His names keep changing in line with the peculiar roles he plays from one film to another. Until recently, he was variously known as Ukwa and Agaba. For now, he is acclaimed as Osuofia, a character he so much perfected in the flick, “Osuofia in London”. But his real name is Nkem Owoh, and he is not new to the film industry. He has been around for decades. Although he has played some other serious roles, his acting prowess seems to be more pronounced in comedy. He thinks comedy, talks comedy and acts comedy. But there is more: he is the originator of comedy as far as home video business is concerned in Nigeria. He originated it and stuck to it, refusing to let go even when other producers moved with the tide of the times, swinging from tragedy to action, traditional and the so-called epics.
Today, comedy is the in-thing, and he is not in a hurry to quit the genre. In fact, he reasons that those who feel comedy is phasing out should forget it. Comedy, he believes is the in-thing not only because he did the right things, but because those doing romance have failed to do the right things. “If I decide to write romance, romance will be the in-thing,” he said.
In fact, about five years ago, he told this reporter that his films have transcended mere entertainment of his audience. “They are in fact, therapeutic they are used in the psychiatric hospital in Yaba for neurotic patients.Born in Udi, Enugu State, the comedian spoke with Correspondent Emmanuel Ukudolo in his Surulere office about his experience in “Osuofia in London”, his kind of woman, his worth, greatest problems and other things you will find irresistible.
Owoh had his primary and post-primary education partly at Udi and Nsukka. He worked briefly at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Enugu before proceeding to the Institute of Management Technology (IMT) for a diploma in Electrical Electronic Engineering. He is married with three kids. He spoke about his association with the guilds, unlike the penchant among some big boys who do without the guilds:
His association with the guild
I believe every practising actor should be a member of the Actors Guild, because the law says that unless you are a member you should not be absolved. The umbrella law of the guild says that if you are not a member of any of the guilds you should not be given the benefits enjoyed by members. Except some people are flaunting it. I know that everybody is supposed to be a member, but I won’t call it playing big boy. Though some may decide to play big boy, but playing big boy is attending some of those functions. Isolating yourself makes you a small boy. I believe you will gain more by associating with the guilds. It will make you more mature, mixing with people within the industry. In fact, I will be losing if I stay away from them. I derive some benefits being within their circle.
Nkem Owoh and other characters
The thing is that Nkem Owoh is quite different from those roles. If I am playing Osuofia, the person you are seeing in that film is Osuofia, and if I am playing Okada man, the person you are seeing is Okada man. But what people misunderstand are my gesticulation and the way I talk. I like to behave in character, I don’t like just acting it. I may play a very wicked man in a film. I could use the natural way I move my head to interpret that role, but that doesn’t mean the role is me. I am not a wicked man, but when I play that role, I try to play it perfectly. And people will say this man must be a very wicked man. It must be his nature. I play a womaniser, I play it very well, and people say, this man must be a womaniser. I play the role of a pastor and people say I thought this man does not know anything about God, I don’t know this man goes to church. It is the ability to interpret the script and then use your natural gesticulation to press it home. If I am talking now and I get angry, the way I raise my hand and shake my head is exactly the same way I shake my head when I am doing films, that doesn’t mean the character you see in that film is the character talking.
Producers and his scripts:
They do write scripts for me. In fact, there is no film I do without a script. But one thing is that I reject a lot of scripts. Not because I like rejecting scripts, but because we are trying to see if we can raise the standard of films here. So you don’t just write rubbish and believe I will come there, because you feel I will put in my own natural talent. When I get the script, I read through, I look at it carefully, the main plot, if it is there, and if it satisfies me and I know that I can get a lot of comedy from the main plot, I take it. So, if I can get comedy from it and see it has a very strong message to send across, I will take the script and read my part and interpret it my own way; that is where you find the difference. That is why I normally don’t follow scripts word for word. I rehearse the scripts. I get to know what is required of me. I may be more talented than the one who wrote it. So, I don’t have to act it the way it was written. If they are paying good money, I have to put in everything. So, I go the extra mile to interpret and make sure that not only my line, but the whole story is structured.
