Fans immediately recognize Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as Ronnie Davis, the iconic character from Showtime’s The Chi. Prior to this role, the successful actor made a name for himself on shows such as ‘Treme’ and ‘Heroes’. Although born in New Hampshire, the multi-talented artist is a dual citizen of Uganda and America. Ntare explores fatherhood and faith in his most recent project, Tazmanian Devil, the perfect follow-up to his critically acclaimed film, Farewell Amor.
Parlé Magazine caught up with the actor to discuss his new film and his final season on The Chi. Check out the full interview below!
Parlé Mag: So let’s talk first and foremost about Tazmanian Devil. Can you tell us about your character, Julius? What are some experiences that you drew from when you developed his character?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: He is a preacher in a small town in Texas, in a small church. It’s mostly for immigrants, African immigrants, and he is an African immigrant from Nigeria. And he’s left his family in Nigeria to set up shop in a small town in Texas. That becomes his lifeblood and his family is longing for him, wanting to connect with him, but he says he’s putting God first. And, of course, blood is thicker than water as they say, and his family finds his way to him.
His son gets accepted to a college in the same town as his father and therein lies the drama. It’s basically a father-son story of how they’ve grown so far apart and how they try to come back together–and to be careful of what you tell your children not to do because sometimes that’s what they’ll end up doing! You tell them what not to do and they might rebel against that. So this father, Julius, wants his son to become a priest and his son wants nothing to do with that, and ends up pledging to a fraternity and that’s where he finds his own calling.
Parlé Mag: I know your parents were African immigrants and you grew up in New Hampshire, which isn’t known for its diversity. So what was that experience like for you growing up, dealing with the culture of your family and the culture of your home?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I was born in the states, but I’ve always been going back and forth to Uganda since before I can remember. So I really felt like a child of two worlds. I never felt like I was uprooted and was all of the sudden in a new place. In the film, the son Dayo leaves Nigeria for the first time when he’s 17, 18 or so and that’s a huge adjustment to make. Julius also has left at a later point in his life to come to the US. The big difference for me is that I was born in the states, so it really felt like it was home in a way. I was lucky to have a family that was all over the world, so I felt like a kid of many worlds.
Parlé Mag: It’s always interesting to hear people’s experiences! For some people it’s been a clash since day one, but then there’s other people where, for example with you, they had relatives all over the world. For them, their experience is more global and the way they look at things is more global. So, I like to get people’s perspective on that.
With that being said, what attracted you to this project?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I thought it was a really interesting coming of age story but also at the same time, a coming of age immigrant story and a cautionary tale to me as a parent. I’m a parent of two young kids and you can’t lead with a rod, you know. They talk about sometimes, ‘you must lead with a rod,’ but once you do that there’s always backlash and we see that in this film. The father is literally leading with the rod, or the belt in this case. When he discovers his son has pledged this fraternity called the Tazmanian Devils, his first response was to whip out his belt and try to subdue his son into obedience; but that just pushes his son away.
So, I think it’s a cautionary tale and it’s a tale about devotion–of faith superseding everything else and what can happen when one does that…When one holds one’s faith above someone else, [and] sort of uses that to hide behind. He [Julius] hides behind his responsibilities by claiming that he’s doing everything for God, but he also has responsibilities to his wife and to his son and he can’t hide behind faith to ignore those responsibilities. So it’s a complicated, interesting story for me that was really layered and sort of fun to dive into.
Parlé Mag: What was your experience with faith growing up? I feel like faith plays an integral role in many cultures, even more than here in the states. Did you draw from personal experiences for the film?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I think it’s actually true depending on where you are. You know there’s the religious belts; you go to certain parts of the country, certain places in your city where they’re devout, very religious. It’s the same anywhere really; you go anywhere in the world [and] there will be places where there’s some people who are extremely religious and follow their faith to the T and others who are just out in the clubs and you know haha… But when I grew up, my grandfather was the first African bishop in Uganda–of east Africa, actually. So I grew up seeing him do his practice, going on long walks with him and talking about faith and religion, so I feel like I was exposed to the inner workings of the church at a young age.
I drew upon that a little bit when working on this project, although the character’s completely different from my grandfather. My grandfather did not lead with a cane; although he had responsibilities that sort of took over his life in terms of [how] being an Archbishop can pull you away from your family in a way, because you have so many responsibilities and so many people pulling at you… But I always felt like he was devout to his family as well. I think there’s a question about Julius–we alluded to there being another woman on the side and he’s not actually living up to the cloth. He actually has a breaking point at a certain point in the film where it hits him that he hasn’t lived up to what he’s preaching. He’s not practicing what he preaches.
Parlé Mag: Yeah I loved that scene! It was very powerful. We want to see the characters grow; we don’t want to leave them where we found them.
Around the same time in the film, he’s discovered that Dayo is pledging a fraternity. Do you think he blames himself? What do you think shifted in him that caused him to have that revelation and decide to change?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I think he does take some responsibility; feeling like he fell short. He has a hard time even just saying that, but you can see it on his face and he’s almost asking his wife for help and forgiveness at the same time. And because she’s blamed him for this, she has said, ‘you are putting God above all else. You’ve abandoned us and you’ve just been hiding in the church’, basically.
