Nigerian Superstar is Equally at Home From Her Majesty's Stage to Hollywood
By Sr. Correspondent, D. Kevin McNeir
Photography by Michael R. Moore
When you hear the name Hakeem Kae-Kazim what comes to mind? Some readers may
need a few minutes before coming up with a proper response. But if you're really
tuned in to American films or British theater, then you know Hakeem is one of
the most talented actors around who continues to amaze critics and moviegoers
alike with the wide range of roles that he takes on and nails, seemingly with
The Nigerian born actor who was raised primarily in the United Kingdom gained
overnight, international acclaim for his outstanding performance in the
Oscar-nominated "Hotel Rwanda" in which he played Georges Rutaganda.
But as he says, he's been acting for a number of years - on the stage,
television and in films, honing his craft and waiting for opportunity to knock.
Now with his recent performances in worldwide hits including Lost, Pirates of
The Caribbean, Darfur and X-Men Originals - Wolverine, this Nigerian
"prince" appears to have discovered the key to knocking the doors
In fact, many critics tout this brother as the next "Sidney Poitier,"
another aspiring actor who left his country to come to America, never looking
back until the Oscar was safely in his possession.
We talked with Kae-Kazim about how he got started in acting, his family, his
most recent accomplishments and his dreams. When you're finished reading this
article and viewing photographs taken by veteran photographer Michael R. Moore,
we are sure that Hakeem Kae-Kazim is one name that you will never forget.
GBMNEWS: You seem to have quite an impressive fan club both in parts of
Africa and in England. Tell us about your childhood and why these England and
the continent of Africa are so special to you.
Kae-Kazim: I was born in Nigeria but when I was around two-years-old, my
parents moved to the United Kingdom. Of course I had no choice but to follow
(smile). I attended school there and was performing so much that by the time I
was 17, I knew that I wanted to be pursue a career in acting. My parents had had
other plans though - they wanted me to become a doctor.
GBMNEWS: I understand that you were part of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare
Company and that you have been most impressive while taking on some pretty
challenging roles. How did you go from doing Shakespeare in England to doing
feature films here in the United States?
Kae-Kazim: Shakespeare has always been a major part of my repertoire. I
received my training at Britain's Old Vic Theatre School, which was mainly a
classical acting training institution. After leaving drama school in 1987 I was
asked to join the Royal Shakespeare and remained there for a couple of years. I
got the opportunity to play the Prince of Morocco in "The Merchant of
Venice" and Claudio in Measure for Measure." By 1990 it was time to
move on and I joined the Royal National Theatre where I worked with some of the
best actors one could imagine and picked up some great reviews for my
performances in "King Lear" (Edmund) with Brian Cox and "Richard
III" (Tyrell) with Ian McKellan. "Richard III" was taken on a
world tour and later made into a film. .
I was also starting to do a lot of television including Ellington for Yorkshire
TV and the title role of Julius Caesar for BBC-TV. I suppose I could have been
satisfied with the variety of work I was getting in England and the way I was
being received by the public but things happened that took me in an unexpected
See, I got married in South Africa and while we were attending a friend's
wedding, I met a woman who asked me if I was interested in doing a commercial.
Being in South Africa was so exciting at the time with President de Klerk
transforming the country into a multi-racial democracy and ending apartheid. I
was getting some great offers for television - I guess that's how I started to
get so many fans there. And of course we filmed "Hotel Rwanda" there
GBMNEWS: So Hotel Rwanda was the film that opened up opportunities for you in
the United States and put you in the face of the American public?
Kae-Kazim: Yes. I mean the feedback was tremendous and I have to admit - my
dream was to always move to America. But in truth, I heard that they were going
to do the movie by accident. I was living in Cape Town but was told that the
producers had no plans to come from Johannesburg to cast. So I contacted my
agent Sybil Sands and she was able to get in touch with the director, Terry
George who was planning to spend the weekend in Cape Town. I met him at his
hotel and we spoke about the movie and other things as well.
The next day I got
a phone call saying they wanted me to play Georges Rutaganda. It took about 10
days of filming for my role, all of that being in Johannesburg, and before that
I really didn't know much about what was happening in Rwanda, even though we are
so close geographically. South Africa was celebrating its first year as a
democracy but the events in Rwanda were more off the radar. Making that movie
had a profound effect on me. I began to do some research and looked into the
colonial history of the country.
