Okechukwu Ukeje, better known as OC Ukeje, is currently the undisputed rising star of Nollywood. But could he be the one finally breaking out of Nigeria to bridge Nollywood and the rest of the world?
Ukeje burst on the Nigerian entertainment scene in 2006 after winning the Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO) reality TV show for actors and later trained at the New York Film Academy.
Highest box office grosser of 2014, the 34-year-old Lagos-born actor is quickly becoming a staple in the African film industry. A recipient of several Best Actor awards including the 2015 and 2013 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, the 2013 Nigerian Entertainment Award, and the 2008 Africa Movie Academy Award, Ukeje appeared in a number of award-winning Nigerian films but has also worked outside Nollywood, notably in Ghanaian (2014’s Love or Something Like That directed by Shirley Frimpong Manso) and South African productions (Sara Blecher’s 2015 film Ayanda and the Mechanic, which screened at the market in Cannes, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer and opened the Durban International Film Festival).
Ukeje also appeared in Half of a Yellow Sun in 2013, based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling novel, alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, and Black November (2012) with Mickey Rourke, Hakeem Kae-Kazim and Kim Bassinger, among other well-known Hollywood actors. More recently, he starred in Confusion Na Wa, winner of Best Picture at the Africa Movie Academy Awards and Gone Too Far, the big screen adaptation of the eponymous British stage play by Bola Adbaje, which, upon its release last October in the UK, made the Top 20 hit, making OC an instant international crossover star.
With successful collaborations with international directors and actors, his dream of becoming the first Nigeria-born actor to win an Oscar may very well become true.
I caught up with the actor to talk about his lifestyle and values, his path to success and dreams, as well as social issues and the contrast between Nollywood and Hollywood.
Priscilla Djirackor Debar: For those who still don’t know you, tell us about your background and how you made your first steps in acting.
I actually stumbled into acting. It was purely by chance. I was working with an organisation in the university at the time and I was focusing a lot more on music whilst studying Marine Science. There were concerts and special shows that I was always a part of or was involved in, especially with the music. Then the organisation decided to do a play one semester and they asked me to audition for the lead part. I wasn’t keen but it turns out they thought I fit the part and so I stepped up. And when we put up the play, a bigger organisation saw my performance and asked me to join them. We then ran plays for about four years non stop.
In all that time, I went through my self-discovery and by my final year, I was certain I was going to be doing acting and music and what was left was [to figure out] how to go mainstream. I eventually partook in a reality TV show after I graduated and that was my first attempt at being on-screen.
My first movie, White Waters, came off of the show in 2006. And I’ve been at it since.
Where are you based? What is a typical day in the life of OC?
Well, I’m currently based in Nigeria and I have to say that over the last couple months, nothing has been typical about my life or days. I’ve spent some time travelling this year. It has been so back to back, it is unbelievable. And it is film festivals, meetings, functions, some acting as well.
I really wish I had a manual to help me with this phase of life but it’s a good thing that my wife has been really understanding with the schedule so far.
But when I’m back home, a typical day would probably consist of either meetings, errands, functions in the evenings, and then sometimes, the occasional hangouts with friends. And oh, certain days are religious movie-watching days! Yes I have to have that!
You recently got married, leaving many Nigerian women heartbroken. How do you manage to balance your hectic schedule with your life as a newlywed?
Laughs. I really wish I had a manual to help me with this phase of life but it’s a good thing that my wife has been really understanding with the schedule so far. The brilliant thing is we’re open to going on some of my trips, depending on the nature of the journey and the distance, depending on her availability outside her work schedule and of course, depending on how affordable some of the trips are for both of us. She lives and works in Canada at the moment, so we are constantly updating each other on schedules so that we make plans for our planned visits and other chance visits that come up due to my travels. It is difficult however, because the schedule can be unpredictable and sometimes even after plans are made, we have to keep that window of flexibility open, just because the work trip may be really beneficial to my career at the time. Yes, it is something but we try.