So she calls him out and anytime when somebody’s called out, there’s flight or fight or deal–like in a responsible way. He struggles to absorb what she’s saying, and by absorbing that he has the inner breakdown and tries to come to terms with where he’s at with his son and his wife and the church.
Parlé Mag: So you mentioned that you took this film as a cautionary tale as a parent. What do you hope viewers will take away from this project? How do you want audiences to feel after watching?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I think everyone’s gonna take away their own experience. I’m not sure if I have one thing for people to take away. I hope they enjoy the film, I hope they enjoy the performances.
Solomon Onita Jr. is a force to be reckoned with, this is his first feature–straight out of college, and this is in many ways his story. He pledged a fraternity and there was tension between him and his dad about that. So he’s really telling his own story and, for me, it’s really about us telling our own stories because if we don’t do them who else will? So I want to celebrate the complexities of the black Greeks, the HBCUs, and this is a window into those worlds. So for anyone who is curious or who’s been a part of that, I think this film will resonate for them. For me, it’s a window into a specific world and I think it sheds light and gives a perspective onto that.
Parlé Mag: So I’m in a sorority, not a black organization, but a sorority nonetheless. Most portrayals I’ve seen feel stereotypical to me and you can tell whether or not someone has that experience. Tazmanian Devil didn’t feel stereotypical to me and Solomon explores the complexities–I liked that you used that word–of being in an organization that claims to love you but treats you like this. I loved that Dayo sees this similarity with church and he holds the tension very well.
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: There’s a thin line between love and hate as they say and this film really explores that. At one point, I think he [Dayo] says that ‘they’re just beating us’ and he feels the same about his father. But at the same time he knows he’s getting something–he’s finding himself through this process. So it’s really about how does one grow, what are the growing pains you’re willing to go through and why you go through them.
Parlé Mag: Love it! So, let’s shift gears and talk about ‘The Chi’ for a little bit. You portrayed Ronnie for years and he died last season. Were you surprised at how it ended for him? What was your response when you first read it?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: No, when I read the first episode of the series where Ronnie’s adopted son Jason is killed, and his girlfriend asks him to figure out what happened and avenge–to man up, basically–and he goes and kills Coogi, I knew the days were numbered (laughs). You don’t kill a kid in the first episode of a show and there’s no sort of consequence. So for me every episode was about if Ronnie’s gonna get it now, or when is it gonna come or people wishing for Ronnie to get payback. Then it’s really a testament to the writers–we’re all human and we make mistakes. I truly think that he did not intend to kill this kid; it was an accident. We see that pain and suffering, the toll that took on him and the journey he has to go through to make amends or atone for this sin.
I felt like they really did a wonderful job in the three years and it’s amazing that they gave the character three years and that at the end they let him go by having him find redemption and his footing for the first time. So that for me was a real blessing that the character was able to go full circle; to go from being the ultimate villain to coming around to being almost like a hero in his town because he saved a kid’s life. He took a kid’s life in the beginning and he saved a kid’s life in the end and that’s how he went out. As an actor, you couldn’t ask for a better journey or arc. I’m truly grateful for that run.
Parlé Mag: Safe to say you weren’t surprised he died, you were surprised he lived haha!
Overall, what was your experience like portraying Ronnie over the course of the 3 seasons and walking with him through his evolution?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: I felt like it was a rollercoaster. His heart was in the right place, but his actions were always taking him down the wrong path. So it was such a struggle. With anyone who has addiction issues, they know something is wrong but they can’t help that they have this addiction. So for him he had an addiction in terms of alcohol and he wanted to stop but he kept going back to the bottle and he kept landing in trouble. But he was always trying to do the right thing, I felt, but he just didn’t have the tools to be able to do that until he met up with Rafiq, played by Common, and that helped him get a little bit of a sense of direction. Then in the last season, he was taken in by the church and that baptism that happened was a real turning point for him.
Often folks really need a support system; you can’t go it alone. What we discovered with this character is that he lacked a support system and that’s where he fell through the cracks. But once he had that support system, he was able to find his footing because he had a helping hand so to speak. So it was a character with so many incredible flaws and such a huge heart; it was a really a blessing to be able to cover the wide range of emotions and pitfalls and highs that this character went on.
Parlé Mag: I feel like you touched on it, but now that the show is over for you, what are your takeaways?
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: Well one of the things for me, was that my creative process has shifted as a result of this. One motto that I’ll always have after this is that sometimes when you let go of expectations, you can experience the divine. So for me, that means that sometimes you can have a way you think things should go but if they don’t go that way they all fall apart. But for me what happened with this role is that I felt like I was able to let go of expectations of how the character should be portrayed and was able to sort of go along for the ride. That for me opened up ways that surprised me and took me into worlds that I would never have imagined because I got out of my own way and let the words come through me so to speak.
Parlé Mag: Thank you for sharing your work with us and also sitting down with us!
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine: Thank you first for watching the film, for having me, and for getting the word out–for proselytizing haha!
Tasmanian Devil is available for streaming on multiple platforms!
Main Image & Second Image Credit: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
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