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Canadian actor and producer Emmanuel Kabongo in Toronto on March 22.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Emmanuel Kabongo, the up-and-coming Canadian actor, writer and producer, set himself a goal this year: 50,000 push-ups. That’s 137 per day. By mid-March, he was doing 137 in one set. By year’s end, I have no doubt he will be doing them one-handed, maybe on the ceiling. The man is determination in human form.

All rising actors want it, that intangible mix of opportunity/recognition/repeat, which keeps expanding with each success, until they reach (that also intangible) there. In my many years doing interviews, I don’t think I’ve met someone who wants it more than Kabongo. During our sit-down in my living room – such a treat after two years of Zooms – I could feel it emanating from him. Not in a grasping, narcissistic way; in a hard-working, multiyear-plan vibe. His eye is on the prize, and he does not blink.

He arrived one minute early, looking sharp in a soft suede jacket over a black turtleneck, a small gold cross on a chain around his neck. His voice is quiet but deliberate, and he’s a generous talker. He formed each sentence like it was a handmade truffle – rolling this one in cocoa, that one in almonds, and then handing them to me.

His energy is working. Since 2009, Kabongo, 35, has risen steadily: from background player (they almost booted him from Mean Girls because he kept mugging to the camera) to guest roles on series including Murdoch Mysteries and Rookie Blue; from web series (Teenagers netted him a Canadian Screen Award nomination) to network lead (the 2017 soccer drama 21 Thunder); and from indie and student films (including The Animal Project and Brown Girl Begins) to the just-wrapped sci-fi thriller Hello Stranger, opposite Simu Liu.

“When we were casting 21 Thunder, Emmanuel didn’t have a lot of credits, but he inundated us,” showrunner Malcolm MacRury told me. “He sent acting tapes, and tapes of himself doing great soccer moves. We briefly wondered if he was too old; he sent us a picture of himself next to a 21-year-old superstar player, with the caption, ‘See, I look exactly like this guy.’ You couldn’t say no to that passion.”

This weekend, Kabongo is up for another Canadian Screen Award – lead actor, television film or miniseries, for Death She Wrote. He plays the skeptical boyfriend of a novelist stalked by a crazed fan, kind of Misery-lite. Whether he wins or not, he already knows his next big thing: He’s set to play a social-justice-minded superhero in the upcoming film Rising 6.

His own story is the stuff of movies. Born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the oldest of six children – that includes one cousin whose father had died – Kabongo and his family fled the civil war when he was 6. His father went ahead to Toronto, while his mother and siblings scraped by in Johannesburg. French speakers, they struggled to learn English. When they couldn’t afford rent, they lived in churches.

“Every night, we would go into a room where mattresses were stored, grab one and find a place to lay it down to sleep,” Kabongo says. “In the morning, we’d bathe with a bucket and cup and go to school.”

The family made it to Toronto when Kabongo was 11 and moved into the Blake Street projects near Regent Park. When kids teased them for playing soccer barefoot, they pivoted to basketball. (Gifted athletes all, Kabongo’s sister Vanessa and brothers Myck and Jonathan nearly made it to the NBA. Myck is currently playing in Africa). Kabongo won a basketball scholarship to the University of New Brunswick, but turned it down to pursue acting, first at George Brown, then the Canadian Film Centre. His head shot was an iPhone photo; he made copies on a colour printer. “You could see the pixels!” he says, chuckling. “But I really believed in myself. No one could diminish my excitement.”

He worked at a daycare, Foot Locker, the CNE. He did the night shift at an UP train station, vacuuming floors and cleaning toilets. “I used to sing to myself at work, church songs from South Africa,” Kabongo says. “One night, I’m mopping, I’m singing, I’m in tears, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I heard a voice: ‘To keep you humble.’ As an actor, I need to stay humble. I have to serve the role, the work, the story. You’re never above the story.”

He scored a small agent, then a series of bigger ones. He landed a mentor, the agent Michael Levine, whose mentees include Allan Hawko, Charles Officer and Tanya Talaga.

“I get a wiggly nose about talent,” Levine told me. “Emmanuel’s presence is astounding.”

Kabongo went on every audition he could – two, three, four a week (he keeps a list). He did an informercial for Western Union. He flew himself to Los Angeles for pilot season and slept on a friend’s couch. His audition for 21 Thunder was his 358th.

Now, with Hello Stranger in the can and Rising 6 on the way, Kabongo can feel himself moving up a level. “I actually woke up this morning and felt it,” he says. He has an apartment in L.A., where he’ll live with his fiancé, Raquel, who helps him manifest success. They met a few years ago, after he charmed his way into an exclusive party at the Toronto International Film Festival. He proposed in Hawaii, where he was shooting an episode of NCIS: Hawai’i.

With Hello Stranger in the can and Rising 6 on the way, Kabongo can feel himself moving up a level.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

He insists that Canada hasn’t lost him; he’ll come here to work, he’s sure. He certainly hasn’t stopped hustling. He’s enrolled in a new acting class. He went back to Star Trek: Discovery for five separate auditions before he landed a role. To audition for a Hulu series about Mike Tyson, he painted his face like the champ (no luck). His agent is shopping a TV series pilot he wrote, and he’s developing a film set in the Congo, about lovers separated by war who struggle to reunite after trauma. “I have chills even telling you the story!” he says, hugging his arms.

He does all this because he knows what his it is: He wants to make his family proud. He wants to buy his mother a house. He wants to “give hope to the people of Congo – to show them whatever they don’t have, whatever language they don’t speak, they can still make it,” he says. “I’m a man of faith. I believe God has guided me. Now I want to send the elevator down, so others can come up, too.

“I’m there, but I’m not there,” Kabongo says. “I like that feeling.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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