Jude Akuwudike: Being Eyimofe
To many Nigerians, Jude Akuwudike’s name and face are not exactly familiar. The closest he got to a film remotely Nigerian was when he played Dada Goodblood in the film adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. But that can hardly subtract from his skills and accomplishments as an actor.
Jude becoming an actor was fortuitous, and perhaps buoyed by providence and reluctant Nigerian parents who would have preferred him being an architect.
Being uprooted from his motherland to England at the age of six was not immediately kind to the child whose immediate past realities were at odds with his new environment. There was a culture, and the introduction to the new “civilisation” was rough initially.
As soon as I arrived in England, I realised that it was not the civilisation I expected, Jude says. I witnessed a civilisation of respect and honour while I was in Nigeria. As a boy of six, that’s what you would take with you.
He was mocked and scapegoated for speaking the Nigerian Pidgin. Asking your new friends, “Wetin be your name” is a sure way of attracting instant ridicule and unwanted attention. Six-year-old Jude got both and, to extricate himself from the mess schoolyard trolls wanted to make of him, he had to literally “assume [the] role” of a fighter.
“You begin to assume roles. You take on things to fit in,” Jude says matter-of-factly.
He later became the star of his primary school after it was discovered he had a good voice for singing. When important people visited his school, he was always on stage to serenade them.
Thus birthed, albeit unwittingly, a career that has spanned more than 30 years and cut across stage, television, and film.
But that career could have been buried before it even started crawling by his parents: being an actor was not the sort of vision they had for their only son.
Heavily steeped in the Nigerian culture and the sensibilities of the 1960s, Jude’s parents thought only a prestigious career was good enough for him.
Unfortunately, he was good at science and arts subjects. So there was little room for him to attribute his choice of career to weak performances in either field.
His parents later accepted his choice but with a condition: he must go to an acting school. He received an acting diploma from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in central London in 1987.
He made his acting debut the following year as Captain Watkin Tench in Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court Theatre. His first appearance in a film came the same year as a priest in A World Apart. In 2020, he played a recurring role as Charlie Carter in Gangs of London, a popular grisly crime-drama. Carter is a father to Elliot Finch, played by Sope Dirisu, another actor of Nigerian descent. In between those, Jude appeared in several films, stage plays, and television series.
And if you’ve listened to BBC Network Africa’s Resident Presidents, a satirical take on major news in Africa, you would have heard his voice as that of President Olushambles.
Coming home to Eyimofe
Jude has come to Nigeria only a handful of times since he left about 50 years ago, and mostly for short periods. But when Arie and Chuko Esiri, the twin brothers behind the film, Eyimofe, contacted him through Tomiwa Edun, another Nigerian actor in England, Jude knew he had to take the role. He was in Lagos for six weeks and reconnected with the city he only lived in for six months before he left Nigeria.
The poignant representation of the squalid neighbourhoods where Mofe and Rosa reside and the opulence of where she works, and how this co-existence gives Lagos its unique, edgy presence, serves as the background for a story that x-rays some of Nigeria’s deep-seated problems.
Critics and reviewers see the cinematic representation of lives and struggles of the ordinary Nigerians unaware of the presence of a camera in the back streets of Lagos on the one hand and the plush lives of the city’s rich on the other hand, as the third lead character in the film.
The film emanates a lovingly textured portrait of the constant buzz and vibrancy of a city we have rarely seen captured so richly on screen,” The Film Magazine’s Leoni Horton wrote in a review of the film last October. “A never-ending flurry of passers-by work as real-life extras. The presence of these everyday people, who are out, living their lives, playing, shopping and working – unaware of the camera and uninterested in the characters whose lives they are briefly appearing in – give the story a realist, lived-in quality.
Through the eyes of two leading characters — Mofe and Rosa — the film tells parallel stories of the everyday struggles of ordinary Nigerians and their desire to seek better lives in Spain and Italy respectively.
Eyimofe (or Mofe) is savaged by the loss of his family, a boss indifferent about his safety, a father that cared less, dead hopes of travelling, and a mountainous debt.
Mofe, an unflappable, melancholic factory technician, like millions of Nigerians, especially its army of young people, looks to life in Spain to overcome his problems. In fact, he already sees himself as Sanchez, a name he puts on a fake passport he buys off an unscrupulous streetwise man — here, all the stories you have heard about Oluwole on the Lagos Island come to mind — until tragedy visits his one-room apartment in the dead of the night.
Jude is aware of one thing: his sense of patience, the kind exhibited by Mofe in the film, has been dulled by the conveniences offered by his English society. So how does he fit into the tragic and strife-filled world of Mofe, the titular character in the film?
In spite of the ease of life in England, it turns out Jude has not lost much of his Nigerianness. Apart from switching between the English Language and the Nigerian Pidgin on the one hand, and varieties of the English Language on the other during the interview, his affinity with Mofe’s problems hinges on his relationship with the Nigerian community in the United Kingdom.
Nigeria is very much alive abroad, he says very candidly. We are quite the diaspora community. A lot of diaspora communities…wherever they settle, they keep the language alive; they keep the culture alive.
As much as his parents wanted him to fit into the English society without much hassle, they kept Nigeria alive in their home.
“Family…you enter that door, you are in Nigeria,” he says, his Nigerianness shining through his speech with a sprinkle of excitement.
“I thank my parents for that. I retain those connections with the language and culture of Nigeria through them and the community here.”
Still, Jude wishes he could have mastered the Nigerian Pidgin better than he did in the film to enhance his portrayal of Mofe. Notwithstanding, he is full of praises for the Esiri brothers, Tomiwa Edun and everyone he worked with while in Lagos, describing them as “fantastic” and “talented” people.
And yes to more Nigerian films
The cheerful experience on the set of Eyimofe has opened his mind to the fact that “Nigeria’s future is rosy cinematically” and he is willing to feature in more Nigerian films. But his first Nigerian film has definitely set a standard for him.
And the bar is high. Eyimofe has been shown in at least 20 international film festivals with its world premiere at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival 2020, where it had its world premiere. It has also won a few awards, including Distribution Support Award at the 35th Belfort Film Festival in France, Best Fiction and Best New Filmmakers awards at the São Paulo International Film Festival, and the Achilles Valdosta Award at the Torino Film Festival in Italy.
Featuring in the film “has had so much impact…it is giving me a feeling of immense gratitude, a kind of empowerment that I feel that I want to do more. I want to do more and a kind of pride that the production was,” Jude says.
I think the venture has spoken well, and for that, I am very proud. And the fact that it was Nigerian through and through… I was very proud of that.
Eyimofe premieres in Nigeria on April 18 and will be in cinemas on April 23. The Gangs of London actor hopes it will open a new frontier of film production in Nigeria.
For now, he is basking in the euphoric experience he had in the six weeks he spent shooting the film in his homeland.