your advocacy?
Well, I’ve got people who have reached out individually. Though I have not worked with big organizations which I really would love to. I’ve visited a few learning institutions through Sky Girls and some just individual people coming to my inbox. I have spoken with people individually too virtually, and they usually tell me it feels good to have someone who understands. Also, being in the limelight people assume you have a perfect life. You don’t go through such things. But by the end of the day, we’re all just humans who are trying to get through life.
It’s always a matter of not being hard on ourselves, and just taking everything easy but sometimes everything is so overwhelming and it is okay to cry. It is okay to be sad. Embrace those emotions and love yourself. You are not broken, different, or weird. You are just human.
My goal is to work with the UN and organizations that really want to help people, such as those that are active in such matters and also human rights. I am really open about them and I want to help as much as I can because I am just one person and I can only do it for so long. I would be really happy to work with people with the same passion and goals. We are all enough. We are all worth being alive and no one deserves to feel less important. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you have been through, you matter.
10. You are an actor with wanderlust. Do you have any dream locations where you’d love to shoot a film? Also, where are your favorite places to visit, and which places do you still dream of visiting?
I have such a long list for this one. I don’t know if you’re ready. First I would start with the countries where Game of Thrones was filmed. To my knowledge, they used 10 countries and the places were magnificent for shooting such a series the editing is just beautiful. But just the scenery and how they made it look I would love to see that.
For a softer side or something lovey-dovey, I would say Positano in Italy, definitely Greece, and Cappadocia because they give off romantic vibes. Now for my dream destination, I have a whole list. There are over 20 countries, including Dubai, Switzerland, Italy Ireland, Iceland, Hawaii, Bali, Japan specifically Mount Fuji. I’d love to go to Paris mainly because of fashion week. The list goes on.
11. Who are your favorite Kenyan actors and are there any actors and directors you dream of working with?
My favorite Kenyan-based actors are Brenda Wairimu, Nini Wacera, and Andrew Muthure. I would love to be on a series or film with Lupita, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Marsai Martin, Gail Mabalane, Connie Ferguson, Zolisa Xaluva Viola, Tessa Thompson, Penn Badgley, and Damson Idris. I would love to work with Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Coogler, Kenya Barris, Mindy Kaling, Ivan Vyrypaev, Nosiphodumisa Ngoasheng, Bradley Joshua, Philippe Bresson, Grace Khahaki, and many more.
12. If you weren’t an actor, what would you be instead?
I would definitely be a lawyer, just because of my passion for human rights. Someone has to hold people accountable for their actions. I would also be advocating for mental health 100%.
Gloria Mari is a culture writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes on art, film, literature, health, and the environment. She has previously written for Kenya Buzz, People Daily, The Elephant, and Kalahari Review.