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Nigeria’s Own OC Ukeje Goes To Cannes


Okechukwu Chukwudi Ukeje

Okechukwu Chukwudi Ukeje

IT is confirmed. Ayanda, the South African film from award-winning director Sara Blecher and starring Nigeria’s top actor Okechukwu Chukwudi Ukeje, aka OC Ukeje, screened at the ongoing Cannes Film Market on May 17.

Produced by A Leading Lady Productions with the support of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), Africa Magic and the South African Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Ayanda tells the story of a young woman whose dreams of running a retro car restoration business are threatened by dark family secrets, the complications of love and the day-to-day challenges of life in the sprawling African metropolis. For keen industry observers, this is some cheery news for African cinema and Nollywood.

It is good news that Ayanda will screen at such a prestigious film festival as the Cannes and it is equally good news that a Nigerian actor, OC Ukeje who is best known for his acting exploits in White Waters, Two Brides and a Baby and lately in Gone Too Far, is playing lead in a South African movie.

Not that OC is the first Nollywood actor to feature in an across-the- border production – at least notable actors like Desmond Elliot, Rita Dominic, Eyinna Nwigwe have at various times featured prominently in films produced outside of Nollywood – those who are familiar with the South African motion picture industry would agree that actors are not in short supply at all.

So it will take an actor from elsewhere who has the right chops to earn a role, talk more of a lead role.

“I think OC Ukeje has shown with his involvement in this movie that his acting is boundless. Hollywood should be next for him”, a critic wrote on twitter as soon as the news that Ayanda will screen in Cannes went viral.

Another fan, obviously a long-standing fan of the humble and personable actor wrote: “I love OC Ukeje and his acting. He has done well for himself. He is one amazing actor who has grown above his reality show winning”.

Indeed, OC Ukeje has grown far above his reality show winning especially if you consider that in Nigerian acting, especially in Nollywood, reality means that every new act, particularly products of reality television shows, must find their own rhythm as their winning the reality show does not guarantee star status for them on the turf.

It is common to now find that the relevance of most winners of reality shows patters out months after they emerge winners. Only a finger-countable number of such winners have walked pass their reality show winning and the Abia-born actor is one of such winners.

His artistic contributions, other than his winning the Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO) reality show is making a way for him in Nollywood and beyond. From his screen debut White Water, ‘OC’ as the Marine Science graduate of the University of Lagos is also called by close friends, has been having a steady run in the movie and observers say it won’t be long before he finds a spot in a Hollywood movie.

The journey to this stage of his career was not particularly smooth. OC revealed that he had a very difficult time convincing producers that he could live roles beyond his debut effort, the AMBO film White Waters.

He said: “The period between 2008 and 2009 were very difficult moments for me because, you win a reality television show but it does not guarantee anything in the industry. You still have to get to a point where people can trust you enough.

“They are not going to just trust you from just a movie appearance. So it was difficult. But when I attended the acting school at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, I told myself that if I went and I came back and nothing changed, I would just conclude that at least I have given the career my best shot. But I came back and network changed and there was a lot more attention.

People wanted to give me opportunities to express myself. I got back in 2010 and from then on things have really improved”.

But did acting for OC start with his participation in the AMBO reality show programme? “No”, he snapped. “

I started way back but it took root for me while I was in school. Although I studied Marine Sciences, I knew before I graduated that I wanted to do this.

I wanted to be in entertainment and I wanted to act. But the issue is how to get your craft out there for people to see and strategy was the most important thing and AMBO was calling for entries at that time and my friends asked me to try it out and I was thinking—a reality television show, in Nigeria? Could they be serious and real? “I also didn’t want to be bound by a contract and all that so I was skeptical about the show.

But there were not too many opportunities and I thought, okay, we might as well just try this. So it was just an attempt to try something out and it came out well. But I have been acting while in school. I was actually doing stage plays from 2001.

I did stage plays for four, five years constantly. I worked with an organization called Rhythm of Black Man.

So I got the opportunity to begin to prepare for screen from way back”. And how has the Ukeje family been supporting his new dream considering that he studied Marine Sciences? “They have been so supportive. It is amazing how much support I am getting from my mother.

My dad is late and so he didn’t have the chance to see all of these but my mum knew I was doing this from school. Grades were good and so she wasn’t complaining. But by the time I finished she asked what I wanted to do and I said entertainment and she just said okay, lets see how it goes.

When I knew she was fully in support was when I was supposed to do a stage play in the United Kingdom while I was in school and I was almost going to defer a semester to go and do that and was afraid to ask my mum but I asked her and she said, ‘if you have gotten this far, I won’t tell you not to do it’. And from that point on, I knew I had her support.

“So every now and again she just calls to know what is happening and when the movies will start rolling in and I am like, it takes time.

But I am glad I have done a couple of works. So mum totally supports me and I thank a great lady like Peace Anyiam Osigwe for also believing in my talent”. OC’s career ambition is to continue to be relevant as an actor and entertainer.

“Honestly, I am seriously looking to do some more work at home and to be involved in some more international partnerships. I am excited about Ayanda. It was a privilege working with the team and there was so much I gained working on that project”.

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