When Edi Gathegi walks into a room, the room itself, independent of its occupants; takes notice. Gathegi, from his posture to the way he navigates a room, oozes a strong sense of self and charisma that is hard to miss. When he does open his mouth to speak, what he has to say is in sync with the outwardly confidence he exudes. Gathegi understands his purpose in life. He has a plan about how he intends to fulfill his purpose and is doing so, one step at a time, by bringing a fierceness, passion and tenacity to America’s big screens that is slowly but surely gaining him name recognition and fans worldwide.
In this exclusive feature/interview with Ladybrille’s Uduak Oduok, Gathegi opens up about his background, his African (Kenyan) heritage, breaking into the business of film in Hollywood and his good fortune of clinching roles in big motion pictures such as “Twilight” and now the highly anticipated “X-Men:First Class.”
Edi Gathegi Shares How He Found His Calling, Acting
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Edi! We have so much to explore! Why don’t we start from the beginning?!
Edi: You mean 1979, March 10th?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Yes! We want to know all about you. I think I read somewhere you have a younger brother and sister? I understand you were also born in California?
EdiI: I have an older brother and a younger sister and I was actually born in Nairobi, Kenya.
Edi: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and my father came to the States in his twenties to get an education from Berkeley. Within a year, he brought my mother and my older brother and I to join him. So, I basically grew up an American. One of the questions I get asked a lot is whether I was into acting as a kid. But I actually didn’t discover acting until I was an adult, when I was 21. I was 21years old when I took my first acting class and decided this is what I wanted to do for my life. When I told my dad that this is what I wanted to do, he showed me report cards of when I was four years old in pre-school in Berkeley and the teacher said basically, in her progress report, that I was born for the stage and I was a very charismatic young (boy), an extrovert, and that I should probably be an actor when I grow up.
Edi: (Chuckles and continues his story) So my dad said, “we’ve known about this your whole life. We’ve just been waiting for you to claim it.”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: That is so powerful. Let me stop (you) right there. First of all, the support is outstanding. As a (c)hild born to African parents, there is a tendency for (African) parents to not embrace the creative arts as professional career(s) for their children. You are either a lawyer, doctor or engineer. Your dad sounded very progressive for an African father. But, I want to really zoom in on the part of “waiting for you to claim it.” How did that make you feel? That is a very powerful statement, especially coming from an African parent.
Edi: Like you said, I am a child of African parents and my dad has five degrees from Berkeley. He is all about education and getting into a profession that is practical (adds emphasis). Going into the entertainment industry, is the least secure profession that you can do. So I was terrified. I was terrified about bringing this revelation to my father that, this is what I feel is right for my life. [T]o be met with encouragement and acceptance was the last thing I expected. Everything made sense at that moment and I started realizing and reflecting on my character throughout the years. I remember being like the family story teller.
At dinner time, I would crack jokes about my friends and my family would just be in stitches, laughing. That was just the family dynamics. I was just the [raconteur]. My brother and I shared a room my entire childhood until he went off to college. We had bunk beds. I would sleep on the top and he would sleep on the bottom and I would literally put him to sleep with the story of the day; the adventures that my friends and I would get into each day. He would ask, “so what happened today?” and I would tell him, and that would be the visual.
Edi: (Chuckles)(Continues story) So I realize that I was always a story teller and maybe on some level I thought I would be an actor but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know how to approach that. I didn’t know how to pursue it and what it involved until I took my first acting class and said, “this feels right. I guess I have to get trained. I guess I have to start studying about this because this feels like my calling.”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Very cool. Before we get into how you “stepped into your greatness” as I like to call it, what was the personal epiphany that led you to the point where you said, “you know what I am searching for something else and I am not quite in that space” which led you to try acting.
Edi: Yeah. I feel like a lot of people know this already. At high school, I never played a sport in high school. All of my friends gave me a lot of grief for not participating in high school sports. I had a job and was more concerned with making money and starting up a future for myself when I graduated. But, I finally tried out for the basketball team in my senior (last) year. I rode the bench the entire time because I was new and I did not play a lot. I loved basketball. So, fast forward to my freshman year in college, I actually invested in basketball that year and I actually got much better in basketball. I also gave myself a slam dunk as my birthday present and I was like, (in a jovial tone) “Yeah! I did it. I finally did it!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) I personally ball. It is one of my major stress release and that is funny that you actually gave yourself a slam dunk as your birthday present; because I literally always dreamt about slam dunking (starts laughing) (continues) and people (fellas on the courts I played with) would think I was weird when I shared it with them.
