There was a time when Liz Njagah’s face was in almost every screen you saw – on commercials like the famous Lux Beauty Soap one, as lead actress on ‘Makutano Junction’, then internationally on M-Net’s Nigerian drama, ‘Tinsel’, to name a few.
She ended up winning the Best Actress award at the London Greek Film Festival for her portrayal of a Kenyan immigrant.
She and her husband, Alex Konstantaras, created House of Lungula on a budget of around Sh250,000. It was critically acclaimed and won several awards, which got their foot in MNet’s door, as MNet commissioned them for their first movies, which they are currently working on.
“That’s how House of Lungula paid off. They saw it and gave us projects,” she says.
Where did this all start? Her first role was as Nyabera in The River and the Source, directed by the late George Tyson.
“He was my first director on something professional. I remember the audition process was so weird because he tells you to come in, he gives you a part to read at the beginning, and then if you have the part at the end of the day, it’s your part,” she says. “So he just kept changing them like ‘try this other one’, try this other one’. So whatever part you were left with at the end of the day was your part.” After that, she got into acting professionally. She got into Phoenix, but wasn’t successful the first time she tried for the part, which she really wanted because as she says, at that time Phoenix was the holy grail of acting.
“I went for the audition and they sent me a regret. I had to wait for the next year’s auditions, because then they used to hold them once every year. I got in the second time after waiting a year, during which went back to National Theatre. When she got in the second time, she was offered the two-year internship and stayed on afterwards, learning everything to do with film. She then got into TV through her first commercial ever, a popular Lux advertisement.
“Then that got me Makutano Junction. They saw me on the Lux commercial and the rest is history. That was where I started doing more films. Because at that point I started doing props, you know like doing production,” she says.
“I was in like the Art Department, so I was working on that. In the industry, at that time you could not really support yourself by just acting because the roles were few and far between. You wouldn’t get many roles at a time, so you had to do other stuff. So I started doing production.”
Deciding then that it was time to go and see the world, she became cabin crew at Emirates Airlines for about five years before returning to acting.
“I missed the stage and I missed acting, because once you get the bug, man, it is hard to let go. I missed it so much and I decided it was time to go back, so I came back,” she says.
Meeting her husband
Lizz is married to Greek filmmaker and director, Alex Konstantaras. They tied the knot on June 10 2012 at the Church of St Alexander in Greece. The two have different memories of how they met.
Lizz remembers that around the time she was in Emirates, she was looking for a way to get back into acting and had taken about four months unpaid leave to see what the film industry in Kenya was like. She was visiting, writing to and giving her CV to different production houses, reintroducing herself.
“I sent an email to Jitu, where Alex was at the time. He saw the email and he invited me over to the office. I went over to the office to meet with him and let them know that I was available and if they ever have a project, to call me,” she says.
“Then he asked me for a coffee at the Kenya National Theatre. We went for coffee, he gave me his number and then I did not call him and then eventually he found me at a birthday party and said, “We were supposed to go for coffee!” So then we went for coffee.”
What about his story?
“His story is that we met while I was still flying and he says we met at a Karaoke bar and I was with one of my friends. I do not remember him. Honestly, I have no recollection. I just remember there were four people at that table and he was one of them. I remember his friend, but not him,” she says.
They now work together, which Lizz says is one of the best things.
“We create stuff together cause we are both in the same industry. He covers my weaknesses and I cover his. I produce and he directs. We write together, we are very creative. We come up with interesting stories. I think we work well together. I think it has really helped our marriage,” she says.
Blending into Greek culture has been easy for her, as they both say that Greeks are the Africans of Europe, in the sense they are very family-oriented.
“It is about the extended family. The way they drive is another. They do not follow the rules of the road!” she says with a laugh.
A while back, the rumour mill had churned out a story that Konstantaras and Academy Award-winning Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o, had once dated before he and Lizz met and that this was a threat to their marriage, but Lizz rubbishes it.
“Alex and Lupita never dated. They were just good friends,” she says.
The two starlets got their start at Phoenix Theatres, but surprisingly, never worked together, except when they were on a cover of a magazine at the same time. Lizz is immensely proud of her.
“I follow her on social media, but I would not say we are like buddies. She has done well for herself. I admire that,” she says.
Lizz also got a big break when she auditioned for and starred on MNet Nigeria show, Tinsel, which she considers her greatest achievement. At the time, she had also been shortlisted for Big Brother Africa, but decided to go for Tinsel instead, which she said helped her develop her craft. She ended up doing two films for MNet Nigeria that are still showing on Africa Magic. One was called Girl, which is one of her favourite works.
“It was so much fun to play. It was about this Nigerian girl, there is this guy who is hitting on her. She thinks he is broke because he is living in their apartment and he is not the best and she finds out that he is actually rich, the son of the owner. And he is expecting that she will be like, ‘You lied to me! But she is like no, I am glad you are rich! It was really fun!” she says.
Most fans of Tinsel did not catch on that she was not Nigerian.
“The thing about Nigeria is not everybody speaks pidgin. Nobody ever thought I was Kenyan. A lot of Tinsel fans thought I was Nigerian. My character was not speaking pidgin. It is the same way we use English and Kiswahili here. The way some characters speak English and some speak Kiswahili, it is the same concept,” she says.
Lizz believes this is the best time to get into the film industry for Kenyans.
“Because there is such an interest in African content. And when you think of Africa in terms of content you think of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. There is an interest in local stories around the world and Africa is so untapped. There are so many stories that have not been told here. And you have to have the passion for it,” she says.
She says that Kenyan movies have improved, but Kenyans need to watch them more, especially now with more access to them thanks to the internet.