From growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Canadian Screen Award nominee, Emmanuel Kabongo is an actor with faith, hard work and determination.
“There are peaks and there valleys. And as long as I’m continuing to do what I feel is a gift of mine, you know, I will always be content.” -Emmanuel Kabongo
These words pretty much describe Emmanuel Kabongo’s journey to becoming the actor we see on our TV screens today. Born and raised in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabongo has appeared in several films and television series, but before he became the actor we saw on TV shows like 21 Thunder (2017) and Outer Banks (2023) he was a basketball player. He played club basketball in the Ontario Basketball Association, but when he wasn’t offered a scholarship to play in the United States similar to his brother, Texas Longhorns star and current professional basketball player, Myck Kabongo, he played two years at George Brown College in Toronto before being offered a scholarship to play the University of New Brunswick. It was in his second year of studies at George Brown that he decided to take a one-year theater program to satisfy his curiosity about acting.
Acting—a seed is planted
Apparently, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. During Kabongo’s childhood, his father worked as a background actor while in Toronto. The young Emmanuel, who was living in Johannesburg, South Africa with his family at that time, would look at photos of his father on different movie sets. The seed was planted in his young mind and was nourished by his mom’s love for soap operas and action films which also helped him to learn English. These memories would eventually inspire him to transition from professional basketball to a career in acting.
“As a teenager, I did background because my father was a background actor when I was younger”, he told SHIFTER in a recent interview. “And so, I was curious at the age of 15…Fast forward, I’m in college, in this one-year theatre program, and I started doing some student films and started taking workshops outside of school for film and TV. The first student film that I had done that got uploaded to YouTube basically changed my whole perspective on this career. I fell in love.”
Determination and overcoming “No”
Kabongo’s road to success wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. He quickly learned that, as an actor, you will face the word “no” much more often than “yes”. In the world of entertainment, you will face rejection and that is a fear he had to overcome, even when being told by an agent he wasn’t good enough to work with him. The key is to keep working hard and never giving up. It’s with that state of mind that he convinced the same agent to give him a chance after six months of being told “no” and showing up at his office unannounced every two weeks. Since he grew up as an athlete, another challenge he had to face was reading books and being able to understand dialogue, language and word pronunciations. But he used his background in basketball to overcome his challenges. With determination and discipline, he managed to push through the obstacles.
“Thank goodness for basketball—waking up early, after school practices, or if you’re down by a bunch of points, having to play defence and making sure that you score your points”, he explains. “All that experience in sports, I applied it to my career in the beginning, to never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Among his first roles as a background actor were Mean Girls (2004) starring Lindsay Lohan, Honey (2003) starring Lil Romeo and Jessica Alba, and Resident Evil. It was during his time as a background actor that a sometimes discouraged Kabongo would wonder when his time would come to be one of the main actors with lines. His hard work would finally pay off in 2016, when he earned his first Canadian Screen Award nomination as the lead protagonist in the acclaimed web series Teenagers (2014–2017); a series he also co-produced. Those wouldn’t be his first nominations. He followed that up with Canadian Screen Award nominations in 2022 and 2023, for his performances in the TV film Death She Wrote and in the second series of the web series Chateau Laurier which premiered on Apple TV in January.
Faith and looking ahead
Aside from his family, and a chance encounter with Denzel Washington early in his career, his faith has also provided valuable inspiration along his journey. As a Christian, Kabongo’s beliefs, as well as his morals, have a significant impact on the roles he accepts. This is also reflected in the respect he has for his wife and family who support his career. The characters he portrays have also challenged him and taught him about himself or the types of roles he wants to play. According to Kabongo, anything that allows him to stretch and to dive deep, even for the most simple roles, allows him to be in touch with his vulnerability or his different senses.
Aside from acting, he has expanded his talent and started producing and writing. A series he wrote is currently in the works with a U.S. producer and he’s also producing his first feature film. He wants to focus on these different aspects of the industry and even hopes to be a director. One of the things he’s looking forward to is the opportunity to work in Africa. He has already worked in Ottawa, Los Angeles, England, Paris, Budapest and as of recently, Dominican Republic. This year, he’s supposed to head over to Nigeria for some work which he’s really excited about.
“What are some future goals? To be quite honest, I love to work so any time I get an opportunity to do my thing on set, I really soak it all in. I want to continue doing great work. I want to work with some of the best professionals in my industry, whether it’s in Canada or the United States, or Europe or Africa; anywhere in the world, as long as I get the opportunity to work with the best this industry has to offer, I’m all in.”