Edi: (He starts laughing)
LADYBRILLmag.com: (Joins Laughing)
Edi: (Continues with story) I did it (slam dunking) and didn’t know I could do it. I worked hard enough, got strong enough and I did it. My strength as a basketball player was decent and was also the jump shot. So, I caught the eye of a few of the players during a street styled competition and they stressed to me that I was absolutely worthy of being on the team and that I register and try out for the team. So, I did that. In the process of that, I got a massive injury. I came off a rebound and my knee exploded.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Empathy) Oh whoaaaaaa . . .
Edi: Yeah and at the time, I did not have insurance. My dad was also in between degrees so he did not have insurance for me. So, I could not have it checked out.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Oh my!
Edi: I had to self heal. I bought myself some crutches and I was walking around for months and I was (heavy emphasis added) depressed! I had never broken a bone before. At that point, I thought to take a class that was easy, fun and took my mind off my depression. I took an acting class. It was everything but easy. It was a lot of fun. It was challenging in the right way. I caught the bug and that is where it all begun for me.
Edi Gathegi, Poor During Childhood but Rich in Spirit
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Interesting story. Let’s explore your family’s socio-economic dynamics. What kind of home would you say you grew up in? What was it like having a father who was constantly in school and a student? How did that translate economically into the kind of home you were raised in?
Edi: (In a matter of fact yet comedic tone) We were Poor!
Edi: (Continues) Monetarily, we were rich compared to a lot of relatives in Kenya. But, in terms of socio-economic class in the States (switches thought). It was a family of five paying $300.00 a month for rent. Popsicle day was rough. It was one quarter for a popsicle back in the days and I remember having to nag my mom just to get that 1 quarter every Wednesday. (Gives a hearty laugh). We didn’t have a lot of money but it was what it was. It was very clear that I grew up in (a) house that didn’t have a lot of financial freedom. But, what we did have was the freedom to dream (and) that was encouraged to achieve our dreams and go after what we want. My father instilled serious work ethics in all of us that we witnessed everyday. He ended up getting a law degree, a creative (degree) and writing a book on it. So I think we always knew that even though we didn’t have money that would not always be the case.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: That is because your family knew that education would ultimately open the door to improve your (economic status).
Edi: Yeah. It wasn’t really about being poor. It was about being rich in the spirit.
Edi Gathegi Addresses the Challenge of Breaking into Hollywood
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You carry on your shoulders the legacy of the African people, a continent and certainly Kenya. I know American born/raised Africans don’t necessarily like to think in those terms. But, as an African-American in the real sense of the word, what was your first big break into the film industry?
Edi: It’s funny. To touch on what you just said (about being African-American). I have always said, I am a real African-American. I am African-American (gives hearty laughter). It is an interesting thing to think about that; that I am an African born and now an American citizen so quite literally I am.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What about the work ethics you observed at home has translated into your career and how you work?
Edi: About my work ethics, I think about my father and what he was able to achieve coming to this country with only fifty dollars and now having five degrees. The work ethics was instilled in me at a very early age. So when I started, I completed a conservatory program at my University (UC Santa Barbara) and I knew that I was not good enough to turn pro. I was only three years into it. So, I took some graduate programs and by the grace of God, I got into one of the best graduate schools NYU (New York University) which was another three years conservatory program. When I was done with that program, that was when I decided to turn pro.
I moved up to Los Angeles, booked an independent film and that felt great. It felt like a stepping stone and my first studio film was “Crank.” That was exhilarating on a lot of levels because I knew a lot of people where going to see the movie, it would make money in the box office and there was a star attached to it. That felt like I was a part of the industry with that movie. Then all of it became a stepping stone from there on out. I booked one thing, then the next thing. When I booked “Gone Baby Gone” that was a the biggest thing that I could be proud of because it was a movie that had Academy Award Winners and it was being directed by Ben Affleck, who at the time people where quite skeptical about (Ben as a filmmaker).
