"PRODUCERS REAP THE BENEFITS AND LEAVE LITTLE FOR ACTORS" SAYS KENNETH AMBANI
Q: Who is Ken Ambani?
I am a simple guy, a husband, a father and a man with great passion for acting. I am also a great communicator and a Christian.
Q: Tell us about your background:
I was born and raised in Busia County. My father was a Maragoli, while my mother was a half-caste between a Kikuyu and Briton. My parents were business people. My father passed on when I was a toddler, and so I was raised by my mother and step-father.
My step-father, who is from Coast, shaped my upbringing a great deal. I attended high school at the Coast. I grew up in a Muslim environment, and I would regularly attend the mosque on weekdays. Although Islam shaped my values as a man, I never left my Christian faith. I would attend services every Sunday at All Saints Cathedral.
Q: When did you first get into acting?
I started in Class Three. I remember winning a stage actor’s award then, and I have I have been on stage since. When I was in Form Three, I did a South African play called ‘My People n Chains’ at Chandaria Hall in Mombasa. I won the Best Actor’s Award at national level. I also won several awards at the school drama festivals.
But as time went by, my parents redirected my ambition and passion. My mother insisted that I take accounting, so I did a diploma in sales and marketing and CPAs at Mombasa Polytechnic.
Q: How did you land into professional acting and accountancy at the same time?
My first TV gig was a minor role in Tushauriane, one of the earlier popular local plays in KBC. Then, actors earned a measly pay and to make ends meet, I worked temporarily as an accountant. It is ironic that the career that my mother somewhat forced on me was what put food on the table.
Around the same time, I started a play with friends, Fate Makers, which was the first ever English play. It ran for 13 episodes. Shortly after, I was invited to work for Posta, and I have been with them since 1992.
I have gradually risen through the ranks, and now I have been put in charge of the call centre and the financial department. It has been a good 20 years of juggling careers: At daytime I am at work and on weekends, I work till 1am shooting continuously.
Forest Whitaker with Kenneth Ambani
Q: Tausi, the popular soap on KBC is what opened doors for you?
It transformed my life. It catapulted my career, especially because it got female viewers rushing home to catch the show weekly. What most Kenyans may not know is that the show sold in Tanzania as well, and now I am even more popular in Tanzania than here in Kenya. I have done several movies and television gigs there, and also in Uganda.
Q: Your good looks have earned you a soft spot in the hearts of many a female viewers. As one fan put it: You are our very own ‘Denzel Washington’. How does it feel?
I guess I have my mother to thank for my light skin and looks. When I was born, she decided to name me Kenneth, which means handsome (I am told). I am flattered and humbled that people think I am good looking, but a lot actually goes into maintaining this image. I have to ensure that I am articulate and I try to hit the gym as often as I can.
Q: How do you juggle your public image with your family?
I am constantly reminding my children to make a name for themselves — they are not me; and that they have to carve their own image. The stakes are definitely so much higher for me.
I have to deal with my wife and children and anticipate what will happen to them, especially when we are out in public.
Many times, women will just come up to me in a restaurant and embrace me in front of my wife and children. Other times people will just stare at me so intensely — without saying a word. Sometimes I wish they could just say something, anything. I thank God for my family that is gracious enough to understand this.
Also when I am on set, the younger actors expect me to be a ‘one take wonder’ because I am a veteran in the industry. In other words, they expect me to get my scene right with just one take. At work, people are watching to see how I perform. I have become the enemy of the ‘wanna-bes’ who wonder ‘why him and not me?” and this has created a lot of resentment.
Q: Who do you look up to in the industry?
Internationally, Denzel Washington. He can fit seamlessly into any role. Regionally, Jacob of Jacob’s Cross, he is a popular South African actor.
Q: If the world was your oyster, what would you be doing, and where would you be?
Hollywood without a doubt. I find that the film industry in Nigeria and South Africa is far grown, and the actors there have greater opportunities compared to Kenya.
Here it’s a dog eat dog society, riddled with producers that rip the benefits and leave very little for the actors, who do most of the hard work.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career?
Acting in Jacob’s Cross season 7 was a great highlight for me as an actor.
It pitted me on the same level with veteran South African actors. I also consider my work with Wanuri Kahiu in the film From a Whisper a great achievement.
We won an award in the Tarifa Film Festival in Spain in 2010. I have also been nominated in the best actor award category in the Africa Movie Awards and won an award in the 2009 Kalasha Awards. I am a great believer in tomorrow, so I have invested my acting income well for my family. This industry is very much the easy come-easy go kind. Within no time, young fresh talent takes over and the old guards are made irrelevant. You have to invest in order to survive.
I also pride myself in the fact that I have kept myself from evil in the industry. I will not lie, the temptations to stray are many, especially on social media, but I know where my limits are. I have a family, which I guard and protect at all costs. Straying has consequences, and one has to be ready to pay for them if they indulge.
Q: What are your future plans?
At the moment, I give a lot of talks and mentor young people, and I intend to continue to ensure that whoever comes after me has an equal, if not better chance than I got in the industry.
I intend to continue to use my acting as a springboard to educate and inform the youth.I am also currently studying Communication and PR at Moi University and I plan on advancing my communication skills.