By Jim Slotek
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is the actor who plays the Eritrean-born Montreal carjacking boss Ramaz in Darren Curtis's terrific CSA Awards-nominated Canadian film Boost. Does that name sound African enough for you?
Well, as for how it sounds, here’s a sound file for you in the actor's own voice
Ironically, Mwine – who was born in New Hampshire of Ugandan parents and spent part of his high school years in Lennoxville, Quebec – has been told in auditions he wasn’t African enough. We talked to him about it when Boost debuted at the recent Toronto Black Film Festival. It opens theatrically Friday.
“When I first came out to Los Angeles, I was all set up for African roles,” says the soft-spoken Mwine, who has continued to travel regularly to Uganda. “I’d go in and just talk as myself. And I realized they weren’t interested in ‘good,’ they were interested in authentic. And I was repeatedly told I’m not African enough
“I was baffled. What does that mean? I started going into the auditions with the African accent. We’d talk about the day of the week, the drive, the traffic. I’d do it in the accent of the character. And that’s when the shift happened. I was getting the roles.
“But I remember one time I dropped the accent at the end of it, I said, ‘Thank you, it was a real pleasure to meet you.’ And I could see in the person’s face that they felt they’d been tricked. They were upset that I’d been messing with them, and I realized that wasn’t a good move.”
African characters have been good to Mwine. He was cast in Queen of Katwe and played Usutu in Heroes, a character whose super-power involved foretelling the future. (He auditioned for Black Panther though, and missed the cut.)
The rest of the time, his roles have been purely African-American. He was the Creole cook Jacques in Treme (he video’ed himself chopping vegetables in his kitchen by way of audition), and the W.E.B. Dubois-inspired civil rights activist D,W, Garrison Carr in the hospital drama The Knick.
And lately, he’s stolen the spotlight in the Showtime dramatic series The Chi, which debuted in January and was recently greenlit for a second season. Mwine plays Donnie, a bruised veteran of the South Chicago streets who commits an act of revenge after the murder of his step-son, setting in motion a daisy-chain of violence that affects gangstas and cops alike.
“We start filming the second season in June. And then I go to New York to do a show called Random Acts Of Flyness. It’s an HBO sketch show by the filmmaker Terence Nance. I’d say it’s a darker version of Key and Peele. This one takes it to another level.
“This is going to be a new adventure for me, doing comedy. I had opportunities in grad school to do comedies. But since I started working, there’s been a lot of funnier people out there, I guess.”
As busy as he’s become, Mwine had no trouble accepting the role of Ramaz. Personally, it meant a reunion with some of his best friends from high school after 30-plus. And the young stars of the film, Nabil Rajo and Jahmil French who play best-friends and wannabe carjacking gangstas Hakeem (Ramaz’s nephew) and A-Mac, reminded him in some ways of himself back then. Or at least their characters did. (Rajo and French have both been nominated for Canadian Screen Awards for their performances).
“There’s a sense of fun to their trouble that reminded me of when I was a kid,” Mwine says. “When you’re in high school, you do crazy, reckless things, I think there was a little bit of drinking happening. Some pushing the boundaries in terms of play. We’d come to Montreal on spring break and paint the town red.”
What high school in Lennoxville didn’t give him was an opportunity to kick-start his acting career. “I was the only black kid in school. So, there weren’t any options (in the drama club) because they were usually doing things like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Crucible. And I was usually offered to do lights.”
“I really wanted to do stuff in high school. But it wasn’t until I went to the University of Virginia and started dabbling in theatre that it started to happen. It ended up being my major and I went on to grad school at NYU.”
Academia stayed with Mwine. He’s been teaching acting at USC for 10 years while maintaining his career. He’s also a photo-artist and a playwright.
“I think being an artist is an curse in a way,” he says, “because you feel the need to create constantly. Whether people see what I’m doing or not, there’s always an urge to hash things out through film, photography, theatre.”
On sets, where waiting is the most boring part, he says, “It’s not, ‘hurry up and wait’ for me. Between scenes, I’m not waiting, I’m doing. It’s all going on inside my head.”
Boost. Directed by Darren Curtis. Starring Nabil Rajo, Jahmil French and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Opens Friday, March 2 at Cineplex, Scotiabank.