Ernest Obi is a household name in Nollywood. As an actor and film director of note, he has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the film industry and life itself. He has played major roles in many epic home videos and has produced a legion of others.
Being a star, Obi’s life is not devoid of controversy, as other people in the entertainment industry. One of the controversies that dogged his life is his crashed marriage, especially when his ex-wife accused him of impregnating his stepdaughter severally and subjecting the girl to several abortions.
Telling what could pass for a story of his life, the actor, who is president of Actors Guild of Nigeria, Lagos chapter, talked about his crashed marriage, sex-for-role and sexual harassment in the movie industry, the re-branding policy of the Federal Government and his most embarrassing moment.
Your face has been scarce on screen. What happened?
Nothing really happened. There is always a stage in life when you need to transit to the next level, and that is what has happened all this while. While in school, I majored in directing but because of the love I have for acting I had to start my career with acting. After a while, I felt that instead of complaining about some of the lapses being experienced in directing,
I should go into that aspect of the industry. I have been directing movies, though, sometimes, I act in movies, especially those I feel have strong character base and good storyline. Beyond that, I am the incumbent chairman of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, Lagos chapter. I was elected in 2007. So, it has been a bit hectic trying to balance acting, directing with running the guild, which is probably the largest guild in Africa. And the state chapter is the largest body. That is why I have been on the quiet side.
There is this complaint of lack of professionalism in Nollywood. What is your take on that?
I disagree totally with you. I don’t understand what you mean by professionalism. People who started from nothing are now making something out of nothing. I think that is the height of professionalism. Being a professional is not by holding a PhD in a particular field.
It takes dedication and commitment to become a professional. If you have PhD and you are not dedicated to that field, you will fail. Anything artistic, first and foremost, has to be innate. If you don’t have something inside, you have nothing to give. I think those who learn on the job are the ones who are professionals, and not those who are carrying all the degrees. I am not saying it is not important to have a degree in a particular field. But beyond the degree, you must be dedicated to what you are doing. And that is what our costume and make-up artists are doing and I give them kudos for that. By so doing, they are professionals.
Talking about costume, a king who is in his palace at night taking dinner is seen putting on his crown and beads. Must it be so?
That is drama and picture for you. Ask yourself from the commercial angle, what does the audience want to see? You must take that into consideration. Do you want to demystify your character by removing all those beads and the crown? The truth about it is what the audience wants to see. The king shouldn’t be played as an ordinary man. Whether he is sleeping or not, he should look like a king and that is what makes it original. All those things you think are abnormal are even what make the film worthwhile.
What about having story line that seems the same?
We are coming from a background where everybody knows the other person’s story. There is no story I will tell in a home video that has not been experienced in a particular area. Somebody somewhere must have experienced it or heard of a place it has happened or a person it has happened to.
That is what makes it a true life story. It might depict an Igbo cultural life, but in another tribe it may have something to do with an incident that must have happened there. That is why when a story is told, just because you can relate it to another; you say these people are doing the same thing. The truth is, they are not. It is because they are telling your story.
That is what makes it so unique and also why people watch. You can watch American movies where they are shooting guns, people are flying and jumping but at the end of the day, it might not stick at the back of your mind for a very long time because you cannot relate to it. But our people can predict how our movies would end because we are telling our own story.
Again, we are Africans and our stories must end well. It must end with good triumphing over evil. In American films, it is not a rule for them because I have seen movies where somebody killed and walked away as the hero. You don’t have to question them because it is their story. They can give it a name and say it is dramatic licence. But here, if you make the valiant the hero, you will lose your audience immediately. So, you must make the hero the good one and not the valiant.
For instance, I can tell a story of a masquerade from 10 different angles but the conclusion will be that they are the same. At a time they said we were showing rituals; yet they were watching it because it captivates. That is the African magic.
Why do the white men call Nigerian movie African magic?
I don’t know why they call it African magic, but I think they call it that name because we have achieved a lot from nothing. We have had final year students who came to write their projects from Canada, Holland and France.
We have students in filmmaking who are writing their final projects on how to shoot movies in Nigeria and how to shoot low budget films in Nigeria. As much as they criticize it, they also sympathize with the condition under which we work. They don’t believe that it is possible to shoot and get a good product under such conditions. We work and shoot movies under very tedious and bad conditions for peanuts.
That is why they look at us and say with all these stress and troubles; you can still produce something like this? It must be African Magic. Truly, it is the magical thing about Africa. I don’t think it was meant to be derogatory.
Where does Nollywood come, as Nigeria is re-branding?
