Hakeem Kae-Kazim: British-Nigerian actor on making it in Hollywood, his directorial debut, importance of telling African stories


Hakeem-Kae-Kazim talks Hollywood, Nollywood, African stories

“Black Panther” should have come out of Nigeria, we should have been creating that space” – Hakeem-Kae-Kazim on telling African stories.

Hakeem Kae-Kazim is a British-Nigerian actor, who has enjoyed a stellar career as an actor in films and TV series such as “Hotel Rwanda,” “Black Sails,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Dynasty” among others.

The actor was born in Lagos, Nigeria, where he spent his early years before his family re-located to London, England. Currently in Lagos, the actor is working on a new comedy series which would be available on DSTV.

“The whole idea is also for me to come back and see what I can give back in terms of creativity and in terms of trying to move the industry in Nigeria, and just step up,” he told Pulse Nigeria during an exclusive chat.

For the project, he is working with mostly Nigerians with limited experience.

“It was nice to kind of focus them into doing this job properly. It was great to see that the change from day one to when we finished was phenomenal, and that's what makes me so passionate about Nigeria; just that energy. When we are focused, we can do anything.”


Starting his acting career in theatre

Kae-Kazim's interest in acting started with school plays. He trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and after he graduated in 1987, he was offered a spot with The Royal Shakespeare Company, where he continued his training.

He considers his background in theatre really important. According to him, theatre is a wonderful space for an actor to work his craft. It also provides great grounding and an opportunity to get into depth, he adds.

But would he advise every actor to go into theater first before film or TV? Not necessarily.

“I think film is a very different way of working. It has a very different technique, and I think if you concentrate your technique in any one aspect and it's great…”

Getting his big break on “Hotel Rwanda”

A game-changer, his role as Georges Rutaganda in the  Oscar-nominated British-Italian-South African historical drama film, “Hotel Rwanda,” brought him international attention.

After the “Hotel Rwanda,” Kae-Kazim was in South Africa when an American producer, who had seen and loved him in the movie, asked him to give America a try. At the time, he didn't know how popular the film was.

“When I went to America, the buzz around the movie was such that  anybody who had seen or even heard about the film was talking about it.”

It was great for him, opening certain doors and making it a bit easier for him to step into the industry.

Before the movie, the actor had been living in South Africa, a  country that had just gone through its own revolution. “And I was there during the euphoria of that, so when I saw the script for “Hotel Rwanda,” I was actually sort of shocked and disappointed at myself for not having known more about what was happening literally on South Africa's doorstep.”

After he read the script, he researched and got more information about the background story of the  Rwandan genocide. For Kae-Kazim, working on the film was great because he got to understand the extent of what happened, and meet and have deep conversations with survivors of the killings.


Working with big Hollywood stars

As an actor, Kae-Kazim has worked with Hollywood stars such as Ryan Reynolds, Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman and Donald Cheadle. He recalls a lovely experience with Cheadle, who he met while shooting “Hotel Rwanda.”

“I remember being on set with him and saying, 'oh, I would love to go to America one day.' And he goes, 'if you ever come to America, look me up.' I am like, 'okay, great.'

Cheadle gave him a phone number and a year later, Kae-Kazim is in Los Angeles, contemplating on making the call.

He eventually made the call, asking if they could meet for coffee. Cheadle declines the offer as he had hurt his feet, but invited him over to his house.

“It was lovely. I didn't know him as a person, but he was gracious enough to invite me to his house to talk to me about what it was going to be for me as a black man coming into America. He even saw my showreel which must have been so painful. He was deeply gracious.”

Cheadle probably doesn't even remember the story, but for Kae-Kazim, it's one he would never forget. It can be very intimidating working with A-list actors, so having somebody be very welcoming and down to earth was a great experience for the actor.


Kae-Kazim's latest projects on Netflix

Currently, Kae-Kazim has some of his works showing on Netflix. There's “24 Hours to Live,” a science fiction thriller, “Troy; Fall of a City,” a mini-series about the 10 year siege of Troy by the Greeks, and in 2017, he joined the cast of  a modern-day take on the 1980s classic, “Dynasty,” as Cesil Colby, a patriarch of the wealthy Colby clan.

For the actor, “Dynasty” has been a lovely experience because it offered him the opportunity to bring some of his Nigerian roots to it.

On the show, his son Jeff Colby is played by a Nigerian-American actor called Sam Adegoke, and when they found out they were both Nigerians, they decided to ask the writers if they could bring some of their Nigerian roots into the show.

“We end up speaking a bit of Yoruba. I don't know if it's the first time we have had a Yoruba family on national TV in America, but it was great fun to do and it was nice of the writers to let us do that, and to give a different feel to the idea of an African-American family.”

It was important to the actor to pass the message that, not every African-American family comes from a history of slavery.

The first time Kae-Kazim spoke Yoruba on the show, the scene went viral. The actor has succeeded, to an extent, in bringing the Yoruba culture into a wider setting.


Kae-Kazim is passionate about telling African stories

A huge fan of “Black Panther,” who also hopes to play the main antagonist in an upcoming sequel, Kae-Kazim thinks it's important that Nigerian actors, producers and directors, tell African stories from African perspective.

While applauding films like “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Black Panther,” the actor points out that these films still have western input in them. According to him, “Black Panther” should have come out of Nigeria.

“It should have come out of the space that is Nigeria, we should have been creating that space. We should have been the ones putting that type of image out there.”

He doesn't think Nollywood should copy whatever Hollywood does, but rather, be honest to the African voice, but with the professionalism and the technique seen in the Western film industry.

“Nollywood has its own unique voice, it's just that technically, we are not in our space. So it's to marry those two. I am a very big fan of that.”

He says the industry needs more films like Akin Omotoso's “Man on Ground” and “God is African,” which are perfect examples of African films that tell African stories.

Favourite Nollywood filmmakers

Having featured in Nigerian films such as “Last Flight to Abuja” and “Black November,” Kae-Kazim is no stranger to Nollywood.

He is a huge fan of Kunle Afolayan (October 1, Figurine, Phone Swap, The Bridge) and has seen most of his works.

“I admire him as an artist because he is trying to tell the African story in his own distinct way. I love what he is trying to do and there is a very distinct Afrocentric style to it.”

He is also a big fan of Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George), a Nigerian filmmaker working in America. He has got an Afro style to his work, Kae-Kazim comments. He admires Omotoso –  a Nigerian filmmaker tipped to win the country her  first Oscarwhose works include the first African silent film, “A Hotel Called Memory,” and the anticipated “The Ghost in the House of Truth.”

“These are really interesting African filmmakers. Our Nigerian filmmakers who are trying to tell the African story but with a massive western technique and an afrocentric voice.


Characters he can't wait to tackle

There are lots of characters the actor can't wait to tackle, but currently, he is trying to put together a project in Nigeria, which is also his directorial debut.

It's an adaptation of a William Shakespeare play set in Nigeria and interpreted in pidgin English. For the upcoming project, he is using an all Nigerian cast and crew.

A huge fan of Wizkid and Davido, the actor can't wait for the Nigerian film industry to up its game just as the music industry has. So they can compete anywhere in the world.

Hakeem Kae-Kazim is not only passionate about the Nigerian film industry and African stories, he is also a proud Nigerian who doesn't joke with his egusi and pounded yam, with fried plantain on the side.