By BENJAMIN NJOKU
Tayo Elesin is a British-Nigerian actress. She also prefers to be referred to as a “storyteller.” Famous for her roles in some BBC TV productions including Casualty, Law and Order, Doctor, among others, Tayo has also acted in the critically acclaimed play by late Ola Rotimi ‘Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again’ produced last year by Lookman Sanusi. While in the country recently, she paid a courtesy visit to the Vanguard corporate office, where she spoke passionately about playing the role of younger Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala whenever a biographical film is done about her. She also disclosed why she hate the name ‘Nollywood’; and how to reposition the Nigerian film industry, among other issues. Enjoy!
Tell us how you came about the coinage, Brigerian?
It’s simple, I’m British and I’m Nigerian. I merged the two words and came up with “Brigerian.” I identify with the two countries.
Do you have any intention to work with Nollywood stars?
I don’t like the word, Nollywood. I really don’t like it.
There are several reasons. One of which is, when I think of the word, Nollywood, quite frankly, it reminds me of a mimicry, if you will, of Hollywood. Now, Hollywood is the home of the American film industry. It’s actually a location in Los Angeles. I have found nowhere in Lagos or in Nigeria called Nollywood. Except if you are telling me it’s located in the Mushin or Ikorodu area of Lagos. But I’m yet to see such a place in Nigeria.
That’s why I don’t agree with the word, Nollywood. Incidentally, the word, Nollywood was not actually created by a Nigerian, but by a newspaper publication back in the States which started to identify Nigerian films as Nollywood. But when you read through that article, it wasn’t used respectfully like Nollywood. Rather, it was used to describe the film industry in Nigeria in a mocking way.
But Nigerians took it up and turned it the other way. But for me, Nigeria is a big country with a flourishing film industry. It doesn’t need to mimic the word, Hollywood. Also, there are films from countries like Finland nobody calls such films Fin-wood, or British-wood referring to films from Britain. It’s called British films. What I want to see is a Nigerian film to be called a Nigerian film. There is no need for the mimicry at all. We don’t need it.
You have such an interesting body of work, both on stage and on screen. How do you combine the two genres conveniently?
I always tell everybody I’m a storyteller. That’s what got me into this career-storytelling. Storytelling in a different medium namely; radio, television, stage and musical. A storyteller is a storyteller no matter the medium you adopt to tell your story. A true mark of a storyteller is one that can actually do different things using different mediums.
One thing about screen acting is that it requires you not over-act as being natural because the camera picks up everything. But in stage acting, you can afford to go forward and backward. While voice-over is all about the voice because nobody can see you as it is peculiar to radio. But the mark or testament of any good actor is one’s ability to tell a story in whatever medium. I can do anything using any of the mediums.
But which do you feel more comfortable doing?
There is something about the stage because it’s live and you cannot afford to miss your lines. But for screen, they can cut, stop and edit. Everything is done in the editing room. To be honest, screen is not for the actor. It’s for the DOP, directors and editors, those people have fun because they cut and paste as they wish. But on stage, there is no cut and paste. You are either there or not, you know your lines or you don’t. You either tremble or you stand. There is something electrifying about that. And most good actors will tell you that there is something about the liveliness of the stage. But the thing about screen is that it pays your bills. Television and films in the UK pay a lot more money than stage. You can do a TV commercial and you significantly get a lot of money.
There is this film you acted in called “Moremi”. How challenging was the role you played in the film?
I played the role of Moremi herself, and I love the film. It was produced by Spectrecom Studios and had Joachim Adenusi as the Executive producer. Actually, it was not a full-length film. I want to say something at this juncture; What really angered me about the Nigerian film industry is that Nigeria as a country is rich with stories. Why has nobody done a biographical movie about Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, for instance? Why is it that other people are taking our stories and telling them in the western world anyhow they deemed it fit? I don’t understand.
Moremi is a fantastic story. Outside the world, other people are appreciating our art. Why are our film makers not taking advantage of this global appreciation of our work of art? I’m a bit worried because a lot of our film makers have not explored this opportunity to make great movies about their country.
You have volunteered to play a young version of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. What is the attraction?