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Yes, I remember.
Edi: Yeah, but after my audition with him, having come from the training background that I came from, he spoke my language and I was confident that he was going to a fantastic job and he did. Now, he is one of the best directors out there and he is just going to continue to soar and I would love to work with him again. But, that was one of the first jobs that I got where I felt I can make a formidable career and path for myself because I was able to align myself with such talents at an early stage in my career. That gave me the confidence to stick with it. It is a very tough business. You are told “no” more than you are told, “yes.” You just have to stick with it till the “yes” come your way.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: First of all, fantastic job for being able to push through all of the hurdles and exhibit such mental strength to get to where you are trying to go. You mentioned how you studied the business of film. Many actors within and outside Hollywood want to enter the industry but do not take the time to understand the business. Break it down for us. What does it entail to be in Hollywood and to enter the film industry, especially for Black actors?
Edi: There are not a lot of scripts out there that (f)eature Black Actors so it is really hard to get starring roles. They are (scripts) out there but more so for Caucasian actors/actresses. If you create your own work, no one can take that away from you. But, that in and of itself is a journey because getting people to get behind your work is very challenging. You gotta get the right people to produce it, finance it and distribute it. A lot of people are doing that and finding success in that. It is definitely the way to go in terms of, if you look around and there is not a lot out there for you, then you have to make it happen. Make things happen.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Hmmm . . .
Edi: (For business of film) it starts with acting. For me, I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to make money or become a huge star. I got into it because I actually enjoyed telling stories and I wanted to be the best story teller that I could be. From that, you learn about the business. There is a Chinese proverb that the, “journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” That first step for me was storytelling [a]nd then the next step, other things were introduced into my life that I had to make sense. Everything that happened became a by product of being a story teller.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How where you able to navigate through all that? Many people make money but don’t manage it well and then they end up still broke even though they are very famous. What kind of personal (financial) plan have you or do you create for yourself that has helped sustain you this far.
Edi: I basically know that every job I get is a blessing and that it could have easily gone in a different direction. I also know that what we do as artists is the most vulnerable (un)secure career path. So, I basically live below my means because I don’t know if I am ever going to get a job again. I don’t know if the fire will burn out (laughs). I live cautiously until one day in my career where I am being offered work so much that I have to turn everything down.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: When do you think that will be? Are you almost there? You’ve done Twilight, X-Men is coming up. Your name continues to gain even more recognition?
Edi: I am getting offers and where I was when I started is completely different from where I am now. But, I know actors who have been famous and so hot and now they are nowhere to be found.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: True . . .
Edi: (Continues) The kind of career I am looking for is that of longevity. It is a marathon not a sprint. So, even when I achieve the things that are to be achieved, you still gotta be consistent. You still gotta bring your “A game” every single day to keep yourself relevant and keep doing good work.
Edi Shares His Vision on Contributing to Africa
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk about Africa. Are you looking into doing anything in Africa from a filmmaker perspective and also acting with your African counterparts?
Edi: I set out a goal to be a great actor. So, I went to school for it and I studied for six years to be a great actor. Yes I want to direct and write but I am not presumptuous to think I can do that . . .(switches thought). There are a lot of people who move to L.A because somebody told them they were “cute.”
Edi: God bless them. They come here but they don’t last because they do not put in time into the craft. I figure I will be directing six years from now, after I have put in at least 10years overall into the craft, basically learning that way. Am I ready to direct now? No. [I] think my contributions will be greatest when I have reached the level where I can command power. (Laughs) When I can raise money easily to do a project in Kenya; when my name is so big that I can open a theater in the States . . .
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Like Tyler Perry?
Edi: Yeah. I feel like I am working on something and my greatest contribution is yet to come.
Edi Shares his Value Systems and What Drives Him
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What drives Edi Gathegi? What are the value systems you live by?
Edi: Honesty. I am honest to a fault. I believe in honesty. I believe in being a man of your word. To (have) integrity with your word; and not take things personally. I also believe in purpose. I feel like people have purpose in life. Martin Luther King Junior said, even if what you want to be a janitor, you should be the best janitor. I feel like people should find their purpose and pursue it with everything they got. For me, it is acting. I love to entertain, take on different personalities and be the best at what I do.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Speaking of that, let’s get into how you got the role in Twilight and what it felt like?
