On the heels of his successful role in Phone Swap, Wale Ojo speaks on the prospects for Nigerian stage and screen.

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Wale Ojo’s journey into acting is probably not by chance. He started off as a child actor working with the likes of late Sam Loco Efe, Olumide Bakare, and Tunji Fatilewa on NTA Ibadan. With such enviable mentorship and his recent success in Kunle Afolayan’s PHONE SWAP, it is little wonder that Ojo is fast making a name for himself both at home and abroad.

At a rehearsal and photo shoot for a stage play he stars in, the actor spoke about his work and influences. “My mother was an actress she worked a lot with (renowned female playwright and academic) Zulu Sofola. She was my mother’s best friend and they were all part of the Ibadan Players. I grew up watching plays at the University of Ibadan Arts Theatre, you know people like Tunji Oyelana, Femi Johnson. But you’re not allowed to ask my age. You can guess, but I’m not going to tell you anything,” he joked.

Following his earlier work on Nigerian TV and as a student in Nigeria, Ojo moved to England to continue his schooling. He would travel between both countries to work on various creative projects. “Finally, I became professional after studying Drama in the university,” said Ojo, who has previously worked with theatre director Michael Asuelime on ‘Same Page’ where he performed alongside his PHONE SWAP co-star Nse Ikpe Etim.

“As an actor, I believe I’m a versatile actor, I’ve done film, theatre, TV, radio, but theatre’s always being my no. 1. That’s really where I honed my craft as an actor. It’s just of recent years that I’ve done films, maybe I’ve done about nine across the world. I always come back to theatre. I believe constantly in doing theatre; that’s the only way I keep my acting brain sharp.”

Asides stage acting, Ojo also directed a performance of Wedlock of the Gods, which was staged off-London’s West End. In collaboration with his mother, he also put up a performance of Joe Orton’s comic farce What the Butler Saw at the MUSON.

Prior to his current success at home, Ojo had worked with Newton Aduaka, a foreign-based director on the largely successful ‘Ezra’ and ‘Rage.’ This was before the burst of Nigerian films screening at the cinemas and not many have seen these films.

“He’s a great director,” Ojo said of Aduaka, “I’ve been meaning to work with him again over the years but it’s a struggle for a lot of Nigerians abroad; there’s no escaping the fact. Newton is somebody that should be working at home.” Aduaka, like Ojo was largely unknown until his works started getting some press attention. Ironically, PHONE SWAP is not Ojo’s first film in Nigeria. He had previously featured in Teco Benson’s ‘SIX DEMONS.’ “It was old Nollywood,” he said of the film. “Kunle (Afolayan) is new Nigerian cinema. He is very much a part of the renaissance that’s going to explode in the country.”

Ojo is optimistic for the future of Nigerian film and is himself the founder of a movement called New Nigerian Cinema. The platform, he said, is to promote the best talent that abounds in the film sector. The idea was borne out of an encounter with a South African colleague who told Ojo that Nigerian actors were some of the most talented, but that Nigerian films were “terrible.”

“I couldn’t disagree with him,” Ojo admitted. “There’s real talent in the country that hasn’t been given that much exposure. That’s what influenced my own movement.” Since October 2010, he has organised a New Nigerian Cinema day at the British Film Institute.  At the first edition marking Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary, he screened ‘Naij, A History of Nigeria’ and Kunle Afolayan’s THE FIGURINE. “This year, I’m hoping to show PHONE SWAP,” he said proudly.

Ojo’s group though is not a counter-movement to Nollywood. “I praise Nollywood for their entrepreneurship, their bravado. Because twenty years ago, no single public figure would give money to the industry. They were doing so in South Africa even with Apartheid, we couldn’t here,” he said condemning the ‘chop, I chop’ mentality that has riddled the federal government’s approach to supporting new businesses or ideas.

“They (Nollywood) did well. It’s been 20 years, but it’s time to move on now. New Nigerian Cinema is a child of Nollywood’s success and they’re about to push it further so they can take (Nigerian film) internationally and around the world. Even people on the street know this and accept it.”

Ojo, who plays the arrogant Akin in PHONE SWAP is hopeful that the kind of success the comic drama recorded – beating Hollywood blockbusters at the cinema box office – will continue.

One push for this lies in the fact that everyone wants a piece of the Nollywood action, as Ojo pointed out. “Believe it or not, Hollywood execs have their eyes on Nigeria.” A calculation involving 150 million people and a multi-million dollar industry is a logical explanation for this.  Unfortunately, insecurity and lack of government collaborations in Nigeria remain major reasons why South Africa is a preferred location for Hollywood companies making films about Africa. “We need to ask ourselves why,” Ojo said. “All I’m saying is to government specifically: I’m not asking for sponsorship, I’m asking for support for the right structures in place.” Tax rebates and assurances on security are a large step towards this, he said.

With particular reference to THE PHILANTHROPIST, a film where he plays a militant leader in the Niger Delta, Ojo said the original intention was to shoot in the Delta region. The film was eventually shot in South Africa on a $45 million budget. “Tell me, if they brought that money into this country, it would have been fantastic; and there’ve been many like that. We’re losing a lot of revenue. We need to break down the borders in Africa so that filmmakers can freely inter-mix.”

