Interview with Oliver Litondo, Star of 'The First Grader'

By Meghan Giannotta,

Oliver Litondo is the award winning star of the movie The First Grader, a film about an 84-year-old Kenyan who goes back to school to learn to read and write. Litondo received the AARP Movie For Grown Ups Best Actor Award for his role as Kimani Maruge in the film. He has also been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Litondo has traveled from Kenya to Los Angeles to receive his awards, and experience the success that his role in The First Grader has brought him. He took some time to speak to TheCelebrityCafe.com about his experience with the movie and what his future plans are.

TheCelebrityCafe.com: Congratulations on your AARP Best actor award! When you were filming the movie The First Grader did you think that it was going to lead to such success?

Oliver Litondo: Not really! I thought it was a good script and I thought that the story was well written. I also knew that since it was a true story it might generate, but I wasn’t quite sure that it would be as famous as it is.

TCC: Not many people knew about the movie in the United States, but at the AARP award ceremony they played a 50-second clip and you received a standing ovation. Why do you think that your role affects people so much?

Oliver: I think that the people who saw it… unfortunately, just before I got here the movie had not received [as] much publicity as it should have, I think due to bad distribution. But as soon as I got here it started picking up momentum. These standing ovations that I’ve been getting are just awesome! I’m flattered really. I think the people who viewed the movie are moved by the story itself. The story is about education and I think the people who see it identify themselves with the story. Education is a global thing. It is not African, it is not European, and it is not American. It’s for everybody. Everybody wants to go to school. Everybody wants to be educated. Everyone wants to read and write. So I think that is why. When the audience sees it they see aspects that touch them and especially educational value of the movie and the mere fact that this man was so determined to go to school and he never gave up on his sort of idea. Even at the age of 84 he still had that determination and he achieved it.

TCC: In your acceptance speech you said that filmmakers should go make movies in Kenya where young people are educated, but unemployed. Do you think that your role in this film will encourage filmmakers to do so?

Oliver: Yes, I do. Not only for the provision of employment for the young Kenyans who are yearning, even themselves. I’m getting some emails from these youngsters back home. They are wanting to know how they can, and to hear how they can, come into the film industry. Kenya is a beautiful country it’s a beautiful, beautiful location, beautiful sceneries, beautiful geographical areas. It is also cost effective in every thing, particularly film-making. It is cheap because the facilities are there. You don’t have to carry equipment to go to Kenya. And the cost of filming itself in Kenya is much, much cheaper than it is making a film in Hollywood or in any part of America or in Canada. So, I want people to think of Kenya as a film production destination for these reasons and other reasons. Kenyans love people. They would like to see people come and do things in their country and they would like to associate themselves with such people. Above all, it would be a way of getting Kenyans to start on the road to a real film production and I hope that my opinion will make Kenya a destination for production.

TCC: What intrigued you to accept the role in the movie?

Oliver: I was intrigued. When the producers and the director approached me to do the part, I wanted to see the script of course, and when I read the script the first time, I thought it was fantastic. I read it a second time, I read it four times! And every time I read it there was something new. There was something revealing. There was something I discovered in the character of Maruge, and also in the entire movie. So this attracted me, and being a Kenyan story also added to my interest in wanting to do the film. I know the story, or I knew it. It was when Maruge went to school for the first time. It was news in the national media in Kenya. So I read about it and when I saw this chance of doing Maruge in the film I thought ‘yeah, there’s a chance for me to show that Kenyans can also participate in film-making, Kenyans can act.’ And the script presented itself to me as an opportunity to show that aspect of the Kenyan side of film-making.

TCC: The character you play is very determined. Do you see any characteristics of yourself in Maruge?

Oliver: In a way, yes. I am a determined person. I am a person who wants to do things and I am a person who insists on getting things done. And so Maruge was a kind of myself in several ways than one. He was determined. He also had the courage. He was courageous you know, to go - in a scene he goes to the education department and demands that the teacher comes back, that’s courageous! People in various parts of the world don’t have that kind of courage. And the courage he had to go to school at the age of 84 where other people would sort of say "I'd get laughed at if I go to school at this age," Maruge got courageous and went to school. Now here I am acting, I wanted to act all along when I was a young man and I didn’t get that kind of chance but later in my life I’m getting that chance to make a appearances in movies so this is like Maruge in a way. I had that yearning to go and act to go and produce movies to go and show that I have a talent that the world can see in me as an actor and so I think there is a Maruge in me in a big way.

TCC: You have been referred to as a ‘newscaster-turned actor.’ How do you think your years of journalism experience have helped you in your acting career?

Oliver: Yes, my profession is journalism, broadcast journalism. The acting that I did before this role came over was done on the side. I was working full time as a journalist, as a broadcaster. And whenever a movie came along, or a producer from Hollywood or whoever came to Kenya to make a film, he or she would announce that they wanted some extra role, some extra actors, maybe supporting roles. And I would then take off, get permission or get a leave for a few days to go and audition and if I got a part, I would then take some more days to go and to do my part. So this is how I did my acting and my full job was broadcasting, so it gave me a chance to do both.

You know broadcasting and journalism are an immediate, they expose people to immediate aspects of life. It was not hard for me to go from broadcast to the acting, because in broadcasting you are before cameras and you are reporting and the cameras are there and in acting you are also before cameras. It is always there, so it wasn’t very different for me. I think the two worked very well for me.

TCC: Do you have any plans set for your future career?

Oliver: Yes, my hopes are that I can stay in Hollywood. I can stay in LA to get more acting roles in films that hopefully would be produced in Hollywood, either in America, or in Africa, or in Kenya, or wherever. So my plans are to make a residence in LA ,and through that, to try to see if I can get some job in some films as an actor.

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