Staffer Reflects on His Journey as an Actor

Olga Ramaz

“I remember having everything a kid would want,” said Austin Kemie, an admissions and records employee, reflecting on his early childhood in Nigeria.

During the time that Kemie was growing up in Lagos, he was exposed to the rich African culture through dance, music and the arts; however, he would never imagine that he would pursue a career in acting, even though film did play a role in his childhood.

“When we were younger, in Nigeria, my father bought five VHS [tapes]. One of them was Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon,'” he recalled.

He claims that up until today, he knows every single word in that film because he watched it “over and over again.” When he would watch these films, Kemie would observe the actors, mimic them and then show off his impersonations to the family.

At the age of 6, Kemie’s family relocated to Los Angeles and it was not until he was 16 that acting would enter his life for the first time.

Kemie and his younger brother auditioned for the same role in an HBO film titled “And the Band Played On,” based on the book by the late author Randy Shilts. The two got the audition after Kemie’s father was tipped off by a friend who encouraged him to take his sons to try out for the part.

“And the Band Played On” chronicled the discovery and spread of the HIV and AIDS viruses, and also placed an emphasis on the stereotypes surrounding the illness, like the misconception that AIDS and HIV were a so-called “gay disease.”

Kemie snagged the role and wound up portraying Tallah, a Sudanese student whose biological parents died from the Ebola virus, another virus that along with AIDS, plagued Africa.

“I guess they thought I was talented enough to be in the film,” said Kemie.

“And the Band Played On” gave Kemie the opportunity to share credits with lead Matthew Modine, Richard Gere and Anjelica Houston, among others.

“The sentiments of this character really hits home for me because of the level of AIDS cases in African countries, including Nigeria,” he said.

Kemie’s character questioned a lot of the things that were happening in America in regards to the AIDS virus. Tallah’s question of “why is this happening,” echoes throughout the film along with the question of “Why does the government of these countries put politics before human lives, as with the cases of the AIDS breakout in the ’80s in the U.S.?”

Since the release of the film, it has become a part of the various movies shown on channels around the world on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

This film set the tone for what Kemie would later pursue-an acting career.

During his high school and college years, Kemie became more involved in acting, taking center stage in several theater productions.

However, Kemie did not intend to live off of acting alone.

He enjoys helping people. This notion led him to a career move that would eventually land him a job at GCC, in spite of his previous academic pursuits.

After transferring from Valley College to Cal State Northridge, Kemie received a bachelor’s in psychology. His goal all along was to continue on to law school to pursue a career as a lawyer. But after going through the Law School Admission Test, several college applications, trying to find loans and researching law books, to get a feel for what being a lawyer was all about, Kemie decided that law was not something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“That’s how I ended up at GCC,” he said. “I just love the fact that I can interact with the students [and be able to] give them information they otherwise wouldn’t know.”

It was while attending Cal State Northridge, however, that Kemie dove in head first into acting. One day as he was walking around the theater facilities, he encountered a theater group that was in the middle of rehearsals. He was welcomed to stay and watch, and from that day forward, he decided that acting was something he wanted to do, not just as a hobby, but as a career.

Kemie’s life took on somewhat of a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” twist. By day he was off to school, taking courses to fulfill his psychology major while also taking some theater courses. But by night, he was off to do theater productions, unbeknownst to his parents who were supportive, but at the time would have rather their son become a professional.

Prior to graduating from Northridge, Kemie applied for a job in the admissions and records department after an acquaintance told him about a vacant position. He had heard of the city of Glendale before, but he never thought of living here, much less work in the area.

One of the things that Kemie particularly likes about living in Glendale is the convenience factor.

He especially likes the fact that during his lunch break he can head out to auditions in neighboring areas like Burbank, Studio City or Los Feliz, and still make it back in time to work.

Of course, the only thing that can be a downpour, at times, is the traffic, he said.

Kemie’s experience working in a school setting comes from his days as a student worker in college. He steadily became familiar with the different departments and programs, while increasing his interpersonal skills by interacting with fellow students and providing them with information.

“I realized that I felt comfortable in a school setting and I loved the fact that I can help and relate with the student,” he said.

