Ernest Obi is the current Lagos State Chairman of the Actors Guild of Nigeria. He was the man in the eyes of theÂ storm when the dust was raised about the eligibility of Segun Arinze to contest the presidency of the association.
AÂ seasoned actor cum director, Obi has come a long way. Â In this interview with BenjaminÂ Njoku and Bridget Amaraegbu, he takes a look at Nollywood and more. Enjoy.
Tell us about your journey into Nollywood?
I donâ€™t know where to start from. Iâ€™m such an old man in this business of make-believe that if I should start from way back, we might get lost in between.
But the journey so far has been good, very challenging. But weâ€™re still there.
What has acting taught you?
Iâ€™ve learnt to expect the best at every point in life, even when the worst is evident. I have the ability to make the best out of every situation because Iâ€™m artistically inclined. As actors, weâ€™re able to look at our problems and challenges squarely before our own eyes, face it and in most cases, overpower it.
Has this journey been rewarding?
We Africans like to look at reward from the financial angle but I donâ€™t want to see it from the naira, dollar or pounds angle. Iâ€™ll look at it from the angle of what Iâ€™ve been able to achieve and how Iâ€™ve been able to impact on other people. And I can beat my chest and say â€˜yesâ€™ itâ€™s been rewarding because I know Iâ€™ve impacted on a lot of people, which is a huge reward.
Any limiting factor for you as an actor?
Whether as an actor, producer, director or generally as a film maker, finance is our major limiting factor. Itâ€™s not as if weâ€™re suffering from artistic drought or intellectual incapacitation.
It has become a trend for actors/actresses to go into movie production…..
Itâ€™s not a trend but a law. The law of moving to the next level has always been there, even before I became an actor. In the banking industry, some people start as security men and later become managing directors. Iâ€™m sure if you have time to interview them, youâ€™ll be shocked at how many managers or even CEOs that were clerks before. Itâ€™s the same thing in the movie industry. After being an actor for many years, you pay your dues very well and may go into movie production later.Â Probably because this actor wants to do something better than what he had done or because he feels he can do better as a producer or even because heâ€™s got enough finance to be able to do his own story which is not applicable when someone is financing him.
And some go into directing like myself because while in school, I majored in directing. But my first callingÂ is acting.
Do you think the quality of our movies has improved?
When people keep talking about quality of movies, I wonder because I think we have the best story lines that any African can tell. Our stories are stories that keep families together all night in their homes. Even people who do not understand some of the languages we use in between the English words like Chineke… ee or Mogbe… ee appreciate these words and become part of them. So, I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s anything wrong with our stories. But as par picture quality, Iâ€™ll say weâ€™re trying based on the financial background weâ€™re coming from. Who are those sponsoring us? Private individuals, who put in N5-6m and expect immediate profit. Now, how can you compare that with the â€œAvatarâ€ where the producer had to wait for about two years for the technology that he used to be ready or Titanic which cost more than $100m to produce. It will be so unfair to compare the picture quality of our movies to what you have in Hollywood.
You havenâ€™t featured in new movies recently.Â Why?
Well, nothing happened. Like I said earlier, thereâ€™s always a transition in every aspect of life, from being an actor to being a producer. Iâ€™m a film maker in totality. So, Iâ€™ve moved to the next level but that doesnâ€™t stop me from acting.
And what it implies is that Iâ€™m not only going out there to source for roles but Iâ€™m also an employer of labour.
Aside that, Iâ€™m also Chairman of the Lagos State chapter of Actors Guild of Nigeria which is a huge assignment on itâ€™s own. So, I have a lot occupying my time.
I can only come out of my tight schedule if thereâ€™s a very goodÂ script for me. It must not be a lead role like Iâ€™ve always said but it must be a very challenging one.
How would you rate actorsâ€™ performanceÂ generally?
I donâ€™t want to start indicting anybody. I would like to sayÂ weâ€™re doing well but artistically, we have not made a lot of impact because nobody is laying emphasis on interpretation and characterisation like we used to do in the past.