How do you want to re-brand Nigeria? What is re-branding Nigeria? I should tell you that the policemen don’t take bribe anymore and that they don’t wear slippers on the road? And that would make me a good citizen of the country? That is a lie or I should tell you that dead bodies are not being left in the street corners? Or I should tell you that evil things do not happen in Nigeria, even though they happen in other countries?
We cannot do that because it would amount to telling lies. A film maker is supposed to depict what happens around him. He is the mirror of the society. Whatever you show is supposed to help change the way society sees life. And that is why, at the end of the day, good always triumph over evil. You cannot tell me to lie to the viewing audience because you want me to re-brand Nigeria.
The question is, does Nigeria want to be re-branded? Who is Nigeria? We are Nigerians. We are also the one telling the story that there are ritualists in our society. There are people out there who believe that the only way to become rich in life is to cut people’s heads and use it for money rituals. They are there in our midst. You can’t tell me not to put it in a movie because we want to re-brand Nigeria. If you toe the line of deceit, then the people who are killing and beheading people would not stop their evil acts.
So, to re-brand Nigeria, we must rise up to tell ourselves the truth. The truth is that high percentage of Nigerians lives under the poverty line. They are poor and starving. Telling ourselves the truth is what I know as re-branding. However, I like the woman who is behind the re-branding thing, Prof. Dora Akunyili. I know what she did with NAFDAC. She is a fire- brand.
She does not only talk; she takes action. But if what I read on the paper about the money released for the re-branding project is true, then the exercise is a fallacy. What is she suppose to do with that? That is not even enough for a film fund where film makers can go to take loan for their films, which will help in re-branding Nigeria. Are they planning for her to fail already?
That is why I said I want to believe it is a rumour. If you want to re-brand Nigeria, you should have a fund of N50 billion, which will triple down to whoever needs it, instead of giving N50 billion to the militants, to gun-totting mad men. So, that is how re-branding should start.
What about the Vision 2020 project? Where does the entertainment industry come in?
I don’t even know what Vision 2020 is about. These visions would not put food on my table right now and will not make me proud to say I am a tax payer. Any vision that will not make me proud to say that I have a child in the school in Nigeria and cultism is on zero level is no vision. My parents used to tell me how they used to live at Abulenla, on Lagos Island, and that you could actually put a mat outside and sleep till morning without anybody touching you, not to talk of removing your wristwatch.
That is the kind of Nigeria I want to see. That is the kind of vision I want to hear. I don’t want to wait till 2020, like we were told to wait till 1999-2000. Now, they are talking about 2020. We have jumped from becoming missionaries to blind men. Are we in a trance? Very soon, we will all be blind. We need an intellectual revolution, as the only way to help clear this mess we are in.
Intellectual revolution? In what ramification?
First, we need a change. Second, we need to challenge our leaders, especially the local government chairmen, to execute projects that will touch lives positively. I love the way the Rivers State governor has been challenging his local government chairmen to action.
They shouldn’t just sit down and look. The governors, having done everything, what do they now do with their money? In Lagos State also, Fashola is virtually doing everything. I have not seen the impact of the local government chairmen. What they do is to clear some rickety gutters and go home to sleep. You see them establishing filling stations everywhere.
Tell me what they need all that for. Somebody who used to be a guard or tout is now a councillor, a person who is not even intellectually sound enough to govern his own home has become a local government chairman. Such a person has nothing to offer. We need an intellectual revolution, where the right-thinking people, who are after the welfare of the society, are placed in a position. Such people, like Gani. He died fighting. He died speaking. I watched his last interview on television.
You could barely hear him. It was a whisper, but the man was still fighting. He wasn’t perfect, but he lived for what he believed in. That is an intellectual revolution. Gani was celebrated more than Michael Jackson by the Nigerian press. I was shocked. It means the man made an impact, even though the political nature of Nigerians will always wait for the person to die before showering praise on him. In all, he did his own best to turn things around.
There is an allegation that directors sleep with actresses before giving them roles. What is the true state of things?
There is also an allegation that most managing directors in some companies also sleep with people they want to employ before they give them jobs. There is an allegation in banks that the branch managers or the managing directors also insist on sleeping with members of staff before they get any appointment. There is also an allegation in the Nigerian Police that before any female police officer is promoted she has to sleep with the Commissioner of Police, the IG, DIG, AIG, and others. They are all allegations. It is in every facet of the society.
Thank God I did not hear the word, rape. As the chairman of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, Lagos chapter, we usually tell our people that we are always there to protect their interest. But when you throw your interest out of the window, first, we might not have a say. Somebody says come to my hotel room to pick up your script by 10pm. What are you going there to do in a man’s hotel room by that time of the night? You have no business in a hotel room. By accepting that invitation, you are asking for trouble. You are invited for a role and you are almost naked, it is trouble.
