Gilbert Owuor: This is what it was like to work with Will Smith
What you need to know:
- I remember looking at the hundreds of extras working on the film and the fact that they were all gathered to tell one man’s story.
- It occurred to me that each one of them represented a person from the period, and had their own stories to tell, many of which were now completely lost to us.
- There are countless stories that still can be told from this period in American history, about the people who lived, fought, and died.
Gilbert Owuor is a Kenyan actor based in Los Angeles, who has been working in film and television for over 10 years. In his latest project he stars opposite Will Smith in the film Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua. His previous films include Montana Story, Mute, and the Kenyan short film Taharuki directed by Ekwa Msangi-Omari. TV projects he has worked in include HBO’s The Newsroom and Trueblood, Goliath on Amazon, Hulu’s Reprisal and Calls on AppleTv.
1. What got you into film? Did you move to LA specifically for the job?
I remember going to the movie theatres as a child in Nairobi and really losing myself in the films. I felt like I was being transported to different worlds and times. I always dreamed of being on the big screen. It was such a magical experience, but at the time it felt like such a silly dream so I kept it mostly to myself. Acting was just a hobby. I knew I was destined to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer or some other “more practical” profession.
There are four people who I believe put me on my path to acting. My parents, Alfred and Mildred Owuor, made me feel like I could pursue anything I wanted, but emphasised that whatever I decided on would require hard work, time and focus. Nothing would be worthwhile unless it really challenged me, they said. Whatever I chose, I would need to assess my abilities and then put in the work necessary to succeed. Later, when I was in college in the US, I told them I wanted to be an actor. Their immediate response was, “We trust you to make it work.”
My next influence was the principal at my high school at St Mary’s, Father Thomas Hogan. He introduced shows like Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which he cast me as the lead. I vividly remember Father Hogan walking into my classroom with a wire coat hanger during our mathematics mock exam and bending it around my shoulders to take my measurements for the coat! His belief in my abilities gave me immense confidence.
Next was Janet Bobcean, who was the head of the theatre programme at Northeastern University in Boston where I was a student. Janet gave me opportunities to play roles such as Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She also advised me about graduate acting programmes and told me very matter-of-factly that I should apply to the Yale School of Drama, one of the top acting programmes in the US.
Once at Yale, I worked with an incredible faculty led by a renowned acting teacher named Ron Van Lieu, whose lessons have allowed me to continue making discoveries in the craft to this day. Three years after graduate school, after working exclusively on stage, I was cast in my first film.
I felt that if I was going to succeed, I needed to be based either in New York or LA. So my wife, Dr. Katherine Owuor, and I made the move. It is common knowledge today that social media can play a role in casting decisions, and in some cases it can even influence pay scale. We live in a time when location is less crucial than ever because there are all these incredible tools we can use to get noticed and share our work. However, I still believe that, particularly for less established actors, picking a location where there is a high prevalence of the work they want to be a part of, is critical. It really boosts your chances, and in this business, until you make a name, you will need all the help you can get. For instance, many audition instructions I’ve received require you to include your name, height and home base. Alternatively, some auditions will simply say, “Must be a local hire.” This means distance from production will be one of the factors to be considered during casting.
2.Your latest film, Emancipation, is out now, and you worked alongside Will Smith. How did you prepare for the role?
The film takes place at a turning point in American history in the 1860s, with the culmination of the American Civil War, and the country heading towards the abolition of slavery. Reading up on the history was crucial. I went through many accounts of the period, including literature, documentaries and music, while constantly viewing photographs that immersed me in that period. The idea was to steep myself in the material so that during filming, I would only need to focus on being present, allowing the world of the story to affect me. In addition to the study, I also did a lot of physical training and conditioning to prepare for the intense level of movement, and also to develop the sound of the character.
I remember looking at the hundreds of extras working on the film and the fact that they were all gathered to tell one man’s story. It occurred to me that each one of them represented a person from the period, and had their own stories to tell, many of which were now completely lost to us. There are countless stories that still can be told from this period in American history, about the people who lived, fought, and died. Will Smith and the director, Antoine Fuqua, kept emphasising how this was not a story about slavery, but about love, resilience, and the human spirit. As long as there is one more story that can be told about the trials and triumphs of mankind under the oppression of slavery, there will be a need for films like Emancipation.
3.What was it like working with Will Smith? Does the general 'wow, I get to work with Will Smith!' feeling ever go away?
I have been fortunate to work with many artists who I greatly admire. The list includes Billy Bob Thornton, Marsha Gay Harden, Paul Rudd, Alexander Skarsgård, Elijah Wood and Rosario Dawson. Through these experiences, I gradually learnt to set aside any preconceived ideas I had, so that I could work effectively with them. I also learnt that the best artists leave their celebrityhood at the door and interact with you as an equal, making everything about the work. This was certainly the case with Will Smith. In fact, and this may sound very strange, it never felt like I was even working with Will Smith. He was so immersed in his role that you would be interacting with him as the character most of the time. I remember a moment where some extras asked him for some advice, and he dropped out of character for a few minutes to impart wisdom. We had been shooting for several days already, yet my mind still went, “Oh wow, that’s Will Smith!”
4. You've also worked with Ekwa Msangi-Omari in Taharuki. Are there any other Kenyan directors or actors you'd like to work with, perhaps on a visit to the continent? Do you think African film in general needs more representation?
Absolutely. It’s really exciting to see directors like Ekwa Msangi-Omari who I have known since primary school, doing amazing films like Farewell Amor. The same goes for other directors I know such as Wanjiru Njendu and Wanuri Kahiu who are producing amazing work. If the project and the timing is right, it would be amazing to collaborate with Kenyan artists. I think that as more African actors in the diaspora gain prominence, they will have the means and connections to help bring more production, filming, and jobs to the continent.
5. In a parallel universe, if you hadn't become an actor, what do you think you would have become? What is your secret passion?
Acting was my secret passion, but if I wasn’t an actor, I think I would have studied law.