1 on 1 with Ugandan Actress Mirembe Campbell
"I would love to represent Ugandan products!"
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First published: July 31, 2006
It is not easy for an African actor or actress to make it in Hollywood, Broadway or generally the acting industry. It is even tougher for African actors and actresses to become household names outside their countries. The acting game is one of fierce competition and patience, hard work and vital connections, one which only the strongest can survive. It is a world of endless auditions and numerous rejections. Only the strong-hearted and determined make it. Yet UK-based Ugandan Australian actress, Mirembe Campbell is pursuing this vocation with a passion which matches any other celebrity actress in UK's theatre and movie industries. Theatre is probably the performing art for which England is best known, and it is specifically in this arena that Campbell, is making a name for herself.
In her own words, "Mirembe Campbell is a strong young woman who has made it through some very tough times. She is a young woman who is so proud of the Ugandan blood running through her veins, a young woman who wants to do what she can to ensure that her hopes and dreams become her reality and finally a young woman who has fought damn hard to get where she is now. She is also very excited in the belief of what the future holds in store pertaining to breaking even in the acting world."
Halle Berry as Jinx in MGM's Die Another Day.
Hers is not a household name in most homes in Africa for her exciting and thrilling performances yet, but it is only a matter of time before Mirembe Campbell is as well-known as Geneveive Nnaji, Thandie Newton and her role model Halle Berry. Talented, very fashionable, dazzlingly gorgeous and incredibly photogenic, the burgeoning actress is already shining like a star. The beautiful, charismatic Campbell was approached by one of the UK's leading fashion magazine for black women, PRIDE, to act as their face and spokesperson. These are the kind of opportunities that Liya Kibede and Beyoncé are approached for. Campbell did not get the role, but it speaks volumes about her potential modeling career as well as the strength of her bewitching smiles and irresistible nature. In addition to her many theatrical talents, Campbell is also a writer. She is currently writing her autobiography.
Mirembe Campbell is definitely a name to remember.
Photographs by Sharon Wallace.
Jane: I've been hearing through the grapevines about this up-coming actress Ugandan Australian actress called Mirembe Campbell. Where were you born?
I was born in Manly hospital, Sydney, Australia. I was born at midnight, I know this as my mum tells me she was watching the clock very closely when she was in labour!
Tell us more about your parents and your heritage...
Well, my mother is from Uganda; she is a Muganda from the village of Katente, (albeit I understand originally from Mawokota, Mpigi) as my great, great grandfather only resettled here. My father is an Australian. They met in Kenya during the reign of Idi Amin.
Tell us a little about your childhood and how you were raised.
My mother had left because she had trouble coping with the experience of being a young mother, coupled with the isolation of being so far away from any of her own family members at that time of her life. As a result, I was raised by my father and his side of the family from the age of two; who showered me with love, support and encouragement. One of the most difficult things about my childhood was that I saw my mother on very limited occasions, and even then with a family member from my father's side escorting. This was not helped when we later on moved to Papua New Guinea to further my father's career, by this stage I was four years old. The physical distance between my mother and I was even greater now. I would only see her once a year for the next eight years of my life. We relocated back to Australia to enable me to start high school.
That must have been very tough for a little girl...
Yes, it was. I found this transition very difficult as in Papua New Guinea, I'd been in the majority (dark-skinned) yet here in Australia I was soon to be at the receiving end of what happens to minorities as I was the only black person in the entire school. My experiences of psychological bullying at school, coupled with the already fraught relationship I had with my stepmother at home, not to mention teenage hormones; led me to leave home at fourteen years to strike out on my own in Sydney. With hindsight of course, this was jumping into fire, as I was to meet much more undesirable experiences!
What a brave move. It must have been scary!
Very scary! Nevertheless I put myself through school, and eventually went to university. When I turned twenty two, I decided I wanted to go to the UK for a while. Fortunately I had relatives already there from my mother's side of the family. I liked the opportunities which I found in the UK very much, coupled with the warm welcome of my mother's side of the family. I even got to meet the present Kabaka of Buganda on his very first visit with his wife and had to dress up in a busuti! My time in the UK also helped me re-focus on what I wanted with my life, and so when I turned twenty four, I decided to come back for an extended visit, and have been here for over four years now.
You're a young woman of mixed heritage. As you mentioned, your mother is Ugandan and your father is Australian. You grew up predominately in Australia. What was it like to grow up in Australia?
