A former child refugee in Nairobi’s Kibera who later resettled in Adelaide in Australia, Stephen Pitia Tongun, has inked his name as the first South Sudanese to star in a Netflix movie.
The thespian recently appeared in Spiderhead, a 2022 American science fiction psychological thriller film directed by Joseph Kosinski, with a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the dystopian short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders.
The last of eight children, the bubbly Pitia stands at slightly over six feet tall and told Radio Tamazuj that he is in Nairobi en route to Juba in South Sudan where he says he is going to visit family and particularly nieces and nephews who were born in his absence.
Born in Juba Teaching Hospital, his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was only six months old.
“I was born in Juba, South Sudan. At Juba hospital, but because of the civil war, my family relocated to Nairobi, Kenya, when I was six months of age,” he says. “I lived in Olympic, Kibera, and I did my kindergarten and primary school in Kenya until standard seven, after which we moved to Australia. I guess my life changed since we moved to Australia.”
Pitia says the move to Australia was naturally exciting but that he was also saddened because of leaving all his childhood friends behind.
“I was twelve when we moved to Australia and I was approaching my teenage age,” he says, adding. “It was a great time but at the same time, it was hard to leave everything that I had known, all my friends in Kibera, my school community. I was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts at that time so it was bittersweet.”
“Moving to Australia was a big shift for me; it was like winning a lottery,” he adds.
On landing in landing Australia, Pitia says the cold winter and the culture shocked him but that the small African community helped his family settle in.
“We had so many people who supported us at that time. We had friends from the church community and the African community that was there already,” he says, “It was not a big community, but it was big enough to welcome us and show us the way to welcoming us into our new life.”
On if he is involved in any project momentarily, the actor says he is juggling many things.
“Right now I’m doing a lot of things. I am a lawyer, an actor, and a master of ceremonies. So, I guess the journey for me progressed in the sense of all the things that I have been involved in,” he states. “And these are the things that I have always been interested in. Obviously, education was big for me in terms of being able not to only have an occupation. Law was just a natural progression. You know I like to talk so I figured out maybe it (law) was the best occupation for my character and personality.”
The thespian says acting has always been part of him and that he was always fascinated by stories.
“I am fascinated by people and I like engaging them. As refugees, we would often act; you know, living your life as something else. So, naturally, I already knew this is something that I was interested in,” he explains.
Pitia says he embraced acting feverishly when he arrived in Australia because he was at the age when he could understand the craft and also studied it.
“What I was doing before was entertaining people through skits but when I studied acting I saw it as a possible way of having an occupation,” he says. “When you are portraying a story, you have to understand the subject and that to me has always been fascinating. I wanted to understand the craft and learn about the basics and I was lucky I had an amazing drama teacher who invested so much time in educating us on that.”
Regarding his character ‘Ray’ in the Netflix hit movie Spiderhead, Pitia explains that the story behind his role is an incarcerated guy who has seen life, faced hardships, and made some mistakes and is paying for them.
“Spidehead is a story of human nature and it talks about how humans can be confined into space, their rights are taken away from them and how they try to fit in and coexist with everyone,” he narrates. “To me, it all reflects in my journey as a refugee, where you are put in confined places such as a refugee camp. We are told certain things about how we are as characters, we are limited, we can work, we have to find ways to make ends meet, stereotyping ourselves but at the same time we want to coexist with everyone.”
The actor acknowledges that he is blessed and very pleased with where he is at the moment in his acting career.
“Something that I am very much proud of is that we are grooming talent in terms of giving them opportunities that we never had but at the same time telling stories about us as Africans,” Pitia says. “One thing we have been doing in the diaspora is multiplying and kids need inspiration. I would like to say that I am fortunate to be in a position that is able to show them there are possibilities.”
He urges the government and society to appreciate and support actors and challenges the latter to put out African stories.
“One of the best ways for us to show ourselves is by putting out movies and stories that show where we came from, giving people an understanding of where we live and the location that we desire in people we connect with,” he orates. “I think this is an important way of maintaining culture and language and teaching our young generation who they are, especially people who have never been to South Sudan. We should not just see South Sudan as being about war, famine, and other negative issues.”
Pitia says he wants to come back home and inspire the next generation.
“I want to come back home to Africa and make an impact. I want to work with like-minded people,” he says. “I want to inspire the next generation and be able to sort of build links between the diaspora and home.”
The actor says the youth should be the change they want to see.
“My message to the youth is that this is our time, we are the next generation and we are the ones to make an impact,” he concludes. “I want to tell everyone to be the change you want to see.”
Pitia has appeared in the feature films “Escape from Pretoria”, “Never Too Late” and “Fate of the Night”. He is also in the acclaimed TV series “Stateless” and “Danger 5”. He has also acted in commercials for, “RAA”, “Coopers” and “Workskil”.
You can see him in a new Netflix TV series later in 2022.