by Wilfred Okiche
It is difficult to get the forceful, compelling characters that Funke Akindele has brought to life with her craft, but step away from all of that just for this moment; this is a woman with many incredible layers
FUNKE AKINDELE has it.
That innate ability to walk into a place and brighten it immediately. I am sitting in this hair saloon, there are about five people in the room and we are all doing our best to ignore the next person. Then, Ms. Akindele walks in and the atmosphere changes immediately.
Bored looks give way to excited whispers; it’s almost palpable – like enchantment passing through. An eager beaver, unable to control herself any longer, screams out from her corner: “Sulia Kan!’’ Unless you have been living under a rock these past few years, you know what’s coming next.
Funke smiles politely and responds, “Aiyetoro kan.’’
But does she ever get tired of all this: the constant expectation to switch into character and become Jenifa, her most popular character automatically and at the mention of a name? “Ah! No I can’t get tired,’’ she responds, maybe even ticked at the suggestion “These are my fans; they love and appreciate what I do so I have to reciprocate. I cannot get tired at all.’’
I study her carefully, searching for any signs of strain on her face or body language that would betray her words. This may be cliché, but all that comes across is a young woman confident in her own skin, glad to be alive and lapping up the love and support of her fans.
As she should. She has worked hard for every bit of it.
At the New York premiere of her latest film, The Return of Jenifa, a sequel to the 2009 blockbuster Jenifa, released in October last year which she produced and starred in, the actress was reported by tabloids to be styled in designer jewelry worth $100,000.
At the Lagos premiere of the same movie, after invited A-list celebrities had had their turn on the red carpet, Mademoiselle Akindele stepped out – a star, shining bright with or without the jewellery – of a black stretch limousine and into the waiting arms of the paparazzi falling over themselves to capture images of the lady of the moment.
So has Funke really arrived “I am very comfortable,” she replies with a smile. “I thank God. I pray to acquire more wealth because one can never be too comfortable. This is something I love doing and I get paid along the way so it is a plus for me. “Everybody that works hard wants change, wants success but I am still me. About the jewelry, I don’t know how they came up with that story, all I know is I looked good that night and I totally rocked that look!’’
Not that she will speak about her earning power, including the rumours of seven-figure sums, but anyone who has seen the original Jenifa and caught The Return of Jenifa this year, would notice that Ms. Akindele has certainly moved up in station.
The picture and sound quality of the later registered a dramatic improvement, the sets changed from a Polytechnic to the much-harder-to-secure University of Lagos as well as a scene at the Lagos International Airport where she gathered a galaxy of the biggest names in Nigerian music for a cameo.
How does one get eLDee, Banky W, Wizkid, Naeto C, and Sasha P under one roof for one scene only? “I tell you it wasn’t easy but I set a goal,” she says. “I told myself ‘Funke this is what you have to do.’ and I went all out to do it. For me, it was great and they were all so supportive. God bless them all. They even got to the airport before I did and they were there – on time, waiting for me. I wanted to celebrate them in a way because I am a big fan of their work and it turned out they were also huge fans of Jenifa so it was great.’’
As anyone who knows the Funke Akindele story will tell you, it hasn’t always been this great. Long before there was Jenifa the pop-culture icon, there was Funke the girl with a dream.
Born and raised in Lagos, Funke is the daughter of a gynecologist mother and an educationist father. “My parents supported us in anything we decided to do,” the University of Lagos-trained lawyer shares. “My dad however made sure that we all got an education first. After which, anything else could follow.”
What followed was the love for performing. Always there, it was only after completing secondary school that she dared to follow her dream. She had gained admission into the Ogun State Polytechnic and was studying for her National Diploma in Mass Communication when she started writing stories.
The first movie in which she earned production credits – Ojoketala, released in 2004 – was written during this period.
It wasn’t long before Akindele knew she was ready for her close-up. With faith in her daughter, her mother would hit the road with her scouting for audition venues, scrounging for film shoot information; searching for that big break.
But the big break needed small starts. “My first experience on a movie set was in Opa Williams’ Naked Wire where I had a tiny role that included all of one line of dialogue,’’ she recalls.
Not the star-making turn she had envisioned, but after fruitless months on the streets, months accompanied by frustrated tears and empty wallets after unsuccessful auditions – she was grateful for any opportunity to prove herself.
And even after, she still had to pound the pavement. Her break finally came in the television series I Need to Know – a United Nations sponsored advocacy project aimed at educating young people on sexual behavior. Syndicated across the country and wildly popular with teenagers and students, her character ‘Bisi’ was one of the most recognisable on television.
