Keji Yusuf is one of the known faces in the Yoruba movie industry and ever since she joined the make believe world almost two decades ago, there has been no turning back for the wife of a retired Colonel and devoted mother of three. She spoke to BUKOLA BAKARE and FUNMI ELUGBAJU, reliving how she cut her acting tooth under the tutelage of veteran actor, Lai Ashadele, the journey so far and the inherent problems in the movie industry. Excerpts:
You are a renowned Yoruba actress. How did you get into acting?
Well.. it’s been quite a while that I joined the movie industry; precisely, some sixteen years back. I started with a television soap opera titled ‘The Child’ and that was in the early nineties. I started with a mentor and someone who is very dear to me - Mr. Lai Ashadele. I was with him for about five years and after some time, I decided to move on to the Yoruba movie industry.
What made you to move to the Yoruba movie industry?
Actually, I just felt that I should be in the industry because I’m a Yoruba woman and I want to be there and see things for myself. I just wanted to cut across so that I’ll be able to portray what I have in me to the world.
Why did you decide to join the industry in the first instance?
I love acting and I have so many things that I want to do. I want to be able to go into people’s homes through the roles that I play. I want them to get to know some certain facts about life and all these I do through the roles that I play from time to time.
Can we have a glimpse into your background? Who is Keji Yusuf?
I’m a level headed person and also easy going. I’m married to a retired Colonel in the Army and I have three children - a boy and two girls.
I’m from a family of three and I have my elder one in the United Kingdom while the younger one is in Nigeria. I attended Saint Mary’s Convent School and after that, I went to Saint John’s High School, Surulere. I later travelled to England where I studied Catering and Hotel Management.
Since you started your acting career, what have been your challenges?
There have been some challenges like the roles that I play sometimes.
Do they conflict with what your normal person?
Not really because most of the roles that I play are mature roles like motherly roles. When I say challenges, the challenges we have in the movie industry lie more in the script. I just believe that any role or script given to me, I’ll make sure that it is well translated. Whatever I’m being given, I make sure that I go through my script well.
So, how do you enter your roles?
I think that comes naturally. If I’m being given a script, immediately, I’ll just switch; so, it’s an automatic thing.
When you look back now, has your foray into the make-believe world been a fulfilling one or would you rather have done something else?
(Cuts in)Yes, it’s been fulfilling for me. If I had not gone into the movie industry, I would have been a singer.
Really, that means you must have a very good voice?
(Chuckles) I love singing
What are your likes and dislikes and how would you describe yourself?
My likes and dislikes? I like people who are faithful and Godly-minded. I hate people who are not natural, people who pretend. I hate pretenders a lot. If I like you, I want you to be who you are and stay truthful and faithful.
Talking about that, do you have friends or belong to a caucus in the industry as there’s this general belief that you must belong to one?
Well.. I’d say that I belong to the Odunfa Caucus and I’m still very much involved there. That was where I started from.
Can you recall the movie that brought you into limelight?
There are a lot of them but I’d say that it was Ologbo Iya Ijebu that has brought me fame and that was some three years back. Different people know me by different titles of films.
What made this particular film unique?
What made it unique was that the film was based on me; the story was made for me from the beginning till the end, so it was very easy for me to translate the role. People thought that I wouldn’t be able to translate that role well.
Why was that?
First of all, I had to speak in Ijebu dialect and secondly, people thought that I wouldn’t be able to carry the pussy cat used in the film, play with eat and all that. I played with it and fed it. People were amazed and felt they never knew I could do all that.
Can you remember how many movies you have featured in?
Oh, I’ve lost count.... let’s say like fifty.
You said that you cut your acting tooth with Lai Ashadele. What’s your relationship with him now?
He’s a big brother and I respect him a lot and we are still very much in contact.
Apart from him, are there other people that you look up to in the industry?
Well, I have some of my colleagues who have mentored me and I respect them a lot. The likes of Adebayo Salami (a.k.a. Oga Bello,); Dele Odule; Yinka Quadri; Jide Kosoko and some other people.
So, what project are you working on now?
I’m working on my own film now.
What’s the title and when should we expect that in the market?
