Samba Schutte is an actor, comedian and writer who was born in Mauritania and grew up in Ethiopia until the age of 18. He is known for playing in NBC Sunnyside comedy TV series (2019), Netflix The Tiger Hunter (2016), and for writing acclaimed video game Battlefield V (2018). He also performed in award-winning games, namely Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019), Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018) and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017). Samba speaks 4 languages: English, French, Dutch and Amharic.
Samba Schutte was born in Mauritania in 1983 and moved with his family to Ethiopia at the age of two. His father worked for non-governmental organization (NGO) at the time and hence the reason for their move to Ethiopia. His mother is a Muslim and his father is a Christian Dutch national from Holland.
From early childhood, Samba showed keen interest in the arts, especially in films. “I loved to film home videos,” says Samba Schutte. When I was 12, my father brought me a CD-ROM game called “Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair”. It was a game where you make a film with Steven Spielberg on the Universal Studios lot. “That’s when I knew I loved movies and wanted to become an Actor. Twenty years later, I’m working on a show on the Universal Studios lot!” says Samba Schutte.
He left Ethiopia in 2001 at the age of 18 to go to Holland to study Theater. He mastered the Dutch language quickly, while pursuing his regular studies. One day, Samba got a chance to be on stage during an open-mic night to do comedy. It turned out to be more than one-time stunt. He did it more and more until he won the biggest national comedy award in Holland in 2006.
The Dutch people are ‘silent laughers,’ says Samba, according to previous interviews he provided to various media outlets. “I have seen people in the audience cry of laughter without even making a sound of laughter,” he says. “I have had so many shows where the audience was dead quiet throughout, and I thought they didn’t like my show.” But then they would run and tell you “this was the funniest thing I have ever seen!”. When asked why they did not laugh, they would answer “Because we didn’t want to bother you.”
Samba Schutte moved to Los Angeles in 2006. Three months later, he won a comedy competition at The Comedy Store – one of the biggest comedy clubs in the World. Soon after, he was asked to be a regular performer there. Samba was very happy to be where his icons such as Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey all got their Hollywood starts.
Later, he met his wife at a film audition in Los Angeles. She was the producer for which he was auditioning for a part. They immediately hit it off. Two years later they got married. “I also got the part,” says Samba Schutte.
Samba now plays the part of Hakim on Sunnyside, which is his first big series regular role on a broadcast TV show. Sunnyside is a new NBC comedy starring Kal Penn as a disgraced New York City Councilman who tries to redeem himself by helping a group of immigrants try to become American citizens. It’s a light-hearted fun comedy that is patriotic without being political and deals with the topically relevant theme of immigration in a way that makes it relatable to everyone. Most of the Actors and Writers on the show are immigrants or children of immigrants. The show airs Thursdays at 9:30 PM.
Samba Schutte plays Hakim on the show, who is an Ethiopian heart surgeon who works as a cab driver in America until he can get certified as a doctor when he becomes a citizen. Hakim is the heart of the group, super sweet and positive and he loves America. Commenting on the show, Samba Schutte says, “This character is very close to me and my story. I moved to America eight years ago after having grown up in Ethiopia. I love the US, I sacrificed a lot to be here and make my dream come true and try to bring people together in a very positive way. This will also be the first time an Ethiopian character is portrayed on a national broadcast sitcom in America, so it is very exciting and such an honor that I get to represent a country and culture that means so much to me.”
Ezega Team interviewed Samba Schutte this week to learn more about his early life in Ethiopia and his journey from Addis Ababa teenager to a Hollywood actor. For clarity, we have reworded and abbreviated some of the questions and answers.
Ezega: How did you come to Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: I was born in Mauritania and I came to Ethiopia at the age of 2. My father worked for non-governmental organization (NGO) and hence for my relocation. My mother is a Muslim from Mauritania and my father a Christian from Holland. I attended Sandford International School in Addis Ababa until I left Ethiopia to Holland to pursue higher studies. I was looking for a university in Ethiopia or Mauritania but there was no good option for me then and hence I decided to go to Holland.
