Born to Ugandan immigrants and raised in an academically-minded household, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine stunned his parents when he told them he wanted to pursue acting. "I really took years off their lives when they heard that," he told host Ophira Eisenberg. "It was a shock to the system."
Mwine has appeared on stages across the world and on beloved television shows like The Knick and Treme. However, he is perhaps best known for starring as Ronnie on Showtime's The Chi. "He's somebody who thinks with his heart," Mwine said of his character. "His heart's on his sleeve, and then realizes afterwards that his heart's gotten him in the wrong places. [...] He means well but doesn't always do well."
At first, stepping into the shoes of a South Side Chicago resident and military veteran was incredibly daunting. "The world that Ronnie lives in or orbits around was totally foreign to me," Mwine explained to Eisenberg, "That meant doing tons of research and still feeling foreign."
Mwine is used to researching his characters in depth, conducting interviews and gathering stories to inform his work. Biro, a one-man show inspired by the story of a relative, took years of careful development. "He was HIV positive, living in Uganda when there was no access to treatment or care, back in the 80s. And he smuggled his way illegally into the United States. He was basically a medical refugee," Mwine recounted. "So I went with a tape recorder and interviewed him and from those interviews, created the solo piece. [...] Four years later, I was doing it all over the world, all over a dozen countries."
In addition to acting and writing, Mwine also works behind the camera as a filmmaker and photographer. "You have to create constantly," he explains, whether that means documenting the life of his fourteen-month-old daughter, or recreating photographs of his personal heroes for his Instagram feed. For his Ask Me Another challenge, we took inspiration from Mwine's inspiration, and quizzed him on some of his personal muses.
On being drawn to acting, writing, directing, and photography
It's called the curse of being an artist.
On professions his parents might have preferred to acting
My grandfather was archbishop of Uganda, so maybe if I could have been a priest... I've played a priest since then!
On filming Treme on location in New Orleans
The food is just incredible, and the music, and everyone's dripping fish or alcohol when they're walking down the streets. And here I was, the vegetarian who doesn't drink, just observing, taking pictures [...] they thought I was an alien.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's appeared on "The Knick," "Treme" and as Ronnie in Showtime's "The Chi." Please welcome Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine.
NTARE GUMA MBAHO MWINE: Thank you. Thank you for having me - what a warm welcome.
EISENBERG: Thanks for being on our show. Thank you so much.
MWINE: It's a thrill to be here.
EISENBERG: So in your family growing up, both of your parents are academically minded - your father a Harvard graduate, lawyer and banker; your mother psychologist and a teacher. You were drawn to acting.
MWINE: I know. I really - it took years off their lives when they heard that.
MWINE: It was a shock to the system, especially not - you know, I think for anyone in that field, but you add to that - which you forgot to add, which I'll point out - my parents are Ugandan. So African parents, immigrant parents you would think are, like, you know, there's only one way, one direction. And it's not the arts usually, so...
EISENBERG: Right, right. They wanted - they were like, you're not going to be able to support yourself and make a mark.
MWINE: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: So what were they trying to maybe steer you towards?
MWINE: Ideally they would have hoped maybe law.
MWINE: My grandfather was archbishop of Uganda, so maybe if I could have been a priest...
EISENBERG: Yeah, sure.
MWINE: I've played a priest since then.
EISENBERG: I'm sure they were happy about that.
MWINE: Yes, they were.
EISENBERG: OK, but now you have this very successful career, so I'm sure they - they've changed.
MWINE: They acquiesced, yes. When I was able to - my father - both my parents were really supportive. My dad came from Uganda to see me perform at the Steppenwolf Theatre, like, years ago and my mom when I performed at the Kennedy Center in D.C.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
MWINE: So they were really, you know, really grateful for the breaks that I've had. So when this comes on the air, I will send a link to my mom so she can hear it in Uganda, which will be great.
EISENBERG: That makes me very, very happy. You star in Showtime's "The Chi" as Ronnie, a character that has been described as - well, he means well, but he has a hard time. And this character gets himself in a lot of rough situations. He tries to make amends. Things turn against him a lot. He doesn't have a lot of luck on his path to goodness.
MWINE: Yes, he's somebody who's - thinks with his heart - his heart's on his sleeve - and then realizes afterwards that his heart's gotten him in the wrong places. And it's a little too late, and he's in a mess. He means well but doesn't always do well.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it's a complicated role, Ronnie.
EISENBERG: And, I mean, as an actor, you said you were very nervous about taking on this character.
EISENBERG: And you had to approach him from the outside-in.
EISENBERG: What does that mean?
