I dare not mess up; my husband is an army officer—Nollywood actress Keji Yusuf
Popularly called Aunty Keji by her fans, friends and colleagues, crossover actress Keji Yusuf has spanned over two decades in the Nigeria movie industry and still in high demand. As wife of a retired Colonel, cutting her acting tooth under the tutelage of veteran actor Lai Ashadele is the best thing to happen to her. In this interview with MERCY MICHAEL, Aunty Keji speaks passionately about Nollywood marriages, her staying power among other things:
YOU are still relevant after over two decades. How does it make you feel knowing that some of your contemporaries are no longer in the game?
It's just the grace of God, nothing else but the grace of God.
Tell us about your foray into the industry?
It's been over twenty years ago I started acting. I started with the English genre. I was mentored by Uncle Lai Ashadele. Then, we used to do TV series on NTA2 Channel 5. The series were mostly centered on Child abuse. We tried to educate parents on the menace of child abuse. But as time went by I thought of going to be part of the Yoruba genre. It was at that point that I joined Odunfa Caucus. That was where I met Yinka Quadri.
In recent times, you've been featuring in a lot of English soaps, any particular reason for this?
Not at all, I'm an actress and I can interpret my role in both English and Yoruba language. Most of our counterpart in the English side of Nollywood, most of them think we don't understand English and that's why we stick to just Yoruba movies but that is so not true. And that why some of us participate in English soaps to prove to them that we understand English, yes we do. I can't stop acting Yoruba movies. I'll keep doing both of them.
I watched you in a soap recently you were so hard on your daughter because she was ripe for marriage but wouldn't settle down. But tell us are you a tough person in real life?
The soap you are talking about is called Tendencies. Well, there is no parent who will be happy in such situation. No parents will be happy to see his son or daughter of marriageable age stilling living with them. Any parent will want his or her grown up daughter or son get married, succeed in life and give them grandchildren. And that's why I was hard on her especially because I saw she too lackadaisical about the issue just because she's comfortable and that was why was very hard on her. And I'm sorry, in life I will act just in like matter because one has to face reality.
What role are you playing in this movie?
In this particular movie I played the role of the governor's wife the mother of Yomi Fabiyi, the Governor's son. Jide Kosoko played the Governor.
You play the role of a rich woman most of the time. Why?
(Laughs) won ti ri mi, won ti ri irawo mi (they've seen my glory that royalty is what I deserve) But that is not to say I've not act a wretch sometime. In those days when we started acting we used to go to thick remote areas, wear tattered Ankara; I still have some of those pictures at home. If you see them you will be shocked that I have acted those kinds of roles before. I have played many of such roles. In those days there was no money in acting, nothing but we kept doing it for the passion.
You've spent over two decades in this industry. What is your take on Nollywood?
Hmmm, well we are learning everyday and our prayers is that God should crown our efforts with glory so that we can get to the Promise Land because we are not there yet. However, there is being lot of improvement. So many as a matter of fact but we can only beg God for more wisdom to take us to the Promise Land, where will do just one movie or two movie and will be able to afford the good things of life. When you are well paid, you can buy a car, change your car and do other things. I pray that God will take us there and I know He will.
Acting we know wasn't an attractive profession two decades ago. How did you over that challenge?
I was already married before acting started for me. I was in my husband's house when I started acting. My husband was a military man. But he is someone that anything that will make me happy, he will just let go. When I started doing the English soap, he saw it was educative and so he encouraged me a lot. And secondly, some twenty years back I didn't have a baby.
My last daughter now is twenty seven, so I didn't have a baby and that also gave me a free hand. There wasn't a case of oh who will look after my baby for me; no, there was nothing like that. That is why it seems as if the acting professional is not ideal for young girls or newlyweds. If you've noticed, for many girls who find themselves in the acting professional, it's either they marry late or if they are married, the marriage ends up not working out and when it's working, there is challenges of meeting up with location time.
Well, there is nothing that can be done because there is no way we can have an industry without young girls and young men. But I pray God to help them keep their home front. One has to be very patient doing this job if she's married. If one is not patient, it doesn't take long for a marriage to crash. You must always apply wisdom in every of your steps because there will always be people to feed your husband with lies. And if your husband is the listening type, he will be quick to react. And when he reacts and you do not have the wisdom to deal with it, it's either you lose your home or you lose the job. It is requires a lot of wisdom.
