HabeshaLA sits down with actor & screenwriter Sam Mekonnen
This is Sam Mekonnen’s first interview, and I am honored to be the first person to share his journey as an actor and screenwriter. At just 25 years old, he has already made great strides in his career, with appearances in Total Recall and The Great Chameleon . Mekonnen, who speaks four languages including German and Tigrinya, believes, “Everything takes time in life. There’s no short cuts, especially in this industry. It’s really just essentially luck, tenacity, determination and being ready.” With that being said, I think we will be seeing Sam on the big screen very soon!”
Hiwote Berhanu: I read that you’re originally from Eritrea, how old were you when you came and found discovered acting?
Sam Mekonnen: Yes, I was born in Eritrea, and then as a baby I moved to Germany. I grew up in Germany, spent most of my life there, travelling back and forth to Eritrea as well. When I was 15 my mom and my dad decided to move to Canada, so we migrated to Canada, to Toronto. When I was living in Toronto we lived in this rough neighborhood called Scarborough. I think I’ve naturally always been a performer since I was little.
I became a rapper. That’s what you did when you were in Scarborough and black, either it’s you’re a rapper, you’re a gangster or you were a nerd. If you were a nerd you’d get bullied. I was this gangster that had the red bandana hanging out of my pockets, I had the grills on… you would not have recognized me. We moved from Scarborough to Kitchener and I attended an art school in high school.
Acting I really stumbled upon it by accident. My guidance counselor pushed me into it. I had a free hour in my schedule, in my timetable, and Miss Kittleson was sitting across from me and, “Sam, what do you want to do, what do you want to fill it with?” I was, “I don’t know.” I was this gangster, I think I had my grills in my mouth at the time.
She goes, “Why don’t you go into a theater class, your fourth period you can make that a theater class.” I go, “Theater?” She goes, “Well, yeah, you’re a performer right?” I was, “Miss Kittleson, I’m a rapper, yeah, but not a theater person.” She goes,”Yeah, well, you know what just go check it out, and see if you like it. If you don’t like it you can always drop it.” She persuaded me to do that.
I show up in class, I was late for my first class and the drama teacher was laying flat on the table and she was facing the ceiling and goes, “Everybody this is Sam”, all the kids they’re saying Hi, What’s up. Then she goes, “Come here” and I’m “Oh, my gosh, what did I do?” I’m thinking in my head the worst things and she says, “Tickle my belly.”
You have to understand, I’m still thinking I’m a gangster, I’m still thinking I was not comfortable at all as a performer, as like these other kids with artistic backgrounds and stuff. I went and I thought to myself, “A – should I walk out of the class right now? B – should I tell the principal that she asked me to tickle her belly? Or C- should I just go over and tickle her belly?” I went for it and I tickled her belly and she starts laughing, and everybody’s laughing . That kind of broke the ice.
HB: I can’t believe you tickled her belly!
SM: There was one day where she took me off stage and she said, “Sam, come here. You’re really good with performing but I think you should look into film and television.” I wasn’t sure what she meant but I guess what she was getting at was my performances were more internal, just the way I was performing was more for a film and television medium. In theater, you’re doing large gestures and you’re projecting and all that stuff. I wasn’t doing that quite so well.
I took her advice from that. She told me do some acting classes. I did my first acting class and met with my first agent at the time. He came to the class and signed me after that.
HB: It seems like your acting teacher inspired you pursue acting. How did you take your next steps?
SM: I took my first acting class. It was in downtown Toronto and I got signed with my very first agent. He had started submitting me for different kinds of jobs. The roles you’re going to audition for, especially at the beginning of your career, and especially for a black man, I played the typical roles. I’ll be a gangster or I’ll play some kind of – a doctor at the very most, you know what I mean? The industry is really racist in itself. Until you get really big, that’s when you can sort of decide and write your own roles and play what you really want to play. In the beginning of your career, you get type-casted, period.
HB: I read that you attended Humber College?
