I am no gangster, but I loved role in ‘Nairobi Half Life’
What you need to know:
- Maina did one episode on the KBC TV show Plot 10, before joining Sisimka Productions, where he acted in Wash and Set. On the show Guy Center, he played Alex Maranga, a producer. In October 2009, he joined Heartstrings Kenya as part of the creative team for the Churchill Show.
If you drew a picture of modern-day film and television in Kenya, it could look like 25-year-old Olwenya Maina, who played Oti, the gang leader and aggressive bad man in the movie Nairobi Half Life.
His portrayal of Oti earned him a nomination for best actor in a supporting role at the Africa Movie Academy Awards.
Although most people remember him from Nairobi Half Life and recently on the IEBC voter education commercials, Maina has an impressive experience in film, television and radio.
“Most people came to know me after Nairobi Half Life but I started radio drama with Trans World Radio while still in high school at Akibe School. I moved to the Kenya National theatre in 2007 and my first role was a villain; I played Shylock in the play Merchant of Venice,” he says. “I then did a film with the Mohammed Amin Foundation.”
Maina did one episode on the KBC TV show Plot 10, before joining Sisimka Productions, where he acted in Wash and Set. On the show Guy Center, he played Alex Maranga, a producer. In October 2009, he joined Heartstrings Kenya as part of the creative team for the Churchill Show.
“I also did two episodes in the show Changes and played Uncle Joe in Shuga 2 and the villainous Kaka in Mali,” he says.
Growing up, life was very different for Maina. Born and raised in Kangemi, Nairobi, he attended Kangemi Primary School and Murang’a High School before returning to a high school in Nairobi for family reasons.
“My younger years were very sheltered. I was an altar boy and wanted to become a priest. My love for the arts took over, though, and I never really faced objection from parents.”
Maina enjoys working with children. He teaches theatre in churches and schools, among them PCEA Bahati, St Francis Girls Mangu, and Buru Buru Girls. “There’s a project I am doing currently with Roots International at the GoDown.
Initially turned down
“We work with young Kenyan Somalis who have difficulty with Swahili and English. We bring them together through drama. We try to bridge the discrepancy between their cultures and ours.”
It may be hard to believe, but Maina was initially skipped for a role in Nairobi Half Life.
“I was doing a project with Heartstrings and Usaid in 2010 and Kamau wa Ndungu, who was casting for the film, called me for auditions.”
As soon as he heard that world renowned director Tom Tykwer was among those involved, he rushed there.
“I auditioned and was short-listed, but by the second audition, I still hadn’t seen Tykwer. Eventually, they picked someone else.”
But unknown to him, the team had later decided to pick him.
“I was called on a Thursday and told to go for the script. At the entrance, Tom met me. I couldn’t believe it was him. We started on the film the following Monday.” The rest, as they say, is history.
After the film’s release a year and a half later, in 2012, Maina says his life changed. “It’s very positive when random, beautiful people stop you on the street and are genuinely interested in you. You get something positive about yourself and you believe in yourself more. The film has also opened a lot of doors for me professionally.”
When he is not working, Maina, collects and listens to music. “I love kwaito and indie music, I collect music as a hobby. I am also learning to play the guitar. I also love to travel,” he says.
Maina is very excited about his AMAA nominations. “I was the only Kenyan selected in that category, all the others are Nigerians. That is great because it’s a confirmation of my ability not just locally but also internationally and it’s very encouraging.”
Maina’s eyes light up behind his glasses when he speaks of his future plans. He is currently working on a comedy, Funny Money, at the Kenya National Theatre, but plans to start his own stand-up comedy show.
“The show is being produced by Alison Ngubini and it will be out very soon. I want to take comedy in Kenya to the heights of Mr Bean; every household had a copy. I am also working on a film with Boniface Mwangi about the life of a revolutionary Kenyan.”
Maina says that art, and specifically, acting in Kenya pays. “The problem is that people in Kenya equate acting success with money, which should not be the case. Artists should earn enough to be comfortable, but satisfaction in your work is what counts the most.”