Bayo Akinfemi… Homeboy living the Hollywood dream
A two-time Best Actor GEMINI awards nominee for Human Cargo and The Border, Bayo Akinfemi is currently a series regular on Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS/Warner Bros sitcom going into its fourth season. He’s also the dialect coach and culture consultant for the show.
Born and raised in Ilesa, Nigeria, Bayo obtained a B.A. in Performing Arts from the University of Ilorin before moving to Toronto where he studied Film & Television Production and worked for several years as an actor and a director before moving to Los Angeles.
He holds a Master’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Southern California – USC, where he currently works as an Assistant Professor of Practice: Acting & Directing in the Schools of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts.
An avid theatre director with extensive credits, for almost a decade, Bayo was the resident director for African Theatre Ensemble in Toronto. He is the Founder and Artistic Director of African Theatre Artistes Society (ATARS), Los Angeles, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing a platform of artistic expression to artistes of African descent with the goal of bringing authentic African Theatre to audiences in Los Angeles His acting credits include Marvel’s Agents of Shield, Criminal Minds, NCIS LA and Survivor’s Remorse.
As a director, his credits include an episode of Bob Hearts Abishola, a short film titled Rump and Nollywood feature films Busted Life and Paparazzi: Eye in the Dark.
Having traversed through the corridors of filmmaking in Canada and the US, Bayo, who was a special guest at the recently held Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards (AMVCAs), spoke to CHIJIOKE IREMEKA on his plan to transfer the knowledge and skills he acquired over the years to his home country, Nigeria.
You were at this year’s AMVCAs, is this your first time witnessing the award ceremony live and how was the experience?
YES, it was my first time. Overall, it’s been a very positive experience. I didn’t know what to expect when they told me to come. And quite honestly, I’ve never heard of the AMVCAs until I was invited. I knew Multichoice, but I didn’t know anything about award. I was just curious because for me, it was tagged the African Oscars and I really wanted to see it. So, it’s been very enlightening, and positive overall; I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve seen a lot of things as well.
Although a couple of things could be tweaked here and there to make it better, overall, it was a very good experience; making those connections, meeting some of the talents, interacting with them, knowing where they are with their dreams, aspirations… I also got to answer a lot of questions. They asked how I did it, going from here to Hollywood and being able to find just a little bit of roadway into that industry. So, it’s been good.
You left Nigeria for Toronto in Canada and then moved to Los Angeles, California. How has that culture mix shaped your career and your life generally?
It’s just God’s grace; I’m not going to lie about that. I’m not the only one who’s talented or who is ambitious or the only one who had this dream. They say it is God Who puts dreams in your heart. So, the Hollywood dream had been with me for a very long time. I had no idea how it was going to happen, but when the opportunity came for me to go to Canada, I knew I wanted to make films.
I studied Performing Arts at the University of Ilorin, so in Toronto, I decided to go back to film schools since film was what I wanted to do. I went to a film school, came out and started working as a PA (Production Assistant); that’s the entry-level job in today’s industry over there in Toronto. I worked my way up and started working as an Assistant Director in a lot of Hollywood films that were shooting in Toronto at the time.
It’s a massive industry in Toronto, because it’s fed by Hollywood. A lot of Hollywood films shoot in Toronto, because it’s cheaper for them. So, I had opportunities to work on a lot of these films and apart from the film schools, being on set and watching these masters do their work is the best film school that one could ever go to; just watching them and having a front-row seat.
I remember one of the first experiences that really blew my mind. I was working on the Jackie Chan movie, The Tuxedo and there was a scene where they blew up a Mercedes Benz S 500. We arrived on Saturday morning and special effects began to attach dynamites to the car. And I was one of the assistant directors, so my job was to just stand with them and let the director and the first assistant director know when they’re ready. I was standing there thinking, ‘Are they really going to blow up this car for real?’
