An average motion picture lover must be familiar with ‘the Haitian’ in the popular TV series, Heroes. The character is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Hollywood actor born in the same country as Grammy-winning music star, Wyclef Jean.
In case you are yet to grasp it, he is one of those young men whose Yoruba language is nothing but pleasant in Phat Girlz featuring popular American actress, Monique.
Welcome to the world of the friendly Hollywood movie star whose other big projects include Bourne Identity, Tears of the Sun, Hollywood Homicide, Loaded and Van Damme’s Derailed.
Originally from Haiti, his dark frame and relaxed mood in a Nigerian hotel would make you think he is related to this environment somehow.
He is, however, quick to say, “I am not a Nigerian, I am not a Ghanaian even though I enjoy playing roles that depict me as a Nigerian or Ghanaian in movies.
“I grew up in Paris and I have lived in places like Spain, Italy, South Africa, England and I have been in the United States for the past 12 years.”
As if that is not intimidating enough, the movie star who was in Nigeria recently for the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA), continued with what could be the punch line especially if you are having doubts about engaging him in a role.
“I have been doing movies there and have worked with pretty known names like Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, Harrison Ford, Jennifer Lopez and of course Monique in Phat Girlz. And then Heroes has kept me busy for the past four years.
“I have also been working on different markets as far as movie is concerned; America, France, England, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria and I try to be as global as possible,” he said.
The way he talks about his encounters, one might be tempted to think he has been acting before he was born; but regarding when he began his career, he said: “Well, regarding when I started, I think I would just say I have always been in the entertainment business. While I was studying in Paris, I worked in musical theatres and later in other areas in France and Spain and then I modelled for a few years and I have been doing just acting for the past 12 years and so altogether I have been in the entertainment industry for about 20 years.”
He considers taking a role in a Nigerian movie, directed by Rahman Oladigbolu, as some sort of homecoming; although there is a fascination about the script he could not hide.
“First of all, I didn’t know Rahman at all; he got in touch with me, I don’t remember very well right now but I think via My Space or something but through one of the social network sites and I said okay. Later, I saw the script and we had a conversation but my resolve to be a part of the project was based on the script and conversation because through those I discovered he had something good to show. The script on which the story is based is a good theme and it is very relevant; it is about the situation all over the world regarding immigration and I guess with Nigerians in America and immigrants generally. I think it is great to focus on that kind of issue if you are in the arts because a lot of the problems all over the place that the politicians are not tackling, we can sometimes open their eyes to them and the script was well written,” he said.
Another Nollywood project, Anchor Baby nominated also for AMAA held last month in Bayelsa State, is also based on the same theme but the storylines are refreshingly different, but going by his reaction, it is the case of the more the merrier, due to how touchy the immigrant issue is in the U.S.
According to him, “it has always been extremely difficult to live in America as a foreigner and it took even a worse turn after September 11 and is now really extremely difficult and of course there are people from all over the world just trying to get in.
“The borders are in Mexico and Canada and they make it very hard for pretty much everybody and the lighter you are, the easier it might get for you. I know what I mean by lighter, if you are from Europe it might be a touch easier and then it goes down to the Blacks and when I say the Blacks, as far as America is concerned, it is either you are from Haiti or Africa. It is pretty bad for Haiti and they try to block as much as they can for Africa and because they have had problems with some of the Nigerians as well, it is getting even tougher for Nigerians and that is where the movie by Raheem becomes very relevant.”
Delighted that the three movies he took part in were all winners at AMAA, he took the modest path, calling for more of such partnership between Hollywood and Nollywood.
“It (award) sort of confirms the fact that it is good to mix up with some of the African talents that are here, which will go on to improve the quality of the movies that are being shot here and also enlarge the industry even the more. Such collaborations present an opportunity for the movie to get out of Africa and for the rest of the world to have a glimpse of what Africa is about in terms of movie making. Otherwise it is difficult for them to watch any African movie if they cannot relate with the actors, if they can’t relate with the story and it is very pleasing really for Sinking Sands, Precipice and especially In America that won awards in respected categories at the pan African festival. So, I definitely encourage people to look towards the direction of that kind of synergy just to get more visibility,” he said.
He continued: “I am crushed, but seriously the selection was made from entire Africa, Kenya, South Africa and the rest and for instance, the movie that won most awards really —Viva Riva—, I have not seen it but it must really be a good movie because it has been getting a lot of awards not just here but in other film festivals. And then you know South Africa has got a good movie business going on which is very professional. We dealt with a small budget compared with what the movie in question had to play with and personally I went up and down the platform a couple of times but we are really happy with what we have and it is about working harder the next time.”
Although Rahman Oladigbolu, the director of In America is relatively unknown even in his native Nigeria, Jean-Louis who is fluent in five different languages, says Oladigbolu is a gem.
“He is very intelligent, that is how I would describe him. He is always very calm, he knows what he wants and it is a very pleasant experience to work with him. He also has a lot of depth and it turned out an all-round enjoyable time working with him,” said Jean-Louis.
The view of Jean-Louis, who started out by gracing videos of top music stars like Seal, Mariah Carey and George Michael back in the 90s, is that Nollywood is not so bad although it used to be almost meaningless.
“I had come here before and so I had a peep at some of the movies but they were difficult to follow due to low quality and technical errors. It has since improved, I know because I have been able to later watch some of them. And also based on the pictures I saw on display at AMAA, it is better and it is something that we have to take very serious as a business and make much bigger than it is already. It is about how you can sell your country and I think Nigeria can do that with the resources and potentials I see. I am grateful for Nollywood, because even in spite of the low quality movies that dot the space, it has definitely put Nigeria on the movie map.
“I have not actually done a movie here with a Nigerian director or producer but I would so much like to do that but I have done one or two with Nigerian producers based abroad. One is with a small part with Nigerian based in Paris, a good friend of Rahman’s and then mine ***In America*** which is the big feature yet,” he said.