7 Kenyans Who Made it in Hollywood before Lupita Nyong’o (Part 1)

21 Aug

Lupita Nyong’o’s role in 12 Years of a Slave (2013) is a milestone by itself. Although it represents the achievements of Kenyans and Kenyan-born actors on the global film scene, she is not the first Kenyan to make it that far. In fact, there are about eight decades between her and the first Kenyans to act in a Hollywood movie.

You can read Part 2, another list of 7 Kenyans who made it in Hollywood, here.

 #7 Kipsang’ Rotich in Star Wars


You probably know that episode in Star Wars: Episode VI-Return of the Jedi where Nien Nunb says something in an alien language that happens to be the Kikuyu language. But did you know that the guy who voiced Nien throughout the episode is Kenyan? And not even Kikuyu? Kipsang Rotich  is not credited for his role in the film.

However, we know that Rotich replaced some of his scripted lines with dialogue from Kenyan dialects, which would explain the Kikuyu line which, translated, means “All of you over there, come here.”

Nien Nunb is Lando’s first officer in the Death Star run in Jedi. The rest of his lines that sound gibberish even to the Kenyan listener are actually in the Haya language spoken in Tanzania. Since the Kikuyu line is missing from the episode’s script, we can’t tell whether it was still Kipsang who voiced it or someone else.

#6 Mary Oyaya in Star Wars

Originally a model, Oyaya’s only claim to this list is the Star Wars character she played in two Star Wars movies. She played the role of the Jedi Master Luminara Unduliin in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.Her modeling agent hooked her up with the Luminara casting role and she was an automatic fit when she first went to the Fox Studios for auditions.

She is a Kenyan-born globetrotter who has lived in Kenya, Sweden, Canada, and Australia.

#5 Benjamin Ochieng’ in The X-Files

The X-Files (1999), Tears of the Sun (2003), The Shield series (2005), The Anatolian (2007), The Disciple (2008). Benjamin Ochieng’  is Hollywood’s go-to actor for Kiswahili lines. Benjamin’s claim to stardom has actually been his proficiency in Swahili. After playing 50 to 60 roles as an extra, he told the Associate Director on X-Files that he spoke Swahili and was hired three minutes later for his first speaking role.

He is now an actor with an impressive filmography and is fast making a name for himself as a producer and sound editor. With 20 titles to his filmography that include a voice actor in Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, Ochieng has also worked in movie crews as a sound editor and a writer. He has also directed two short films: Mr. Brewer’s Difficult Day (2011) and MISSInformed (2013).

#4 Kiran Shah and Deep Roy in almost every movie

I bet you didn’t know there is a Kenyan-born actor in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Titanic (1997), and Alice in Wonderland. Wait, did someone say Titanic? The Titanic? …and all three Lord of the Rings movies?

The man with such a splendid filmography is Kiran Shah. Shah was born in Kenya in 1956 but moved back to his parent’s native India when he was only twelve years old. A stuntman and actor, he first featured in a movie in 1977. His most recent role is as Goblin Scribe in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Which Kenyan-born actor has starred in Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Star Trek? Hint: All the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are digital replications of him? No, it’s not Kiran, its Deep Roy, also credited as Roy Deep or GorDeep Roy. Ignoring the fact that reading those names aloud sounds like making bedroom noises, Deep Roy is also of Kenyan-Indian descent. He was born Mohinder Purba in Nairobi but emigrated to Britain.

Deep Roy

Here is a good list of Roy’s most prominent actor roles. In the Doctor Who serial Talons of Weng-Chiang, he plays Mr. Sin. In played Droopy McCool in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and an Ewok on Endor. In Star Trek (2009), he plays the alien Keenser.

Kiran has 31 Titles in his filmography and Deep Roy (we can’t get enough of the name) has 46.