SM: I went to Humber College for a year and then I dropped out. I kind of noticed that I didn’t want to be so much behind the camera. I like writing, I like producing and that kind of stuff, but I didn’t know that I always wanted to be in front of the camera. I didn’t think I was going to do much with a degree in film and media productions. I dropped out and started producing my own kind of movies and scenes.
HB: What’s the inspiration behind your writing?
SM: Honestly, I’m a really emotional person so I get inspired really easily. I cry very easily. I’ll look at a building and I’ll cry at the architecture, or “This is beautiful, look at this fucking tree, it’s awesome.” Or, I’ll cry at a song that I’ll listen to just because I connected with certain memories, you know what I mean? Anything can inspire me I think. Music does it a lot of the time. When I’m uninspired, or I don’t know what to do then I’ll listen to different kind of songs or I watch other movies or I watch other performances and I go, “Oh my gosh, that was just amazing, that was the best thing ever.” I get inspired by anything.
HB: You starred in the film, The Great Chameleon. Can you talk about some of the movies that you’ve done?
SM: The Great Chameleon, that was something … Stacy Keach was actually in that movie.
HB: Who’s that?
SM: If you remember, Stacy Keach he’s in American History X. Wonderful actor. Eclectic performer, I think he’s pretty cool. I think – have I done more TV than I’ve done films? I have to think about that
HB: How long does it take you to create an entire script for a film?
SM: The thing is, a movie takes a while actually. You’re shooting for three months essentially, on average. There’s three months of shooting, and it’ll be a 90-minute movie. Sometimes when you’re doing one scene, when you’re trying to shoot one single scene, it could take a week to do that. I’m still a baby actor in my career, I’m starting off. I’m still pretty fresh, I’m learning new things every day You kind of take it day by day as you go and you fail a lot. There’s so much rejection in this industry. For every single role that I booked I failed twenty-five times or I didn’t book twenty-five roles.
Here’s the thing that people that don’t act don’t understand. When your agent is submitting you for a project, let’s say they’re making a movie and they’re looking for a single role. There’s a casting director that casts for that role. A casting director will receive five hundred to a thousand submissions from agents around the city. Out of those five hundred to a thousand headshots and acting resumes and demo reels, they have to invite the best fifty people that they think can fill the role. Out of those fifty people now you’re competing with these fifty people and sometimes they pick the five best out of them and they do callbacks. In this callback they test your chemistry, how is John going to look in the scene with Kathy, and then you book. Once you book the role then sometimes they don’t even make the show or they cut your scene. When you’re invited to an audition that’s an accomplishment in itself. A lot of people don’t get that. My friends or family there, “Oh when are you going to be doing a scene with Jennifer Aniston, and why aren’t you on the red carpet with Denzel Washington?” It takes time. Everything takes time in life. There’s no short cuts, especially in this industry.
HB: I am a fashion blogger as well; I have to ask you about your fashion style!
SM: To be honest with you I’m not the most, I wouldn’t say I’m fashionable but I’m obsessed with watches. I have fifteen watches. My most expensive watch is probably $500, but I’m obsessed with my watch matching my outfit. It’s a really bad obsession. I got to stop.
HB: No, that’s incredible. I myself, I’m obsessed with watches, I call it a statement piece. What projects do you have coming up? I saw you on OWN TV, you were doing one of those criminal cases dramatizations when they do court cases and stuff like that.
SM: Definitely. It’s fun shooting it, but it’s more fun when you’re walking around and somebody points you out and thinks you’re criminal that you played in a show. You’re portraying a character and the general public they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. I was shopping one time and this lady pointed me out and she’s, “There’s Terry Thomas.” She was going to call the cops on me, and before I know it, I just grabbed my shit and I got out of the grocery store. I saw through the window she was speaking to the manager and it was really funny.
What’s funny about it is when you do these shows, when you do them the producers send out an email to each and every actor and they go, “Do not contact the people in this script,” because we are recreating real life criminal cases, so it’s like me calling up John and asking him how he felt when he killed his wife. These are real people, they’re still alive, some of them are out of jail, some of them are still in jail. It’s funny that the producers have to tell actors not to contact these people. I would never do that, that’s common sense, Want to see his motivation and stuff. I think that’s funny.