When they were ready, they brought in about 10 different cameras and set them up in all kinds of different angles and blew up the car. So, that made me know that there was more to come in this industry that I hadn’t even witnessed. I just kept going and putting myself in those situations. I didn’t want to act anymore; I just wanted to be a director. Whenever I’m asked to introduce myself, I tell people I’m a director who just knows how to act. Because acting is what puts you in front of the camera, and that’s what a lot of people know me for. So, eventually, I thought of acting as well. I started doing the acting and it continued to help me, open more doors, and find more connections.
Now, I said Toronto is a massive industry, but compared to Hollywood, it’s still kind of on the small scale. So, after a while, it seemed like I really wasn’t touching the ceiling there in Toronto, because they don’t write a lot of characters or roles for people like me. So, I got my green card in 2008. The dream was Hollywood, but I didn’t want to go there and live illegally. I’m a Canadian, and that’s fine. But when I got my green card in 2008, I thought maybe God was telling me something, that it was time to go. And I had to start again from scratch. Initially, when I got to Canada, I had to start from scratch. I built things up, got my green card, went to the US and started from scratch again.
Leaving Canada for the US, what were the changes you saw between the two industries?
First of all, there’s just a lot more opportunities in the US; a lot of the projects that I shot in Canada came from the US. Canada is very conservative, a little bit more laid back in the approach to things. But in the US, it’s a behemoth and it can really swallow you. And I knew this going in. But I’m here already; God has brought me this far. He’s not going to let me down now. And if I wasn’t in the US, I wouldn’t have even got the chance to audition for the role that I have now in Bob Hearts Abishola, because they only audition people that live in LA, the local hires. If you were outside of LA, they wouldn’t even consider you for the audition.
So, I just knew that there were a lot more opportunities in the US. In terms of quality and how movies are made in Vancouver, they’re all the same thing; you’re not missing a bit. You just have more opportunities when you’re in the US to audition for roles. And they can tell the difference between a black actor who’s lived in Africa and one who has not. I have an accent too; it wasn’t like this when I left in 1998, it was a lot thicker. But over the years, with interactions and a couple of classes, it got better. Although I still have the accent, it’s a lot clearer now.
I remember in the first year or two, I tried to have conversations and people don’t really understand what I was saying; I had to keep repeating myself. Sometimes, I have to spell it out for them. I remember a casting director once told me when I first moved out there that I have to lose my accent if I’m going to be able to ever find work in Hollywood. He said I have to pick up an American accent. Well, I’ve tried and this is as good as it’s going to get.
But it is the same accent, and I’m being paid for it now on the show, because I’m the dialect coach. So, it helped build other African American actors on the show, because we’re trying to understand Nigerian dialect, the Yoruba dialect specifically, because I’m also the culture consultant on the show. Anything cultural, they check in with me to see if it’s right.
Out of all the black actors on the show, I’m the only one who grew up in Nigeria. There’s Folake, who is Nigerian, there’s also Shola, Tony, and Gina Yashere. In fact, there are three of us on that show that are from Ilesa. That’s me, Shola Adewusi who plays Aunty Olu, and Folake. What are the odds that in this world, three separate people from the same town will end up on an American sitcom? But Gina grew up in London, and I think Folake left when she was young. I was in my late 20s when I left Nigeria, so I’m the only one who did all my schooling before I left. So, my experience will be more authentic, and I understand the culture a lot more than anybody else does on the show. And it’s been great so far.
Going through your academic background, one could see that you have been consistent with arts. Did you dream of becoming a movie star or something you developed along the line?
I never wanted to be a movie star; I don’t care if people know me. You wouldn’t believe that I’m naturally a shy person. In social situations, if I walk into a room full of people that I don’t know, I’m the one that you find in the corner, who doesn’t want to talk to anybody. When I say that, people are surprised, because I’m an actor. When I’m acting, I’m not myself; I’m just playing the character.
And then, as an assistant professor, I have to stand in front of the class and talk, because it’s what I have to do. And so, I didn’t set out to be a movie star; I just wanted to do what I love. I’m passionate about the arts, about acting and directing. I know there isn’t anything else that really fires me up. So, I honestly don’t care for all the fame now. That’s just the truth.