You were probably on cloud nine after winning AMBO in 2006, after which you starred in White Waters. But coming from a reality show must also have represented some challenges. Was it difficult to be accepted and respected in Nollywood?
Oh yes! After the hoopla came reality! Reality TV was just gaining grounds in Nigeria at the time. It took some time for the industry to embrace participants, whether the shows were based on music or dance or acting. And I did think that I won’t have a problem, but I was out of work for almost two years straight after White Waters. And when I went off to Los Angeles to do an acting workshop, I decided that was my last attempt at acting. I was going to do something else if I came back to Nigeria and things didn’t pick up.
A definite difficulty with the Nigerian industry is the lack of interest in new faces.
So yes it was difficult to be accepted after the show. Maybe because people think you’re a flash in the pan. Maybe because they hoped they could work with me in the year after the show, however you’re contractually bound for a year after the show. And one of the difficulties of the period was having to attend open auditions when you have just come off a show that has made you a new ‘celebrity’, and you’re under the impression that you should be ‘desired’. You also find that you have to navigate the business on your own because you find no direct guides or support systems, whether structured or relational. And there are many things you don’t know or aren’t educated about until you dive in.
A definite difficulty with the Nigerian industry is the lack of interest in new faces. And I don’t begrudge using tested hands. I just think that the future of the industry should also be considered so it is important to keep looking for new talent.
What do you think sets you apart from other Nollywood actors? How do you explain your success?
Hmm. I think that, to begin with, I have done the same things and followed the same principles from the get go. And I suppose that the consistency in my value system has played a huge part in making me who I am today. I have always been consistent when it came to what kind of work I wanted to do irrespective of the fact that I wasn’t doing a lot of work anyway.
And I’m sure that there are other actors here who may have the same philosophy. I just think that I have worked hard and my time had just been waiting for me. And I just haven’t settled for popularity over performance.
What about your family? Did they support you in your artistic career?
I’ve been very lucky with my family. My mom has been supportive from day one and had only expressed her concerns after I finished school. She wanted to know when things would be ‘in shape’. And my siblings, yeah, they had no choice. So it’s been a pretty okay journey on that front. And this one time, my mom was going to let me defer a semester to go to London to do some theatre. Suffice to say that that was the most definite sign of her support.
Anyone else gave you significant support in your career?
I haven’t done this alone. My first trip ever out of Nigeria, all expenses paid, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe [former CEO of the African Movie Academy Awards] did that for me and that shaped my mind further on the need for an international career. Sola Olubi [VP of Citibank Nigeria] took time off work to listen and share counsel that helped me keep going. Entrepreneur Ayo Otuyalo was the voice behind my left ear that kept me adamant but the money in my right pocket that helped with training. And there was actress Stella Damasus and TV executive Wangi Mba-Uzoukwu who introduced me to people. It all added up. And of course there was my friend Lolo Ernie, who made sure I always had some money to spend through very many difficult seasons.
What is your experience working in Hollywood versus Nollywood?
I think that I’m yet to do the kinds of work I’d like to do that I’d call proper Hollywood but I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the actors, and one of the most remarkable differences is the work ethics. Where Hollywood or standard productions flourish in work ethics across the board, my people are playing major catch up. And this is most important to me because outside of infrastructure or an industry with proper framework, it behoves the practitioner to imbibe work ethics. It helps to distinguish you as a person of practice.
It is also different in that you find more Hollywood people are about the performance than the popularity and you find more Nollywood people are about the popularity than the performance.
Other differences border on things that have to do with structure and longevity of industries.
But I definitely see a thriving career in Hollywood and a deep-seated impact in Nollywood as far as contributing to its structure is concerned.
Do you think Hollywood has things to learn from Africa though?
Hollywood has a few things they could learn from Africa. First thing would be their perception of Africa and Africans, and the accents, and its people, and its actual level of development, and the fact that it is a continent with 53 countries in it. If Hollywood learns that, they can learn about the proper representation of stereotypes in films.
