Brian Ogola has risen from a rocky start in the acting industry, having to prove not only to himself but also his family that acting was his gift to the world. In his growth curve, he has had a role in many productions, among them the feature film 18 Hours where he played Mark. There is also the Maisha Magic TV series Jane and Abel where he starred as Abel. He will play a lead role in an upcoming feature film Lusala which is set to premiere in May or June.
Ogola explained to Media Critic Kenya’s DAVID MWENDA the importance of actors in the industry working together. He shared his lessons from growing up in a large family and how he took time before decided to make the film industry his mainstay.
You grew up in a large family. What did it teach you?
(Pause) I guess the most important thing about growing up in a large family was the sociability aspect and (learning the importance of) understanding the place when you want to further your own interest in any community setup.
It also taught me to understand certain dynamics of working together with people without necessarily agreeing with them.
What four words best describe you best?
That’s a bit tricky for me (pause). Driven, introverted, ambitious and neurotic.
Let’s talk about some of the movies you’ve been in. You tend to appear in movies that articulate issues which affect us. In ‘Poacher’, it was about wildlife and conservancy while in ’18 Hours’, it was about our healthcare system. Is art your form of activism?
Well, not really activism. I would say art is definitely something that can be used to influence opinions on a broad scale, especially in film. So I definitely look at it like a huge privilege and honour to actually try and achieve any change in the world. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it activism though I recognise the ability of art to change the world. So, I am definitely conscious of that and so such projects that talk about vital issues are important in sparking conversation and change opinions of things we need to change.
Would you say art in Kenya shapes opinion?
Yes, I do. I think art everywhere shapes opinion. I mean it is everywhere in terms of stereotypes that we perpetuate in people and even when you look at the music or film or whatever form of art that is getting recognition in Nairobi and the rest of Kenya, a lot of this art passes some sort of truth about us as Kenyans and we relate to that and we get that.
What’s been the favourite role that you have played?
So far it would have to be ‘Lusala’ but the movie comes out in probably end half of the year.
Talking about ‘Lusala’, what should we expect?
Honestly, I think Lusala is going to be the biggest film I’ve ever been in. Not just because of my own bias but because of the whole process of the writing. The whole process since we started the workshop last year. It was such an immersive process working with Gin Inc and One Minded Films because the way guys dealt with it felt very collaborative and everyone was supportive of each other and everyone got each other.
I know a couple of people who have seen the film and love it and I am looking forward to people watching it and I think it is going to be a big film.
You have said it’s going to be coming out in May or June?
Ye, but we still have no idea yet. We still haven’t seen a trailer yet. They are working on the scoring and the music.
Do you feel film is growing in Kenya slowly so that we do not just have one or two films in an entire year?
(Pause) The simple answer is yes; but we are not there yet. There are more films that are starting to come out of Kenya and the entire region.
But I would say it has been a long time coming and the effort that we are seeing right now is not a deliberate effort from the institution that has been manning the film sector but it is a deliberate effort and push by film industry stakeholders.
The producers, the actors are collaborating in order to put out quality work to not just the world but our institutions and we have a lot of potential as an industry.
So, yes. Films are coming out but we are not seeing our institutions to secure better future for the film industry and better platforms to engage the masses in terms of ‘this is what we have in Kenya’ and ‘this is what we want to do’ and ‘this is how we are going to recruit more people into acting’.
If that is not happening, it means we will not be able to push as many films as we want. But we will hit a ceiling in the near future and we do not have enough to prop up an entire industry. It is a huge industry and film making is a collaborative thing. And if we don’t,we won’t be able to show that film industry is a goldmine.
It is interesting that you talk about institutions. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and the issue seems to be the way the industry is built. Would you say guys are working in their own sort of a silo? You have the government, actors, corporates doing in their things; like there is no unity. Do you think so?
Well, first of all the unity is there. Not in the form of everyone being united and having all push for the same thing; look at the output. For the films coming out of Kenya in the last 10 years, the quality has consistently been Netflix level.
The quality has been on a very high level; that’s just my honest opinion.
So, if you judge based on the output, then it shows some level of unity in the industry.
What I can say is that the next five to 10 years are going to be critical to the film industry and developing a proper film policy which takes care of everyone can get in terms of royalties: who gets to collect what who gets to see what; where the actor stands and what institution is responsible for collecting these royalties.
And right now, people are not into the idea actors should get royalties. So, we need to accept the fact that actors are artists and for a long time no one has collected royalties for us. And even if they do, we have no idea where it is or how to get it. So, moving forward I think we are going to do better because we are having the right conversations right now and institutions are showing positive impetus right now.
Let me bring you back to Lusala. Why is it your favorite character?
Well, for very many reasons. But I think we have a lot of things in common (chuckles).
Number one is having a difficult childhood. I did not necessarily have a difficult childhood but I’m someone with a dark past of sorts and that for me as a character made it interesting.
I made it interesting in the sense that we connected immediately and the way he is structured I felt really connected. I don’t think I have felt this connected to any other character; not that I haven’t but I feel like we connected really deeply with this character more than others.