But I know it comes with the territory. A lot of things were not clear to me at the beginning. I was just following my passion and my dream in school, in Ilorin Performing Arts Department doing plays. That was when I began to have an inkling of what I was getting into because I was very popular in school. People come to the department to watch our plays and then the following day, everybody recognised me on campus, complimenting the show. But no, I didn’t set out to be a movie star. Now the more I do, the more I realise that it just comes with the territory and it gets bigger. So, I take it as it comes.
What’s your take on Nollywood, how far has it gone?
We’ve come a long way. The Nigerian movie industry has come a long way. I was here in the early 90s when we started. I finished school in 1994, and then served in Calabar for one year, then lived in Lagos from 1995 to 1998. During that time, I used to go to Abegi, National Theatre. That’s where we all hung out then, looking for work; I did a few things here and there. So, that was a major start, and I also worked with Justus Esiri of blessed memory; I did a lot up there as well. I did a show with Richard Mofe Damijo called Obaseki, directed by Don Pedro Obaseki. So, I was here when the industry started. And to see the growth over the years, it’s really commendable.
Be that as it may, we still have a very long way to go. I tell people, Rome was not built in a day. People want to compare Nollywood to Hollywood, but they have to understand that Hollywood has been in existence since the 1920s. You have to understand their history, development and growth to really get to where they are now. Then, you understand that Nigeria is not doing too badly considering that the industry is less than 30 years. And one of the things that I know is key is knowledge.
When it started, there were no film schools and people were just trying to figure it out. How you grab a camera and you start shooting because then, that was basically it. But when you look at the industry now, a lot of people are trained. And I tell people, sometimes when I run into them, they say it’s because you don’t have the money. Money is not the problem; you can’t do what you don’t know. If I give you a hundred million dollars now to make a movie, if you really don’t know how to make a movie, it’s going to come out as a crappy movie. So, I’m really encouraged by the fact that a lot of people are going to school now all around the world.
There are a bunch of Nigerian students at USC where I teach them in the cinema and drama school in New York market, where I know that a lot of people in Nollywood have been to school; I taught there for about two years. And they’ve run the field, come back home, started making movies and little by little, you see the knowledge, skills, and the filmmaking techniques that have been learnt. You see them begin to apply them to the films that we make here. Yes, it may not still be at that level where we need to be, but you see those rays of hope. You see that they understand the visual language; the blocking of cinematography, and with a little more help, they’re going to do better.
So, I don’t like to make those comparisons, because it’s not fair. I’m really encouraged by what’s going on in the industry, and I know it’s only a matter of time; we’re going to compete with the best filmmakers in the world.
For someone who started here and looking at Nollywood now, do you have plans to help take the industry where it should be?
Absolutely! In all the years that I’ve been there, all I thought about was coming back home and finding ways to transfer some of the knowledge and skills that I have acquired over the years. But it is imperative for me to find the right platform in order to meet the right people and make the right connections. I meet Nigerian filmmakers all the time and we explore, but there’s a time for everything.
Sometimes, it feels like this isn’t going to work out, I’m not going to be able to do the things that I want to do effectively, because this platform is a little fuzzy to me, so I’ll step back. But I’ve come back; I came back in 2016 and did like a week’s workshop which culminated in the making of a short film for students in my alma mater, the University of Ilorin. A lot of the kids that I’ve worked with in the industry are doing quite well.
And coming back home on Multichoice’s platform, it’s also been great because I’ve been able to make a lot of connections. There are a lot of conversations going on about finding ways to bring them back, so you can really do master classes and teach people. When people run into me at USC, they are surprised to find out that I’m Nigerian teaching there. They ask me what I’m doing teaching at USC, that I should be teaching back home in Nigeria because Nigeria needs people like me to come back and teach them. Yes, I’m aware of that, but when the right time comes and with the right platform, I’m going to jump on it, because I understand the value of knowledge.
