Okechukwu Chukwudi Ukeje popularly known as O. C. Ukeje is a familiar face in Nollywood. The Abia State-born made his break into the industry after winning the Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO) talent hunt show. Since then, he has featured in several movies including 'White Waters', 'Two Brides and A Baby', 'HoodRush', 'Half of a Yellow Sun', 'Black November,' among others. He is a nominee for the Best Actor category of the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards. The 31-year-old Marine Sciences graduate of the University of Lagos, spoke on his aspirations, growing up, the industry and plans for the future.
Weekend Magazine: What were your aspirations while growing up?
I honestly wanted to be a medical doctor. And not just end it there, I wanted to be a surgeon, though I wasn't sure what area I wanted to specialize in. It was medicine or nothing for me when I was filling my joint admissions forms. Sadly, I didn't get the course after my stay at home for two years of post-secondary school. Nobody will advise you better than yourself, that you better get into school first and figure it all out later. So, with two admissions and three active theatre years later, my childhood/adolescent aspirations found its way to someone else.
How did you get to participate in AMBO and what was the experience like for you?
I was done with university and by this time, I was sure I wanted to go into acting for a long time. The issue was how to go into mainstream and how to get it going before my mom started recommending all the 9 to 5s to me. I was a little wary about reality TV shows or anything that had to do with someone else being in charge and promising heaven and earth at the time, so I was skeptical. But a god friend of mine told me to just give it a shot and I did. I filled out the forms, got the call-backs, got into the house and aced it. And it was an interesting experience all through. This was a case of 9 other people living with you and trying to outdo you as far as being the winner was concerned. So, lack of sleep, several assignments, bits of fights here and there and all the fun that came with it made the show pretty amazing.
If you had not won AMBO, do you think you would still have achieved fame?
The truth is my personal belief system tells me I still would have achieved fame outside AMBO. The question of how much time it would have taken to make it up there is a different case altogether. I knew there were the options of music and acting and both of them could be built from scratch if you're plugged in to the right sources. However, how much time it would have taken, I have no idea.
You've done a number of movies. Which of the characters you have played has been the most challenging for you and why?
I have done a number of movies but there are factors that pose serious challenges to being your best as a character, but as far as the characters go, I think 'White Waters' tops that list. It was my first movie, so, it put pressure on me to be worth the hype of winning AMBO, and it required communicating your feelings without a lot of dialogue and being sure that people understood what you were trying to communicate. The characters I played in 'Confusion Na Wa' and 'Gone Too Far' had their varying degree of challenges; playing the street urchin and uncultured Nigerian boy respectively because those characters were not anything like me really. So, it required some digging to be convincing about them.
With 'Rubicon', what difference does it make being the only home-based Nigerian on set?
It didn't make a difference actually. Matter of fact, it was important to me that I had a good performance on that film so that my work and input were valued and the choice was worth it as well. It was just important to me to do it well.
Who have you enjoyed working with the most?
That is a hard one to answer. I have had varying experiences but some of the films I thoroughly enjoyed shooting were 'Gone Too Far', 'Two Brides and A Baby', 'Half of a Yellow Sun' and 'Confusion Na Wa'.
Who do you look forward to working with?
There is a crop of new actors in Nigeria that I'm excited about working with. There's Uru Eke, Damilola Adegbite, Somkele Iyamah, Ivie Okujaye. There's Gideon Okeke, Seun Ajayi and Blossom. However, I will still get my day with Genevieve Nnaji and properly, with Ramsey Nouah.
Why do you think actors are the least seriously considered in the entertainment industry?
I'm so excited that you asked this question. I feel my fingers typing faster actually. The truth be told, if you do not take yourself seriously, you can't expect other people to take you seriously. We have offended ourselves and slowed our growth process on a number of levels. Filmmaking at some point in Nigeria was only considered a profit venture by the ruling class, regardless of what the quality of the movie was. It was based entirely on quantity and sales. And it was considered a money maker for some of the acts as well, irrespective of what the scripts were like. I cannot fault or blame them and I cannot tell you what I would have done if I were in their shoes. Nigeria is such a hard place for show business. But I'm in a different time frame of the business, so corporate Nigerians also have their story to tell as far as having their fingers burnt is concerned, because they can make a case for investing in the business and having no returns (either by feeling swindled by the film makers or making no profit from the honest filmmakers' attempt). Hence, pulling out of a model they couldn't or didn't (bother to) understand. And after the downward spin of the business, well.... It would appear we were in it for the wrong reasons, wrong being relative. We also have issue of mindsets that has clouded the acting industry. And these mindsets seem to have come from how they perceived our predecessors. Based on that, what we're doing is not serious business; we cannot do film right; we can't make money from the business so there's no point investing; our brands, images and films cannot compete on an international level; we can't speak properly; we are 'hungry' people. It's sad but true in most cases. Let me stop here for now.
