Ben Touitou: Acting is deep psychology
Ben Touitou is a bi-racial actor, model and computer geek. Born of a Jewish Isreali father and an Igbo mother, he holds a degree in Computer Science at Valley View University, Accra, Ghana and Del-york Academy in Lagos. His training at Hollywood’s Stellar Adler Institution and John Henry Richardson gave him the tools and technique to master screen/film acting. He was recently recognised as Best Actor Africa at Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Touitou speaks on his passion for acting, his role in MTV Shuga and his future plans.
Tell us about your role in MTV Shuga and experience on set?
The character I played is Nasir. He is an architect and a bachelor. He had a pretty rough history in a very serious relationship that did something to him. He might seem calm and confident, but deep down he’s afraid to open up, he’s afraid of being vulnerable. As for my experience on set, it was actually wonderful. I had an amazing time. I think this is probably one of the most organised sets I’ve ever been on in my entire career. There’s nothing that makes an actor’s creativity tick than when he knows there is a routine. You know when you’re going to bed, when you’re getting up – it is amazing, it helps me breathe and get some personal time for myself, and also get into character at the right time.
What would you say prepared you for that role?
I think Nasir, in the story, is supposed to be that cool guy, that boy next door sort of swag, with a charm, but very raw, very uncut, very natural. But he seems well put together, cool, calm, calculated. So, he adds a different rhythm to the tone of the film. That’s what sort of gave me the idea of preparing because I understood the big picture.
Speaking about being calm, cool and calculated, you play roles where you are one kind of person and then later turn out to be a different kind of person. How do you fall into character; would you say it has anything to do with your personality?
Acting is an art, as much as it is a science. It’s in three parts; it has three different phases. It’s an art, it’s a science and it’s a business. One of the favourite things I did earlier in my career is to study the business, the art of negotiations, understanding what you bring to the table and what you receive. For some reason, I don’t know why but a lot of filmmakers don’t like it when an actor is too aware of the business side. But I got to know the business angles early on. As for the science and the art, the latter is the talent, the former is how you can use this talent and morph it into different characters. It’s one thing to know how to act, but it is another thing to know how to act for film, and then another thing to know how to get into different types of characters.
And you know what they say, a magician cannot always reveal all his secrets. But it comes with the profession; it comes with the discipline. You need to understand human behaviour, you need to have a story or background for this character. Is he an introvert, an extrovert? Does he wear a mask? What was his childhood like? All these things eventually start to paint a picture. Some actors even go as far as using a certain type of animal in real life, to see how they can emulate characteristics of these animals for the character. Some people are very aloud, some people like to roar – they have this majestic side of them like lions, some people like to slither. You look for all the different fragments of the person you want to create for this character and then when you piece it out together, you have a completely new person. Those are part of the things that come with the art and the profession.
Did you have to study acting; how much of the theoretical part of acting did you have to take on?
I studied acting at first on a personal level, because I was just interested in acting. Funny enough, I am a science guy and a tech person. Originally, my first degree was in Computer Science, and I used to develop apps and softwares, system designs and analysis. But I am always drawn to the arts – painting, drawing, poetry, music, and acting. So, I studied acting from different people, different techniques, and I started getting a sense of how to make something look believable, even if it doesn’t feel that way within you. Then I learnt how to feel something and not worry about how to make it believable, because sometimes when you feel something, your eyes tell the story completely. A lot of people don’t know that acting is deep psychology. It goes really deep and I think that’s when something inside of me shifted and I think I sat comfortably into this seat of getting into and understanding different characters and breakdown. It runs really deep.
For someone who is also in tune with Hollywood, how much would you say Nollywood has improved, to be at par?
First of all, Nollywood – though I hate that name sometimes, because it is like a rip off of Hollywood, it feels like copy – is Nigerian cinema and is a force to reckon with. We have endless, timeless stories. We’ve not even begun to scratch the surface of her stories. We have legends, folklores and magic in our stories. Each tribe in Nigeria has its origin, superhero figures. I tell people the Bible is one of the first Superhero books I’ve ever read. If you go into each culture, they have their own stories. I think if you look at some of the stories from the early 80s and 90s, they had a lot of depth, a lot of soul and a lot of great connection to the people. We didn’t have great pictures then, but now we have a lot of great pictures, though the stories are not as rich as they used to be. We can do better with our stories, if we dig deeper into our truth. Sometimes the problem is in trying to be like Hollywood, we forget that we have our own truth. I think we are doing a fantastic job; I think in the next ten years, we are going to be a huge competition for the Indians.
What attracts you to a script?
The money is good; it’s always a good factor. But I have done jobs for far less just because the character is something that I wanted to prove a point with. I like challenging characters that are difficult to play. That’s when my senses begin to tingle. If the character is an everyday character, sometimes I get bored, because people have seen this before. But if it is something that no one has seen before, something extraordinary, that has layers and depths – that really gets me, especially when the plot of the story is even all the more juicy.
What is the future of acting for you?
The future of acting for me is definitely production. I want to make my own films; I want to produce and be a show runner. I don’t want to say it yet, but I do have that as a goal because I am looking at the future of settling down, starting a family. Being an actor doesn’t really give me that time to raise kids, and raise them the way you want. For me, the goal is to start my own production and only be in films that I really, really like. Also, I have a lot of stories I want to tell. I envision myself to be one of the best filmmakers to come out of Africa, because I have a lot of stories that I really want to tell and I think they will shape the African cinema for life.
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