Wale Ojo: ‘The CEO’ and Nollywood’s new leading man
Hardly would the filmmaker Kunle Afolayan cast a leading actor or actress twice in any of his movies. But he had to bend the rule when it was time to helm his latest offering ‘The CEO’ which opened in cinemas across the country yesterday. Afolayan searched and searched for an actor who will fit snuggly into the role of Kolapo, one of the lead characters in his engaging film ‘The CEO’ and one name continuously popped up- the notable actor, writer, singer and culture producer Wale Ojo, whom he had featured as a leading actor in his third feature film ‘Phone Swap’.
“Only Wale Ojo could fit, so I bent the rule and had to engage him to play lead the second time’’ Afolayan said at a press conference to herald the movie. And indeed Wale Ojo, a self confessed lover of Shakespeare showed stuff in the movie and proved that he is a good centre to hang a story on. A stage and screen actor of vast credit and founder of the New Nigeria Cinema whose aim is to improve the quality of Nigerian films, Wale who started out as a child actor on stage and television in Nigeria turned professional in the United Kingdom at the age of 21 and since then the dashing actor has not looked back. He has been grabbing all the lead roles there is to grab on stage and screen. He spoke about his career and life…
You were doing well in the UK as an entertainer but you returned to Nigeria to work. What was the motivation?
Well I think the motivation came via a series I did while in London called ‘Meet the Adebajo’s’ and before then I used to go to an area in London called Peckam a lot to buy Eba and sometimes chat with one or two market people there. But after I did the first season of the series, I went to Peckam and I couldn’t walk down the street—people were just hailing me by my screen name.
I was overwhelmed by the love. So I said to myself, if I get this much love from my people in Peckam, what would I get if I go to Lagos. So I started thinking and I packed my bag one day and I came to Lagos and I met up with people like Kunle Afolayan and then I did ‘Phone Swap’, followed it with ‘Tinsel’ and took part in a couple of others including ‘Head Gone’ and its been great because everywhere I go in the country, people recognize and show me love and I am very happy and grateful.
But were you not worried that you were returning to an industry that is often derided for the poor quality of some of its offerings?
No I was not. But you see, I shot a film in called ‘Philanthropist’ in South Africa for the NBC studios –it’s a Hollywood studio. I played a Niger Delta Militant. I was speaking to one of the producers on a day and the guy said to me that Nigeria got some of the best actors in the world and he named some black actors who were doing well in Hollywood and abroad and I was happy he included me on that list.
However, the fellow expressed worries about our movies especially in terms of the quality. And that struck me. I mean here was a guy who just commended our acting but feels our movies have issues. For me it was like a challenge for all of us making waves abroad to go back and contribute our quota in lifting the quality of our works. So I made up my mind to start a movement, which I was thinking about for a while but concretized after my conversation with the fellow.
I started a movement called New Nigeria Cinema—that’s the name of my production company and when I came back I started writing and started working more as an actor because I believe that at the end of the day, you have to be true to where you are coming from in terms of training and experience. You also have to be true to your heritage. And ever since I was a child, I found Nigerian stories inspiring more than anything else.
How did acting begin for you?
Well my training as an actor began with the NTA Ibadan at the age of 8, then I went abroad and then now I am home. I just had to come back home. It was almost like a divine calling for me to come back home. I started with television as a child. I worked with people like Akin Lewis. Did a series titled ‘Why worry the Barber’ on NTA Ibadan for a few years. I used to enjoy the fact that whenever I go out people recognized me. Then I moved to England at the age of 12. I went to university there and became professional in England at the age of 21. My first play was Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. I am a huge fan of Shakespeare. I have also become seasoned in Shakespeare plays. I took part in so many stage plays in London and I have performed in some of the big professional theatres in England—the National Theatre, Royal Exchange and so on. . So I was, if you like, very seasoned in theatre before I moved to cinema.
So for you, it was acting and nothing else from childhood?
Yes it was. It was acting for me and nothing else. I believe that I started acting from my mother’s womb. So when I came into the world, I said ‘yeah’, now I can act more on stage and screen and not in the womb anymore. My cousin sent me a photo of me when I was 9 recently and I saw that I was dressed in Fela Anikulapo’s trousers with sunglasses.
I have even forgotten that I took a picture like that. So I started out very early and people like my mum who was an actress with the Ibadan players inspired me. I grew up also watching plays in the university theatre in Ibadan. I was brought up by people like the late Chief Wale Ogunyemi, Uncle Tunji Oyelana, Professor Wole Soyinka and of course the late and great dramatist Zulu Sofola. So I grew up in that environment. It was inevitable then that I will venture in that direction.
How has the journey been for you?
It has been a great journey. I cannot complain. The positive advantages of being an actor, producer and director in Nigeria are far greater than what you will have in the west. I am happy and for me there is a lot of gain being an entertainer. I realize the joy I see in people’s eye when they walk up to me and they want to take photographs or want to touch me. For me it is very fulfilling to see how people are affected by what we do on screen. It is a beautiful thing and I pray that I keep on doing it.
In terms of the pay, I would say that it pays but it can pay more. At the moment I cant complain. I enjoy what I am doing. I tell younger people who walk up to me for advice to keep doing what they do. It is very easy to give up. And life itself is designed to make you want to give up. There will always be obstacles. But if you gain joy from what you do, then that will be the fuel that you need to keep going and it will take you through all that obstacles. I almost wanted to give up as a struggling actor in London but I kept on, set up a band, stuck to my guns and we are where we are today
Tell is about your experience on the set of The CEO?
It was a wonderful experience working with Kunle Afolayan again and the impressive cast and crew he pulled. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even think I was going to be in ‘The CEO’ because Kunle told me that he doesn’t cast actors twice in his films so that he can discover more talents and when he called me for ‘The CEO’, I asked if he was sure and he said yes. But it was a great experience working on that set. We had a real good time. It was hard work but it was great.
What is your career ambition?
Well it is to keep working as an actor and entertainer and to also keep making my own films. I want to make films not just for my own satisfaction but also for the satisfaction of the entire nation, the continent and the world. For me the best ambition is for there to be a street in Africa that I cannot walk on because if I do I will be mobbed. I want to just keep working. I have just produced my own short film called ‘Ghost town of Takwa Bay’. It is about selfie. My next movie is ‘Kalakuta Express’ which is my own homage to the great Fela. It’s a feature film. I call it a felasophical film.