Even though she has the right to dress the way she likes, it tells a lot about her. If a man wants to give you a role and he touches your buttocks, you did not say anything, and when he didn’t give you the role, you scream blue murder. Who is fooling who? When he taps your back, slap him and raise alarm, then, we can step in because that is molestation. Most times, people always say that directors are harassing them, but you will be shocked to find out that they are the ones actually harassing the directors. They tell them that they are ready to do anything for the roles. It is the same thing in companies and banks. Some people are willing to compromise to rise to the next level and most times, they don’t rise anywhere. They are five minutes fame that ends after five minutes.
Why do directors keep on casting the same set of people?
It is based on commercial angle. We don’t have a government that is interested in the plight of the film makers. There is no film fund where you can go to borrow money. When individuals put their money into business, they expect to get it back.
They would want to know from the marketers who are the hottest actresses in the market. So, when you are given such names, like Rita Dominic, Stella Damascus, Ramsey Noah and the rest, you will want to get them because, they are the people the audience wants to see. You can cast one or two upcoming ones to join them, but you need to have the people that the audience wants to see.
If not, you will buy your movies yourself. When we grow beyond the position of individuals investing their money in films, to a level of having a film funds, where you can get N20million to produce films and take them round Africa and to film festivals, then you can use anybody, as long as the person is a member of the guild. Not when it is just Idumota and Iweka alone. I have to get my money back and do a turn-over to start another movie. So, there is no room for experiment.
In that regard, what is the hope of the upcoming artistes?
Yes, they must struggle as hard as other people did. Genevieve Nnaji did. She struggled hard to be where she is today. People thought that she just started and became a star. She came into the industry at the time when it was not in vogue to use dark skinned people.
But she persevered and when it was her time, people discovered that she was a fantastic actress. The same thing is applicable to every other person. Uche Jumbo has been around for years but her star started shining just a few years ago. I could go on and on. If you cannot persevere, after a few months, you will give up and start shouting that they want to sleep with you.
AGN had problem before their election, what was the cause?
I have said it severally that I do not want to join or personalize an issue that has to do with the growth of the guild. My major concern as the chairman of the Lagos Chapter is to fulfill my mandate. The fact remains that the former president of the guild in the person of my very good friend and brother, Mr. Ejike Asiegbu, came into the office in June 2005, which was supposed to end in 2007.
After alteration of the constitution by himself, he got an extension on his tenure via his new constitution for one year which ended in 2008. That was where the problem started. Now that the election has been conducted, I believe everything will come back to normalcy.
How did you become the chairman of the guild?
Some years ago, I ran for this same position, but I didn’t win because, I was told I would not win. Then I came into the race a day to the expiration of the sales of the form. I had discovered some discrepancies; I felt I had failed in my duty as a member, having endorsed the people running without investigating their pedigree. At that time, I did not even have the money to buy the form. Somebody had to buy it for me.
While lamenting over the situation, somebody said, “why not correct it by joining the race?” And I joined. That was the toughest election for the Lagos chapter. Unfortunately, I lost. This time round, people said it was long overdue and unanimously they voted for me massively.
In Nollywood, one person is the actor, director, costumier and even the make-up artist. Why is there no specialization or division of labour in the industry?
If you have anybody who has that acronym attached to his name that is very stupid. You can have a producer who is also a director and an actor. But when he goes into costume and make-up, it becomes ridiculous. It means he doesn’t know what he is doing. However, you can have producer-director-actor who may not actually direct but employs the service of a second, third and an assistant director, who will actually do the job. It happens all over the world, even in Hollywood.
Are there professional script writers in Nollywood?
Yes. Taye Emeka Obasi, Reginald Ebere, Yinka Ogun, who writes for BBC, etc, are all script writers and members of the Script Writers’ Guild of Nigeria. This is what they do for a living.
Kidnapping has crept into Nollywood. Why are actors the target?
I don’t think they actually meant to kidnap Uncle Pete Edochie. I think it was just a mix-up. If you kidnap me, who will pay? We are currently going through depression. That was why Uncle Pete said he did not know who gave the kidnappers N10 million, as they claimed.
We are the mirror of the society and not the problem. The problem of this country is that the public servants are siphoning money into their private pockets instead of creating avenues for employment. If we start showing that in the movies, they will say we are not painting a good image of the country. Now, in the Niger Delta, they are sharing money to the so-called militants.