Growing up in Australia was far from easy for me. Do not get me wrong, the country itself is a very beautiful one; however some of my experiences there left me quite scarred. Perhaps if I had started out on a stronger base to work from, things may have been very different. You see I had an Australian father telling me that I was Australian. I had kids at school teasing me for being black, calling me all sorts of names. When I would say that I was an Australian like my father taught me to say, they would laugh and say....'yes, yes but where are you really from?'...'Why are you that colour?'
Was that hard to deal with? Did you have people you could turn to about that?
Yes, that was extremely hard to deal with. I felt that I didn't belong anywhere; not at school, not at home. I was very much alone. I think one of the most difficult things about growing up in Australia was the fact that I felt no reaffirmation of my sense of self. I felt I had nobody that I could identify with or relate to. When I was younger, I deeply craved to find my sense of self, there was nothing to nourish that need. When seeking a role model of colour, there were very few places to look at that time.
I do think that in many respects, things in Australia have changed a great deal now. I have seen internet sites which work as support groups for people of African heritage living in Australia. This is a fantastic way to network, connect and reach out to one another. I was not aware of anything like that when I was growing up. There seems to be so much going on now for Africans in Australia, which is just great. I hope this continues as it is very much needed.
I will say that I do love the Australian country. The beach, the sun, the surf, the waves, the laid back lifestyle, and the space that goes on and on before one's very eyes. It was in many ways a very beautiful country to grow up in. I do strongly believe that at that time in my life, I was not in a position to be able to appreciate it to its full potential.
Do you feel more Ugandan or Australian?
I definitely feel more Ugandan and feel so proud to be of Ugandan heritage. Being of mixed heritage can be quite difficult if you are not given the correct information to work with from a very early age. I was not, and so for me it was a struggle. It was difficult because I myself, did not know who to identify with. My father would constantly assure me that I was Australian, but when I looked in the mirror that is not what I saw. I was/am not blonde, with blue eyes, nor is my skin white. When I looked in my mirror, I saw curly black hair, big brown eyes, brown skin, and thick lips. I most certainly did not fit the stereotype of an 'Aussie'. Which is fine and okay, I realize that now. However back then when it was so important for me to fit in and belong, it was very hard. My mother taught me what she could, when we had our limited time together in the very early years of my life. However my mother did give me a great deal of reading material, which I used to educate myself on my black heritage. I taught myself about the other half of me.
What was it like to go to school at Papua New Guinea?
Huli Wigman from the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Oh I loved Papua New Guinea! It is a very beautiful place. Glorious surrounding islands with water like the Caribbean. Going to school there was also a lot of fun. There was a diverse culture of black, and whites and children like myself of mixed heritage. I attended an international primary school, so it was predominately children whose parents were from abroad. It was wonderful to attend school with so many children from so many different backgrounds.
The Papua New Guinean culture is a very rich one, they have lots of dancing ceremonies and our school was a host to many of them. The people are so very friendly and a lot of the friends I had in Papua New Guinea, I still keep in contact with to this very day. I do recall an interesting occasion that took place in Papua New Guinea when we needed to dress in the native dress of our country. My father dressed me in board shorts a floral shirt and put zinc on my nose. He told me I was an 'Aussie Surfer'. I got so many strange looks that day from students and teachers alike. I could never quite figure it out. Now I know why, it was because they did not see me as an Australian.
Did you ever go to schools in UG? Have you ever been to UG?
Unfortunately I have never been to UG nor attended any schools there. I have been to other parts of Africa, and loved every minute spent there. I was planning to travel to UG this year with my Auntie, however our schedules clashed, but hopefully I shall visit with one of my Uncles soon. I guess the time has never been right, and I feel I am not ready to travel to UG alone. I think it would be much better to go with someone who knows his or her way around, like one of my relatives here in the UK. Also I cannot speak my mother-tongue language very fluently even though I am aware that English is widely-spoken there. I love the UG culture and most definitely love the food!
What do you like specifically about Ugandan food? Which is your favourite?
My very favourite is nsenene (roasted grasshoppers) or matooke (steamed mashed plantain) with groundnut sauce. Whenever anyone I know is going to UG I always beg that they bring me back a sack of nsenene. This is so delicious; all my cousins here love it too! My partner thinks we are crazy! We have told him they are land prawns but he is not buying it! I am also learning Luganda, and my jajja (grandmother in Luganda) says I'm doing really well. However my aunties are always complaining because I have a little notebook that I fill with Luganda words. I am forever stopping them mid sentence, saying 'Stop! What does that mean?' I then get out my little pink note book and write it down. It drives them all insane; especially my Auntie Grace who is constantly threatening to hide my notebook. Or when I come over she asks 'have you got that book again?' She makes me laugh. I love my Auntie dearly. I am doing really well with my learning all I can of my Ugandan ancestry, my jajja is very proud of me.