Ezega: How was your childhood like in Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: My childhood in Ethiopia was great. I have great memories of Ethiopia. When you say you grew up in Ethiopia around here, people say “oh, I am sorry.” Because all they see here are TV images showing people in desperate condition. They don’t know that Ethiopia is a beautiful country. Addis Ababa and other places are green and beautiful. When I was in Ethiopia, sometimes we used to go to places outside Addis Ababa, such as Sodere, Langano, Axum, Gonder, Lalibela, Awash, and many other places. I was there in Ethiopia during the Derg regime, the civil war, the session of Eritrea, and the war that followed. I have some Ethiopian friends here in Los Angeles, some who grew up with me in Ethiopia. I go to Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles to eat Injera, which I love. When the TV guys for this show asked me which country I want to represent, I said Ethiopia. Because I feel closer to Ethiopia, where most of my childhood is from, than Mauritania or Holland.
Ezega: What places and activities do you remember most in Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: Of course, Sandford International School is one, because I went to that school and spent a lot of time there. I have fun memories of Langano, where I got slapped by a monkey (I wanted to give it food when it slapped me). I have good memories of Sodere. I used to go to Ghion Hotel to swim. There was a diving board 10 meters high then, which felt like you are jumping from the sky. At other times, we were renting videos from Tizita Videos Rental in Addis Ababa, to watch American movies. I was also going Blue Tops Restaurant, which I heard is no longer there now, replaced by tall buildings.
Ezega: When did you know you wanted to be an actor and comedian?
Samba Schutte: I had great interest in films and arts when I was very young. By the age 12, I already knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in films and arts. My father bought me a video recorder using which you can make films and I used to play with that quite a lot. I also use to play. I loved to film home videos on the video camera. When I was 12, my dad got me a CD-ROM game called “Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair”. It was a game where you got to make a film with Steven Spielberg on the Universal Studios lot. That’s when I knew for sure that I loved movies and became fascinated with becoming an actor. Twenty years later, I’m working on a show on the Universal Studios lot!
Ezega: Did you perform in Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: No really. The only time I performed play, comedy or drama was during Christmas and special holidays at school along with other kids. I had a video camera at home. I was making short videos with my little brother. That is when I really wanted to be an actor one day although I didn’t know how and when. When I was 12, a friend of mine showed me how to make films. I knew Hollywood was the place where people made films, but I didn’t know how to get there, so far away place. When I was young, I noticed that the people coming from America wore the nicest cloths, had the best toys and everything. There was film showing at the American Embassy every week on Saturdays and I used to go there. We had to go through security and everything to see the films. But I felt close to America. I knew I wanted to do acting and my parents would say I need to finish my education first and then go into acting and films.
Ezega: What aspects of your upbringing in Ethiopia helped you in your career?
Samba Schutte: my standup comedy is very multicultural. It shows differences between cultures but is also shows it is OK to be different. When I went to Sandford International School for some 14 years, it was international with children from different countries and tribes. Everybody was so different, but we never saw the differences and got along very well. That helped me to be positive in my comedy, preaching to work together and exist together without a problem. Also, you know, in Ethiopia, there are so many holidays. I love that we are celebrating different cultures and backgrounds, from Meskel to Muslim holidays. There are so many different holidays. My mother is a Muslim, and my father is a Roman Catholic Christian. Ethiopia is more multicultural than Mauritania, which is predominantly a Muslim country. In Ethiopia, all is fine, Muslims and Christians live side by side in harmony. So, Ethiopia helped me with that foundation that multiculturalism is OK. In the comedies I show, it is OK to be different, we are all human, and we can all get along just fine.
Another thing, Ethiopian youth are animated in their story-telling. You see a lot of good energy when they tell stories. I remember there was a story teller on ETV, an old man saying “Dehna Ederu Lijoch” which I used to watch and enjoy on ETV very often. That I think helped me later with my story telling, just observing different cultural things.
