by Wilfred Okiche
OC Ukeje is fresh from an amazing run in 2013 that had him pick up all the relevant acting nominations and trophies this side of the Atlantic. The Future Awards winner stopped by for a chat at the offices and we grilled him endlessly about a lot of things. His unbelievable 2013, journey to the top, doubts, work ethic and the one thing he is loathe to do on screen.
He was quite game and took on all of the questions like a pro. Enjoy excerpts from the conversation.
You were the most awarded actor last year. How does that make you feel?
First of all, being all over the place is not a bad thing. That said I cannot tell you the one thing I did in 2013 that did not do before. It is the same things really; showing up at the right places, knowing the right people, picking the right projects. But I guess everything is really about timing because even if you have been putting in a lot of work with time, it is one day that the door opens. Some of the films like ‘Confusion na wa’ I shot 3 years ago. ‘2 Brides and a baby’ was shot in 2011. They just happened to show up in the same time period the different awarding bodies used to assess so I can’t really complain. Matter of fact some things did not change. I did not stop picking the right kind of scripts, I did not stop going to circles that I thought are the important ones.
How does each experience feel? Are you beginning to get bored by these awards or does each one still excite you?
I don’t think you ever get bored by awards, I mean how can you get bored when they are reading your name out in front of a hall full of people? It is different crowds, different outreaches and you never know which one your name is falling into. You just hope that the systems are credible enough to make your win mean something. It kind of makes you realise how much work you have to put in so you do not become a flash in the pan. I look forward to hearing my name many more times.
Do you think that each of these awards are independent in their decisions or are they all following a band wagon where OC Ukeje is hot now so let us all just award him?
The interesting thing is I got more mentions from Charles Novia’s ‘Alan Poza’ but the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards was for ‘2 Brides’. The NMMA was for ‘Hoodrush’ and Best Of Nollywood was also for ‘Alan Poza’. For me it feels better that way so that it does not feel like it is a band wagon effect where we are all rewarding one performance. That tell one that there is a chance I have some range. For each of the reward systems I have immense respect for them and for the processes.
It was the AMVCAs that kicked the ball rolling
It was pretty much the opening of the outpouring yes. That was in March last year and to be honest with you I least expected to win that one because of the competition.
But you had to have had a speech handy, yes?
Well one thing I know is that I have been doing speeches all my life and I don’t mean I have been winning awards, it just means that as an actor you get used to speaking in front of people. And yes you can get used to it.
Your big break was after the Amstel Malta Box Office reality television series in 2006 but it seems that people are only just waking up to you 6 years later. How is this possible?
First of all, I have been around since 2001. That is when I started professionally but I did plays mostly. The thing about Nigeria is that winning a reality show does not guarantee you success. You can win it, do a really good film and then nothing after that, you are a flash in the pan. It is left for you to find ways to plug your way into the system, even that isn’t enough. You have to sell your own market. There are tons of talented people in Nigeria but some will never see the light of the day. The fact that you are worth a million dollars does not mean someone is going to pay you that amount. You have to prove it. People seem to think that when you have a product that you want to sell, it has to appeal to the mass market and I agree completely, when it is a product like rice or recharge cards. When it comes to talent like ours, I sort of feel like what appeals to the mass market can be better. I did not want to be watching a film that I wouldn’t be proud off or one that I did not give my best. So I had a PR person, Sarah Lawal who is very good. I still do not have a manager, still searching.
In terms of standards, do you think that you were spoilt by the experience of making the AMBO sponsored ‘White water’ so early on in your career?
No I don’t think so. I honestly think that this is how I have always been because before I even started making films I had seen ours and I thought many of them were not up to scratch. When I was doing ‘White waters’ I really did not know what to expect and even though I wanted to do good work, there was no way I had any creative control whatsoever, it was my first film, I just had my contractual obligations. So I had no idea what to expect.
But there was a history, AMBO had made other good movies.
There is a history now. Remember that I was the second winner and before that they had done only ‘Sitanda’. It was a pleasant surprise that it came out the way that it did. This simply told me that you attract what you are. I got lots of phone calls after that and even though I was a nobody I always insisted on seeing the script first. Of course I got insulted a couple of times but we thank God for everything.
So while you were picking and choosing your scripts, what else were you doing for money?
I wish I could say I had an extra source of income but I didn’t. matter of fact, things got even worse after winning the reality show because I invested a huge chunk of the money in hedge funds and I lost the investment due to the government clamp down. You have to be showing up at these events but no money for new clothes. I was essentially a broke new celebrity. Thank God for family and friends and a few theatre gigs here and there. I was just living day to day.
Let’s say 2013 did not happen, what would you be doing? Is there a plan B tucked away somewhere?
If 2013 did not happen the way it did, I had already figured a plan to ship out of Nigeria. Go to acting school the first year and apply to work in the States the next year. Break my back such that in 2 and a half years, I would find any means to get into a television show over there. Pilot seasons are usually around the first quarter of every year and so there would be a demand for actors. I wasn’t going to give up on acting because I had gotten to the point where I knew I’d rather be doing this for life.
Is there anything you wouldn’t do on screen?
Absolutely. I do not think I can play same sex roles
Even for Oscar glory?
Even then. I know that right now, it is easy to say but from where I stand, it is a tall order for me. It is just my personal value system and much as money is good and glory is great, at the end of the day, they are not everything. The most important thing is your own peace of mind and the ability to live with yourself afterwards. I may like to compare myself with my international counterparts but the truth is I was raised in a different culture. They are a lot more liberal.
What about nudity?
Also as far as nudity goes, I have seen films where there was nudity and that is the last thing you remember about the film because it was done very very professionally. First of all, I don’t think anyone wants to see my black butt on screen because in the business of film making aesthetics are very important. The picture has to be fine. Darker skinned people just do not play as well nude, on screen.
Wow! Isn’t that subscribing to some form of racist mentality?
I don’t think so. Have you seen Will Smith naked before?
No but I think that is only because he does not do those kinds of movies. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle have all done nudity at some point.
Not complete nudity. I am not subscribing to any skin colour superiority but I think that in film, everyone wants a beautiful picture. For the last film I made, because I have spots on my back, the director wanted me totally covered up so every time they needed me bare-chested, they used make up to cover all the spots. The percentage of open-minded people is very negligible. I was in ‘Hoodrush’ recently and when some promotional pictures were released, my hairy body was a big topic on social media, with people insisting it was not a pretty sight. Because of that, I have learnt to shave down to my legs.
As far as Nollywood goes, Asaba is king and if you want the nationwide visibility that will get you the big endorsement deals, it may not be a bad idea to explore. Have you paid the price for not going that route?
Everyone must learn to accept and deal with the consequences of their actions. If you want to sell a 1 million Dollar champagne, you have a very small market and your product is going to be exclusive. I did not come into the market deciding to be exclusive, I just want to do good work. Because of that, if Asaba continues to make films the way that they do, I will not be popular over there and I am ok with that. The thing about choosing a less travelled path is that sometimes the roads are lined with flowers after passing through the thorns. Again I am okay with that.