I also think that Hollywood can learn our stories. Granted, some of our stories may not have historic significance to them or their culture but our stories can help diversify their current storytelling, and they could be adapted differently too.
You recently were in Durban to present your latest film, Ayanda, a story set in Johannesburg, South Africa. What was your experience working with director Sara Blecher (2011’s Otelo Burning)?
I had a tremendous time shooting the film and it was made so much easier with all the work I had done with the amazing Sara Blecher. We spent some time, or what time we had, tweaking and tightening the story just so it was in its truest form. The entire team was pretty awesome.
Fulu [Moguvhani] and Thomas [Gumede] were good sidekicks. The producers, Robbie [Thorpe] and Terry [Pheto] were making life super comfy for me. And Sara was so so so accommodating and open to options and I was too glad to get a shot to work with her. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The movie addresses the issues of xenophobia and racism, which are still very present in South Africa. In the US, violent acts motivated by racism and instances of police brutality against African-Americans have been making headlines on a regular basis. What do you think about being black in America today? Do you see any resolution to these issues?
It’s a really sad thing because at first, you think that the earlier deaths were coincidental, and then you realise that this has become a thing. And it is pervading America, as it has had its effects in South Africa. There has to be more conscious and stern measures in place to check the authorities. I also think that black communities need to arm themselves with more camera coverage as long as there is any run in with the police. They need to look out for each other and make sure they have footage to back up the scenarios, and if the suspect is at fault then he does his penance for it.
As far as xenophobia in South Africa goes, it’s more difficult to tackle especially seeing as this is race on race. But I think that the government can embark on a media campaign to help their citizens begin the process of understanding the need to accept people as people.
Another issue that is making headlines both in the US and in Africa is that of gay rights and same-sex marriage. President Obama just gave a speech during his visit in Kenya in which he admonished authorities for the negative treatment of gay people and anti-gay laws in Africa. This wasn’t really well received locally. What is your opinion on the issue?
From a personal standpoint, I believe in the union of a man and a woman, male and female. I do understand that we live in a more complex secular system. What I have an issue with is the request for acceptance of gay people but the lack of tolerance you get if you say you don’t believe in the gay arrangement. And it feels like passing it into law makes it difficult for straight, conservative people to simply say they believe in male and female.
If you desire the liberty to love whoever you choose, I desire liberty to agree or disagree as the case may be.
It seems like you become judged for not being ‘open-minded’ and I think that everyone has elements of closed minds on different subjects. So it feels like if you desire the liberty to love whoever you choose, I desire liberty to agree or disagree as the case may be.
You’re a man of many talents, among which singing. Who are some of your favorite artists?
Hmm. Some of my favourite artists are Usher Raymond, Justin Timberlake, India Arie, 2face Idibia, ColdPlay. And lately, I’ve been playing Emeli Sande’s Breaking the Law, Patoranking’s My Woman, My Everything featuring Wande Coal, Nerea by Sauti Sol and Omi’s Cheerleader featuring Felix Jaehn.
Who are your favourite directors at the moment? Who would you like to work with in the future (actors or directors) and why?
Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino are at the top of my list especially because of their unique styles of storytelling and directing. And if I get the opportunity to work with Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington because of their intensity and art in executing their characters, I have lived a good life.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Hmm. I would tell him to take a few more chances and not play some choices so safe. I’d tell him to enjoy the moments thrown at him a lot more. And I’d ask him to prepare faster and earlier for this career.
What advice would you have for young Africans looking to make it in the film industry?
I’d advise young Africans to be true to themselves about their craft and their purpose for being in the business. So that they have the right motives for the pursuit. I’d advise them to play the game globally and develop a local or regional following also , and find a balance between focusing on the performance as well as the creation of a brand. I’d also advise them to find a non-distracting way to make some income as they pursue the dream. My two cents.
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However nice he seems in interview, one thing is for sure: OC Ukeje’s never afraid to play the bad guy. Go watch him in Prey with Weruche Opia at the moment.