Unknown to many, Johnson “Fish” Chege has been acting for more than 10 years. Although he is more popular because of NTV’s sitcom Auntie Boss, he starred in SuperModo, a role that won him the award of Best Actor in a Film at 2018’s Kalasha Awards.
He is an actor with a vision to act in not only in Hollywood but also locally as an independent film maker. For him, Hollywood is in the rear and he would rather work in the country.
He opened up to Media Critic Kenya’s DAVID MWENDA about the concern he has about Kenyans not being enthusiastic in consuming their own content.
He also responded to the question of whether replacing Shiro in Auntie Boss gives him pressure. He sat for the interview as his crew set up shop at Museum Hill for their play The Enemy Within.
How did you get into acting? I hope that question is not cliché.
It’s a fantastic question. Everyone started somewhere and I personally started after high school as a career, that was in 2006. I started doing set books because that was or is like the lowest rank in acting. If you want to go far, you have to start step number one. Not everyone will start that way, anyway, but it’s the best way to gain experience. Kenya does not have screen actors or play actors; we do both. In fact, you also do radio and do voice acting. So I started, travelled. My first role was Merchant of Venice as Gobo. Year in year out, that is what I did for seven years.
Then you landed at the Kenya National Theatre?
Yes, this time with public shows. They are a bit different. I would not call them mature, but you will find an older working group. They are people who have worked on TV and others done set books and a little bit more experienced. Public shows are a bit diverse you can do thriller like the one I am currently doing. Mostly I did comedy, I started with Heartstrings and Phoenix players and also found myself in FCA; but vernacular. Having known there was a market for a vernacular audience, I engaged myself in it and I had a lot of fun while at it.
In a 2013 Daily Nation article, director Victor Ber described you as someone who “is very creative and does not even know it.” He added: “I see him dropping lines to the other members of the team and how he works things on the stage. He is the next big thing. Right now, they call him ‘Fish’ but his real name is Johnson Chege. Watch the stage for that young man.” This was at the start of your career. Do you feel like you have grown from there?
(Pause) Personally I feel like I have grown. For Victor Ber who is well experienced, he is a director who has has nurtured many comedians from Churchill and many others. He knew what he was talking about. Then, we did not have social media as a platform to display your works but wherever he is right now, I am sure he can tell we have grown. With the internet waiting for your stuff to drop, you do not wait for it to be dropped, and you do not earn from it as much. On that level, I can say I have grown not as much as I would have wanted but as they say a step a day. Pole pole tu itajipa.
What do you feel you would have done differently with your career?
Personally, I don’t think I would have done things differently. I love it the way it is: these mistakes; these small things that hinder and slow the process. I believe every day has been a learning process. Every person you encounter: Different actors, different directors, different stories and different scripts give you another edge. I am sure that it has brought some growth. Growth does not come in a day. Like a farmer you plant, you wait, you water a seedling then you weed. By the time the farmer harvests, it will be worth the wait. I am not there where I want to be but I hope to be there one day.
Where would you want to be?
I want to be an indie filmmaker independent film maker). I know there is Hollywood. I won’t say no to Hollywood because you are as good as your last job but my goal is to work on my own production. I see people like Tyler Perry who is also Madea doing his own things on stage and translating later to film and there is a market and audience who are willing and ready. I might be shooting small videos on WhatsApp but I believe one day I can package them in a way that I have a big audience. We have a population of 40 million Kenyans but if we can get one million Kenyans, that is enough for me.
How would you rate the state of theatre in Kenya right now?
I believe it is still growing because, number one, facilities. We do not have an actor who owns a facility. Kenya National Theatre is a cultural space. It is a government way of saying ‘this is your space’ but they aren’t giving it to the actors. Spaces like Alliance Francais are expensive. Right now, I am in Museum Hill and we are trying to create something because Phoenix is shut down. There is that space theatre needs and I wish the government could give actors the Kenya National Theatre; not to run but have real managers who can manage. Also, let it be cheaper to have production. Let Kenya National Theatre have its own production once a month because it is meant to be have a show every day if possible; but it is expensive. I cannot put up my comedy show there this week and put a play on the weekend; it’s crazy. But we will get there slowly. I believe if something is in you, it is in you.
Talk to us about ‘Enemy Within’.
The Enemy Within is a thriller about a person looking for his lost sister. Apparently, there has been a ranch in Nanyuki where there have been killings in Nanyuki and government is looking for the killer. The community is aware of what is going on: We have visitors and there is someone who is killing them. It is a bit of a change from the normal comedy.
Do you think Kenyan comedians need to diversify and move out of the normal things they put out?
If I understood your question well, I’d say it is a personal journey. You know it is like a farmer: You cannot use a jembe forever. With time, you get a tractor then you get a bigger space and green houses. Technology is changing; same way with comedy. Comedy is a job like plumbing. You cannot force it on someone to change.
