“My character is like Olivia Pope without the marital scandals.”
In 2014, Janet Mbugua, one of Kenya’s most sought-after news anchors, burst into the acting scene with a lead role in Rush, the AMVCA-nominated Kenyan drama billed as Kenya’s Sex and the City.
Just as abruptly as she’d entered it, she disappeared from acting when Rush came to an end just after one season.
This absence wasn’t for a lack of roles or opportunities. For six years, Janet says, she turned down numerous acting projects that came her way.
“I’ve been offered roles over the years but I had to say no for various reasons. I didn’t have my own family when I starred in Rush so at the time, I didn’t mind the crazy filming hours. But when I started growing my family, I was very cognizant about not stretching myself,” she says.
Adding that suddenly, she was a new mum, an anchor, a brand ambassador, a moderator, and a wife.
“That’s a lot. And while some people can do it and I admire them, some of us just feel like we need to take a backseat and focus on certain things.”
But Janet’s comeback was inevitable when an opportunity cropped up in Monica S3 – the Kalasha-nominated Kenyan drama on Showmax about a young woman (played by Brenda Wairimu) who schemes her way to the top.
The timing for Monica was right, she says, but she was still apprehensive about coming back.
“I always feel like you can’t necessarily double back. My background is in news anchoring; acting was something I did because I like to embrace new challenges and experiences. To be honest, I thought I’d gotten that bug out of my system, although I enjoyed it of course. And then this role came my way.”
She received a lot of support and motivation from her Monica co-stars, she says. “They were all very kind that this is not my everyday job, and it was an honour being with them in a space that they command so well.”
In this latest season, Monica has seen a few new characters but Janet’s, by far, is the most intriguing.
Janet plays Jesse, a woman so fierce and so powerful that she likens her to “Olivia Pope without the marital scandals.”
She says what she admires about Jesse is that she doesn’t really put her cards on the table. She’s fierce but she wouldn’t necessarily show you that she’s trying to take control.
“Nothing fazes her, she’s perfected the art of looking together even when she’s not and it’s kind of hard not to be drawn to her. But she also has her own skeletons.”
Jesse comes in as the new deputy governor, a position that was being eyed by Monica, who until now has been on top of her scheming game. And if her (Jesse) first day in office is anything to go by (“handling” a very bully-ish Ken Ambani), then it seems that Brenda’s Monica has finally met her match in Janet’s Jesse.
Outside of their TV rivalry and their character’s obvious distrust for one another, Janet praises Brenda, whose impressive slate includes Kenya’s 2019 Oscar contender Subira, AMVCA winner 18 Hours, Kalasha winner Disconnect, MTV’s Shuga and more. “We all admire Brenda for being the actress that she is,” she says.