Whenever the characters rolled, I could feel him coming to life and it was the most fun experience because it was almost like it was happening and I did feel like I needed to push any buttons ’cause I felt like I was in it was an immense art of fear or trust and I feel like it is going to be a different kind of experience. And that makes it exciting and interesting.
Professionally, it was my favorite character because I felt there were so many things that were intercepting and at the same time I was working with Mugambi (Nthiga) who has also worked with me when I was starting out as an actor on a Mavuno play (they used to be called Village Musical).
And he has seen me take baby steps as an actor and he has seen me grow and it was definitely so nice working with him and he has seen me at my best and when I’m making a fool of myself.
As such, the environment to put out something that will make a difference in both our lives was definitely there, and I think the results will show.
Someone else I was looking forward to working with was Mkamzee Mwatela and it was a wonderful experience. And with it being my first lead role in a feature film, it was definitely a nice experience working with Mugambi Nthiga as my director.
He’s a great guy.
Yeah, he is.
I read somewhere Superman was your favorite character when you were a child. Is that the case?
As a child, I used to watch Louis and Clark on KTN. I think it was somewhere at 8pm; a one-hour show. It was just interesting: This guy with superpowers and nothing could hurt him. As a child, that was a very attractive idea for many obvious reasons.
Do you feel like Superman every time people clap in a movie premiere?
(Laughs) Let me tell you; there is something about applause it definitely feel good but I don’t know how Superman would feel (laughs).
The one thing that feels good about it is that you feel humbled : “You have done something and we are impressed and it is genuine.”
It is not a feeling of “I am superman”; it is more of intense fulfillment in any other field because it happens for some seconds and sometimes when it’s a standing ovation, it is only for a couple of minutes.
Ask anyone who has got a standing ovation: If it happens once, you want it to happen again because if it happens once you’re looking forward to the next. Because it shows affirmation to your work and it shows it is good.
What is the weirdest thing you do during your creative process?
I do some things which are really absurd and I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about them. (Laughter)
Say the ones you are comfortable with. But you can say them all.
Occasionally, I have conversations with some characters; just a sparring kind of session. In early stages when I’m structuring a character, if I’m not comfortable with how the character should be structured, I just have a random conversation with them.
I have made it such a habit that sometimes when I am at home I find myself talking to myself. When you’re alone, it does not seem like a problem.
Sometimes I sit somewhere and something comes out and I often blurt it out. I can’t control it.
What kind of conversations did you have with Mark of 18 Hours?
Sometimes, they are deep conversations. But sometimes I try not to go deep because it seems like you will be falling to some soliloquy of thoughts. It would be easy to have easy structured questions like “how was your day?”
For Mark, I didn’t have extensive conversations with him. The more we were shooting, the more I got into character.
Does it help you adjust into your character?
Yes, it does. Something else that I do that is absurd is: Sometimes when I’m not feeling confident with a scene and we are shooting it tomorrow, I just rehearse it naked and see if I can focus on what is happening in the scene and try to forget. It works because when you are on scene it feels like you are naked. Everyone is looking at you and you should be able to unleash the character the way they should.
You studied law in university for a while then you quit.
(Takes a deep breath) I normally don’t like talking about that part of my life.
I was more business-minded. It was more of seeing an idea that has crept into the family and you aren’t sure what to do. So guys were like, “Si you start doing law?”
I was stalling doing sales and marketing at Kenya Polytechnic. I did another diploma KIMS. I did accounting until CPA 3 and I felt like a zombie –punching numbers into a machine and going for auditions in the evening to see if I could get any roles. It was a really confusing thing.
The law thing is not really something I had considered but I was being pushed towards it.
Nonetheless, I started it but I never took any exams. And when I gave that interview and it came out and I was that guy went to law school and came out and, people ask I tell them that’s not entirely true. So, yeah. Maybe that will clear the air a little bit.
Did you feel trapped?
Yeah, I mean the obvious route was: “this guy will settle down after the Diploma, pick law and stick to it”
And I thought that was the route. But at that point I felt like I needed to make a decision based on what I wanted to do. And by then things were split in the middle because I had been auditioning in the evening as I was at Kenya Polytechnic and I had was actually getting a reputation of one or two stage plays to my name.
There was already this feeling of a call to keep on going for audition and getting positive feedback not just in theatre. I found academia a huge distraction to what I wanted to do in theatre and film. It was not a feeling of being trapped entirely; it came about as a result of wanting to focus on one thing at a time.
You mentioned that you were introverted. What is the hardest thing about being an introvert?
I really want to connect; but sometimes I don’t know how to. So, sometimes you find people saying “that guy is snobbish”.
But it is about wanting to connect. Sometimes I want to explain to people; it’s not like I don’t want to connect but it is how can I connect with people and how can I be more present.
Sometimes it gets exhausting and it’s dealing with energy and when I talk to people, I want to immerse all my energy there.
So, sometimes you might find people who are extroverted and other times you find people who are not into deep conversations.
It is exhausting when you go out there and interact but then it takes you three days to rest. Movie premieres are for me the most exhausting and I will just take two weeks in the house to recharge.