What attracts me about Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is her level of education, her poise and what she has actually achieved as a woman in the financial world. It is not easy for a woman anywhere in the world to occupy such a powerful position let alone, in an African country. It’s even ten times harder and the fact that she has maintained it and has also retained it even up till today is absolutely admirable. I think, if you look into her life, one will be surprised to come up with an interesting story about her upbringing.
Recall that Ngozi Okonjo Iweala attended Harvard University at a time, I’m sure it was not easy for a black person to be there. If Hollywood film makers could do a film about Abraham Lincoln and are also talking about doing a biographical film about Obama, why can’t Nigerian film makers do a biographical film about Ngozi Okonjo Iweala who is a major female figure in the African financial industry? I’m sure if I conduct an interview with her right now, there will be a story about her life that has not been unravelled. This is because I suspect she wouldn’t have gotten to where she is today overnight.
What would you say actually prepared you for what you are doing today?
I don’t know what actually prepared me for what I’m doing today. But I would say that ever since I was a child between the ages of 13 and 14 years, I knew I was a great communicator. And for me, it was either going to be between acting and studying Law. Actually, I was qualified for both professions but I have a strong passion for acting. I didn’t just wake up and say, I’m going to be an actress. I wanted to communicate to my audience, and I found out that acting is a good medium to communicate through the story telling device.
I wanted to tell the story of a prostitute, a Christian woman, the poor and the rich people. That’s what artistes do. We tell stories with the hope that such stories will entertain and morally instruct the people. That’s the main purpose of any work of art. I hope that all the work that I do will portray all these ingredients.
What was the first production that brought you to limelight?
It was a TV programme called “Casualty” by BBC.
I played the role of a Bully. I also acted in other BBC productions like “Doctor”, “The Journey of Alfred Small”. But “Law and Order was the production that made me. I have done all the stuff. I did Musical Theatre which involves singing, dancing and acting but I look forward to acting more than others. I’m still working to build up my career. I’m not an established household name yet,and that’s what I’m working towards achieving at the moment.
While in the UK, have you experienced any kind of racial discrimination?
Yes. It’s not easy for a person of colour living in the UK or USA to work at the highest level. Yes, racism is inevitable. However, like I always say, talent supersedes anything. It may2 take you a longer time but with talent combined with enough hard work and dedication, this is something that is beatable. I’m not held down by the fact that I am black. In fact, I know that I’m black and I don’t need anybody to tell me I am.
For me, I go to auditions and I look at myself the same way the white woman there will at herself. I apply for the same role. If they take me or they don’t take me, that’s not important, but I’m not scared ever applying for any role because of my colour. I don’t believe in judging somebody by the colour of his or her skin.
Also, I don’t think I have had any bad experience so far. But dealing with the press can be an experience on its own. Obviously, there are times when people want to know more about your personal life and things like that . I try as much as possible to protect myself from such things. Yes, I’m a celebrity but it’s not everything about my life I would want to put in the public domain.
Would you want to star in Nollywood films?
I intend to tell good stories. I’m a story teller. If a good story comes from Nigeria, South Africa, Italy or from any part of the world, I will do it. The thing here is that a good story is a good story irrespective of wherever it’s emanating from. If a Nigerian film maker has an excellent story and it’s directed by a tested hand, why not? I will do it. But I don’t think I can answer the question; ‘do you intend to be part of Nollywood’ because of the fact that I don’t agree with the word, Nollywood.
What’s your assessment of films from Nigeria?
I think Nigerian movies are getting better and better every day. This is an industry that is about 20 years old and it has recorded remarkable progress in the time frame. I think, with more training for actors, producers, directors and structure put in place, the industry has the ability to make more progress in future. For instance, we need agents and managers who will deal with contracts so that artistes don’t have to be bogged down by these things.
A producer and a director should not be having a meeting with me about my fees. They should be talking to my agent and manager. Over here, they talk to artistes directly. That’s not how it’s meant to happen. An actor is a creative person. What I want to deal with is the story and not discussing my fees. That’s left for my agent to handle. Also, there is need for structural things like casting directors.
The casting directors are people who cast the right actors to the right roles. For example, if they are looking for a 50-year old Igbo man, a casting director will go all out in the search for an Igbo man within the age bracket of 50 and 60 years and bring them in for audition and choose the right one from the lot. But, it’s not so. A director should be a director, a producer should be a producer while a casting director should be a casting director.