The best actor award-winner at the 2008 Mexico International Film Festival and one of the few Kenyans to make it big in Hollywood is in 254. Cynthia Mukanzi caught up with Benjamin Ochieng, who let her in on his life as blockbuster star
Good to see you Benja. So what brings you to town?
My crew and I are here to shoot a TV series called The Wives. We have already done auditions and are now looking for locations.
What story do you seek to tell with The wives?
It’s a drama series that tackles the subject of polygamy in a satirical way and questions its validity in this modern age. I wrote the script in a witty way that serves both to entertain and educate on the ramifications of the subject.
What drove you to spark the conversation?
The intention is to bring debate on the issue. Let us talk about it because whether we like it or not, polygamy is happening. People think it is something that happened back in the days, but we cannot pull a rug over our heads and pretend it is nothing to worry about.
Where can we catch it?
At the moment we’re shooting then we’ll sell it to all TV stations across and beyond Kenya.
When did you move to USA?
I relocated to the US in1987, a month after getting married. I was studying at USIU and then I transferred to the one in San Diego. My wife and first child, Ida, who was two at the time, joined me in 1988.
How was it like being away from your loved ones in a foreign country?
It was lonely and hard. I remember setting foot on American soil with only Sh90,000. About half was tuition. No one was supporting me and I had to get odd jobs. I didn’t go for welfare. I chose to work, which wasn’t supposed to happen because I was a student. I worked roundtable pizza at night after school. They called it the ‘graveyard’ shift closes by 1 or 2am and open at 6am. That ate into my study time taking me seven years to do a four-year computer science course.
Was it more difficult when your wife joined you?
She had been a French teacher at Utalii College, but couldn’t get a job in the US. She would collect aluminium soda cans and we’d sell them. Later on, she started working as a waiter then from there she went to making beds in a motel.
That was tough. She worked for the CNA Hospice, before finally getting a job as a teacher’s assistant at a special education school of children with emotional disturbance (ED) and autism.
That was a relief and I could now concentrate on going to school because she was helping with the bills. It was still rough, but it was manageable. She’s been a teacher ever since.
Having gone through that, how were you able to break into Hollywood?
Hollywood is cool, but a tough place to be. People look at movies and romanticise on how amazing it is and they yearn to go there, but it not easy when you don’t have money or somebody to help you.
Many people go there with visions of becoming actors and doing other great stuff, but some struggle and end up in the streets. I went to countless auditions and doors were shut in my face before I finally landed a gig.
Is it harder to make it in film when you are African?
As someone who has been working there for years, let me say that Hollywood is white-dominated and of most the best leading roles are always go to them.
It should also be known that it is terribly harder for an African to hack it more than it is for African Americans. However, there are people who are trying to change that and bridge the rift.
When did you land your first role?
I started off as an extra (background actor). In 1999, I got cast again as an extra in the X-Files. I told them I spoke Kiswahili and they asked if I could teach it to the set.
I was bumped to a principal player and that’s how I got my first speaking role. After that, I was cast in Tears of the Sun, in 2002. It has not been the smoothest ride, but I’m finally starting to do things that will promote me to where I need to be.
You have done voicing in big movies such at Inception, Fast and Furious 8, Resident Evil 5 video game, and starred in one blockbuster God’s Not Dead 1 and 2. How did you clinch the role of Rev Jude?
I went in to audition just like any other movie and the casting director asked if I went to church. I did and even played bass in the choir together with my wife and daughters.
I didn’t know it was a Christian movie until I got a call-back saying I got the role out of the 50 people auditioned. It’s been the best thing that has ever happened to me.
We’re now working on the third, which will be in the reels in May. Ever been in a local film? Not yet but I’m looking forward to that. There are things happening and so likelihood is high.
You graced the just-concluded Riverwood Awards. What are your thoughts the award ceremony the local film industry?
I was impressed. The local film industry is getting there. It’s growing stronger and thriving. We need to keep pushing so we can get to where Hollywood is. I remember when Nollywood started, people mocked their stuff, but take a look at it now. Kenyan film makers should keep going.
Most people don’t know you double up as a musician.
Yes, I make a lot of music as a bass player and singer and some of it is on iTunes. I make a little money from people downloading. Music has always been my first love since 1975 when I was 15.
I used to play in Jericho Baptist Church with our then band, Fireplace. When I went to America, I joined a rock band called High Voltage as the lead guitarist later moved to another one coined PFO. I now play with In Lieu Of.
We do not tie ourselves to a particular genre. We are versatile and do different types of music.
You are also working on another film series you scripted, Dysfunctionally Organised.
The show is already three episodes in. It is about people with autism. I used to be a teacher at a special needs school of children with autism. I wanted to show the world that even a child with autism can grow up and live a normal life.