With the global ratings of the Nigerian film industry, would you say it is still not doing well?
I would say the biggest thing we have is an audience, a following and viewership. And that is the one thing I have to praise the predecessors for - for creating that market. However, we're still not doing well if we cannot pay cast and crew properly; we aren't doing well if there are no distribution channels to guarantee return on investments for the producer; we aren't doing well if we don't have a widespread cinema culture that allows films properly circulated and give both actor and producer more market value; we are still behind if we are still shooting with no-budget; we aren't moving well if we have only a few training centres for honing the craft of those interested in the business; and one of the equally important elements, we aren't doing well if people watch the film and in 90mins, they cannot be wowed.
What is it about dance in Nigeria that has given it as much global acclaim as movies have?
Dance is very recognized in many other parts of the world. It seemed to come to the fore when the reality TV shows started showing up. It was always here. Individuals and groups have always done it here, but I guess Nigeria has a dynamism that sometimes doesn't seem to make sense. Because all of a sudden corporate Nigeria started getting involved, hence trying to make their brands more relevant to their market. And the truth is, there is so much more ground you can cover when you have the backing of corporate Nigeria. So, I don't think it is anything new about dance in Nigeria. I just think the dancers honed their skills and took some chances and the investors came.
After 'Hoodrush', many speculated a musical career for you. Is that something you have coming on?
I actually always thought that music would be the first launch pad for me, but it seemed that the acting did that faster. So, over the years, I have been recording materials. Some will never see the light of the day, but others will. This year, hopefully, I'm looking forward to some collaborations and some singles of my own. So, fingers crossed.
In 'Two Brides and A Baby', you had to cope with a cantankerous fiancée like yours. If you had such a situation in reality, how would you handle it?
Ha! I don't know that I can date a woman like that in the first place, because that character was handful! If I have a situation like that in reality, I think I would have preferred to have purchased a brain and settle matters with the ex, inform the present about the cross to be borne and then see if I would still have a relationship after my true confessions.
What should your fans look forward to in your role in 'Half of a Yellow Sun' and 'Rubicon'?
In 'Half of a Yellow Sun', I had a small part so look forward to a small part...and then look forward to the resemblance between Chinwetel and I. In 'The Rubicon', they should look forward to a pretty interesting performance. It's one film I'd like to see what my performance was like.
You said "If you want to swallow frog; swallow the big ones." What's your fear of older women and why would you encourage others to go with it?
This question haunts me again. My 'reverence' for older women is just how they are when they are scorned. Women have a certain make-up, a certain DNA that they are wired to operate. And that DNA on a good day takes some time to understand. Now, a woman who has a bit more experience than you, whether good or bad, when she is scorned, or feels taken for granted or feels insulted or used, hmmm...no further comments your honor. And on the subject of encouraging others to go for it, I don't. I recognize that everyone's threshold of bravado or fear or adventure differs. I can't but someone else can. So if you say you can, you might as well make sure it is worth it for you. Simple!
How do you cope with your female admirers?
I honestly don't have a step process to dealing with the admirers. It is just important to know and categorize each admirer and what extent they can go to and then, you find a way to deal with them. Some of them, you can't deal with them. You just run.
What's the craziest demand a fan has made of you?
Uhm ... to have some good loving at the after party of a premiere ... I think.
What experiences in your life have had the most impact on you and formed the kind of values you have today?
To begin with, the struggles my mom went through to raise three kids in difficult times, including living in different parts of the country at the time without a choice knocked some values into me. And when my dad passed on, my values went up some notches. Growing up on some level of privilege, but being raised in a not-so privileged part of town taught me things too.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I'm done reading scripts for February, so we are standing by to commence work.
Where do you see yourself in another three to five years?
I sincerely hope to have settled down with the woman of my dreams. I hope to have started out on at least one movie project of my own. I intend to have become an international brand and I hope by then, my resource level will be one of the most desired.