MWINE: It was 'cause I'm - I was born in New Hampshire. My parents are from Uganda. So the world that Ronnie lives in or orbits around was totally foreign to me. So for me, that meant doing tons of research and still it feeling foreign, but having to, you know - being thrown in the deep end, so to speak. I didn't have - I could've taken years to sort of do more research to get - but we were starting to film, and I was just like, OK, let me try...
EISENBERG: Right, it's...
MWINE: ...What I've got. And hopefully I'm not fired tomorrow (laughter). And it started to get a little more comfortable as the season went on.
MWINE: But, you know, you hit the ground running.
EISENBERG: Absolutely. You have done a lot of theater, developed a solo show that actually ran at the public theater here in New York City in 2003 called "Biro," inspired by a relative of yours.
EISENBERG: What was it about this man's particular story that you thought you had to tell now?
MWINE: Yeah, well, he was HIV positive, living in Uganda when there was no access to treatment or care back in the '80s. And he smuggled his way illegally into the United States. He was basically, like, a medical refugee. And we don't think of people who sometimes can't get treatment where they are, and they come to the U.S. for that 'cause they had access to drugs here. And he landed in jail. And it was through his story that I felt it addressed it issues of immigration, issues of HIV/AIDS advocacy, issues of lack of treatment.
And so I thought this was a really - an important story to tell and was coming up to the 20th anniversary of the HIV pandemic. This is back when I did it in '94. And so I went with a tape recorder and interviewed him and, from those interviews, created the solo piece that - my first play that I'd ever written.
MWINE: And I had never imagined that it would go beyond - you know, I rented the National Theater in Uganda just to do it there. And next thing I knew, four years later, I was doing it all over the world, over a dozen countries including the Public Theater. And so it was a blessing. And he, I'm grateful to say, is still alive and kicking and is back home in Uganda and doing well.
EISENBERG: That's fantastic.
MWINE: So he'll listen to this, too.
EISENBERG: He will listen to this, too.
EISENBERG: OK, so, you know, I have to mention this because in addition to having this television career, in addition to performing live theater, you also are an accomplished documentary photographer. Your work has been exhibited at the United Nations, in Vanity Fair and museums across the country. So what inspired you to go, you know what, I don't want to only appear on that side of the camera; I want to be on the other side of the camera?
MWINE: It's called the curse of being an artist. I think it's like...
MWINE: You know how it is. You have to create constantly.
MWINE: So if I'm not acting or if I'm not writing or - I'm behind the camera, shooting obscure things. So I'm always, like, taking things in and trying to figure out how to, you know, share them and process them. And...
EISENBERG: What subjects are you drawn to as far as...
MWINE: Right now I have a 14-month-old daughter, so...
MWINE: Emanzi Echo Mwine - we just had her baptism yesterday here. She's been my muse of late.
EISENBERG: So on "Treme," you actually had to learn how to convincingly play a chef...
EISENBERG: ...Even though you are a vegetarian and couldn't eat a lot of the food you were preparing.
MWINE: Well, being a vegetarian and working in New Orleans...
MWINE: And I also don't drink, so they just they...
EISENBERG: It's worst place.
MWINE: They thought I was an alien.
MWINE: Or I was like on some extreme form of treatment or like some weird ailment that needed, you know - that did not make any sense, so...
EISENBERG: Right, because you couldn't say you were pregnant.
MWINE: Exactly. I should have used that.
EISENBERG: Yeah, like, scare them. So it was - as an actor, just doing the role as, you know, the chef was a little - that was real acting - right...
MWINE: It was. It was.
EISENBERG: ...As they say.
MWINE: Well, we got to study with some incredible chefs, go behind the scenes in a lot of amazing kitchens. And for those folks who haven't been in New Orleans, really it's just an amazing place to visit, and the food is just incredible and the music, and everyone's dripping fish or alcohol when they're walking down the streets. And here I was the vegetarian who doesn't drink...
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly, observing...
MWINE: ...Observing, taking pictures.
EISENBERG: Taking pictures, yeah, exactly, creating.
MWINE: (Laughter) Yeah.
EISENBERG: So you are also starring in a dark comedy sketch show on HBO called "Random Acts Of Flyness."
MWINE: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: I would love to know what this is about.
MWINE: Terence Nance - we get to go inside that twisted, dark, entertaining, wildly fascinating mind and imagination of Terence Nance, an incredible filmmaker who made a film called "An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty." And so this is, like, a sort of dark, twisted version of "Key And Peele," I can say...
MWINE: ...From his point of view, yeah.
EISENBERG: Is this your first foray into sketch comedy?