Perseverance in comedy
Yes, perseverance is one of them. There is something I practise so much, consistency, even in every day life. Even though we say people have to change with time, if the circumstances don’t come, there is no point trying to change the circumstances yourself. I like consistency. I looked at the whole thing then. I know people love glamour. Actors like wearing nice clothes and drive posh cars. That was the in-thing after “Living in Bondage” and all that. I said okay, let me see if I can look at the other angle where there is no much hype. I started to weave in a lot of comedy. I acted the comedy because I auditioned one or two people to do it, but they did not do it well when the film (Taboo) came up, I now had to take it up. And since then I have not looked back.
So that is how you came into acting?
No, no. I was engaged in television for a long time. I was a producer. I was in “Bassey & Company” as a resident production manager, scriptwriter and editor. In “New Masquerade” I was the resident script editor for a long time, and writer. There was a time I had a programme, “Star Comedian Corner” in Enugu on television, and I used to play the part of a drunk, so I decided to bring it into film. Since then, I decided not to mix comedy with acting in glamour films. I said let me just follow comedy and make a breakthrough, and I am happy that it is the in-thing today.
Comedy as a passing phase:
You see, you put your head where your pillow is. I am good in comedy. I think it is a natural talent given me by God, acting generally, not just comedy. In fact, I did not even start with comedy. When I was with NTA Enugu, I acted romance drama, good tragedy. They knew me for those parts before. But when I started acting serious drama, some of them are serious anyway, but serious romance and emotional drama, people were saying you are even better here. So, I think acting is a natural thing to me. And if I have to choose I will still choose comedy because the dramatic licence is more in comedy. I like to show what I am inside. But you see, if you are in a community where a lot of things are risky, you do these things like this; somebody writes you a letter, saying why are you doing things like this? But if you do it through comedy, the person will laugh and still know that you are referring to him. So, that is why I prefer comedy. That comedy is the in-thing shows that somebody is not doing his homework well, to make romance the in-thing. This is because I can leave comedy and decide to write romance, and it becomes the in-thing. So, let them not say that comedy will soon phase out. No, this is a film world. Has comedy being phased out in the United States? They are the highest paid, yet we still have the tragedies, the Schwazenaggers.
That he has no naira value
Let me tell you something, I think people should realise that film is not a short-term business. The orientation of people in this industry is that film is a short-term business. When we started, I did not have it in mind that it was going to be a short-term thing. People don’t even harness all the avenues involved in film production. They just finish the thing and send it into the market. We all know that before the film goes to Video Home System (VHS), you have to go through a series of other things. You show it in theatres, you must have recouped your money ten times before you put it in home video. But probably because of security in the country, people are so sceptical about going out at night to watch movies, the whole thing then changed to home video. But in home video there are certain things you can do and still make a lot of money. You can still make almanacs. You could sell television rights; you could do a lot of things. You could do posters, like if you go to student’s hostels, you see Michael Jackson’s big poster. You see Rambo with guns all over his waist and people buy it. There are a lot of things one can do. They even print T-shirts with names and photographs of artistes on them and sell. There are a lot of things in it people have failed to harness. So, when you name your price, they say, oh, let us just pay you so and so amount and they go and make all the money, because they are expecting to make money from just selling the home video. The people who started this thing have a wrong perception about the industry, but were ready to take risks. So, I still give them kudos for taking that risk, but it is not a short-term thing. As for my money, I haven’t even started anything. Artistes are the highest paid. Outside the country, artistes earn more than the president; they earn more than any politician.
Only God knows my worth. But if you asking what they pay me for a film, it varies. If I am going to act outside the shores of this country, the money has to increase. There are people who come to me on emotional level and I agree with them that look, since I am a “selling artiste”, let me help this young man and in the process help myself. Because if I am relating with them at that initial level, if they remember tomorrow, they will relate with me at that level too.
