Melissa Kiplagat on Finding Stability and Crafting a Solid Acting Career

Stability; we all crave it.  We all feel like it is something we all crave and think is important. Sometimes we get lost in its definition. Is it something that is a must? Why can’t we enjoy the whirlwind and get lost into it? These were the two feelings I felt listening to Melissa Kiplagat as I did my transcription and writing for this interview. 

She shared on her life and her thoughts on the film industry in Kenya. She has appeared in many films and still thinks she is far from the mountain top. Having trained with some of the best in the industry you can almost agree that she is one of Kenya’s underrated actresses. She spoke on valuing the industry and what the mountain top looks like for her.  

What are you currently reflecting on in life?

Wow! What a nice way to start? I don’t know, I think I’m at the point where I want to open up myself up to more things not just acting. I’m trying to expand and maximize myself. 

It is interesting you have said not just acting; you went to Brown, and you are a fully trained economist. In an interview with the Daily Nation, you said your two main goals were either to be an international actress or to work in Wall Street. Do you sometimes ask yourself what if you chose to work in Wall Street and not become an actress?

(Slight pause) No, I think I would regret it more than not joining Wall Street. That’s the only thing that would have so much stability in my life right now (chuckles) but I would have regretted not joining acting. 

Still on the matter of going to Brown (an Ivy League school)… I know Ivy League schools can be quite demanding and intense, do you feel the same when you are on set?

When I’m on set? (Chuckles) No, the thing is with acting you can be the most comfortable person on the set at times. I think the people who work incredibly a lot on set are the crew.  They are literally there for every single scene whereas for us if you are not on the next scene you have like an entire hour. I do not think it would be true for actors to say that. We get pressure in different ways; I think the pressure onset is on the crew team most of the time.

What is the weirdest thing you do to get into character?

I wouldn’t say it was weird but when I was doing Country Queen there were some scenes I had to cry and I would not advocate for anyone to do this. So I would remember a painful situation in my past or create a painful moment to get me to that situation. I think it was the weirdest thing I have done and it bothered me for a while.   

How important is a crew to an actor?

The strength of a crew determines the strength of a production. There are two ways a production can go with an audience; the audience might be like ‘that is a quality show’ or ‘that is a shoddy show’ and end up not taking you seriously as an actor. I think they make your appearance as an actor and they support you more than anyone else.  

What has this acting journey taught you?

Perseverance. You know the thing about our industry is that you have to open up yourself to other things and it forces you to experience life in a fuller way. You do not have the stability of an 8-5 job. I think it has taught me to open myself up and be more self-reliant and to persevere more.  

Your journey started in theatre and you worked there at a time when theatre was really thriving. Do you think theatre sets the trend in the Kenyan film industry because a lot of actors transition from theatre to TV and film?

In terms of the actors, people say theatre trains the best actors. If you can do theatre you can do film and TV. A lot of actors who are on TV and film struggle on stage. Theatre gives you a chance to grow, fail and network. A lot of people I have met in the industry I met them in theatre. If you work with them on set then you are more likely to learn more than when you are an extra on-screen. In terms of theater dying down I think it is coming back. You think of Too Early for Birds and Back to Basics who do really cool plays and I feel very excited as to where it is going.

 

What do you think 2020 holds for the entire film industry?

I think there are two sides to it; on the positive side, I think people are taking a lot of risks and are putting out a lot of content. I think last year we saw a lot of feature films coming out that were actually really good so I think people are moving in the right direction. On the other side of it, people are arguing that things are getting worse by the day from acting and the standards of acting to the way actors are treated. You see people putting out an ad for audition calls and the amount of money they are being asked for is just ridiculous. I remember going to an industry talk at PAWA 254 and the gist of the talk was that the problem with our industry is that we do not reward excellence. An actor comes in, gets really good and producers will stop hiring them because they’ll say they’re too expensive. So you constantly have this cycle where actors grow and disappear and you just have a lot of untrained acts. 

So we undervalue really good actors?

Not that we undervalue them producers do not want to pay for them, they’d rather hire new faces that they can undercut and pay poorly than hire skilled and well-known actors.   

In your opinion what needs to be done, more investment from stakeholders?

