In real life, Mizinga Mwinga is a polite, cheerful man who volunteers at the YMCA in Pointe-Claire every Tuesday.
In the Oscar-nominated film Rebelle (War Witch), he plays the ominous, bearded rebel leader Grand Tigre Royal.
The film about child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa is written and directed by Montrealer Kim Nguyen and is nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.
Academy Awards coverage begins on CTV on Sunday at 8 p.m.
Mwinga will be in Los Angeles for the big day. If he’s lucky enough to get the last remaining ticket allotted the Rebelle entourage, he’ll be in the audience.
If not, Rebelle’s producers have rented a mansion in the Hollywood Hills for the cast and crew.
(The other Canadian actors in the film are Alain Bastien and Ralph Prosper.)
Mwinga’s mom, Carole, is organizing an Oscar party at her home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux.
Mom said she noticed Mwinga’s uncanny ability to mimic behavioural tics and accents from a young age.
Mwinga, 33, was born in Zambia and grew up in both the West Island and England.
He attended elementary schools in Pierrefonds and Pointe-Claire, but opted to go to high school in England where he had relatives.
He stayed in England for college where, at his mother’s suggestion, he enrolled in his first acting class.
He was smitten.
Mwinga’s brother, Stephen, is a model and makeup artist and sister, Alice, is a chef. Their dad, Dave, is an engineer and a big music lover.
“I guess we have a pretty artistic family,” Carole Mwinga said.
Mwinga has done smaller roles in independent films, some television work and a fair amount of theatre — he performed in London’s West End production of Sweet Charity — but Rebelle is his biggest screen role, to date.
“I know my son is an actor, but seeing him (in Rebelle) was absolutely out of this world,” Carole Mwinga said. “When he walked on, he had facial hair and looked rough and was speaking another language, I gasped. It was my son! I was thrilled.”
The film was shot outside of Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 2½ months during the winter, when the average temperature was 24 degrees Celsius.
The heat wasn’t bad, Mwinga said, but the pollution was horrible.
To play the Grand Tigre Royal, Mwinga had to learn how to speak Lingala, one of the local languages, well enough to convince an audience. It took months of practice leading up to the shoot to make it sound natural. Mwinga still remembers every word.
He also learned how to shoot some serious weaponry.
The cast and crew were escorted by a military convoy to and from film locations outside the city because the automatic weapons they were using attracted unwanted attention from bandits in the area.
Rebelle has been in the spotlight on the festival circuit since last year.
Mwinga walked his first red carpet at the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany in February 2012, where the film’s young star Rachel Mwanza took home the Best Actress Silver Bear.
“It was my first time to the rodeo, as they say,” Mwinga said of his first red carpet experience. “I was so nervous, I stopped breathing. Berlin was the real deal.”
The film has won multiple awards, including Best Narrative Film and Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival, but the Academy Award nomination gives the film a big boost and offers the producers, actors and director a chance to network with some of the biggest names in the Hollywood movie business.
“Just being nominated can give a real boost to your career,” Mwinga said.
Mwinga just finished a small role in White House Down, produced by Roland Emmerich of Independence Day fame.
“Acting is the way I express myself best,” Mwinga said. “I love being a part of telling a story that will make people laugh and feel.”