I learnt you were paid N1.8 million in “Osuofia in London”
I don’t have to disclose how much I was paid in that film. It may be more, it may be less. But I like to take money that is worth the role I play. But first, is N1.8 million too much? It is not even much. It is just to do this thing compared to how much the investor made. He made big money because he invested big money and he is reaping. That is why a lot of people are angry. People don’t want to take risk, take their time and make good film. If somebody makes it, let the person reap. Yes, people are angry about who is selling this and that. That is natural, people have to be envious, and people have to be jealous. And I try to tell them they can still invest a lot of money in film, do all the groundwork, the entire consultancy and still come out with much more. So, I am telling you that my worth cannot be quantified. It varies. If you ask me what is my worth, I will tell you I don’t think anybody here has paid me my worth. But if you say what am I taking now, depending on the developmental level of the industry, I will tell you the money I get vary. I use emotion to cut down, because I may get one or two things from the people. So, I am not somebody who is blind to other things. If you are taking me outside the shores of this country, the money has to increase. So, I cannot tell you there is a price tag on me. It simply varies, but I am not complaining. At least, they pay enough.
Pay before service:
You see, whenever you start something, and you plunge into it, there is always a risk. It doesn’t have order. We experimented on home video, started by Ken Nebue, sorry Mike Irihe, but we did not have to stick to that level. If one recognises a business, he has to move higher, you have to have direction. If we like to act like people in Hollywood, then we have to toe some of the things that make Hollywood. What I do is, you pay me, I give you receipt. It is a business transaction. It is not like you are just going to dash me money to do things just to sustain me. It is a commercial venture. You now begin to align certain things. It is not even the money that comes first. You send your script first. I read through your script to see if it is worth it. I now say okay, fine, it can be restructured without so much difficulty. Why I have to do that is because we have a scriptwriting body, the Script Writer’s Guild. People are not patronising them. Everybody goes to people who churn out anything, go to the market and it is accepted. And we have people who have gained experience in scriptwriting. Why are they not patronising these people go to their pool, buy a good script, and then come? They would not go through all these hazards. So, I just have to vet the script, if it is okay, I then ask you to go and pay into my account, because I have had experiences. They owe you, you kill yourself, and in anyway I am not regretting it, because if you are clearing a path, you have to be ready for thorns.
So, we have paid our dues.
God has been on our side, and you don’t have to continue to pay dues all the time, you have to move higher. When I was acting on television, they didn’t even pay me. Because I was trying to see if I could send a message across as somebody who could do this if given encouragement, if somebody came at that time I was still trying to show what I can do, I would tell him okay, you pay me N10 and you give me N5 now, if you don’t even care to pay the other N5, I leave you. Then I did not understand I had a message I was sending across. But now, I will tell you no. You pay all my money as agreed. I write my agreement, you write your agreement, and we sign it. You look through my own agreement, I look through your own agreement. So, if your script is fine, I tell you to pay into my account but we have to sign an agreement. You read my own, I read your own, if you don’t like my own you say no, I don’t like it, except you want to change it. If I agree, I will change it. If I read your own and I say no to a particular clause, if you agree, that is business. And if you don’t agree and you have already paid in your money, I will give you a cheque and you go and claim your money, and that is business. Tomorrow, we are still friends. I just want to make it strictly business so that it doesn’t look like a child’s play.
Films generally have very good impact in the social structure of any community. People have been writing in papers, magazines. If I do one film on what they have been writing it will make more noise outside the country and within the country than what the papers have written in one year. Now if there is anything you want to send across, you want people to know and it is on film, people catch it faster. Like this cross-cultural thing that was done in “Osuofia in London”, people begin to see how we can match western culture with our own. So film is a very beautiful instrument in the social structure of every system, because you use it to correct a lot of things. There was one film I wrote that people were afraid to market. But I will just look at the system, because I write about what I think of the system like any other people. And because of this, the Censor’s Board was afraid. So, you use film to correct a lot of things, to send a lot of messages within and outside the country, and that is why most of my films go from the village to the cities. You watch all my films; you find that they start from the village, that you can relate it to western civilisation.
