Hakeem Kae-Kazim: Coming to a Theatre Near You

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 little effort.

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 down.

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 direction.


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 too.

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 map.




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.