College can only take you so far. You can be very talented at what you do, but your talent can only take you so far. You need the skills to be able to apply that talent. That’s what I always emphasise. And that’s why I love teaching because it’s very rewarding for me. There are students that I taught 10 to 15 years ago who still email me and reach out to me. They tell me, ‘thank you’ for the knowledge that I impacted, that it’s helping them to do this, or that they learnt this in my class and it’s helping them now in this situation; I find that very rewarding. And I would love more than anything else to be able to find the opportunities to do that here.
What really informed your decision to set the African Theatre in Los Angeles?
In Ilorin, I was a theatre person. I’m doing a lot of films now, but I still love the theatre; its experiences, and all of that. It excites me. And then when I moved to Toronto, I met this woman, Professor Modupe who teaches English at New York University. She had set up the African theatre ensemble with the goal of just doing African plays, because in Toronto at the time, nobody was doing African plays. So, she met with me and then I became the resident director.
Firstly, it was The gods are not to blame which I directed. And then after that we did Our husband has gone mad again, which Ola Rotimi actually came to see at the time, but he unfortunately passed away about two or three weeks after he returned from the trip. So, the goal was to propagate African theatre to audiences in North America. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Nigerians out there. We cannot feel our culture. But in our own little way, we can begin to come back on some of those stereotypes and really show people that this is who we are; people with pride, with a sense of our culture and identity and we’re proud to explore these things.
So, when I moved to LA, I decided that since nobody did African plays anymore in Los Angeles, we would start the African Theatre Artistes society to continue to do that. Fortunately, we started in 2018 and we did a play called Wedlock of the gods and then as we were probing in 2019, COVID-19 hit. For the last two to three years, we’ve not been able to do anything. But we’re actually going to do that play again. It’s not a PR company, it’s USC, because I’m on the literary committee for the School of Dramatic Arts at USC. So, we met in the last few months to consider plays for the incoming session and I introduced about three plays to them for consideration. I gave them The gods are not to blame, Death and the kings’ horsemen, which was Wole Soyinka’s play and I also included The wedlock of the gods. It’s on the syllabus, and I’m going to direct it starting this September.
So, the goal is not only to propagate our culture, it’s also a tool that will begin to counter some of the negative stereotypes that people have about Nigerians, because they hear stories of Hushpuppi and those kind of people. That’s what is in the mainstream media and they paint all Nigerians with the same brush, that we’re all crooks. So, the goal is to help see how we can help our nation to display a proud, spectacular image.
Talking about Nigeria’s image globally, what’s the perception at the moment?
It depends on the setting. I think a lot of people are very ignorant. Regardless of anything positive that they see, they want to hold on to the negative, even the media, because it sells. They would rather tell stories about Hushpuppi or people that have been arrested for fraud. But when they see something positive about Nigeria, they simply acknowledge it and move on. I’ve had a lot of unpleasant experiences too; with people asking me how many fake credit cards I have in my wallet, because there are some Nigerians who are credit card scammers. This is happening on campus where I’m an assistant professor. That’s ignorantly speaking.
I’m not going to let some ignorant fool provoke me into saying something that could be used against me. I just ignore it. So, I want to believe it’s changing, and I’ll give you a specific experience. I was at Paul Simon’s tribute concert a few weeks back on Hollywood Boulevard. And I was standing outside waiting for one of my friends to join me before we go inside. And these two white ladies came up to me and told me how much they love my show. They said they were big fans of the show, and it was so great to be able to see Nigerian characters that are positive or strong on television. That, to me, is a validation. It’s a very good example of how shows like that and many others can little by a little counter that negative perception. It’s not overwhelming yet, because it’s been years and years and decades of damage. So, we have to be more consistent in putting all these positive stories forward.
How did you get on this sitcom? Did you audition for it?
Yes, it was that simple; it was an audition. My manager sent me the audition and it happened to be a sitcom. Now, I’ve never done sitcoms in my life. I’ve done characters that are a little bit funny, but I’m attracted to intense dramatic stuff. So, when I saw that it was a sitcom, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. And I was convinced to go for the audition because it was a Chuck Lorre production. So, I went back, grabbed the material and did my thing.
