Acting is something I was destined to do. I’ve known this was my calling since I was a toddler, when my family moved from Nigeria to Canada. At an early age I could be found honing my English over episodes of Sesame Street. By grade school, I was obsessed with The Sound of Music—and my mom was in tune with my need for a creative outlet. We relocated to Toronto, where she worked tirelessly to give me the opportunity to break into the business. At age 13, I was cast as B.L.T. (Bryant Lister Thomas) on Degrassi Junior High—a role I’m still recognized for today.
Post-Degrassi, it felt like I’d hit my ceiling in Toronto, especially as a young Black man wanting to play more than stereotypical roles. (It was the ’90s, and Canada’s industry was much different—and much smaller—back then.) I packed up my life and headed to California, thinking it only made sense to be in the mecca of entertainment, Hollywood.
When people think about Hollywood, they think of the glitz and the glamour. I know I did when I arrived in L.A. in the mid-’90s. I was staying at a little motel at Melrose Avenue and Vine Street, and I’d walk to Hollywood Boulevard to look at all the stars on the walk of fame, pinching myself that I was finally here. It was really happening.
It took me three years to land a role. Those early days were some of the hardest of my life: I had no agent, not a single audition and experienced homelessness firsthand. Those years were just about survival. Despite being a success back home in Toronto, I was starting from scratch stateside. Eventually, a top-of-show guest star appearance on V.I.P., starring Pamela Anderson, gave me a toehold in the industry.
I’ve come a long way since then, amassing dozens of film and TV credits (including Lost and the sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola). I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m getting closer every day. The thing I’ve always loved about acting is the creative aspect of it. I love being a storyteller. I get to put on a brand new jumpsuit of a character and be this completely different person.
Charting a path to your dreams rarely means following a straight line—a lesson I learned recently, when the Screen Actors Guild strike forced me to add pet store manager to my resumé to make ends meet. It’s nothing short of surreal to be the new guy at work and have people recognize you from their favourite series. Customers and co-workers recognize me from my role on Workin’ Moms and even from my days on Degrassi Junior High.
Everybody thinks that you start working on TV and suddenly you’re Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington. But that is literally one per cent of the estimated 160,000 people that SAG-AFTRA represents. Then there’s the rest of us: we have to go from job to job to job just to make the $26,470 per year required to qualify for health insurance. I still remember the year I didn’t make it—I vowed to never let it happen again, particularly after getting married in 2009.
The pet store job isn’t the only way I’m keeping busy during the ongoing dispute between us (the actors and writers) versus the studios and streamers that show our work. For years, I’ve been an instructor at both the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Art of Acting Studios. Teaching isn’t my number-one passion, but it feeds my soul to pay forward the knowledge I’ve gained over my four decades in this industry. But even that wasn’t enough when the work stoppage began. Paying the bills is a lot harder now.
What I want my fellow Canadians to understand is that here in America, you have to earn health care; it isn’t a right. If you book three guest-star roles in a year, that’s considered to be a good year for a lot of actors—but when they pay at most $8,000 each, you’re still not making the $26,000 minimum just to be able to have your health coverage, as SAG-LA vice-president Michelle Hurd has explained on TikTok. One hospital procedure can put you into debt for over a decade here in America.
The contract that the networks, streamers and the executive producers wanted to negotiate on was written in the ’60s. I wasn’t even born then! To be negotiating on a contract that was founded six decades ago is ridiculous when our industry has evolved so much—and continues to evolve. Our side, meanwhile, is looking for better compensation and benefits, since streaming has contributed to a decline in our wages and residuals. Similar to the way that musicians earn fractions of a cent each time their album is streamed on Spotify, we earn pennies each time a series we’re in is streamed on the likes of Netflix. Furthermore, as Variety explains, streaming services pay actors less to start with. They often give one-episode-arc characters as little as a one-line background role would earn. What would’ve once meant a $15,000 cheque in residuals is now more often $2000.
We’re also striking to protect ourselves from AI being used irresponsibly. TV executives are being quoted in the press about replacing writers and actors with AI, and it feels like life and death for my art form. AI can be a great tool, but it shouldn’t be used to replace people.
What I don’t think the executives have realized is that they’ve created a united front against them. While on the picket line, I’m meeting writers from shows I’ve been part of, something that doesn’t usually happen. The executives think they have the upper hand, but they’re not taking into consideration the tenacity of human nature, of the human soul.
Until we’re back on set again—until studios update their pay structure and streaming services honour the leg up SAG and WGA gave them by offering unheard-of contracts in their businesses’ early years—I’m reminding myself, my striking colleagues and the industry this: AI is a great tool that knows how to regurgitate, but it doesn’t know how to create. It cannot create from nothing, because it doesn’t have a soul. That’s what’s needed to truly make stories worth telling and worth watching.
We don’t know yet when work will resume. But I’m not giving up on my industry or my life here, something I’ve worked hard for. My family has sacrificed so much to help me build a career in the face of so many struggles and obstacles. Even though Toronto’s film sector has grown in my absence and will always be home, I have a lot of work to do, and L.A. is still, for right now, the place for me.
—As told to Morgan Mullin