How did your early family life influence your acting?
My early family life was the reason that I am a natural actress. I was constantly acting. Pretending to be someone that I was not... especially when my stepmother came on the scene when I was eight was the beginning of it all. I had to pretend that I was happy, when I wasn't. I used to create my own little fantasy world to escape into. My stepmother could invade my physical space, but my mind was my sanctuary. The world that I created was my safety net, my haven. It cushioned the pain. I went to the best acting academy in the world, the school of life. I was so good at acting, that at times I even fooled myself.
What's your first memory of wanting to act?
When I was about 5 or 6 years old I would tell my grandmother on my father's side that I wanted to be on Television. I asked to go to a performing arts school called, 'Johhny Young Talent School' at the age of 6. I would cook and pretend that I was a cooking presenter at the age of 7 and I would be forever in front of the mirror with a hair brush, talking to myself, imagining I was on a stage. I would spend hours in my room just creating different scenes where I was the star character of a magical theatrical performance. I have always wanted to be an actress. I have always wanted to be a performer.
If you had to choose between stage acting as well as television acting, which one do you prefer?
Most definitely stage acting, no question. Theatre performance is the art of acting in all its rawness. It is what acting is all about; it is just you, the stage, and the audience. The vibrancy, the power, and the connection it's all there. It's electric. I love the theatre. Stage acting is an amazing feeling; I get a real buzz out of it. At the same time however, screen acting also requires an enormous amount of talent. Most of the actors and actresses I love, I have first seen on the screen. I think that as long as you are reaching out to an audience, connecting with them, then that is what the art of acting is really all about.
For me the art of acting is something I love. To be able to do what I love as a full time job would be a blessing, a true blessing. I could ask for nothing more.
Your parents aren't in the theatre, though are they?
No. Both my parents are very far removed from the theatre. My father is a retired accountant, and my mother is a library technician.
Tell us about your first acting experience?
I played one of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth whilst in high school. I loved this part as it required over dramatising. I studied my part well and played the role to the very best of my ability. I also did a monologue that I had written for our school show. It was a great performance. I actually forgot my lines in the early stages of my piece. I got what is commonly known as a creative block, or maybe stage fright! However I ploughed on and improvised the whole way through. The entire school loved it; I had such a great time up on that stage. I remember it clearly to this day. I did not want it to end; I had the limelight, the stage, and held my audience captive. I was only 16, but I felt so powerful, like I owned the entire space. I had created the whole scene off the top of my head, and it felt so good. The next term when I came into drama class I recall a fellow saying 'Oh no! Mirembe is in this class... We are all going to be annihilated.' That gave me such a confidence boost! My fellow classmates could see my talent!
When I finished school I had to start working so I did not have time to volunteer my time as a young actress. I did however join a casting agency and got quite a lot of extra work, with a few spoken parts here and there. I have been in things like, 'Babe 2, Neighbours, Home and Away, various TV commercials and Australian hip hop videos.
What about more recently?
More recently I have performed two monologues to a large audience in London. The first was a piece called Waking Up, by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. The second was an extract taken from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. I played the role of Enobarbus, wherein I describe Cleopatra's ship sailing in. It is such a beautifully romantic, and poetic piece. It was a stark contrast to my character in Waking Up who is an enraged house wife who is venting her anger and frustration to the audience. I enjoyed playing both roles immensely. I also enjoyed the contrast between the modern and the classical. I received excellent feedback in regards to my performances, which is always such a tremendous feeling.
What do you look for in a part?
I like a role where the character is quite powerful be it emotionally or mentally. I like the audience to be able to connect with me, for them to see within my character reflections of themselves, their own lives and pieces of their reality. The parts I look for will cause an audience to react, and to relate. I like a part that has depth and meaning, a strong character.
On a whole different level I think it would be fun to play a fantasy character, like a mermaid or a fairy princess. That's the inner child in me coming out now I think! I find characters that have lots of dimensions to their personality great to work with.
Are you ever considering doing dramatic roles?
Of course, dramatic roles are great. They can be the most powerful ones. They require a great deal of energy and passion, which is what I love about the art of acting. I think sometimes the more dramatic the better. You release so much unused energy that way, it's great.
Do you have plans to ever relocate from the UK to Los Angeles (Hollywood) in the near future?
Not at the moment, No. I am very happy here in the UK. However if a role comes along that requires me to relocate and it is what I want to do, then I would go for it! I am doing quite well right here in the UK for the time being. I have been to Hollywood before and loved it. It is very glamorous and exciting, I know my daughter, Maliyka, who is only 20 months old would be in her element there. She is such a little diva!