I went in first of all to audition for the casting directors, because they won’t take you directly to the producer sessions, because at the beginning of the audition, they audition hundreds and sometimes thousands of people for casting directors, and then they narrow the list. So, you want to get on that shortlist that they’re going to take to the producers. I made the shortlist and the final callback; there were ten of us, and they brought us all in at the same time. That’s when I knew they were looking for two characters; I knew they wanted us to read together for chemistry.
Sitting in the waiting room, there was a lot of noise. So, I stepped outside into the hallway so I could just stay focused. And that’s when I saw Chuck Lorre and Gina Yashere, who’s one of the CO creators of the show; I saw them walk in and I thought, today’s the day. I said a good prayer to God and asked for His help. Then, it was my turn. I went in, began to read, and they started laughing, which kind of threw me for a loop. Because with auditions, everybody just sits there, stone-faced; they don’t want to give an impression of whether they like you or not. They just started laughing so loudly. And I was thinking, “Okay, this is kind of different. They are enjoying this that’s why they’re laughing.” So, I just kept going. I finished and they told me to go back to the waiting room, and that they’ll come to get me later.
So, they brought me in again for another scene and told me not to go. And then the third time, they brought me in with Tony Okungbowa who we later got the show together and they paired us together. They brought us in, we read and they loved the chemistry; they were laughing and they told us not to go. They brought the other people that were also paired together, and then, they brought Tony and I in again. And then after, they told everybody to leave. We were all talking outside and one of them talked to Tony and I. He said: ‘They seem to like you two because you are the only pair that was brought in twice. I think you guys are likely going to book it.’ And I said, ‘from your lips to God’s ears.’
I got in my car and drove home and 45 minutes later, my phone rang; it was my manager and he told me that I booked it. Okay, thank God. It was supposed to be one episode, episode three of season one at the time. By the time we finished that episode, they started writing more for us, saying they liked our pair. And then, they started making inquiries if we were available. Long story short, by the time we got to episode eight, they promoted me to a series regular and I remember my manager calling me and saying he doesn’t know what was going on, but he had never seen anything like that in his life; going from a guest star on one episode to a series regular, all in one season.
He said it doesn’t happen that way. They might keep bringing you back as a guest star in season one if they like you, and then in season two, they promote you to recurring. And if they like you in season three, they make you a series regular. But I went from the guest to a series regular in less than 10 episodes, and it was just incredible. It was all just God and His grace.
What has been the high point of your career so far?
There’s been a lot. Every single show that I’m on, I feel like I’ve enjoyed it. But I’ll say my greatest landmark has been this show, and not only because of the way it happened, or because I’m now a series regular going to season four on one of the highest-rated TV shows. It’s because I’ve also had the opportunity to direct, which has always been my true passion. I said earlier on that I serve as a director who just knows how to act. So, it’s afforded me also the opportunity to direct an episode and I look forward to doing more.
Doing that episode was great for me because directing in Hollywood is different from what I’ve seen out here in Nigeria. Of course, I know how things go here. But to do it in Hollywood with the best, it’s a dream come true. I’m living my dream. So, I’d say that probably stands out as the highlight even more than the acting. I’m looking forward to doing all of that.
Going back, what are you taking from Nigeria?
I’m taking peanuts, Ijebu garri, and Kilishi. That’s all because I don’t like to be harassed, by people asking why I’m carrying all of those things. I also made a lot of Nigerian fabrics to take with me, because it’s a lot easier to make them here. But more than all these, the experience of being a part of the AMVCAs and connecting with all the talents here has really enhanced my impression of where the industry is now; it has made me more hopeful and made me look forward to all the meetings and people that I’ve met, to connecting with them and collaborating.
Now, I have a few more people coming to meet with me today to talk about projects and how we can collaborate. So, for me, that’s really very powerful. I’m making all those connections and I also love connecting with the original authentic Amala and pounded yam since I came here, because you don’t get the original one over there. But it’s really about all these connections and all these talents and just to find all this for us to collaborate and do something really impactful on the global stage.