MWINE: Yes, I am usually dark and miserable and serious, so this is an attempt at trying to be light and funny and - yeah.
EISENBERG: Did it feel good?
MWINE: I felt uncomfortable.
EISENBERG: It felt uncomfortable.
EISENBERG: That's a good sign. That's a good sign. Speaking of uncomfortable...
EISENBERG: No - are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
MWINE: I don't know if I'm ready, but I'm willing to try.
EISENBERG: Yes, you are. Give it up for Ntare.
EISENBERG: So Ntare, we looked you up on Instagram.
MWINE: Wow, these guys are thorough.
EISENBERG: I know. Instagram is readily available, just so you know.
EISENBERG: But we looked you up on Instagram, and we noticed that you liked to dress up as your personal heroes - as you call them, your muses.
EISENBERG: So we wrote a game for you where every answer is a famous person you have dressed up as on Instagram.
EISENBERG: OK, so we're going to have three clues for each person. The clues get progressively easier.
EISENBERG: So what I want you to do is ring in and guess as soon as you think you know the answer.
MWINE: OK, cool.
EISENBERG: OK. And if you do well enough, Sam Kimpton (ph) from Durham, N.C., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: I know, exciting. Here we go. So who am I? I said, I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.
EISENBERG: I said they start off hard.
EISENBERG: I went to law school in London, and I had notoriously bad handwriting. I was an Indian activist whose non-violent methods...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
MWINE: Oh, of course.
EISENBERG: ...Directly inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
MWINE: Yeah, yeah, my good friend Mahatma Gandhi.
EISENBERG: Yes, that is correct.
MWINE: He is the reason I'm vegetarian.
MWINE: Yes. "My Experiments with Truth," his book - when I read that, I was like, yeah, I'm not eating meat again, and I'm going to wear clothes only made from Uganda. (Laughter) But I've since digressed and now have other clothes. But for a short period of time, I was literally wearing, like, sarongs that were handwoven in Uganda and walking around in sandals and eating vegetarian food because of that book, because of him.
EISENBERG: Because of that book.
EISENBERG: All right, who am I? I said, you can play a shoe string if you're sincere. There's a church named after me in San Francisco, and I was granted sainthood by the African...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: ...Orthodox Church. Go ahead, Ntare.
MWINE: John Coltrane.
EISENBERG: John Coltrane - that is right.
MWINE: And a story about Coltrane quickly. John Coltrane "A Love Supreme" was playing when my daughter was born. We played it - we were in the hospital, and they were like, do you want to play any music? And we were like, oh, yes. So...
EISENBERG: How long is that song? It's, like, 17 minutes...
MWINE: It was on loop.
EISENBERG: I used to do a jazz morning show at college radio that I had to be up at 5 a.m. for, and I would grab "Love Supreme" and throw it on while I picked out the rest of my music...
EISENBERG: ...'Cause I knew I had about 20 minutes.
EISENBERG: All right, who am I? I said, make yourself do unpleasant things so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
EISENBERG: I know. That's intense. And I vote no.
EISENBERG: But anyways, I was the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
MWINE: Oh, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Go ahead.
MWINE: W.E.B. DuBois.
EISENBERG: That is correct...
EISENBERG: ...Cofounded the NAACP and actually your inspiration for your character in "The Knick."
MWINE: Yes, not just mine. I believe Soderbergh and the writers on the show used him as inspiration for D.W. Garrison Carr, who is the character I played on "The Knick."
MWINE: Yeah - so very cool.
EISENBERG: Fantastic. OK, we have a couple more for you.
EISENBERG: Who am I? I said with my music, I create change. I'm using my music as a weapon. I trained as a radio producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. OK, I pioneered...
EISENBERG: I pioneered afrobeat music, and in 2010, a Broadway musical about my life won three Tony awards.
MWINE: Oh, yes, this is Femi - or Fela Kuti.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
MWINE: Yes. Yes.
MWINE: Fela. Did you see the show on Broadway?
EISENBERG: I did not see the show on Broadway.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I know.
MWINE: They've got to make a movie.
EISENBERG: OK. Who am I? I said, I've been imitated so well, I've heard people copy my mistakes.
EISENBERG: That's amazing.
MWINE: That's a great quote.
EISENBERG: One of my most famous works came to me in a dream after I read a sci-fi novel. I ended a performance of "Wild Thing" by lighting my guitar on fire.
MWINE: Wow. Jimi Hendrix?
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Jimi Hendrix.
EISENBERG: Fantastic. Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do?
ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Ntare. You and listener Sam Kimpton both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
EISENBERG: "The Chi" airs on Showtime. Give it up for Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine.
MWINE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.