What were the circumstances which led to your trip to Hollywood?
Well, it really came as a blessing. As you may know, actors need regular jobs until they get gigs. My 9-5 is a Marketing and Sales job. It was at this job where I won a trip to Hollywood, because I had exceeded my targets at work. I was one of the best in our department, of which at the time there would have been about 400 people. I had overachieved in all areas, so myself and a few others were taken to Hollywood for a one week holiday. It was great; all expenses paid, 5 star hotel, nights out, rental cars, the whole works. It was on one of these nights out that my boss booked a table at one of the most lavish restaurants on Sunset Boulevard. It was here that I chatted quite comfortably with people like Eve, Sharon Osborne, and Lennox Lewis.
Talking about meeting celebrities, is there a famous person you would like to act with?
Yes. Halle Berry. I would just adore working with her, I think the main reason I would like to work with her is so I can learn from her. Learn how she made it this far and still has managed to stay at the top of her game. She is such an inspiration. There are so many questions I would have for her that I would have to bring along a note book!
You're from a small town in Australia. How does that kind of modest upbringing has prepared you for the fast-track Hollywood or Broadway life which might soon become a reality for you?
That is true though you recall, I did fast-track in life at 14 when I moved to the city in Sydney. I have been preparing for the Broadway and Hollywood my entire life. As I mentioned, I went to Hollywood a few years back and got to meet quite a few famous people, which although of course exciting, didn't faze me and in fact spurred me on to pursue my passion in arts.
When I went to the BRITS Awards (British Music Award Ceremony similar to MTV Music Awards) this year I managed to meet a fair number of stars like Madonna, Thandie Newton, Simon Cowell, Kanye West, Sharon Osborne, Paris Hilton as well as Sir Trevor McDonald, Louie Walsh, Craig David, Lemar, Dizzee Rascal, Shuga Babes, Debbie Harry amongst other well known UK acts. Hollywood and Broadway life is what I am destined to do. I was born prepared for this.
What do you think you would be doing now if you weren't into acting?
I cannot imagine being into anything else. Acting is what I am all about. It is the reason I am here.
What about accents? Is this something you'd be comfortable with?
Yes. My voice generally changes whenever I play a different character. As does my demeanour, my physical stance, my aura, my emotional state, my whole outlook just changes. I literally morph into someone else. I love transforming into a whole new being, becoming someone that I can assist in creating. Imagination is the key when becoming your character.
What kind of people do you gravitate toward off-stage?
My kind of people are down to earth, fun loving, kind hearted individuals. I have a wide range of associates from all walks of life and professions, in addition to a close-knit circle of friends from way back in my childhood to the present who keep me in check in addition to my partner and relatives of course! The most important thing to me is that a person has a good heart. I steer clear of people that I get a bad vibe from. I have become quite a good judge of character, after a few hard lessons.
You are relatively new to the business. What have you learned so far?
I have learned that this industry is not for people who are half-hearted about it. Perseverance and belief in thyself are a must. I just think along the lines of I have no option but to succeed.
Mirembe I get the feeling that you might be getting contacted by major companies in Uganda to be the face of their billboards and products. I know that at some time, you wanted to be a fashion model. Is that still a desire you have?
I would love to represent Ugandan products! Like I have said I am so very proud of my Ugandan heritage. To market Ugandan products would be an amazing achievement for me. Something I would be so very proud to be a part of.
In regards to being a fashion model, yes that is something I have always had an interest in. However my love for performing arts is more intense. I have a strong passion for the theatre, a desire to perform to live audiences around the world. Using myself as a device to reflect the lives of others, as well as my own. Using my experiences to create characters with whom the audience can relate and connect to. I just love acting! I had to do it to survive for so long; it comes to me as natural as breathing. I have a young daughter, Maliyka, I work and I study. Therefore I really need to focus my energy on my goal, in order to achieve my success. If modeling jobs come my way, and they have come my way, I would not say no, but my heart lies with acting. That is my passion, my dream. Acting is what I was born to do.
Dorothy Dandridge on the cover of LIFE (Nov 1954), portrait by Philippe Halsman.
Who were your most important cinematographic influences along the way?'
Stephen Spielberg, Larry.A.Albucher, Ezra Swerdlow and Deborah Schindler. The reason I have chosen these four producers is for their work on the following; The Colour Purple, Face of An Angel, and Waiting to Exhale. These movies have explosive, tender, talented, passionate, intense, and powerful female characters. The actresses in these films possess such passion and emotion when exposing the many dimensions of the characters that they have been given to portray.
