Not many know that famous comic actor, Nkem Owoh, is a graduate of Electrical Engineering from the University of Ilorin. The thespian of note speaks about his career while tasking government on developing Nollywood among sundry issues in this interview with FLORA ONWUDIWE.
How did you come about your stage name ‘Osuofia’?
Let me start by telling you that Osuofia is derived from a stage play that was organised before the inception of Nollywood and I used to play the role in the play I wrote. ‘Osuofia’ simply means fact-finder; even though he may not be a rich man, he is a fact-finder and ready to go. I started acting because I had something I was doing on television in the early ’80s, it was an Easter comedy promo.
How do you feel when your fans call you Osuofia when you are not what the character has portrayed you to be?
Osuofia is not a bad man, if they call me that it is not bad; I know it’s a stage name. It’s not my baptismal name and I have had a lot of stage names in the past. I don’t think Osuofia is going to be different. I started on television by the way, the activities of such are in the past. I’m glad my fans appreciate what Osuofia is doing on the screen and that is why I respect them, they are my friends and I have to manage them well.
It will be difficult to recall all the movies you’ve starred in apparently; do you have any one you could call the most challenging?
I don’t think I remember now, but there are a lot of them that were very challenging to me, particularly the ones that are cross-cultural. Like doing the ‘Osuofia in London’ is cross-cultural and there are a lot of others that I had done before then. But I love the challenges; in fact, I don’t like stories that I am conversant with or the stories that I have been doing before. I usually feel very comfortable and challenged when I’m doing a new concept like the examples that I have just given you. So I welcome challenges, but I cannot specifically mention one that is most challenging.
You are also portrayed as very problematic in most of the roles, is that who you are in real life?
I am happy you say most of the roles, the person that is playing the roles is problematic not really me as Nkem Owoh. I am not the subject because if you look at the society people are uptight, so I try hard enough to make my people laugh.
You are naturally endowed with the ability to interpret comic roles, how did this part of you evolve?
I think it is a gift; even in my early days when it started, I just realised when I wanted to talk people would just laugh. And many times I felt so bad that people wouldn’t take me seriously. When people recognise you as being funny like they do with me, you must harness that to achieve something concrete which was what I did. And you just have to appreciate people for finding that gift in you. Yes, I know I have that gift.
You are an engineer, but one occupying a space strictly for Theatre Arts graduates…
Well, I don’t think it’s strictly for Theatre Arts graduates. I am an engineer by certificate yes, but I think, I do not agree with you. I am the one that usually put the rail when there is still a hook. If engineering does not pay going by the circumstances in the country in terms of economy, engineers are not meant to just stay with wheel spanners, bolts and nuts’; if there are places where they can give better services, like being part of politics, we have a lot of professionals in politics, if they can give a maximum time and expertise as technocrats, the country will be the better for it.
Is your incursion into the movie industry accidental after a fruitless effort in getting employed as an engineer?
No, before you begin to aim next for other things, the place you are must be made comfortable for you to crave progress, if not, you’d find yourself running helter- skelter in that vicinity. Things were very hard in the country then, I was an engineer, a supervisor in one of the companies in Ijebu. This gift like I told you or you rightly mentioned, kept resounding in my mind, so at a stage I had to succumb to it, because people were telling me ‘why don’t you come out and do something new?’ As soon as I left the place, I quickly keyed into the new plan and that by the grace of God has been paying the bills.
The era of oil boom is gone and we are faced with oil doom, how does the industry generate revenue for the country?
The oil doom does not affect the industry. The industry is booming on its own as recognised by the government; even during the oil boom we were generating our own income. The mistake of the governments in the past was that they all focused attention on oil and what else could be that quick to earn Nigeria that much money?
There are a lot of things that could have been generating income, so I don’t think oil doom is affecting us now. And they abandon the other areas that would have been generating income; I don’t think oil doom is affecting us now, now is time to show that Nollywood is booming and can generate revenue for the country.
What is most challenging in Nollywood?
There are a lot of challenges, there is lack of an enabling environment, political situation, the economy generally, personal finance, and government has not made any policy to finance us or even protect our finance or come up with common policy to protect us generally. Piracy, plagiarism and more are allowed to fester.
We learnt that some people pay producers money to feature in movies. Do you agree?
That is one of the challenges. That is why I said we need an enabling environment and perfection. So, if you’re perceived as somebody who is trying to be on the screen by all means, a lot of people are going to use you. But if the government has a policy, we will structure according to the policy the government provided. As stakeholders, we should be involved in the policy because we know where the shoe pinches. So, there are a lot of challenges, but if government should give us that enabling environment, I believe we can make it.
The former President, Goodluck Jonathan, gave out some intervention funds for the industry, what happened to the money?
It was announced that the money was given to the industry. This is a personal opinion, even if the funds were given to the industry, was that the right thing to do to protect the industry? No, you have to lay down a foundation and help us to build the structure first. If we don’t have a structure and you bring that money, you are going to cause chaos. This, I think, had caused a lot of damage already. So, I don’t think bringing out that money and then saying ‘it’s for the industry’ makes sense. Who are the ‘industry’? How are you protecting the industry? Where are the technologies? What are the guidelines from the government that protect this industry? We want enabling environment, we are not requesting money from the government; nobody has the easy access to bring in technology from outside. I am sure if somebody from outside this country wants to go and make arrangement from abroad for somebody to come in here with technology, he or she is going to go through a lot of hiccups. Minimise some of these things for us then we can forge ahead, we can really feed this country I believe.
The marketers are crippling the industry because they know how much they’re needed. Do you agree?
I don’t agree that the marketers are crippling the industry, it still boils down to policy formation. A lot of people use it as all comers affair, everybody comes into the industry with pretence of being a marketer. If you really get inside the system, you would find out that most of these people are gold-diggers. They just think this industry makes money and they are facing the repercussions now. If they build the industry a lot of people will not spoil it like they are doing. All of them say they are marketers, but truly there are some marketers who want to change the structure of this industry. The ignorant ones think it’s all comers’ affair.
Having being in the industry for a long while, what would you wish Nollywood borrow from Hollywood and Bollywood?
Technology is the thing. We have the content here, it’s only technology we need so much. Plus the government giving us the enabling environment and bringing some of those equipment and subsidising them.