Nigerian-born actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Pirates of the Caribbean III; X-Men Origins: Wolverine), who spent many years working in South Africa before moving to Hollywood, recently returned to Cape Town to star in the major television series, Black Sails.
Created by Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine for Starz, Michael Bay’s Black Sails is positioned as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The series is set in 1715, when the ‘golden age of piracy’ in the Caribbean was at its peak.
To prepare for his role as Mr Scott, a former slave whose loyalties are put to the test, Hakeem Kae-Kazim steeped himself in research on 18th century pirates.
“Black Sails is like Spartacus meets Game of Thrones, set in the same time period as the notorious pirate, Blackbeard,” explains Kae-Kazim. “The series deals with the real essence of what it must have been like to be pirate in those days on the island of Nassau. It’s all about the machinations of pirates – very rough and raw, with really complex characters.
“I based Mr Scott on a legendary pirate called Black Caesar, who was Blackbeard’s chief lieutenant. Black Caesar was an African chief who was captured into slavery. When he escaped he became a very successful and feared pirate. My research revealed that 40% of the pirates in those days were of African descent, most of them slaves who’d escaped captivity. They turned to piracy as a way of making a living.”
As someone who’d lived and worked in South Africa for many years before moving to Los Angeles, Kae-Kazim was delighted to be able to return to Cape Town to shoot Black Sails.
“I always love coming back to South Africa – it’s like my second home. My wife is South African and my kids were born here,” he says.
Black Sails was filmed at the Cape Town Film Studios complex, which Kae-Kazim describes as comparable in terms of size and infrastructure to Hollywood studios. He is also very complimentary about South African crews, maintaining they are the best in the world.
When asked if he enjoys working on period dramas, Kae-Kazim responds: “I love doing them because they really are great fun. In the case of Black Sails, so much work was invested into the set by the production design team that I felt totally immersed in the world of the film. This really was a testament to the craftsmanship of South African crew.”
Black Sails will be broadcast by Starz in January 2014. A second season has been commissioned and Kae-Kazim returns to Cape Town in November for the shoot.
Kae-Kazim came to Hollywood’s attention in Terry George’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece, Hotel Rwanda, a 2004 release. In it Kae-Kazim played an evil and menacing officer in the Hutu militia.
“Hotel Rwanda really helped me to cross the water to Los Angeles,” says the actor.
From that point on Kae-Kazim’s CV is populated with famous film titles such as Pirates of the Caribbean III and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He has also starred in numerous top television dramas including 24: Redemption; Human Target; Criminal Minds; Navy NCIS; Law & Order; Covert Affairs; Strike Back; Lost; Law & Order: SVU; and The Triangle.
Kae-Kazim describes working and living in Los Angeles as ‘fantastic’.
“However,” he continues, “it’s a very harsh environment for actors and the competition is incredibly fierce – there are about a thousand actors to every one job. I love being there but it’s a really tough place to work. Los Angeles is always called ‘The city of dreams’; I call it ‘The city of broken dreams’.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been able to work consistently so far. If you’re an actor you’re always aware that your luck could run out. You just have to keep working as hard as possible. I seriously wonder if any actor in Hollywood ever feels secure about the future.”
He makes the point that another challenge faced by actors in Hollywood is the changing business model in that more and more producers want to shoot abroad.
On the subject of typecasting in Hollywood, Kae-Kazim says that while he’s often played similar types of roles, the projects have all been vastly different.
“I think everyone in Hollywood is typecast to a certain extent. But it’s not actually a bad thing to be known as ‘the go-to guy’ for certain types of roles. Having said that I would love to do more comedy as I’ve not done much to date.”
A year after his birth Kae-Kazim’s family moved to the UK, where he was brought up and educated. But if you ask him his nationality, he’ll answer: “I’m an African with a capital ‘A’.”
Just as he loves coming to South Africa to work, he relishes regularly returning to Nigeria to witness the film industry’s growth.
“I recently filmed Half of a Yellow Sun; Biyi Bandele’s highly anticipated screen adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name, in Nigeria. It was really fantastic to come back to my birth country to do this film.
“Half of a Yellow Sun is a contemporary book, published in 2006, about the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960s. When I first read the book I was so enthralled that I wanted the buy the film rights but they’d already been snapped up.”
Other African films on Kae-Kazim’s CV include Flight to Abuja, Man on Ground and God is African.
He dreams of doing ‘an amazing co-production’ between South Africa and Nigeria that would win several Oscars.
“We really need more African productions where Hollywood does not dictate the stories. There’s a wonderful saying in Africa: ‘Until the lion learns to write, the hunter will always tell its stories’.
“I have a strong desire to direct and am currently looking at a couple of projects in that regard. It’s a natural progression for an actor to want to direct if you love the canvas of film because then you can paint the whole canvas.”
As for his dream role, Kae-Kazim dearly wants to play the villain in a James Bond film.