Ojo does not shy away from the fact that government might also be wary of people he describes as “another gang of cowboys waiting to siphon money,” his belief though is that his work speaks for him. “When I started New Nigerian Cinema, I had an entire section on CNN Inside Africa (where Afolayan’s work was featured). I don’t need to prove myself, it’s there. We’ve already started, we’re already moving forward but with government support we can move even faster.”

Thanks to his work with his cinema movement, some producers with the original intention of filming in the Gambia have now chosen Nigeria as their location. Despite the insecurity, he has assured them of their safety, especially based on his experience during the fuel subsidy protests. Ojo revealed he faced no safety or security problems while working with a crew comprising Nigerians and foreigners earlier this year.

“Fear is a constant factor in their (foreigners) thinking about Africa; and it’s an unknown fear. We have security problems the same way they have problems in London. But that shouldn’t stop business from carrying on. This koboko haram (referring to Boko Haram, the terrorist group responsible for bombings across the North) or whatever they call them cannot stop development in this place.”

Putting his money where his mouth is, he also runs the UK-based Virgo Foundation for the preservation and propagation of African culture and history. He believes enough is not being done to bring Nigeria’s history on screen. Stories about the Benin bronzes, the Calabar city of stone and other unravelled aspects of our culture would boost Nigeria’s tourism potential and draw attention to the country’s immense heritage. Nothing stops D.O Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode series from becoming a successful commercial franchise in the nature of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Ojo said.

The actor, who plays an assassinated African head of state in JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN is also vocal about is the disparity in the earnings of African-American actors and their Black British actors.

He refutes claims made in an interview that he said Black British actors were cheap everywhere. “What I said was this, I said Black British actors are not being paid the same as white American or African-American actors. When Hollywood has a production and they have a low budget, instead of paying the African-American they will come to Britain and get a black British actor and pay them less and that’s the truth. I’ll say that to any Hollywood exec. They (producers) tell you that’s what they have but you know they have more than that. At the end of the day, you have to pay your bills,” he conceded.

Citing the likes of talented actors Chinwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba as good examples of those who are “out of this stratosphere,” Ojo is speaking from experience. Despite the many difficulties they face abroad, Ojo denies the quote’s insinuation that a lack of work has seen them all returning in droves. “They (the British) have a problem of acceptance even though they’ll tell you they are multicultural,” he said while talking about an adaptation of Hamlet he has been unable to produce in Britain because it’s been hard to find support from cultural agencies. “I don’t know what it is. But I’ve decided that it’s a subtle kind of racism.”

Funding is not the only problem, as black British actors like Ojo have also had to overcome type-casting. For example, casting a black actor as Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights), Henry IV or Richard III always manages to cause a stir. “They always want me to play African roles and I tell them I’m an actor, you have to give me something more. The only time I get to play maybe a Russian or English royalty is when I know the director very well and he knows my ability. In England, they have a long way to go.” The pattern, which they seem to have devised for their culture industry, Ojo said is nothing like what obtains here. The case in Nigeria, he believes makes it easier to maximise the raw talent available here.

Giving a funny example of one audition he attended, Ojo was asked if he could ‘speak African.’ After muttering a rhythmic hail of gibberish, the producers commended his mastery of this tongue.

In the midst of it all came a bright light in the form of Meet The Adebanjos. “I didn’t think anything would come of it. My agent said to me, ‘look, this is one community programme. It’s not worth the while; the money’s not good enough.’ I said, in this country since Desmond’s (a comic drama about a West Indies family in London that once aired on NTA), we’ve never had a black situation comedy. I’m just going to take whatever they’re offering because it’s something that needs to be done.”

Since it began airing on British and Nigerian screens, Ojo has gained quite a following in both countries. He is looking forward to Season 2 with the possibility of shooting 13 episodes in Nigeria and 13 in the UK, especially as some local celebrities have shown an interest in appearing on Meet The Adebanjos.

Nigeria features a lot in his future plans but for someone who grew up watching and acting in programmes on NTA Ibadan, Ojo feels a lot has degenerated here. But none hurts more than the disrespect for the heritage of programmes like Village Headmaster and The New Masquerade. In a conversation with veteran actor Chika Okpala on the set of Phone Swap, Ojo discovered how recordings of The New Masquerade and the Village Headmaster had been wiped out.

“For me, that is a crime punishable by hanging, or the gun at Bar Beach, by firing squad. It’s terrible,” he said linking it to someone dubbing over the entire recording of EastEnders, a long-running drama on British TV. “It’s part of our television history,” he said, lamenting how the children in the play he is working on had never heard of The New Masquerade. “My mother would have to slap me to get me away from in front of the television because of Chief Zebrudaya (played by Chika Okpala of the New Masquerade) and Chief Eleyinmi (of the Village Headmaster played by the late Funsho Adeolu). How can you make such a crass decision?” Ojo asked rhetorically.

Not all hope is lost, though as Ojo hailed initiatives like Nigerian Idol and Star Quest as good content on Nigerian TV, especially as a platform for creating and empowering new talent.

There’s a lot more Ojo expects to achieve in Nigeria these days. According to the self-styled ‘global actor,’ who boasts of fans as far off as Cyprus, “Nigeria’s no. 1 now as far as the arts is concerned: in terms of film, in terms of theatre.”

With the stage performance of ‘Grey Area’ opening at the MUSON on June 2 and a series of movie scripts lined up as well, Nigerians are set to see more of Wale Ojo. 

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