In The Colour Purple, we see Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey in roles that touch our spirit and move us beyond tears. In Face of An Angel, Halle Berry leaves us no option but to believe that she is in fact the great Dorothy Dandridge. Her performance here is my favourite in all the films I have seen her in to date. When the viewer watches Waiting To Exhale, we feel that we are a part of the tight circle of friends that the actresses on screen are bringing to life. The pain, betrayal, tears and joy that the actresses experience become our experiences too. We share their sense of defeat at times, and then we are able to smile as they go on to experience love and joy. These films I have watched time and time again and again.
The producers have captured the essence of what brings a film to life. These films undeniably touch our spirit, and evoke emotions within us that in many cases we are trying to suppress. In each character, in each of the these films I see reflections of myself, images of my past experiences, and the realities of many people that I know. Each of these films has inspired me even more to achieve what I have always dreamed. The actresses in these films only help to reinforce that anything is truly possible. This is what making movies is all about, this is the essence of film making and acting. To touch the spirit of many, expose the realities of our existence, and to inspire, and bring hope.
Who do you feel is the best female actress out there right now?
Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).
That's a tough one. But I am going to stick with my favourite of all time, and say Miss Halle Berry. She plays all her roles like she was born into them. She deserves all the praise she receives and much, much more.
I'm sure you'll agree that it is incredibly hard in the entertainment world today to keep a head on your shoulders. What's your advice for young artists of all genres out there today to avoid getting sucked into the negative aspects of fame and keep their heads on straight?
You need to stay true to yourself and remember that you are representing your family, your people, and your culture. This is not just about you. Whether you like it or not you are a role model, so you have no choice but to keep your head on your shoulders. Be strong, keep it real, and like Tupac says, 'Keep your head up'
So can we expect to see you in any film or theatre projects in the future that are in the works?
Like I have said, my future is looking very bright. I have had a few offers that are still in their initial stages which I am very excited about. Unfortunately I cannot reveal too much at this early stage, but watch this space! I have had to reject quite a few offers as well, as the roles were just not me. I always remember that I have young girl cousins that look up to me as a role model.
What other projects are in store for you in the near future?
I am currently studying for an audition, which will take place at the end of July. This will determine my place in a theatre school here in the UK. This particular school has their own theatre company. So if you prove you have what it takes you can work for them. This could potentially lead me to London's West End Theatre, which is like the New York Broadway! I am very, very excited about this.
I am also in the process of finishing off an article that I shall be sending off to one of UK's leading magazines. I am hoping that they will be interested enough to want to publish it. The article talks about amongst other things, my experiences as a young mixed race woman growing up in Australia. Lastly I am working on launching my own website which is also very exciting.
No doubt, you are a very beautiful, sexy lady. I think Hollywood and Broadway would love you. Do you think it's possible to be a successful actress nowadays without being sexy?
Thank you for the compliment. It's very pressurizing to fit into the sexy mold expectations, but of course you can be successful without being sexy! Not all roles are about being sexy. Some roles require you to not in fact have an ounce of sex appeal. Then again what is sex appeal? Who defines who has it and who does not? It is just social standards again dictating to us what we should see as desirable.
You are passionate about, theatre, writing and social issues. Can you please tell us more about your writing?
My writing right now is on more of a personal level. It is where I can express my thoughts and feelings, and allow myself time for reflection. I give myself time to breath, and also to listen to the inner child that is inside me. Eventually I shall unleash my writing onto the world, and I only hope that it inspires all the young people out there. I started writing when I was around eight years old. I always had diaries, and I won lots of writing competitions. Writing has always been a way for me to escape into my own world. I would create the world and then exist in it for a while. There are so many issues beyond the realms of creative writing that I would like to one-day write about as well. There are so many issues that concern me.
I have already started writing a book based on the experiences I have had in my young life. I find this quite tough as it does open up a few wounds but it will be worth it when I finally publish it. If I get to a level where I am recognized on a more public level as a role model then I can start airing my views on a more public stance that is when I can try and make some real changes. Who knows it may be sooner than I think. My writing is a reflection of me, who I am and what I represent. It highlights my struggles through the good and the bad. I am not ready to make my writing public just yet, but when I do; you will be one of the first to know.
What advice do you have for young actresses, particularly women?
My advice is to follow your heart, and keep your dreams alive. Aspire to be all that you can be. Believe in yourself, and stay true to yourself. Keep yourself grounded, keep focused, and keep it real. As a young woman it can be so hard, so damn tough out there, but you can survive and you will. You need to study the art, be professional about the way you carry yourself. Stay true to yourself, and never forget that you are representing your people. This is not just about you.
Thank you Mirembe for you time.
It was my pleasure!
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First published: July 31, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.