Experience in “Osuofia in London”
The experience I had in “Osuofia in London” is very unique. Things are not done in haphazard way we do here. Everything has order. You want to do this, you give prior notice, and they give you permission. Where you don’t get the permission, there are certain things the law allows you to do. And there are certain things that are against our law here, which is not against the law there, or something that is against the law that we don’t take cognisance of here. Somebody can just go by the side and begin to pee on the main road; people don’t do that there. Even pigeons, you don’t have to go catching pigeons. For somebody in the village, it is unheard of, you have to use your catapult and nobody asks you any question. So, there are lots of things you have to get from them. Things you may not know, like if you are just walking in the streets of London acting a film, it is now a different ball game, because they know these things are going to be transferred. A lot of people are going to see them.
Well, it is part of my nature. But that is not to say it is not good to walk with bodyguards, because I have had some experiences, which tells me better. But I have a personal assistant. If you have that freedom within you, do people feel freedom for you outside? That is why people sometimes take bodyguards. A lot of people see me, all they want is just throw money at them. You find out that before you cover some miles all these area boys will begin to mob you for money, saying: “If you don’t give us money we are not leaving you.” That is where a bodyguard is necessary, so that they don’t mob you, and they don’t harass you. I ask those who are saying give us money, if I begin to drop money like that everyday, how much am I going to have for myself? At a stage it was turning into a something else, so I always tell them to come to my office, tell me your problem and if there is anyway I can help you, even if it is not money, I will render the help, rather than throw money in the streets. I did not make it that way, my brother.
Building factory in Agaba:
You see, the scene is well played. What I wanted to do was to use a comic way to bring up the message. People go and have more children than they can cater for. You go to the village and all the widows are giving you one child each. At the end of it you find out you may end up losing. Instead of concentrating on your family and having your own children, you start going outside and even leaving your wife. You saw what happened there. He left the wife, saying I don’t want you to have any issue. He preferred to be having issues outside. People who are not reasoning that you just need to have a nucleus. Your father before you had a nucleus, which is why you bear his name. Somebody has to bear your name. It is our culture. So, we are just trying to use comedy, all those factory thing, to send our message across.
Between Agaba and his love for women:
It shows you that Agaba is a good actor, because he has some talents. I can play a homosexual and you think I am one. It is just the ability to act. I have played a lot of roles in films, and people say am I a drunk? I started with drunken roles. I think it is just a natural thing.
His kind of woman:
My wife is my kind of woman. You see if one begins to say your kind of woman, you will never get your kind of woman and that has caused a lot of trouble in marriages in the country. If you have one, two, three, up to 10 qualities you need in a woman, and if one woman you happen to come across has five of those qualities, you have to bend. Accept those five because you may not have those qualities the woman needs. So, if this person bends and the other person bends, it is for the family good.
That is my problem, my brother. To relax is my greatest problem. You see, I wanted to relax and you came in. If I said no, that I wanted to relax you will not be happy. With all this happening, I have decided that this year, I am going to cultivate a relaxation pattern. I will just switch off my handsets and leave it in this room for one week or two, then I will come back. I like to do three jobs in a year if things are right. That is what I am striving to do. But because of pressure, you have to bow to the system. So, in a month, and since December I gave myself leave. I have not done any particular job up till now. I will do three or two more jobs for other people and concentrate on my own. That is what I want to be doing since I have a studio, and the equipment. I will do one work, edit it, put it in the market, harness all avenues and by the time I finish it will be getting to three months, I can now do another one.
My dream is to leave a legacy that will challenge the industry outside. You see the Indians are not so fantastic, but they used their own culture to project certain things people like. We don’t understand their language, but at a stage we were rapping their music. The Chinese came out with their own and everybody dabbled into it, the Americans also have their own way. People just mess up a lot of things here. I don’t want to act like an American. I want to bring that Hollywood and indigenize it. So I want to leave a legacy so that the things we have here can be projected for other people to accept. First Posted Friday, January 23, 2004