So, why are these two actors often mistaken for each other? There is the obvious similarity that they were born in Kenya, at around the same time, immigrated, then launched their careers in the 1970s. But there is something more apparent. They are both dwarfs! Roy is 4 ft 4 inches and Kiran Shah is slightly shorter at 4’ 2” or 1.26 meters tall.

Now, guess which one of the two was Elijah Wood’s (Bilbo Baggins) body double in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

#3 Edi Mue Gathegi in the Twilight Saga and House


I know. We shouldn’t be proud of one of Kenya’s sons making it to Twilight. Not since the series made vampires look so timid and mushy (and one spent his immortality vibing an underage highschool girl). But if you think about it, given our proven acumen on the track, we would make superb I’ll-even-give-you-a-head-start vampires. Gathegi is already making it happen.

Born on March 10, 1979 in Nairobi, Gathegi has acted in X-Men First Class (2011), Crank (2006), House, Gone Baby Gone (2007), and Twilight (2008). In Crank (2006), Gathegi is the Haitian cabbie; in Death Sentence he is Bodie; Darudi in The Fifth Patient; Cheese in Gone Baby Gone; He is Dr. Jeffrey Cole in House; Laurent in Twilight; and had a guest star role in CSI: Miami. Most recent roles include Atlas Shrugged and Family Tools.

He took up acting because it was an ‘easy course’ after he injured his knee playing basketball. When he first auditioned for his role as Laurent, he had not even read the Twilight books—understandably-and had no idea that the character was a vampire.

#2 Charles Gitonga Maina in The Air Up There


This 6’10”giant of a man was born in Kenya 1976. His claim on this list is The Air Up There (1994) where he co-starred with Kevin Bacon and Yolanda Vazquez. Maina stars as a tall basketball Winabi prince who is spotted by the main character, Jimmy Dolan, played by Kevin Bacon, as new talent for his college team. After seeing a home video of Saleh doing his signature skyhooks and reverse slum dunks, played by Charles Gitonga Maina, Dolan travels to Africa to recruit him. 

For the Saleh role, Maina and his friend were selected at the final auditions in LA. His natural talent got him the role and a basketball scholarship at Lynn University.  He moved back to Kenya after being unable to return to the US from Greece where he had gone to try out for a pro-team.

Maina also acted in SeaQuest DSV as Professor Obatu.

 #1 Mutia Omoolu and Riano Tindama in Trader Horn

1931. That’s when the first Kenyan-born actors made it to Hollywood. Trader Horn (1931) is a story about the titular character, Trader Horn’s journey to an unexplored area of Africa. They find a missionary has been killed and her daughter abducted by a native tribe. Nina, the daughter, has become their queen and Horn’s role is to ‘bring her back to civilization.

The movie was shot in Kenya and the reshoots at the MGM Studios in California. In the Kenyan set, Mutia was the unofficial casting director for the Kenyan crew. During the shooting, a crewman fell into a river and was eaten by a crocodile. A boy was killed by a charging rhino-and the scene was captured on camera and is included in the movie.

Mutia and Riano got very stereotypical roles. Mutia’s role in the movie is Horn’s Gun Bearer while Riano is a Witchdoctor; Riano is not credited in the film. They moved to California for the duration of the reshoots.Legends grew around their presence in Hollywood, including one popular, but fake, anecdote of how Mutia once threatened his boss at MGM in an alleged love triangle involving a Central Avenue prostitute. Mutia is said to have protracted a venereal disease from such sexacapdes.

The bigotry-oozing article titles as “Jungle Actors are the Unhappiest of Film Stars’ tell the modern reader much about the culture shock and racial stereotypes the two faced. In the article Mutia is said to have shed tears when his shoes became too tight. It goes on to say that their only savior from the culture shock was the set where they enjoyed acting with a ‘childlike innocence.’

When they returned to Kenya, Mutia started a business with his money but never talked about the film again. Riano simply disappeared from the streets of Nairobi and from history.

 Owaahh, 2013.



