Kenyan-born fast rising actress in Hollywood CHRISTINE WAWIRA, 31, has worked in popular shows such as ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, ‘Insecure’ and ‘Modern Family’. MILLIAM MURIGI caught up with her about her journey, setting up pain-free hypnotherapy birth centres in Kenya and more
How did you get into acting?
When I was 14, I joined high school theatre to help me get over my shyness. The Tricks Of Scapin was the first play I was cast in. I had no lines and was on stage for a few moments. We took that play to the national level and won first place.
I instantly fell in love with the drama club community. They welcomed me with open arms and I remained in theatre for all four years of high school. I was inducted into the thespian society as a freshman. I loved the challenge of memorising dialogue and I loved telling stories.
How old were you when you got into it professionally?
Though it’s been my passion and I’ve been working on it since I was 14, I was 28 when I managed to move to Hollywood and really focus on it.
Is your life what you expected?
As far as my dreams are concerned, yes, I knew I was never going to give up on acting. I knew I’d be exactly where I am today and I know exactly where I’m headed because I get to create my reality. We all have that power inside us.
Did you ever take acting classes?
I took theatre classes for four years in high school, then I attended some on camera acting to help me transition from theatre to film and television.
As a rising actress, what are some of the challenges you have been facing?
Rejection is an every day challenge, but that’s part of the job. You get used to all the ‘Nos’ because you know your ‘Yes’ is coming. Also, I stand out too much and as much as that is a good thing, it has also worked against me because if I’m auditioning for a supporting or co-starring role, I usually won’t get cast because my presence overpowers the main cast members, and that can be an issue. I was once told that I’m too pretty and striking for some roles! Which I guess is a good problem to have.
What are some achievements in your acting career?
I was inducted into the International Thespian Society in my freshman year of high school, which is no mean feat. I also won best actress at the DEAR Awards, an awards ceremony for Africans in the diaspora, and I joined the Screen Actors Guild in 2016.
How many movies have you been involved with to date, and is there any new one we should look out for?
I’ve done about 13 movies. Right now, I’m actually writing a movie that I’m going to be producing, but I can’t say much more than that.
Which are some of the movies and shows you have appeared in and how were the experiences?
I’ve appeared in several independent films and I did some work on shows such as Insecure, Modern Family, Brooklyn 99 and How To Get Away With Murder. I have not had a big role in a mainstream show yet, but that’s what I’m working towards! I’ve been auditioning for bigger roles ever since I joined the Screen Actors Guild. It’s a numbers game!
I love being on set, whether I’m the leading role or in the background, especially in Hollywood.
It’s amazing being on these big sets, getting to watch how everything comes together and work with extremely successful people. It’s inspiring and it makes my dreams much more tangible.
You see how normal and regular everyone is, and it makes you feel like you can reach that level of success too. I’ve shared the screen with actors who make $300,000 (Sh30,069,000) an episode. It takes a week to film an episode. People are making $300,000 a week! It’s possible, and if they can do it, so can I.
How can you describe the ‘Hollywood life’ and what do you like and dislike about it?
The Hollywood life is a dream for someone like me. I used to dream of living and working in Hollywood, and I made that dream a reality! Pretty much everyone there is beautiful.
A lot of them have had plastic surgery and they all look like models, so it can be a little intimidating. People party all the time. There’s always something going on. Events, award shows, and filming. It’s exciting being there. I dislike how superficial and fake a lot of people are.
Everyone sees you as competition and a lot of people just want to be your friend to use you for your connections. Also, the drug scene is pretty wild. Too many drugs are readily available and if you’re not careful, you can get caught up in that lifestyle.
Was there any other career you were interested in before you started acting, and have you ever tried any formal employment?
I’ve always wanted to be an actress. I’ve never been interested in anything else. I’ve worked in restaurants, door-to-door sales, call centers and corporate organisations for 10 years.
I always hated every single job because I had big dreams of being an actress. So, I would daydream a lot and not be as efficient as I should have been. I either got fired or left every single time. I could not hold a job!
Who is your favourite actor or actress, and are there any you look up to?
Gosh I have so many favourites! Some are Denzel Washington, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Edward Norton, Johnny Depp, Viola Davis and Angelina Jolie. I look up to all of them.
Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
Working full time in TV shows or movies, with my own talk show, successfully operating birth centres and teaching hypnotherapy to pregnant women throughout Kenya and the world.
Let’s talk about that. You are the founder of Zenbirth with Wawira. Tell us more about it
Zenbirth aims to help lower the infant and maternal mortality rate in Kenya by teaching women how to have more peaceful births so that less interventions are needed. I’m getting certified to teach hypnotherapy for childbirth in April.
Hypnotherapy helps women have a peaceful and sometimes pain-free time during childbirth, by teaching them how to rewire their mindset and remove fear from their minds. Most pain during childbirth comes from the fear and anticipation of pain.
So, hypnotherapy helps deal with your mind, so that your body can accept, trust and let go of the need to control what is happening during childbirth. Personally, I had my son in a tub of water with no drugs in a home environment, and felt no pain because of hypnotherapy.
I didn’t know it was possible, and now I get to teach others this method. I want to make waterbirths and hypnotherapy a common thing that everyone has access to, whether they can afford it or not. I hope to open birth centres all over Kenya, where women can birth their babies peacefully and with no fear.
Secret to looking young?
I am fortunate to be blessed with great genes! I literally don’t do anything special. I don’t have a skincare regimen and I don’t really work out or eat right consistently. I’ll start then stop. When I eat clean, I like to stick to a raw vegan diet. I need to be better at that because time is ticking. Also, I think that having kids in my early 20s has helped me look and feel young.