Edi: I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who was telling me about her roommate who was an internet sensation and how all his fans wanted him to get into this vampire book series that was amazing . . .Fast forward to me auditioning for Twilight not knowing what it was about. I walk into the room and my lines were “the humans were tracking us and . . . “I thought to myself, “if I am saying “the humans” it is safe to say I am not human and it is safe to say I am not interested because this is crap! I don’t like those kind of movies.” (Laughs) I auditioned anyways and Catherine was a blast in the room and she had such wonderful energy. She was so excited, she made me so excited about the role. I left and didn’t really think about it twice after I left the room.
Then I got a call from my agent saying I was the number 1 choice for that role and that it was based on a book, and three books. I thought, instantly, I was going to be a part of something that could be a trilogy. That is a great thing for an actor to be attached to three movies because it means job security. So, I got the job and then I read the book and I loved it! I thought, “Oh. I prejudged. This kind of book can be good. It is more of a romance just set in a world where vampires exist and I am kind of digging this.” So, I went off and did the first film.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What about X-Men?
Edi: I am a huge fan of X-Men. Me and my brother would wake up every Saturday with our bowls of cereal and watch a bunch of cartoons. I loved Wolverine. I remember when I was in NYU, I went to the theater on one of our very few days off and saw X-2 and I said to the screen, “I wanna be [that]!” I grew up watching X-Men. They made it into a movie, the action was very well done and I wanted to be in that. So, when this audition came about, I went to it and heard I was one of the top choices. I flew out to London, met the director and just stayed there because he hired me.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Whoa Edi, sitting here and listening to all of your hard work and accomplishments inspires me and I don’t event know you.
Edi: (Gives a hearty laugh)
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) Funny right. (Laughs) Share with our audience some of your upcoming projects?
Edi: I have a show called “Wild Card.” It is a pilot and is a show that takes place in Las Vegas. Basically, people misbehave in Vegas and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. They get thrown in jail and when the sun goes down, our job is to get them out of jail before the sun comes up.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: So you really get into a law enforcement role?
Edi: Yeah. It is two lawyers and an investigator. I am the investigator. It is a law show.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Nice. I can’t wait. I wanna see that. If it’s a law show, I’m on it.
Edi: (Laughs) So, I got that and then I am supposed to do a play called “Superior Donuts” here in Los Angeles.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Very nice. So we are about to wrap things up.
Edi: One of the things I want to say before we get off is how very difficult it is in this business. It would be remiss of me if I don’t say that. I spent almost a year and a half unemployed and this is after Twilight.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: After Twilight?
Edi: Yes. It is a profession you just never know. After all I had accomplished, I didn’t know if I was ever going to work again. I have to say that I knew that was an illogical thought based on all that I had done. (Logically) I knew it would be more fruitful but when you have a year and a half of doubt where you are just trying to get hired and nobody to hire you, it is a tough place to be. I think every actor goes through that at one point or another and if they are very successful in the beginning, it will be a very tough pill to swallow later on in their career.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: No joke. It can crush your ego and reduce self-confidence. So, that makes me ask you, what is your plan B for the times when it can or does get rough?
Edi: That is a really good question. I remember one of my college friends asked me that question when I was in college. I had a reunion with her a few years ago and she reminded me of this question (and my answer). I couldn’t believe I said it (the answer) but I was so proud of myself that I said it. She asked me “what is your plan B if this does not work out for you?” This is when I had just begun taking my acting classes. She said I said, “if I have a plan B, then it is because I don’t believe enough in my plan A.”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: So there is no Plan B?
Edi: Yeah, for me. This is what I want to do. This is what I was made to do. I will say the more and more I continue on this journey the more I am convinced I love to tell stories. That is not exclusive to acting. I also write. Maybe the plan B is knock out the screenplays and go back to writing. But, I know I want to be a story teller.
–Uduak Oduok is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ladybrille Magazine/Ladybrillemag.com.
-Photocredit: Frankie Batista
Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.