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37 responses to “7 Kenyans Who Made it in Hollywood before Lupita Nyong’o (Part 1)

  1. princelySid

    August 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Fascinating stuff,thanks for doing the research

  2. gitts

    August 22, 2013 at 12:07 am

    great research.
    On Star wars there’s another Kenyan who was in Episode 1 as part of the Jedi council and I saw it in one of the local papers. Can’t remember his name though.

    • Owaahh

      August 22, 2013 at 12:11 am

      Great! I’ll search for him and get back to you.

      • gitts

        August 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm


  3. Ian Mwiraria Ndubi

    August 22, 2013 at 5:51 am

    I find this Shallow and Pedantic (Peter Griffin)… Seriously nice article

    • savvy08

      January 16, 2014 at 10:13 am

      I thought you just said shallow and pedantic? So which is it?

  4. xantana

    August 22, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Where is Sidede Onyulo of Nowhere in Africa, King Solomn’s Mines and The constant Gardener?

    • Owaahh

      August 22, 2013 at 8:37 am

      John Sibi-Okumu is missing too :-D. I couldn’t include all of them. But I’ll make another list for them.

  5. Wilma

    September 3, 2013 at 5:32 pm

  6. gikuru

    September 5, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Reblogged this on Samwagik™.

  7. mrembo

    September 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Thank you for taking time to record this and have it up. Kudos!


    October 23, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Karara Muhoro, the toy hawker in Pharell’s PHONE BOOTH, too. And these~>

  9. Zeyana Abdullah

    October 25, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Vincent Mbaya in Tomb raiders cradle of mankind

  10. Anonymous

    October 28, 2013 at 4:08 am

    Nyce one!

  11. Anonymous

    October 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Lenny Juma in tomb raider???

    • Anonymous

      January 26, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      Yes, Lenny Juma. But great article all the same

  12. Serah

    October 31, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Great job, Edi Gathegi also had a guest role in Beauty and the beast

    • Owaahh

      November 23, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      Aaaah, I’ll add that…

  13. Eddy Kimani

    November 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Remember Kitchen Toto…Edwin Mahinda (The young boy – The toto)

    • Owaahh

      November 12, 2013 at 7:19 am

      Thanks Eddy, Edwin will be in Part 2 of this list.

  14. Abraham

    January 15, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Baba Amor's Thoughts and commented:
    Some surprising info

  15. savvy08

    January 16, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Wow, this is admirable research! Thanks for the fascinating read. I wouldn’t say they “made” it in Hollywood, except for say Edi Gathegi. They made appearances, but Lupita is making it big!

    • Owaahh

      January 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Lupita is making it big mostly on the red carpet in my opinion, and the way Hollywood is selling is making Africa react like we have never had actors star in top movies. It is sad that these guys are virtually unknown at home.

  16. adriankibai

    January 26, 2014 at 12:18 am

    A reblogué ceci sur ART UNDERWORLDet a ajouté:
    i’d have never known this

  17. adriankibai

    January 26, 2014 at 12:19 am

    awesome stuff!

  18. Achieng Piri

    January 26, 2014 at 2:28 am

    President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’Sanders of the River’Founder president and actor

    • Owaahh

      January 27, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Hey Achieng’, I intentionally left Kenyatta’s performance because it wasn’t a Hollywood production (It was British) and he has no speaking role in the film.

  19. NjeriKairu

    January 27, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Reblogged this on Plush .

  20. Kenani Mokeira

    January 27, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    I agree with you, red carpet for lupita and her role wasnt really to die for i do not understand the fuss about her performance really, my opinion ….. 🙂 I love edi gathengi, he’s done so well for himself

  21. mmntk

    February 22, 2014 at 10:27 am

    good list but any Hollywood A listers would know Lupita right away,i that is the difference, she made it to the red carpet, international film festivals e.g TIFF in Toronto where I live , the rest are virtually unknown, they never made it to the red carpet, globes or won any awards…The whose who in Hollywood know Lupita…….that is the difference, the rest you have to scratch your head…


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