Tell us more about your family and how life is as a single mother
My daughter Iliana is nine and my son Raphael is seven. Life as a single mother gets hard, but I’ve gotten used to it. I’m fortunate to have family close by, who help me with the kids. I don’t know what I’d do without them.
What course did you study in the university and were your parents supportive of you when you wanted to get into the movie industry considering that your father is a pastor?
I went to college for a few months and dropped out. I was four months pregnant with my daughter and I lived at a homeless shelter after getting into a huge fight with my parents. At the shelter, they encouraged us to register for school so that we could be productive and set ourselves up for a good future. I used to walk for miles and take a bus to school. I was only 20 years old.
Where are you currently based and what’s your main occupation?
I’m currently in Arizona spending time with my family and children. I was in Los Angeles for two years, then I took some time to be in Arizona. I’m mainly a stay-at-home mum these days, catching up on lost time with my kids. They did not live with me fulltime when I was in Los Angeles. I host parties and do modelling and acting gigs here and there too.
I recently modelled for www.pinupgirlclothing.com and you can find me on their website modelling for Traci Lords’ collection. She personally reached out and asked me to model for her, I was honoured, because I only used to watch her on TV and she’s a legend! Hosting parties is always fun, people come out to hang out with me and we have a blast. I love meeting my supporters. They give me so much life!
Give us a little background and your experience growing up
I was born on December 20, 1987 at Radiant Clinic in Nairobi. I lived in Kenya with my mum, dad and little sister until 1994. I went to Glad Toto and Racecourse schools. I was seven when we moved to London and there, I went to Noel Park Primary School and Kensington Avenue Primary School. Moving to a new continent at a young age was exciting!
I’ve always been able to acclimate to change. I learned so much and made many new friends. At the age of 12 in 1999, we won the Green Card lottery and moved to America. In Atlanta, Georgia, where we settled, my mother had two more children; boys. There was a 13-year age gap, so my sister and I spent many years taking care of my brothers. I believe that helped me become the mother I am today.
How was it like moving to the US?
It was a big change, but we adapted quickly. I had this really strong British accent, and I hated it at the time. I wanted so badly to sound American, so I taught myself how to sound like them, and I slowly got rid of my British accent. It’s still in me though.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll notice that I enjoy doing a variety of accents, and I can speak a few different languages. Overall, I’m grateful that I lived in three different continents by the time I was a teenager. It’s helped me become an open minded, well-travelled individual.
How do you find living abroad as a “foreigner”, and are you considering moving back home?
I love it. It’s nice to be in another country and know that I am from somewhere else, and that I have this amazing culture and wealth of knowledge. I have considered moving back to Kenya to work in television for a few years. I like to step out of my comfort zone. I have so much family back in Kenya and I’d love to have a relationship with them too.
How do you maintain the connection back home? Do you visit often?
The last time I visited Kenya was in 2004 when I was 16, and we stayed for a month. I will be coming back this year, and I’m very excited to be back home after so many years.
Any plans to work with/in the Kenyan TV industry?
Yes, one of my dreams is to work as a TV host/presenter in Kenya. I just think it would be amazing to come back home after all these years and do what I love.
Actually, you appear to have had contact with some Kenyan acting personalities; the incident with comedian Chipukeezy where you accused him of not crediting you with helping him meet Kevin Hart, after he did a TV interview and gave a different version of how he met the megastar. How did that go and are you cool now?
Oh the Chipukeezy drama was crazy. I did not expect that it would trend the way it did. People still come up to me and talk to me about that! We don’t have any issues with each other, but we no longer talk. It is what it is. I see he’s doing great and I wish him all the best. No bad feelings here.
We’ve had a few instances of Kenyan celebs ‘faking it for the gram’. In light of that experience, what’s your take on what the Kenyan ‘celeb’ lifestyle appears to be like?
I follow some Kenyan celebs on social media and I’m proud of them for following their dreams and achieving success. They seem to have a nice lavish lifestyle, although I know what we see on social media isn’t always the truth. I mean, people think I’m rich just because of my social media, but I’m not there yet. I try to be transparent with my supporters.
I do find it interesting that some of these socialites are pretty much worshipped for having bleached skin, big fake behinds and bodies that are unattainable without surgery. But hey, that’s none of my business!
Earlier in the year, you received mixed reactions on social media upon sharing about a spiritual journey you were taking. Tell us about that
I recently participated in my first Ayahuasca ceremony, and that was a very profound and life changing experience for me. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic plant indigenous to Peru.
It is plant medicine that heals people of depression, addiction, PTSD and other ailments. It helps you see past this illusion that we call life, and brings you into contact with your consciousness and your true divine nature.
A lot of people thought I was crazy for doing it and told me it’s demonic, but they are coming from a place of fear and they don’t understand what Ayahuasca is. I’m so glad I did it. It helped me deal with past trauma and memories I had suppressed. It helped me find clarity, peace, understanding and forgiveness.
What advice would you give young kids who want to act?
Study it, immerse yourself in it. Audition for everything. Write and perform your own material. Become obsessed with it and never give up.
What does one need to be a good actor/actress?
They must be natural on screen. It’s not about becoming someone else. It’s about incorporating who you are into the character. So, one must be comfortable with their authentic self to really bring that character to life on the screen.
How do you choose what you’re going to do next?
Will it challenge me and others? Will it make me grow? Will it touch others? Is it thought provoking? Will it evoke emotions when people see it? These are all things I ask myself when I’m deciding what to do next.