I left Guinea-Bissau with my mother, father and brother when I was three. We moved to Lisbon in 1991. My father had held a high rank in the army which meant he had the opportunity to do further education. He got to know Lisbon during his traineeship in agricultural technology. As a former colony, Guinea-Bissau had close links with Portugal, so for us it was quite easy to become Europeans.
My father wanted us children to have another life from his – not necessarily a better one, just different. We were initially living in the centre of Lisbon, by the Campo dos Mártires da Pátria. We then moved out to the suburb of Ramada. I was surrounded by woods, breathing in the aroma of eucalyptus. More and more people from Guinea-Bissau began moving into the neighbourhood after we did. So I had a long and very social, vibrant childhood.
My uncle Carlos, my mother’s brother, would come to visit at weekends. Sometimes he rented out a video player and video cassettes for us. So we watched great films by Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery as James Bond. I was introduced to cinema without even realising it. Uncle Carlos was a man who had absorbed culture. When we were old enough, he took us to the cinema. I experienced the big screen, the sounds, the music. We saw Gene Hackman in “Enemy of the State”.
“With the series ‘Morangos com Açúcar’, the idea of being an actor became more realistic”
When I was eleven, my brother and I were sent to a residential school in Beja, in the south of Portugal. We only came home in the holidays. The school had a satellite dish, and suddenly we could watch even more films. A must-see for us was the series “Morangos com Açúcar” (“Strawberries with Sugar”). This teen drama was something special for us because it was there that we saw young Portuguese actors for the first time. With that series, the idea of being an actor became more realistic – suddenly I saw a pathway. There were rarely any non-white actors in the series, but now and again one would pop up.
And then, funnily enough, one of the actors from the series came to our school and gave a workshop. It went so well that, after I’d finished at the school, we founded a theatre company in Beja. I was 17 then. We put on “Hamlet”. We called the company “Homlet”, as in “omelette”. We wanted to break with conventions. This actor for me was a mentor who recommended what I ought to be reading: Shakespeare, Strindberg, Chekhov…
Then for a couple of years I didn’t really know how to take things further. I earned my money working in a call centre and in bars, took a course so I could work as a model. Then I managed to get cast in the historical TV drama “Equador” (“Equator”). I was filming for three months in 2008 in Salvador da Bahia, together with Portugal’s most well-known actors. It was there I met a lot of African-Brazilian actors for the first time. And then came the big surprise: the production company that had put me forward for “Equador” asked if I wanted to be in Morangos com Açúcar”!
“Living in different countries has given me a different idea of what home is”
It was only after this experience that I felt really ready for stage school and I applied for the acting academy in Lisbon, theEscola Superior de Teatro e Cinema. For my postgrad studies I went to Brazil and did a course in performing arts. I was understanding more about Portugal’s role as a former colonial power, was thinking more for myself, and there was also a feeling awakening in me of what it means to be Black, because in Brazil I was seen as a European African.
After that I was successful in a lot of castings, made short films and met the love of my life, Kristin Bethge, in Rio de Janeiro. Living in lots of countries has given me a different idea of what home is. Home for me isn’t something physical or geographical, but something I call “the peripheral body”, a body in transit, which has something to do with people’s sensibility and not with the place.
The first time I was in Berlin was when they showed the film “Joaquim”, which I appeared in, at the Berlinale. It was in 2018 that filming started on “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in which I played Francis. After Jair Bolsonaro won the elections in Brazil, Kristin and I decided to move to Berlin. At some point in the future, I’d like to set up a cultural centre in my country, in Guinea-Bissau – a kind of hub for talented people and cultural ambassadors.
As told to Stephanie von Hayek
Translated by Jess Smee