Although I do like to do character acting, I’m much more of a character actor. I remember for this one audition I had to play a bum and so I didn’t shower for a long time, I think for like two or three days, and I ripped my pants and I went to the audition. On my way to the audition I was collecting money, so, “You got a dollar, bro?” I ended up getting $20 or so. I did actually make a lot of money. In twenty minutes I got $25. Of course before I went into the audition I gave all that money to an actual homeless person. Then I went in to the audition and the producers – honestly, most jobs that I’ve booked were because you go in and you completely are free, you’re careless, you’re not judging your character.
HB: That’s amazing. You stay in character even after you finish shooting?
SM: A little bit after, but that’s just me. Every actor operates differently. I have some actor friends, they chill in their trailers, they sleep in their trailers and then when it’s time for action they go. Me, I have to stay in character for a little longer.
HB: In today’s world, how important do you think art is in our community?
SM: In the Habesha culture for sure, I think that the arts are frowned up, most of my uncles or other friends of our family they’re, “Oh, I want you to become a doctor. Why don’t you become a lawyer? Stay in school.” Luckily my parents have been really open and supportive. My mom was a stay at home mom, she raised us, my dad was an electrician. I don’t come from a rich background or anything. We were rich in love if that counts for anything, and I think that’s really important as a kid. You want to grow up and you want to get as much love as you can from your parents because now that I’m a young man, I can go chase paper.
I think the arts in the Habesha culture is not pushed a lot, but I think that’s going to change now with the next generation, my kids’ maybe. If my kids want to become artists I totally encourage them to just like my parents encouraged me to do that. It’s really funny, I remember talking to my dad. I wanted to see how far I could push him. I told him I have an audition today and there’s going to be another guy in it. It’s going to be a gay scene. He goes, “(ahem) Okay. Does it pay a lot?” I just shook my head. He goes, “Go for it.” Then I wanted to see how far I could push beyond that, I told him we’re also going to be taking off our clothes. Then he goes, “Now you’re taking it too far, now you’re taking it too far.”
HB: Oh my God!
SM: It was hilarious. It was really funny to see that.
HB: I can’t believe he was okay with that.
SM: Seriously. They’re really good parents I think. Eritrean, Ethiopians, they’re really humble people, they’re really strong people.
The first time I met a Habesha in the industry was when I did a commercial shoot and the cook was Habesha. She was Eritrean and she was talking on the phone in Tigrinya and I go up to her, I just wanted to shock her, I was, “Where are you from?”. Obviously I knew where she was from. She goes, “You don’t know it, it’s a small country, in East Africa called Eritrea, you don’t know it.” I start speaking Tigrinya with her and I tell her I’m also Eritrean and she’s just lost her shit.
Then we started venting, “Oh my gosh, the Habesha people never really get what I’m doing. I’m having a hard time explaining that I’m a cook on a film set.” She had a son who also wanted to be an actor. I gave her my agents card at the time, and I kicked it with her for the rest of the day on the set. It was really amazing to see other people like you in the industry as well. She packed up food, it’s like when you’re meeting a Habesha mom it’s like she’s your own mom. That’s how Habesha people are.
HB: That’s crazy when you see somebody from where you came from, in the same industry. What do you have planned in the future, or do you have a five-year plan?
SM: I don’t really have a five-year plan or anything. I kind of take every day as it comes. I feel like when you’re making goals – it’s good to have a goal but at the same time when you’re making goals it’s like you’re desperately trying to arrive at a goal. I don’t want to do that. I kind of just want to be in the moment and live right now, and do today. What day is this day? Is it Tuesday? I want to do Tuesday, I want to be a working actor. I want longevity. I want to work with other amazing actors in different projects. I think that is my goal to just remain an actor.
Short term goals I am moving to LA, hopefully by the end of September to pursue acting. We’ll see where it goes from there. I spoke with some agents over there. We’re going to see how it goes, I’m really excited.