In dealing with students, Kemie insists on giving them all of the information they need, “even if they don’t want it,” he said.

“You want to be able to give them all the information so that they’ll be better off [and] I kind of love being that way with students,” he added.

“He is an absolute dear,” said Sharon Combs, dean of admissions and records. “He is a very, very nice person and good to everyone in the office.”

Some of Kemie’s tasks as an admissions and records enrollment services technician include handling loads of paperwork, pertaining to students’ transcripts and admissions applications.

Throughout his six years working in admissions and records, Kemie has built a strong relationship with his colleagues.

He recalls several instances when fellow co-workers attended some of his out of town theater performances and “they were the loudest” in the audience.

He is known in the office as “the actor” and is much appreciative of the support his colleagues give him.

“[I feel] fortunate,” he said. “[It’s] good to be around people who help build your dream, and not crush it.”

He remembers a time when Joel Hirschhorn, a writer for “Variety,” wrote a review of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a production at Barnum Hall Theater in Santa Monica, where Kemie starred as Chief Bromden.

In the article Hirschhorn applauds Kemie’s ability to portray Chief Bromden with his “quiet magnetism,” compliments which Kemie did not hesitate to share with his co-workers by exclaiming, “look what they said about me, I’m actually good.”

However, his talents go beyond just theater. Kemie has also played recurring roles in “Alias,” done voice over work for “Lost,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” (parts two and three) and “Blood Diamond,” as well as some other gigs on the silver screen, like his role in “Myopia,” an independent film directed by Mathieu Young and co-produced with D.J. Gugenheim.

Susan Batson, also known as the “Oscar coach,” is one of those people that Kemie regards very highly and credits her with helping him out during a time when he was struggling. Batson is one of the reasons why Kemie can say that he is “good.”

Batson has worked with several Hollywood actors and actresses, including Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Jamie Foxx, two of which have won Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.

Kemie enrolled in Batson’s acting school and at some point, the tuition was too much for Kemie to keep up with. He had a talk with Batson and explained to her his situation. He was ready to stop attending classes due to the lack of money, but Batson had a solution for him.

Kemie recalls that Batson had him come in an hour before to set up chairs, vacuum and clean.

She said “that [cleaning] will be your tuition, keep coming.” Quite a bargain considering that Batson charges from $500 to $600 an hour for classes.

Batson’s gesture facilitated Kemie’s ability to finish the program and hone his skills as an actor.

“Working with her was like [working with] an angel,” said Kemie.

The fact that Kemie is an actor comes as a surprise to most that meet him. He does not really publicize that aspect of his life, but does eventually come around to letting people know, once he is comfortable in divulging such fact.

Once people find out that he is an actor, some expect him to “perform” or to “do something” and transform right before their eyes.

“I have to explain to them that it doesn’t work that way,” he chuckled.
One of his biggest roles to date is in “Faith Happens,” an independent film written and directed by Rick Garside.

Kemie plays a character by the name of Massa, a young Eritrean who dreams of coming to America. His life changes when his best friend is murdered and he finds himself confronting racist and ethnic oppression when he is sent to a refugee camp.

Massa is confronted with a series of events that test his Christianity, and when faced with his best friend’s murderer, he makes a decision that changes his life forever.

“Faith Happens,” according to Kemie, is like the Christian version of “Crash,” where the film takes a look at the lives of different characters and how their lives somehow intertwine during the progression of the film.

One of his goals was met during the filming of “Faith Happens” when he was sent to Kenya, “on someone else’s tab,” to film.

Kemie recalls the warmth which the cast and crew were received. He especially recalls the smiles, from ear to ear, on the faces of his African peers. He credits this trip to Africa as a lesson learned.

He learned to cherish what he has and find joy in the littlest of things, no matter what the situation may be.

“Faith Happens” is currently without a distributor, but Kemie hopes that the film will be released next year.

For now, Kemie is still doing theater, going out for auditions and working at GCC, a balance that he is fortunate to have, especially when it involves elements he is so passionate about.

“If you’re that passionate for something, you just keep looking for doors to open,” said Kemie. “And eventually you’ll find the right door and walk right through it.”