What is the difference between them and those we call criminals in Onitsha and Abia? Are they not doing the same thing? Let them offer the same olive branch to the people in Onitsha and Abia. If the government should say today it has N10 billion for them to surrender their guns, they will return trailer loads because we have more guns there than we have in Niger Delta. They may not be as sophisticated as their own, but we have more. So, we are the problems of the kidnappers.
How has the government assisted the film industry?
Whatever anybody is doing is on personal grounds. The black man naturally is a selfish breed. Every average Nigerian is a hypocrite. He talks stuff but when he is in a position of authority, he blanks. He turns his back on you. He thinks of himself first.
We have actors, filmmakers who are in government; we have scriptwriters who are in government and have not done anything for the industry that brought them where they are. It is after they have left office that they will realize that they have no where else to go. That is just their jurisdiction and they would want to come back. That is what we are telling them now.
If you are not a member of the guild and you die, you are on your own. A lot of people are taking us for granted. There are other professional bodies whereby if you are not a member, you cannot identify with them. We have been doing it in the past but this time around, we are going to be very strict.
From your own perspective, who is a star?
A star is that person who has paid his dues; who is publicly recognized by the audience and has a strong fan base. He must be an extremely fantastic person. But then, stardom has categories and it is so everywhere.
Have you worked with other professional artistes outside this country?
With all humility, they have not had the opportunity to work with me.
Why have you not gone into music, like your colleagues?
Well, my musical career starts and ends in my house. I can sing round the house from the kitchen to the living room, and it ends at that.
When did you hit the fame?
I don’t know because I started from stage. From stage, I went into television. I think what actually sent me into limelight was the role I played in a film called The Glamour Girls. I was given the responsibility of cooking in the kitchen and washing my girl’s pants. And I did it perfectly that I got the fancy of filmmakers. After that it went on and on.
Do you think you have arrived at the peak of your career?
No, I have not even gone half way. Is it with this state of the country and its economy? I need to be able to buy a car for myself, my mother, buy property, open schools and others without shaking. With the way things are in Nigeria, one need to sit up to survive.
A situation whereby a man is eating and he is thinking at the same time, whether if he had finished the reserve left at home is not a healthy one. There is no money in this country and majority of the people are crying. Yet, the banks were giving N88billion to individuals. To be frank, I have not arrived at the peak of my career at all because I still have a long way to go.
Was there a time you thought you went into the wrong profession?
No. I couldn’t have done anything better than what I am doing now. I am fulfilled with it. It is a dream come true. I was once a manager in a shipping line and I also had the opportunity of running a company, but I was never happy. Nothing in life would have made me happier than acting.
Was there a time your parents thought or felt you chose the wrong career?
Initially, my mum thought so. They thought I was too intelligent to be acting. They thought I should be outside the country where my sisters are. I am extremely stubborn, so when they realized I was bent on doing it, they left me alone and today, my mum is enjoying it..
Pains and gains of fame
You cannot balance it out. Sometimes, it paves way for you but at other times, it becomes the reason why you will be hated and humiliated. There are occasions where police will recognize you and allow you to pass but there are days when they will be stubborn simply because they feel you are pompous. People also disrespect you because they feel your feeling is that you are better than them even when you don’t feel so. Sometimes, someone may call you when you are sleeping and if you tell him or her to call back, they pick offence. I can go on and on.
What is the most embarrassing moment of your life?
They are many, but the most of them all was the one that made me defy the point that I was mature. I was pushed to the wall and it got me thinking of murder. It was the problem I had with my ex-woman, though, we were not traditionally married.
We broke up in 2007 and she moved to London. I think she heard that I wanted to get married and she decided to grant interview to the press and said that the reason we separated was that my daughter, a girl I trained from when she was two to 18years old was my bed mate. She said I was sleeping with her for years, got her pregnant severally and did D&C several times to her. I almost died. When I got there, they asked what I had to say and I said nothing because I didn’t want to join issues.
Two days later, she called me to apologize that the reason she did that was because she was angry. I simply told her to go back to the press to tell them the truth. But she said she could not face the world. And I could not go round the world also to tell them it was a lie. So, it has been like that until now.
What could have been her reason for doing such?
I don’t know and I don’t want to know. It is no longer important. I have moved on with my life. The incident really made me not to trust anybody and it affected my relationship with my fiancé. For whatever reason, she did that, let God judge between the two of us.
What was your reaction then?
The day I heard of it, I didn’t know what to do at first because I was confused. Absentmindedly, I went into a church and walked straight to the pulpit and started telling them what I was passing through. The pastor, when he recognized me, gave me a smile but I did not reciprocate because my heart was heavy. Tears were coming down from my eyes.