You mention a lot about farming. Do you farm?
(Laughing) Yes, I am a farmer.
What do you farm?
The long rains are here; so maize and potatoes. But majorly, I have chicken and I am thinking of returning pigs. I lost some last year. It is a way of earning an extra cheque; it does not hurt.
Are you looking forward to a day where actors will not have to look for additional sources of earning because they can solely rely on acting?
Yes, it is coming. But before the day, we have to do everything to get there. For people to entrust you with their business and for someone to put their money on you, you have to justify it.
In a way, sometimes I understand when people say they cannot fund us but I blame us also for not taking up the initiative personally. Arts are all the same. Football and acting are almost the same.
In England, they took football and commercialised it and sponsors came in and everything. That is the same with theatre, if only we can commercialise it and have corporate seats.
Phoenix was a way you could buy tickets for a whole year, you had membership cards.
I don’t blame other people; I blame us. Because in Nairobi alone, we have over 1,000 artists and if every artist can buy a ticket for another artist and go to their show, we will be supporting ourselves. Theatre is like a fireplace to me and that is where we get our stories. If people think they can get things in Kenya in a cheaper way, and if we do not give good things, it is entirely on us.
Interesting you raised the issue of storytelling. You were in the ‘SuperModo’ movie last year. It kind of told a story about our health care system and painted a picture of family set up in Kenya. How do you feel when it is being received globally? Does it show a sign of hope for Kenyan productions?
I get mixed feelings and reactions. You know it’s so sad when you go to other countries for film festivals and get a rousing reception at the airport: you get your own personal car you even get a body guard at times and live in a 5-star hotel.
Through SuperModo, people in other countries get to see an East African home and see how it is to live in one. They see the journey in hospitals and the dreams of small children in Africa.
Then you come back home and nobody knows about it. It is on ShowMax but I expect it to spark a conversation.
You sound bothered and angry at the reception you get as actors.
I am not angry; I am concerned. Personally, Kenyans have really supported me. I have over 60,000 followers on Facebook and 10,000 on YouTube who watch things from me.
When I walk in the streets, sometimes services are a bit easier. I can enjoy but I do know not about other people. We have better actors than I am. We also have better stories but we are still being held down by Mexicans and Nigerians who are taking all our time on TV. We should participate more in our stories because art is not just a way of earning; it is away to change the community. I believe that from where I am as an actor or artist, I can change my community from my line of work. That is what is bothering me; I am not angry.
Let’s talk about ‘Auntie Boss’. Last year, you a bit of a promotion to a more vital character. Do you feel Njoroge is now feeling a bit more pressure to perform better and give more?
Oh yes, there is much pressure. You know; to whom much is give, much is expected. If you are entrusted with something bigger, people expect more from you. It is the order of the world; it is not easy to see a houseboy looking after kids. We are used to housegirls.
We shot five seasons in December; so we’ve shot things for up to December and it is already out there and it is being edited. But I can always change something if there is another season and if guys are brought to another season I can work on it. Kenyans love this content.
What would you change?
Something here and there. Acting is all about the details you do, the signature. There is a way Njoroge will behave and you tell when Njoroge is wrong.
You still have not told us what you would have changed.
In terms of details, the story will dictate if Njoroge has his rent and household stuff stolen in his boss’ house, then you need a funnier way to do it. Kenyans change really fast and they get used to you pretty fast. Though we do not have the power to change scripts, we can change the details.
What has been the most memorable moment of your acting career?
Awards. Yes, you can be nominated but that only tells you, ‘We notice what you are doing.’ Being best actor in the 2018 Kalasha Awards was a big moment for me. I was not there to take the award but it is big. We have so many actors doing this but to be nominated makes you feel recognised and it was a huge step in my career. There are so many nominations to come and people to back and perfect it and people can tell you, ‘Hey, you are not just an actor.’
Are the bodies which put together these awards doing enough?
I will say one thing: Everybody runs differently and everyone can have their own opinion on how it can run. As an actor, I do not think I can say this is how they can be run or it is the right way. I will talk about Riverwood today and shout they are not doing well but when I get nominated I change my story.
So, yes, we all have problems in every institution but let’s not bring that negative energy always. Let’s have a positive outlook towards it.
People have an opportunity to come with their own awards and run them the way they should be run.
Now to your YouTube character, Theodore. What went through your mind when you were creating him?
Theodore is an old guy who is a mixture of so many people. He has grey hair in his head and I took it from my father. My father has for 20 years been in Mombasa. His Kikuyu is lying more on Swahili side and he mixed it. I took a few characteristics from my uncles and what other old people in the community would do. Theodore is a combination of so many wazees and how they view life. Life can be corrected in so many satirical ways and it is just making fun. We are working on a film for Theodore and I wish to make it bigger like Mr Bean or Made. So, yes, it can be bigger.