Ezega: What are the challenges young artists like you face in Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: When I grew up in Ethiopia, there was not much TV content. There was only one channel, the ETV. They showed films on Saturdays at 11pm. They used to show Rambo, Greece or whatever. It was challenging to learn or do something. That’s why when I was looking for a University to study acting and films, I had to choose going to Holland as opposed to staying in Ethiopia or Africa. Now, I have a lot of friends in Ethiopia who are directors, doing films, shows and music. I am glad that they are doing so well. The productions are a lot better now. It used to be that the music videos showed only still images with mountains or waterfall in the background. Things have come a long way in Ethiopia, I think.
Ezega: What are the challenges immigrants like you face in the USA?
Samba Schutte: First, until very recently, there weren’t many roles available for Africans. People in the industry used to see Africa just as one block with no diversity or special thing to offer. The kind of roles that were available to people like me were things like rebels, terrorists, slaves and the like. That was the predominant portrayal of Africa if you see the films of the 1990s, for example. It took a long time to change, into thinking that there are many things that can be dignified in Africa. There can be heroes, there can romance. So, it was very challenging for a while. Things are changing now. I think films like the Black Panther, a comic film, have made big differences. The film industry can change people’s outlook on Africa if they can portray the continent differently. That will change people’s minds and make them a lot of money as well. That will also open different opportunities for African artists like me.
Ezega: What is your advice to aspiring Ethiopian artists?
Samba Schutte: I am very lucky and proud to play the first Ethiopian character on American TV sitcom. I am proud to represent the Ethiopian culture and people who are so much to me. I hope people can now see what Ethiopian culture is. Because, in Hollywood, they make everything African look and sound the same. They don’t realize that there are so many languages and cultures there. For example, people from Kenya do things differently than people from Ethiopia or South Africa, and so on.
Aspiring artists from Ethiopia and Africa should work hard on their craft and be as good as they can be. It is a lot of hard work. Be patient, because it takes time. I started in Holland in 2004, my first TV show is in 2019. So, it takes time. Be patient and work hard is my advice. Without honed skills, you cannot compete nationally or internationally. Another thing, surround yourself with positive people who will support your dreams. I hope aspiring people will find a way to come to America, because this is where the biggest market is. Even if they are in Ethiopia and want to make it big in Ethiopia, they will need to practice making films or arts using tools available to them. Nowadays, you can make films on phones and other devices, it is easy. Grow your skills in your country first. That will help you anywhere, at home or if you move abroad later.
Ezega: When was the last time you visited Ethiopia?
Samba Schutte: The last time I was in Ethiopia was in 2002. After I finished university in Holland, my dad’s NGO work took my parents to Eritrea, Chad, and Zambia. They were visiting back Ethiopia but only sometimes. I heard a lot have changed in Ethiopia since then. When I was there, the Ring Road had started. There was the Sheraton Hotel built. I love to go back to Ethiopia one of these days. I plan to visit Ethiopia sometime next year and see the place and connect with old friends there.
Ezega: Do you have any connection to the Ethiopian community in USA?
Samba Schutte: I go to Ethiopian restaurants in Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles about once a month. I love Injera and Ethiopian food. I also have some Ethiopian friends in the Los Angeles area with whom I connect from time to time. I know some of them from my Ethiopia days. I also get some reach outs from Ethiopians at home and abroad on social media, like Instagram and Twitter, asking me what I am up to and the like.
Ezega: How do you see yourself in 10 years?
Samba Schutte: I hope that within 10 years, I would have done a big body of work to establish myself as a strong actor and comedian. I would like to create my own shows and films with power and responsibilities to bring people from diverse backgrounds and cultures to really represent media that will be watched by millions. I would like to help artists from developing countries such as Africa and elsewhere. Hopefully, I would also like to do projects in Ethiopia and other places in Africa. I have a few friends who are directors in Ethiopia. I love to see where things are in Ethiopia and perhaps connect with some talent there when I go there next year. Beyond serving as a role model, I would also like to help aspiring artists in Africa and elsewhere in some ways. Right now, I am doing the NBC sitcom and comedy shows. I would like to go beyond that and do more things in coming years.
Ezega: Samba Schutte, thank you for your time and for interviewing with us.
Samba Schutte: My pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me and for showing interest in my work.
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