Then I met many Rwandan refuges that had left
their country and were living in South Africa, many of whom played extras in the
film. For me it was a journey of pain and discovery. I had no idea the film
would have such an impact on people, especially the American audiences. But that
response allowed me to come here (the US) and do bigger and better work and
provided me with the opportunity to help put Africa and its talent on the world
GBMNEWS: How do you decide which roles are best for you and how have you
adjusted to living in the United States? Is it different being an actor here as
opposed to England or South Africa?
Kae-Kazim: My favorite medium right now is film because I love the intensity
and the subtlety of performance that is required. And I think that it doesn't
really matter where you live - being an actor anywhere is hard work. When I am
considering a role, I want to believe that it is a decent part or project. I
like movies that have an earthy quality. I have to admit that I have been lucky
with the films and other projects that have come across my desk.
The key is that
the role resonates with me. Living in the United States has been wonderful for
my wife, our girls (6 and 10) and me. We've been here for almost three years now
and have been doing okay despite the tough economic times. America is still the
center of the world in terms of the film industry and the quality of the
product. In my short time here I have found that roles for people of color are
more limited in terms of depth of the character than they were back in England
and South Africa. Maybe I will think differently with time.
GBMNEWS: Who were the greatest influences on you as an actor and why?
Kae-Kazim: There were two people who really got me started as an actor and by
default had great influence in my decision to become one. The first was my old
English teacher at my grammar school in the UK - Mr. Guy Williams. He was always
so passionate in class reading the classics, whether it was Shakespeare or
Dickens. He put his heart and soul into every character like a man possessed. It
was enthralling for me to watch and listen. And he cast me in my very first play
at school - it was a joy.
The second was a man named Michael Croft who started
the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. I would spend my summer holidays
doing plays with other kids with different backgrounds and from around the
country and with different backgrounds. He cast me as Othello and later I went
on to play Henry V in the play of the same name, both of course by Shakespeare.
He was a great encourager and had total belief in me as a talented young actor.
I spent many hours with him in conversations about acting and becoming an actor.
GBMNEWS: When we last spoke you mentioned that you had just finished two
films, The Fourth Kind and Darfur. When can we expect to see both films and what
was it like to do a movie about the tragedies in Darfur?
Kae-Kazim: "The Fourth Kind" is tentatively scheduled for release
in November. I am not sure where "Darfur" (working title was
"Janjaweed") is except to say they are still working on it. What I can
say is that it is a fascinating film because there was no script. It as all
totally improvised and many of the villagers in the movie are real people who
escaped from Darfur and are now living in South Africa where we filmed them as
refugees. The trailers and clips that I have seen make me feel like this is an
important film for the world to see. I play the role of a Nigerian army colonel
who is taking journalists around to see what is happening in the country.
GBMNEWS: How has your summer been and what new projects are you working on?
Kae-Kazim: The summer has been a slow one in terms of work - as you know the
possibility of an actors' strike loomed big for a while but thankfully since the
SAG agreement has been signed things have picked up. The latest and one of the
most interesting projects that have come along thus far is called
"Ramon" and it is a fascinating and sometimes funny look at immigrants
in America and their attempts to become legal. I would love to be the next James
Bond villain or adversary. I want the character to hail from Africa and be a man
that has finesse and sophistication.
GBMNEWS: We want to congratulate you on your recently being invited to the
"4th Annual Nollywood Foundation Convention as their guest of honor and
want to ask you what it was like to be acknowledged by filmmakers, academics and
media industry specialists from your home country of Nigeria?
Kae-Kazim: First I have to talk about my fans back in Nigeria. I get
fantastic support from them and the responses they send about my acting roles
are great. But remember I lived in South Africa for 10 years before coming to
the United States so my star, as it were, is a lot bigger there. As more and
more people in Nigeria have realized that I am from there their interest in me
has picked up tremendously. I hope that my fame in both countries, South Africa
and Nigeria, is due mainly to the quality of my work and the joy of seeing an
African actor on the international stage in quality projects.