It’s in the works now and it’s titled Mori ope she. It should be released sometime in September, depending on my marketer.
Can you give us a synopsis of the forthcoming film?
Mori ope she is based on a village couple that suffered child mortality. They were so much in a hurry to have children and couldn’t wait for God to surprise them. They went forth to seek help - a friend of the wife -and subtly, she was being initiated into a cult and that was where she got a baby boy. Because they were so happy to have a baby, she didn’t think about the repercussions because there is always one for such things. When the boy grew up and wanted to get married, he was supposed to get married to a cult member’s daughter which he refused to do. That was where the trouble started. My fans should watch out for the film.
What’s your take on the Nigerian movie industry? Are there problems? If so, what do you think can be done?
In life, there’s nowhere there’s no problem but it is only God that can solve the problems in the movie industry. Anyway, the industry has improved a lot and things are taking shape step by step. We do hope that in the near future, everything will be okay.
Can you tell us about your most embarrassing moment?
(Cuts in) I don’t have. You know that I’m married, so nobody embarrasses me.
How have you been able to cope as a wife, mother and an actress?
I have an understanding husband and children. You know I don’t have kids - my children are all grown ups and very understanding. My husband is too, so anything that I like or want to do, he’s always co-operating with me. Whatever I like, he likes it too. That is why I have been able to scale through the hurdles of the movie industry. It has not been easy but with his support, it’s been good.
Have you ever acted a compromising and intimate role before?
No, I haven’t. They don’t give me such roles because obviously, they know that I won’t accept it.
Don’t you feel stereotyped since you act only motherly roles?
No, I’m not a stereotyped actress. Though I act motherly roles, they are different in terms of interpretation. For instance, in a particular film, I can decide to act a village mother, in another script, it could be a city mother. So, I’m not stereotyped in any way. Atimes, I do act the role of an Aunt and to the best of my knowledge, my fans have not complained in any way. I think I’m on the right track.
In the league of top Yoruba actresses, how would you rate yourself?
I’m up there and I’m emphatic about that or don’t you think so?(Chuckles)
How do you relax?
Well.. I watch movies.
Do you watch your own movies in order to appraise yourself?
Oh yes, I do. I love to watch my movies because in doing that, I’m able to correct my mistakes. I even like it when I watch it in the midst of people so that they can criticise me. You know, its healthy criticism. I’m able to correct myself. I do watch my own movies. I also read novels and listen to music too.
What do you look out for before you accept a script?
I study the script well and if it’s not a role that I can play, I won’t take it. For instance, if somebody wants me to take a role where I will show half of my body, I certainly won’t take it. Usually, they don’t give me such scripts.
How rich are you? You must be well remunerated?
Did you say rich? I’m rich in the Lord (general laughter)
Apart from acting, what else do you do or intend doing?
Prior to going into the acting profession, I wasn’t doing anything. I’ve decided now to do something else because we are not really making money in the movie industry now, but because we have a passion for what we do, that’s why majority of us are still there. The Yoruba movie industry is not really paying well.
Are you talking now in terms of remuneration?
They do pay but its very meagre compared to what our colleagues in English movies earn.
What’s the reason for this?
It’s simple - I-know-you, you-know-me syndrome is there and that is not good enough. This is what we do for a living, it’s business and should be seen as such. Sadly, it has been like that for a while but the good thing is that the younger ones coming up now are trying to correct that notion. If you have passion for a certain thing, you just can’t get out of it because of the love. You just can’t let go. For instance, look at Mama Bukky Ajayi, as old as she is at over seventy, she is still there. Her children are grown up and comfortable and they are based abroad and have tried to convince her to come over there but she said ‘No, let me die with this job’. How much is she being paid? She prefers to remain in the movie industry and keep doing what she likes.
So, what are the things you want to do now aside acting?
Well, I think I’m still thinking about the things that I want to do. I’ll let you when I’m ready.
That means for now, acting remains a full time job for you?
What message do you have for your fans?
To my fans out there, I just want them to know that I love them. Without them, there’s no me and they’ve made me who I am today. I urge them to keep on encouraging me and on my part, I won’t disappoint them.
Are there any of your children who are into acting?