 I think the major problem is entitlement. A producer will get the money and to cut costs they’ll pay people crap. In our industry, we say executive producers are the ones who are rich because they take most of the money, but in my opinion, they are short-sighted and do not get the value of putting out good content that can rival South Africa and Nigeria. So fine they are undercutting people and making money temporarily. They are not seeing the bigger picture; if we build our industry more people are going put in more money in the industry but I do not think producers think that far.  

What does the mountain top look like for you?

I want to get to a place where I can work independently and not wait for a call to work or for a job. I also want to have enough avenues of revenue that can sustain me. Acting-wise, I think it is to have enough great projects and challenging roles. But you know I had my undergraduate in Econ so if I could own and run a couple of businesses and own some property basically that would be amazing. Basically complete independence and getting to challenge myself in different sectors.   

If your life was a movie any movie what would the genre be?

It would be a drama because life is life man things happen. There are highs but then you also go through dark times as well. I do not think it would be a comedy but I also do not think it would be a horror. 

Who would you let direct it?

It would either be Gilbert Lukalia or Likarion Wainaina. If I had the money I would let either of those two produce what they want without any questions because they are very talented.  

 You were in a production that was one of the largest in the country; Country Queen. You guys shot in Nairobi, Machakos and Kajiado, you had more than 40 actors on set you had 151 crew members and a huge number of extras. How long did it take to realize the production and what went through your mind shooting it?

 Being a part of it was really super cool even though I can’t speak much about the production. It was an honour working with the best of the best in everything, from the crew to cast. It was one of the roles I felt challenged because when you work with the best in everything you have to perform at a very high level and they appreciated my work. They let you discover the character and work on it. For some productions, this is not usually the case. You’ll just be on set, look pretty and say your lines whereas in this case, they allowed you to work on your character and work with the director on it. It was really nice to be on a set and not complain about stuff. 

What stood out for you?

The people and the expectation of a high level of work even for people with small roles who are also accomplished actors. When everyone on set is so good at their job, it is awesome to work on a set like that. 

Still on Country Queen, The Star put it as a story of David vs Goliath. Do you think major productions and more so the film industry is doing their best to tell this story to the level Country Queen did?

(Pause) I’m trying to think of a show that has. I wouldn’t necessarily judge the industry since they do not think about those specific things. When your storytelling, your work is to tell the story. I do not think they should be relegated to telling the stories the news tells. If you want to tell love stories or crime stories you should do it. There are very few shows that portray Kenya as a not-so-corrupt country but it is our reality. 

Do you think Country Queen moved the conversation forward?

We are still shooting the first season and most people have not seen it yet. I think once we shoot the whole season, now there will be a conversation that will come up.  

 

Let’s talk about education and acting, you are very big on this. Do you think it is important for people getting into acting to try and go to school because I know you have and Lupita? Does it give a solid ground?

You know the kind of education I had and Lupita had is not really the conventional blackboard kind of thing. They get you on your feet and give you tools to do something. There is a level of education that gives you some form of experience. There are people who have never been to school but have learnt this from doing so many projects. For new actors, I think there is a need for training.

 Now the courses and training people have in Kenya from what I have heard, because I have never attended, is not the same as abroad. They do not get you up on your feet and I think some of the people teaching are not professional actors. You cannot theorize acting and make it more practical.

 I do not know a lot about Kenyan acting lessons and courses in universities but I have heard good things about some. I would also suggest masterclasses, I do master classes every month and other guys in the industry do as well.  They know what is going on and what the industry is like. 

You are turning 30 this year right?

(Exclaims) Jesus! no I’m turning 29, thank you (laughter)

Okay, what have your 20s taught you?

(Chuckles)My 20s have taught me I do not know about anything. The amount of transformation that happens in your 20s sometimes,  it’s easy for your 20s to feel like 30 years.  I have learnt to give myself grace, not beat myself up for changing or making mistakes and how to give myself space to change and learn. You will learn many painful lessons, you will learn many cool lessons, you have to be fluid, let yourself transform, make mistakes try something else. Take it easy and do not be hard on yourself and always try something new. 

Any regrets?

No, but I am sure I have done things that I look back and I am like oh no but do I regret them? No, I feel like some of the things that happen are a chance to learn. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity from 2 conversations 

Edited by Crystal Mwangi

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