Funke casts her mind back: “I worked on I Need to Know for four years where I played one of the leads: a teenager named Bisi, and when the show ended, I went back to the movies.’’ Or at least she tried to.
But as she was soon to find out, no one in the movie industry really cared about your TV bonafides. “It was difficult getting back in after I had been away for some time and it was particularly humbling because I had thought that I now had a recognisable face,” she says.’’
Not one to wait and wail, Funke made a quick move into the burgeoning Yoruba film industry and after one or two bit parts, was encouraged to settle in. “I joined the ‘Odunfa Caucus’, home to the likes of Yinka Quadri, Taiwo Hassan, Lanre Abbey and I got my break from there,’’ she says. “I focused on my writing, decided to produce my own film and my mother helped pool resources together. Ojoketala was a success, I started producing other Yoruba movies and here we are today. I am back in Nollywood and have done a lot of English speaking movies recently.’’
But for all her crossover credentials, this proud native of Ikorodu will always identify with the Yoruba speaking genre. The reason is simple. “Remember that the Yoruba films gave me a chance when there was none anywhere so I never forget that,” she says. “So no matter how swamped I am with the English movies, I will always produce my Yoruba films. Also note that for all of their mainstream success, Jenifa and The Return of Jenifa are essentially Yoruba movies but I believe there is only one film industry, not two. I moved from English to Yoruba films and back to English, so language is not really an issue for me. I have a fantastic relationship with artistes from both genres.’’
The Hardest- Working Woman in Show Business
Then there is this little problem: Ms Akindele is an incredibly busy woman.
She refers to herself simply as an actress but as an attempt at modesty, that title lends itself to extreme understatement. It is grossly limiting considering the range of work that she does. You could call her a triple threat of sorts: when she is not writing screenplays, she is acting them out, producing movies or attending to post-production details that linger long after her co-stars have turned in for the night.
I found this out the hard way while trying to secure this physical interview with her – a drawn out, maddening process that dragged on for about a month and had me trailing her from Lagos to Abuja (fruitlessly, as it turned out) and back to Lagos again.
On the day of the interview, I am kept waiting for two hours. “What can I say?’’ she is apologetic. “The reward for hard work is more work, so I don’t want to complain. I just wrapped about three English language movies in Abuja and I am currently working on a script. We are shooting more movies, hitting locations, preparing to do some television work and then there is the Jenifa Foundation, a non-profit organisation which I oversee.’’
Surely, for this brand ambassador for the Lagos tax office and a telecommunication brand, the stress of taking up all these responsibilities must get to her, but she still will not complain. “I am used to it,” she says. “So much so that even when I convince myself to go on vacation, I end up spending one, two days and I’d be itching to get back to work. I fear I am a workaholic. I write my stories, everything, though I have a team of writers and we develop the stories together till everything fits just right. We do script conferences where we hammer out the scripts till they are ready. I do all three – write, act, and produce and I love all of them, I can’t even pick one I enjoy the most.’’
After seven years, it’s become second nature. “In 2004, as producer of Ojoketala, I was in charge because I knew what I wanted and I went for it,” she recalls. “There was pressure from all quarters, I was very anxious and scared sometimes but I pulled through because I loved what I was doing and had a passion for it.’’
It all came together through time spent understanding other producers, but most importantly the tutelage on the very professional I Need to Know set. “We were allowed to ask questions on set and the director, Lloyd Weaver an American, was always ready to teach us: about lights, camera, make-up, ward robe, everything as long as you showed a little interest,” she says. “It was a great learning process that helped me a lot and of course as I kept doing more jobs, I got better with time.’’
And if any troubles arose on set on account of her age or gender, Akindele was too busy to notice, “I am a very determined person,” she says, almost dismissively. “I don’t take no for an answer so if there were any reservations from anybody, I did not even notice, didn’t particularly care. All I wanted was to make my movie and it has been like that ever since.’’
Forgive another cliché, but whether she’s playing high school debutante or world weary street urchin, Akindele is a natural: with an unnerving capacity to take on a role, fill the screen completely and spill over into the lives of the audience watching her such that her best performances tend to leave an indelible memory.
She achieved it with the Jenifa movies; and then re-created the magic all over again with the popular Omo Ghetto, and on a lesser level with the small films in between the big projects. Judging from the trailer of Maami, director Tunde Kelani’s new feature film to be released in February, she’s set to do it again.
How does she do it?
