If you come from a traditional Habesha home, it’s a well known fact that if you’re pursuing anything in the arts you’ll get a look of either confusion or concern, or both. Where arts is sometimes undervalued in the community, Nabil Rajo is an anomaly. Born to a family of directors, writers, and actors, it’s not a surprise that he’s followed in their footsteps. Nabil sits down to share how he got his start in Toronto’s competitive and often exclusive film industry.
How did you get into acting?
Well it runs in my family, I was born in Asmara, and came here when I was 6 years old. My uncle is a writer, director, producer and creates his own content in Eritrea. He has his own little studio in Asmara. His name is Al Amin Ali Mus. My cousin is also a very well known actor in Eritrea and Ethiopia – Fuad Al Amin. It runs in the family, but growing up I spent a lot of time with my uncle and we would watch a lot of movies together. I remember watching John Q with him, he really admired American cinema. As an artist, you don’t want any sort of limitation but for him being in that situation, he could only do what he could. It was such a natural thing for me to be an actor because I was exposed to it at such a young age.
How did you cultivate that talent here?
My mom didn’t put me into any theatre programs here. She wanted me to be focused in school. I wasn’t immersed in that world. Deep down I wanted to do it but I never voiced my interest. I didn’t know how to do it, and I just didn’t know who to ask. In my last year of highschool I did a play about domestic abuse and after that I really considered it. I found a way to figure it out, how to get a headshot, how to get an agent and all of that. I did it on my own, sent some head shots to different agencies, you bump into people and start asking questions and figure out how you can work your way up.
What does your mom think about all of this?
Well, I’m an only child. I have no one to talk to but her. The thing about my mom is that she is very supportive. When I decided to embark on being an actor she was like ugh it’s Al Amin’s fault (my uncle). Then she told me if you’re gonna do it make sure you excel, do it and make sure you are the best at it, don’t half ass it, just be the best you can be. There’s this obvious stigma within our community that being an artist is not a viable career option, that it’s unacceptable. I understand that our parents sacrificed, they did a lot for us so that we can get many opportunities that they never had. But at the end of the day you should support your kid, and trust your kid. If you raised them the right way just know that whatever they do, they’re gonna try to be the best at it. It’s like ok I can be an engineer, I can have a good family but at the end of the day am I happy? you gotta be happy, you gotta be happy with your career, with what you do in life. I don’t want to be in my 30’s and latter 40’s and think -where would I be right now if I had done it?
The way things are going now in terms of the Oscars and Jada Pinket Smith boycotting it, do you think it’s going to be difficult for you to land certain roles in the future because of the diversity issue?
This whole Oscar situation has opened a lot of people’s eyes, which is good. I’m optimistic there will be more opportunities for us in the future. I think it’s going to change, and in 5 years it will be completely different. There is already so much diversity in TV now.
I also want to talk about your experience in working for the Aaliyah biopic, I know it got a lot of slack from viewers on social media , what was that experience like?
It’s funny you mention that, it was like the second highest viewed TV movie of 2014. It was a great experience, it was a fun environment. You see me during a pool party scene, my character gets a little wild and breaks one of Damon Dash’s vase and gets thrown out of the party. We just hung out at the poolside all day.
It’s unfortunate people disliked it. It was a highly anticipated project and the cast and crew did everything they could to make it a great movie. But it’s always tough making a autobiography cause people pay attention to all the little things especially when it’s based on someone like Aaliyah. She was adored by so many people.
How do you mentally prepare for auditions?
I do research and try to figure out who the character is. I basically have to believe the character I’m playing if anyone else is going to believe it. I do research, I have to understand what type of show it is. I analyze the scene and get a better understanding of my character and his objective. I try not to obsess over all the little things, once I’ve got all the answers. I just put it away until I go in for the audition. It becomes daunting when you think too much about it .
Do you have other roles you prefer to play? Or something you would never do?
I love drama, I like the psychological stuff. The reason why I like acting is because it’s an outlet right? It’s like a ticket out of your world into another. So you have the freedom to leave your life for a little bit and focus on who you want to be. It’s like the element of surprise, you are able to completely commit and be someone you thought you could never be. In my day to day. I’m usually quiet and reserved so when I get a chance to break out of that, it’s always fun. It’s always a learning experience. Those are the kind of projects that teach you a couple of things about yourself.
Is the fame aspect attractive to you at all?
Fame isn’t attractive to me at all. I’m low-key, I don’t like too much attention. It’s all about personal growth for me, working and learning more about myself. My definition of a dream come true is to be able to drastically change someone’s life like my mother, so money obviously comes into play…if I could buy my mom a nice house off of what I’m doing that’s a dream come true – just enough money that I can change my life or my mom’s life.