Melissa Kiplagat: The starring actress in historic Netflix series

Melisa Kiplagat

Melisa Kiplagat, a graduate of the renowned Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. 

Photo credit: Pool

When a prominent mining company, Eco-Rock, sets foot in the quiet village of Tsilanga eyeing to exploit its vast gold reserves it has discovered, the move faces rebellion from the community.

But that revolt does not deter a cruel, hard-hearted mining mogul Vivienne – the owner of the company which she runs with the help of her gangster husband, Max – from achieving her goal.

Vivienne is well-connected, has the financial muscle, and won’t stop at nothing until she gets what her heart desires.

With her alter ego, she is unaware, unprepared for what is to come when little-known Akisa, who works in Nairobi, receives a message that her father is seriously ailing. Akisa leaves the city for Tsilanga to attend to her old man only to realise that wasn’t the only problem she has to deal with. Akisa comes face-to-face with Vivienne’s ruthlessness and decides to take the fight to her doorsteps by starting a revolution to protect the village’s resources and their lives.

This is the plot that sets the mood, the twists and turns of the first Kenyan Netflix series, County Queen.

In all the six episodes of the first season, which will officially premiere on July 15, Akisa is the protagonist.

The role of Akisa is played by Melissa Kiplagat, a not-so-popular name in the Kenyan film industry. The actress is a graduate of the renowned Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, United Kingdom.

When the auditions for Country Queen were announced sometime in October 2018 at the Nairobi National Theatre, Melissa was sceptical about participating.

“I had seen the audition notice, but hadn’t heard of the production company: Good Karma Fiction.  That made me a little suspicious. It was Kamau wa Ndung’u, the producer of the series, who convinced me to attend otherwise I wouldn’t have,” she said in a phone interview.

Despite the audition attracting over 150 actors – both experienced and emerging – it was Melissa who impressed the most.

“Melissa was called back twice to assure us that our gut feeling was right. Melissa had only played in a Web series before. She was phenomenal,” executive producer Ravi Karmalker recalls.

Melissa had just returned from the United Kingdom having attained her Master’s in theatre performance when she landed the Country Queen lead role. Privileged to have attended some of the best schools, colleges and universities in Kenya and abroad, initially Melissa had envisioned herself pursuing a career in economics, having graduated with an economics degree from Brown University, an Ivy League institution. But passion took her elsewhere.

“I have been fortunate to attend some good schools where I excelled. I grew up primarily in Kenya but spent a couple of years on and off in the US. While in Kenya, I went to Consolata for my first three years then Msongari for Year Seven and part of Eight. Then I was at Hillcrest from Year Nine to university. I’m a goody-two-shoes, to be honest, and I always did well in school. But to be fair, both my parents went to Yale Law School so I was just following in their Ivy League footsteps” she said.

And so, when she joined Brown University, she enrolled for a degree in economics but along the way she fell by the wayside.

“I liked economics in high school and being a goody-two-shoes, I decided to pursue it at the university. By the end of my first year, I was one million percent sure I was not doing anything in economics. The mistake I made was to choose economics even though I’d stopped taking maths in Year 11. So, we are being taught economics and its 90 percent calculus, something I had never learnt. So, there I was: doing a course I didn’t understand and was no longer passionate about. It was a disaster,” she narrated.

At this point, Melissa, who grew up in Embu, decided to activate her plan B and started doing courses in arts and theatre.

“I registered for an acting class with one of the best US actor trainers, Lowry Marshall. I owe my career to her. She led the first acting class I did at Brown. The class was in a studio in the basement of one of the university buildings. I remember I walked through that door the first time, and instantly knew I’d found my home. I knew this is where I should have been all along from the beginning,” Melissa said.

At Brown, she did five acting courses while still pursuing her economics degree. Later, she enrolled at Mountview for her Master’s in theatre.

Despite her name not being popular in the Kenyan film industry, Melissa isn’t bothered but fulfilled with her work having been casted in over 15 projects such as Apple of the Desert, the This is Life web series, New Beginnings, How to Find a Husband, Just In, among others.

“Well, that’s just our industry and it’s not only in Kenya but worldwide. There are people who become famous from their first project. There are people who work in the industry for decades before they become popular. It’s nothing to feel bad about. Besides, I like my work as an actor, as long as I do that, I’m fulfilled,” she said.

With Country Queen already causing a buzz since the announcement was made, Melissa hopes Kenyans will love the project that took six years to complete.

“Country Queen was a long process. We did the pilot at the beginning of 2019 and the rest of the episodes in the second half of 2021. Between then, a lot of life happened. By the time we had started shooting in 2021, a number of the cast and crew had become new parents. I had become a new mom. While before, we talked about where to go for drinks after work, now we were discussing about whose baby is yet to walk. In that way, the 2021 shoot was definitely more challenging for me. But all in all, I believe we did our job and it’s up to the audience and what they think,” she said.

“I feel honoured, floored and humbled. To represent Kenya is a huge and also nerve wracking privilege in such levels. I hope people can relate to the stories, to the characters, to the situations. I hope people are entertained. I hope Kenyans are proud of it. I hope Africans outside Kenya appreciate it. And of course, season 2 would be fantastic,” concluded Melissa.