“As an actress, you have to be versatile, deep, flexible and able to play different characters,” she offers. “I try to digest my script and go deep into it. I fell into Maami’s character completely, put myself in her shoes and that is how it is whenever I play any character. When I played Omo Ghetto, I had to go deep into the ghetto to learn how to talk like a ghetto girl. I lived with them, studied how they talk, move, dance, slept, all so I could be the character and not just play her and at the end of the shoot, it was hard for me to dissociate myself from the character.’’
She continues, warming up to her topic. “I noticed early on after Jenifa that because a lot of people love the Jenifa character, they wanted to typecast me, even in the English movies so I put my feet down and said no, don’t bring such scripts to me anymore. Even if you offer me millions, I will not take it because this is my career and it is mine alone to destroy but I don’t have to do that because I love what I do.’’
It is this passion for craft that has earned her a place among Nollywood’s A-list, where she has become more than just a famous face; evolving into that rare talent that can see a movie through the box office. Last year’s The Return of Jenifa had a first week gross of N10 million and had made N25 million as at the time of this interview – all this from showing in three cinemas only.
There are only a handful of movie stars working today that can manage this feat, if at all they exist. “I feel privileged, honored and grateful to God because the road to success is never smooth,” Akindele says, visibily determined to convey an image of being grounded in reality. “There have been many potholes, lots of ups and downs but I thank God I have been able to scale through. Do not get me wrong, I am not where I want to be yet but I pray to God to keep me alive, healthy and strong.’’
And where is that desired future? The multiple award winner (The Future Awards, The Africa Movie Academy Awards, etc) does not skip a beat. “As long as my work is good, I want to be successful, both home and abroad, make a difference and be appreciated,” she says. “I want to shoot better movies, leave the local standard behind and touch people’s lives. I want to teach young people how to fish and not just give them fish. I want to be like Oprah.’’
At the End of the Day
Whenever Ms Akindele wraps a movie, she unconsciously takes a bit of that character home with her. As she reveals, only very few friends still call her Funke, everyone else calls her Jenifa, even those who have known her all her life. It also took her a long time to get out of the Omo Ghetto character and Maami definitely left its mark on her.
“I learnt a lot from Maami’s character, that as a mother, you have to give up a lot for your child and Maami was so full of unconditional love for her son,’’ she starts, soon finding her way to a tender spot inside. “Every woman’s dream is to become a mother someday and I am no different. It is something I am looking forward to. I am hoping it happens soon because it is a journey I cannot wait to discover for myself.’’
Which brings us to the rather pedestrian, shamefully invasive, question of her current relationship status. The woman in control recovers her composure and responds with a demure smile, “Yes, I am involved with someone but I cannot reveal his identity,’’ She eventually offers.
Can’t or won’t?
“Won’t,” she responds, unafraid to put her foot down. “He is a quiet person, does not like attention and we want to keep it that way but we are working towards something permanent and when the time comes, you will be one of the people celebrating with us.’’
Akindele, who has named as her role model the Madea series by Tyler Perry is focused on creating a body of work that will outlast her, and not just with movies, but with reaching out to young people in a country that, she believes, has neglected them for too long.
She has set up a school of dramatic arts, Scene One Productions, that trains young people in movie making, along with hands-on experience working on her projects. And, like Perry, or indeed like her own movies from Jenifa to Omo Ghetto, that’s not all she teaches.
“Young people these days, they want the good things of life and they want it now, no one wants to work or suffer anymore but I tell them that is not the way, it wasn’t the way for me,” Akindele says forcefully. “It’s not that easy. There is this Mary Mary song I hold dear to my heart, Can’t give up now and I always sing it to them.’’
Suddenly, she breaks into song. I join mid chorus. For a priceless moment, interviewer and interviewee bond; just the two of them – caught up in a poignant moment created by the filmmaker.
Moving on, the unabashed adherent of the militant Christianity of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM) quotes copiously from the Bible, Psalm 91 being a particular favourite of hers – the scripture focused on snakes and the fowler’s snare. “I ensure that in all my movies, no matter what, I leave a message for the youth to reflect on because they are vulnerable and need all the direction they can get,” she explains. “That way, they can pass on the message to the next generation.”
It is not a role she set out to play, but it is one her path has thrust on her, she believes. “When I started out, I went through a lot of nos, lots of rejection,” she says slowly, even now still pained by the memories. “Doors were slammed in my face but I remember that people like Nike Peller and Fathia Balogun supported me. So I feel I should use my present circumstances to help those who are coming after us. It is the least I can do.’’
Future generations of performers can indeed look back on the career of this trailblazing actor, writer and producer and say to themselves: that is an example.
That is how you make the transition. From small screen to big screen. From ingénue to crossover success to box-office top draw.
That is how it’s done. Y!