"IT IS EASIER FOR ME TO PLAY A VILLAIN" : ACTOR PETER KING MWANIA
For many, reconciling the character from ‘Ni Sisi’ with the sweet real-life guy, can be a bit of a challenge. And as Margaretta Wa Gacheru finds out, Peter King takes it all in his stride.
Peter King Nzioki Mwania does not always play “bad guys” like Mzito, the corrupt and cranky politician in the latest S.A.F.E. film production, Ni Sisi, that premiered early this year just a few days before the March 4 General Election.
For instance, he played a naïve but well-intentioned stepfather in the TV series Sugar 2, an inspiring soccer coach in the Discovery Channel production, The Inside Story, a humble bus driver in the Cajeton Boy film, Help, which earned him a Best Lead Actor at the 2007 Kenya International Film Festival, and another good guy (a scientist) in the Kenyan film, Formula X, for which he won another Best Lead Actor at the first Kalasha awards ceremony in 2009. King even played a preacherman in the film based on Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s short story, The Knife Grinder’s Tale.
Currently, he is acting in the latest Dreamworks film production, The Fifth Estate, playing a martyred social activist who was definitely a good guy. In 2008, the human rights activist was shot in cold blood shortly after testifying before a United Nations official about post-election violence in western Kenya.
Yet no matter how many “good guys” King plays, he will probably be best remembered for performances where he played nasty characters such as the divisive sect leader, Mkwajo, in Eric Wainaina’s award-winning musical, Mo Faya, a dirty cop in the Oscar-winning film, The Constant Gardener, and even a scheming spouse who used all manner of conniving means to get rid of his equally unscrupulous wife in the 2011 film, Facebook.
King certainly will not be forgotten for his riveting performance on stage at Phoenix Players, where he played the archetypal villain Iago in the Shakespearean tragedy, Othello.One person who will remember his Iago fondly is the casting director for The Constant Gardener, Leo Davis. She was so impressed by his inspired performance as the cunning nemesis of Othello that she cast him instantly in the John Le Carré murder thriller.
One reason it would seem King plays bad guys so well is because the actor says he truly enjoys playing these complex characters. “For me, it is somehow easier to play a villain, as if it were my ‘fall-back’ position on stage,” said King, who in real life is a self-professed family man and former church choir master who prefers acting and singing in musicals like Sarafina and Mo Faya to just about any other theatrical role.
Calling himself a “conservative guy”, he admits that acting allows him to do things on stage or on camera that he would never consider doing in real life, “like seducing a young vulnerable girl,” says King, alluding to Roxana in Ni Sisi, (played by Jacky Vike), who is just one of the village women in the film that his character, Mzito, tries to seduce. He nearly succeeds in his sinister scheme to use Pastor Maria (Trizah Musimbi) to sway her village flock so they can vote for this sneaky politician.
The film grew out of a travelling stage play that two theatre companies, S.A.F.E. Ghetto and S.A.F.E Pwani, devised with a view to rousing popular awareness at the grassroot level of specific ways and means of avoiding a repeat of the violent and tragic chaos of the previous presidential election.
King’s character, Mzito, presented a slightly stereotypical view of the power-hungry politician prepared to do literally anything to win the election. The fact that local villagers like Roxana, her friend Schola (Mwajuma Bahati), and Jabali (Joseph Baba Kimani) figure out what Mzito is up to and then manage to foil all his schemes — including everything from planting lies in the form of malicious rumours to dishing out cash to seducing local leaders like Maria — is one of the central messages of Ni Sisi.
The baritone effect
Yet to meet Peter King in real life makes it hard to believe that he is the same bad guy I have seen in films, on TV, and in the theatre. What that tells me instantly, however, is that King is truly an incredible actor, one of Kenya’s finest.
The fact that he also has a beautiful singing voice — basically baritone, he says, is a definite plus to his potential for picking up all kinds of roles, which he has since he first began acting on a professional level in 2000. King did not know at the start of the new millennium that he would have so many professional opportunities.
Nonetheless, he has trained to be on stage ever since he was six when he started acting, first in church productions at the Langata Barracks, where he grew up with his siblings and parents, his father being a sergeant in the Kenya Army and his mother on staff at the barracks hospital.
After that, he acted in plays in both primary and secondary school as well as participating in debates and singing in the barracks’ church choirs, up until the time he also become a church choirmaster.
“I knew I wanted to perform from an early age,” he said, lamenting that Kenya does not yet have a proper drama school like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London.
Nonetheless, he went on to study music and voice full-time at the Kenya Army School of Music (where they train the Kenya Army Band) straight out of Langata High in the late 1990s.
His first professional acting gig was working with Joab Kunaka at the Kenya National Theatre where, for three years, he performed set books and travelled countrywide to bring theatre to school children.
King says it was a great training ground, especially as it relieved him from doing the sundry jua kali jobs he had done from the time he was in secondary school. Having problems paying school fees (like so many Kenyans before Kibaki instituted free primary schooling), King worked as everything from a bill and garbage collector to a jua kali metal salesman to a choirmaster.
For a while he had to drop out of school, but by the time he went back, he says he “had made a pact with God to do it all for Him.”
King does not come across as overly religious, although he shares his spiritual convictions with his wife, Tess, and their two children (a four-year-old boy and three-year-old girl), all of whom stay in Kakamega. King spends as much time there as he can when he is not acting or singing or both.
Having worked with some of Kenya’s finest directors, including George Mungai, Mumbi Kaigwa, John Sibi Okumu, and Keith Pearson, King has also had the good fortune to work with outstanding international directors like Nick Reding, who directed him in both Ni Sisi and Ndoto za Elibidi, Fernando Meirelles in The Constant Gardener, and Bill Condon, who directed Chicago for Dreamworks and who is currently directing him in The Fifth Estate, one scene of which King recently shot in Brussels. The next one he hopes to shoot is in Kenya.
In all humility, King says, he knows that he is talented. Otherwise, acting and singing would not come to him so easily. But he also feels strongly that his work is part of a larger plan, which gives him an assurance to play any kind of character, including saints and scoundrels.
One can see Peter King Mwania in Ni Sisi. The DVD is on sale via email@example.com. The film still has relevance to all Kenyans.
Story by dooko