Then, itÂ wasnâ€™t about the money. It was about making sure that your job/skills came out better than that of your colleague. Everybody wanted to interpret roles better than his colleague not about how fast I can get off from oneÂ set to the other. If I earn N800,000 on one set, I want to earn N1 m on another set. Okay, this producer is begging me with N1m, the other one is begging me with N1.2 m and I want to compact all of them and shoot like four films in a month. At the end of the day, Iâ€™m going to be jumping from one set to the other and to the next. When you see the film, itâ€™s like Iâ€™mÂ playing Ernest Obi and not the character in the script because thereâ€™s no room for me to actually assimilate and portray the real character I should interpret. And I think thatâ€™s a major crisis in the industry. Thatâ€™s the difference between when we were doing the real job and now.
As a child, did it ever occur to you that youâ€™d earn a living through acting?
Iâ€™ve always wanted to act from when I was very young and everybody in my house knew it. When I was growing up, theyÂ used to call me photo because I used to watch a lot of television. I was a comic freak, TV freak and I loved acting.
Initially, my family wasnâ€™t comfortable when I indicated my interest to goÂ into acting but they knew that was what I wanted to do. Sometimes, when people stopped on the road to say they knew me, theyâ€™ll be the oneâ€™s to say heâ€™s my brother and heâ€™s an actor. But initially, that wasnâ€™t what they wanted me to do.
What did they want you to do?
Any other thing except acting.
Doctor, lawyer,Â engineer?
No, no, no. We donâ€™t have that kind of hold in my house. Everybody was allowed to express himself as long as it wasnâ€™t acting.
Celebrity comes with a lot of prices. How much price have you paid?
The first price you pay as a celebrity is to lose your privacy.Â You canâ€™t goÂ anywhere to unwind without being trailed by critics.Â The worst part of it is that people say a lot of negative things about you and you canâ€™t keep going round to say itâ€™s not true.
With due respects, some media people say nasty things about one just to sell their product.
Which of these stories from the media affected you?
Theyâ€™re all in the past now and Iâ€™ve gone beyond them all.
HowÂ do you react to criticisms?
I donâ€™t have a problem with it if itâ€™s positive and has to do with my job.
But the problem will be if you tell me that I donâ€™t know how to handle my home or the way I kiss my wife is wrong. Then Iâ€™ll tell you itâ€™s not your business.
If you tell me that thereâ€™s this movie I did where my speech was not too good, Iâ€™ll welcome that because itâ€™s your right as a pressman to look at my movie, preview and review it and even criticise it positively.
ThereÂ was this rumour sometime ago that you slept with your own daughter.Â How true is that?
I wonâ€™t answer that question because my fiancee warned that IÂ shouldnâ€™t talk about it anymore. And I wonâ€™t talk about it because Iâ€™ve forgiven all the parties involved in that scandalous story.
So, you areÂ taking a second wife?
No, Iâ€™ve never been married before. I had a woman who had a child for me but I was never married to her.
Is theÂ child under your custody?
That is my personal life.
When the rumour made headlines, how did you react to it?
That was then and I beg to say no comments on that issue.
Can you tell us some of your short comings as a human being?
Oh, my temper. I had a major problem with my temper. I could explode in anger at the slightest provocation and I didnâ€™t like it.Â But Iâ€™ve learnt to control it, thanks to my fiancee.
So, why are you getting married this late?
Itâ€™s not late for me. I just discovered my wife and my people say that whenever a man wakes up is his morning. So, I have just woke up and seen the sunshine, to the glory of God. I am getting married in May and Iâ€™m happy.
Do you have any regrets in life?
No, Iâ€™ve lived well because I come from a very disciplined home, a family of six. My mother had 5 girls and I am the only boy in the family. I was taughtÂ to respect life and womanhood and it has helped me. Itâ€™s still helping me in the running of the guild. I donâ€™t regret anything that has ever happened to me. I take everything that has ever happened to me as the way it should have been. Maybe, if all those things didnâ€™t happen, I would not have met my fiancee.
How did you meet her?
No, Iâ€™ll not discuss that with you. I know how I met her and I love her simple. Maybe when you come for our wedding, you will find out how I met her.
What did you say that made her fall for you?
It was love at first sight. I was taken in and Iâ€™m sure she felt the same way. That was how it started.
So you didnâ€™t see any of those qualities in an actress?
You people keep thinking thereâ€™s a problem with an actor marrying an actress but itâ€™s not true. The major problem with us is that most times, we meet only on locations. The last time I saw Rita Dominic was a longtime ago on set.
Thatâ€™s why when they cook up stories that this actor is doing that with this actress, I just laugh because we donâ€™t see each often other the way people think.