Actress Mumbi Maina on dominating the silver screen

By , People Daily Digital
Saturday, November 27th, 2021 00:00 | 5 mins read
Actress Mumbi Maina.

Vivacious, honest, talented, humble, incredibly self-aware, and eloquent are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when one meets Mumbi Maina.

She is witty and wise in almost equal measure. Watching her body of work does not properly prepare you for how stunning she is in real life.

But the business of the day has to be completed despite a minor case of being star-struck. I cannot go back to my editor with a list of adjectives.

So we sit down to understand how Mumbi has grown to be the star actress she is today.

She has a great oeuvre, which runs the gamut from being the lead actress in Nafsi, a film that is currently screening in local cinemas, Nigerian films Shattered and La Femme Anjola, local soap operas Mali and Jane and Abel, to international productions Sense 8 and The Matrix Resurrection. But when and where did it all begin?

The beginning

Mumbi shares that her acting journey started inadvertently, when she accompanied her big sister for an audition. The director would see her and insist that she should audition.

Mumbi declined, citing that she could have auditioned if it was a dance rehearsal, since she was a professional dancer. Her sister declared that they would not leave till Mumbi auditioned.

Left with no choice, she did. She would get the role and her appetite for acting was kick-started.

Her first major role came in 2007 when she starred in Unseen, Unsung: Unforgotten, a feature film that explored AIDS and how it affects people.

Due to her exemplary performance in the film, she would get nominated for a Kalasha award soon after. But Mumbi would wrap filming and go back to corporate life, where she continued working in investment banking.

Her natural creativity and vivaciousness would peek through the staid corporate environment in the form of coloured hair or neon nails.

She would get a role in a musical drama soon after, and would have her colleagues help her read the lines during work breaks. She shares how her then colleagues would cheerfully joke that she should take a shot at doing acting full time.

In 2010, she did exactly that. She quit and started actively looking for acting work. While still going for auditions, she enrolled in a filming programme that was being run by One Fine Day Films, with the aim of becoming a better actress, producer, and filmmaker.

Having Alfre Woodard as one of the facilitators in the programme was the sign she needed to affirm that she was headed in the right direction.

“People thought I had lost it when I quit work to solely focus on acting. But I was wholly invested in it. I wanted to do my best, and envisioned acting in Hollywood one day. I am a spiritual person.

For me, having Alfre Woodard, a renowned actress from Hollywood films such as The Maid, as a surprise facilitator, was the sign I needed. Funny enough, a few weeks later, I auditioned and landed the role of Nandi on Mali, which heralded a thriving acting career,” Mumbi enthuses.

“Acting is everything I have ever wanted to do. I believe in consciously thinking about what you want. If you put yourself in the mental space of what you want, research, and work towards that which you are envisioning, with time, you will get it. I know for a fact that if you are committed enough to something, the universe will align and give it to you,” she adds.


What this statement glosses over is the amount of hard work, both emotional and physical, that goes into every role she plays.

Mumbi normally reads the scripts provided, internalises them, then leverages various acting methods depending on the role she is playing, to embody the character authentically.

She has played various characters, varying in both temperament and behaviour, and shares that she normally gravitates towards characters and stories that are impactful and that shine a light on prevailing societal issues.

Nandi, for instance, was a nasty spoilt brat whose character Mumbi had to embody for six days a week, 12 hours a day, for three years straight.

Immediately after Mali, she would star in a series of films that are still on Showmax, where she played different characters, from an emotive social worker to a heart-on-sleeve corporate girl. The films include 29, Being Oti, Love’s Ransom, and Terra Firma.

Soon after, she would get a role on Jane and Abel, a drama series, where she played Cecilia, a rich kid with a considerably sweeter temperament compared to Nandi.

All these were preparing her for her big role that would come a few years later, where she would play Zakia, an intelligent journalist, on Sense 8, a film that is still on Netflix.

While she cannot comment on her role on The Matrix Resurrection, Mumbi shares that acting is something that has allowed her insight into different characters and different ways of executing the same vision of making a great film.

Working on a Hollywood set allowed her to see what a fully-fledged film industry can be, a place that systems are in place such that everyone can concentrate on their core work, be it acting or directing.

Working in Nigeria showed her what local support can do for the film industry and just how much energy, respect, and hard work Nigerians pour into their craft as at times, people have to shoot using generators as the power tends to go off frequently.

“All the three industries are different in terms of dynamics. The one thing Kenya can learn from the other two industries is to support the film industry as much as Nigerians and Americans support Nollywood and Hollywood.

While Kenya might have better infrastructure and amenities compared to Nollywood, Nollywood has us beat in terms of supporting their own and viewing their films in large numbers, which in turn facilitates the making of more films,” the dancer shares.

Beyond film

Film has increased her empathy and understanding of others as well as herself. It has allowed her to navigate different characters and to navigate feelings in a way she would not on a normal day. She eloquently describes it as unlocking emotional valves that would otherwise be closed, and closing those that would normally be open.

To her, acting is not about playing someone else. It is about being a different version of yourself that has been shaped by different circumstances and is navigating a different world.

It is like a parallel self, as it still has to be you for it to be authentic and natural. To unwind and de-role, Mumbi loves working out, meditating, travelling to the beach, sleeping in, and cooking.

“It takes time to re-centre. It could take anywhere from a few months to a year. For my role in Nafsi, it took six months to feel like myself again,” the actress explains.

As to the best advice she lives by, it is to be present. She loves Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy on enjoying the present moment. To consciously steep in the present moment and not sacrifice it at the altar of yesterday’s regrets or tomorrow’s worries is her daily goal.

“It may seem like a small thing to do, being present, but if you were a worry head or anxious like I used to be, you find that you are not enjoying the present moment, even milestones that you dreamt about all your life, as you are consumed by thoughts of the past and future,” Mumbi further elaborates.

To budding actors and actresses who look up to her and would like to be like her, Mumbi urges them to first of all, be like themselves and express themselves authentically. Her advice is not to sweat the small stuff and not get caught up in the details.

“Enjoy your gift. Remember why you are doing it, and what needs your gift fulfils within yourself, then go on and serve the world,” she concludes.