He told the congregation to stand up and pray for me and they all prayed. They advised me to leave everything in the hands of God. And that was exactly what I did. I really thanked that pastor and my fiancé who stood by me. Her friends were mocking her but she kept telling them that I could not do such a thing.
She believed in me. Her family and mine believed I did not do it. That was my strength. Another thing she did was to keep telling me to forgive my ex and today, I have forgiven her from the depth of my heart. Before now, I was having BP but since I forgave her sincerely, I have started sleeping well.
What do you think is the reason marriages are crashing especially among artistes?
Marriages are breaking everywhere and it is not restricted to artistes alone. Is it because we are on the limelight? The famous people out there get married today, spend millions on their wedding and six months later, it is over. Marriages break up everyday and ours are not different. I always tell people not to get into a relationship out of pity. It is the worst thing you can ever do to yourself. Marriage break up in every facet of life in the society so, the press should not over-blow it when it comes to Nollywood.
What attracted you to the lady you want to marry?
It is the fact that she does not see me as an actor. She sees me as her husband, friend and above all, someone she can talk to. If I make the wrong move, she tells me straight to my face without blinking and not minding if I am angry or not. She is one person who can, although sometimes, may over do it, tell me when I am wrong. She is a very principled person, down to earth and believes in me. It is not just saying I love you. Love is not enough most time but for the person to believe in you.
Any marriage intention?
We are looking at having the traditional marriage in December. Although we are having an argument that December is not a very good time for people to attend functions. However, we are looking into it.
Where did you meet her?
She came to register to act about seven years ago. I saw her and told her not to act. She asked why because she had already paid for the form. I said don’t act and that was how the whole thing started.
Was the other lady still in your life then?
No. We have had our problems then and it was obvious that we were separated.
Does your previous lover have children for you?
Yes. She has two children for me. She is in England with them.
Do you talk with them?
I think I will start doing that now that I have forgiven her. I discussed with my fiancé and she doesn’t have problem with that. I don’t want to bring the children issue into this because at the end of the day whatever you say might affect them.
What part of your fiancée’s body appeals to you most?
Every part of her body appeals to me. If you see her, you will understand what I am saying. She is an angel and the love of my life.
What does she do?
She works with an IT firm, here in Lagos. She studied Linguistics and majored in French.
Can you tell us your family and educational background?
My father was the Oba 1 of Ukpor, in the person of Chief Dara Onyia Egwu. He married many wives but my mum was the first. I attended Onward Nursery and Primary School, Surulere, and Baptist Academy Secondary School. From there, I went to the University of Ife, where I studied Dramatic Arts and majored in directing.
How was growing up among your sisters like?
It was fun. I was my daddy’s pet. I slept on his bed till I grew up even while still in secondary school. He helped me to have focus. I was extremely comfortable while growing up. I thank God for my life because I almost became a girl. My sisters dotted on me. They were so nice to me and they were dressing me up as a girl. They thought I looked like a girl. So, they would always want to apply lipstick on me until my mother came back from the U.S. and screamed that they wanted to turn her only son to a girl.
How do you see women?
I respect women a lot. If I am walking down the road and I see a man beating up a woman, I will die there defending the woman. Maybe, it is because I grew up among women. However, women are the most difficult species on earth. Men also are generally childish. We love attention. We want to be pampered even when it is not necessary. Women, on the other hand, are so complicated that you don’t start unraveling them. You take it a piece at a time. Women are like a piece of cloth together, and you want to pick out one in the middle without rumpling it. If you are in a hurry, you will rumple it all. So, you take it one piece at a time until you get to that one.
Have you been sexually harassed before?
You get sexually harassed everyday but it depends on what you mean by sexual harassment. It comes in stages and levels. Some will call you on phone and say all sorts of things and you will know where the conversation is going. Some will come half-naked and some will come outright and tell you that they want to sleep with you. It comes everyday but I always tell myself that I am not capable of doing it because I believe that when you sleep with a woman, there is a transfer of spirit. That is why they say that those who have much sexual knowledge of prostitutes have the tendency not to succeed in life because there is a lot of transfer of spirits from various angles.
So, are you saying that for seven years now you have dated your fiancée that you have not slept with another woman?
I don’t know where the woman is. There is no perfection in life but I am blind in that regard. I see only her.
What are your likes and dislikes
I love people who are creative, people who are artistically gifted. It is a great honour. I hate lies, no matter how bad a thing may be, just tell me the truth and I will forgive you.