Who is Shirleen Wangari?
I am an optimistic filmmaker intent on telling great African stories to the world. I am also an actress and an entrepreneur.
What has been your greatest achievement as an actress?
I am yet to get to my highest point as an actress; I have been paying too much attention to building my company, which finally has contracts. Now I can refocus again as an actress.
How and when did you land your first TV job?
Tahidi High opened doors for me. I am grateful to Ainea Ojiambo for taking me for the audition and Catherine Wamuyu for the opportunity. I was just 19 when I started acting. Afterwards, MTV Shuga propelled me to even greater heights. I am indebted to Lenny Juma for casting me, allowing me to get into films.
You literally grew up in front of the camera. What was the experience like?
It was wonderful. Getting to do what you love and getting paid is magical. However, when Tahidi High ended, there was pressure for the cast to be successful or live a certain way.
I have always had a level head, I never follow the crowd, and so I was able to build my career at my own pace, without succumbing to pressure.
A lot of young actors struggle after the show that made them a household name ends. Why do you think you have managed to stay relevant even after Tahidi High ended?
You have to know what you want, your ultimate goal. After the show, my goal was to act in international productions because they paid well, and they kept coming until a time when suddenly they were no longer interested in filming in Kenya.
That was a tricky time. That was the time I started building my film company, Blackwell, about two years ago. I have also had to learn how to write and produce.
I had seen the grand side of filmmaking and I was not willing to settle for less; I just did not know how tough it would be to build a film company. Now I know.
Every actor has a way they get into character, what does it take?
I like to become ‘the person’. I like to feel what they would feel, love what they would love. I just really become ‘the person’, it works well if you have a director who can help you get there because they see it too.
What projects have you worked on since leaving Tahidi High?
There are a number, including MTV Shuga, The First Grader, Captain of Nakara, Lost in Africa, Sense8, Wazi FM, Varshita and Peponi, a Tanzanian film that is yet to premiere.
Any projects you have worked on as a producer?
We are producing a Mnet Original film in Mombasa directed by Jesse Kyalo. Another is a co-production with Untitled Films in South Africa of a post-apocalyptic film set in 2037 after the worst heatwave hit the world, killing 80 per cent of the population.
It has a crucial theme on climate change, so we welcome partnerships with organisations. The production was recently shortlisted by Netflix and National Film and Video Foundation for funding.
Here at home, we have embarked on a journey to unveil the mystery of Fort Jesus through a film called, Captain of the Coast. It is funded by the Kenya Film Commission.
The film is a preamble to the siege of Mombasa laid on the Portuguese stronghold of Fort Jesus by the Omani Arabs, Mombasa locals and Zanzibaris in the 1600s, which led to the ouster of the Portuguese from the East African coast.
It is such an important story I wonder how we have not told it before. It is written by Kiboi Kuria, directed by Jesse Kyalo and co-produced by Krysteen Savane. We are also in the production of Act of Love.
The short film is written by Shelly Gitonga and directed by Eric Mwangi. It is funded by Some Fine Day Pix Germany.
I was recently was in South Africa at the Intra-Africa Trade Fair, presenting a film fund Concept for Africa that won Youth Global Start Up Competition 2021. It is geared towards making filmmaking in Africa sustainably profitable.
You are acting in a new film project, tell us about it...
Family Portrait is a beautiful film of great quality directed by Dancurf Brown of ‘Porker’. We have some great actors including Trizah of Kovu, Gibson Hausa and Lawrence Kimani.
There is also the talented DOP Sospeter. The film is relatable, it shows raw family emotions we all experience from time to time. The trailer is out, and the film will be coming out this year. However, the date is yet to be confirmed.
What do you love most about what you do?
I cannot really describe it, it is just a privilege to act and write - captivating people’s emotions and sharing a story with the world.
Any challenges that you experience?
Filmmaking is entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship is uncertain, with every day bringing fresh challenges. There are late payments, which one has to manage to keep relationships cordial.
In addition, you need to have several projects running to keep the lights on, and this can take a toll on you; mental exhaustion is common.
Do you have someone special in your life?
Yes, I have a special human. He is kind and listens to all my five million film concepts, and patiently so.
What do you do for fun?
I like hanging out with my family. I am yet to meet more fun people. I love writing, so I tend to write whenever I can. Netflix and chill are pretty awesome too. I particularly love Peaky Blinders, and once I watch an episode my night is made.
Any advice to youth who want to get into acting?
Polish up your acting skills, and set up other sources of passive income because the industry has not grown to a level where it can support you yet.
I act and produce and so I have a steady income. To survive in this industry, you have to work twice as hard, and sleep less; travel to film markets and film festivals and meet people who know about funding more than you do.
You also have to be ready to apply to hundreds of film funds globally and continue learning. Where possible, attend the masterclasses online.
Through ‘YouTube University’ you can take part in high-value workshops. However, be choosy with the workshops, some can waste your time.