Why do you think we have a lot of marriage crash in the industry?
Acting as a profession is not a problem. People think it is the job that is corrupting our ladies but, no rather some of them are the ones who allow the job to corrupt them. And they are not patient enough. A man can be as small as a midget, he's still a man. And he will demand his respect. And once you're not ready to give him he will snap back at you.
So you must be extremely patient to be in the theatre world and at the same time be married or have a husband. Patient is of great importance. And they must take this into cognizant or else homes will continue to break but God forbid. There is no time they will not settle down. If you have a child and you leave your husband, you have another one, you leave, where are you going to? If you think you are young now and you don't care, in your old age, you need a man. I'm telling you from experience, my husband is a retired colonel.
When he wakes up in the morning to go to his office, after his retirement he went into private practice, when he wakes in the morning to go to his office, he wakes me up and says, “My dear come let's take tea together”. He would have brought out cucumber, slice bread, butter and everything. While I'm spreading butter over the bread, he is cutting the cucumber. That is the truth. It's very interesting.
So marriage can be that interesting?
Yes, it can be that interesting. Marriage can be interesting but it takes a lot of patience to get to that stage. This is my first son standing beside you, so where am I going? All I look forward to now is for him to settle down and give me grand children. But if I wasn't patient I wouldn't be able to tell this story.
You quarrel today, you leave, you quarrel tomorrow the husband leaves, the child will be the one to suffer it but if you are patient, at the end it is joyful. But you need to be patient with your husband, afterall; you met each other and loved each other that's was why you came together.
There are situations where a man will ask his actress wife to quit her job. If she leaves in that situation do you blame her?
Some men do that and it is not go because it was in the cause of doing her job that you met her. It was in her acting professional that you saw and admired her and that was why you married her. Truth is, if acting is your passion it gives you happiness. So why would any man ask his actress wife to quit her job? That is bad. In fact it is wicked. But if at any point, you find yourself in that situation; it is your home first before your career. There is a way to handle such situation.
Talk to him nicely and he will relax. He will give you conditions though, you just abide by it. Later he will relax especially if he sees you are behaving well. You have to make sure you keep him abreast of what is going on as regards your job. And if he sees you are behaving well and if he doesn't hear any dirty rumour about you, he will relax with time and give you the free hand.
Talking about dirty rumour, it's not only the younger actresses that have been fingered to mess up even elderly ones we hear do too…
Well, sometime too it's true but sometime too it's not true. But I don't fall in that league. I have never had any sure scandal because I know whom am married to, Ologun ko gbo come, go lo gbo (Soldier no dey here come, na go dem understand). So if you go and misbehave and he finds out it is problem for you. I dare not.
Most Yoruba thespians are also producers. Are you one too?
Yes, I once produced a movie but it's an ugly story. I wouldn't want to delve into it for now. Maybe in future if things improve in the industry more than it presently, I may go into production again. But for now, no, the one I did was a sad and dirty story. Or why would one produce a film of N3m, going to location, editing, dubbed myself with almost about a million.
I dubbed 10,000 copies but after that what came out of it? What came out of it after I gave it to a marketer to help me sell? I'm proud of my work. My work was the first that I saw that from the beginning to the end it was star-studded. I have a copy; I can give it to you to see. It was star-studded. It was not by my doing but I have paid my dues in the industry. That is not to say I didn't pay the cast well but they rallied around me and supported me. There was no scene in that movie that was done by a none star. But in the process of dubbing, printing jacket and everything, you know that's over 3m but I only made N500,000. So what are we talking about? I'm sure you don't expect me to do another one?
But how have you managed to remain relevant all these years?
It is only by the grace of God. It's not by my making at all. After all, there was a time that for almost a year I didn't do any movie. I wasn't called for almost one year. They didn't even see me but I thank God, those periods I wasn't called upon was when I travelled to the UK. That year I went to the UK twice.
I was there in July and also in September. And it wasn't on the premise of my career. It was God design. While I thought it was a hard time for me career wise, God surprised me in my personal life. I went to visit my daughter; I went to assist her look after her baby. My last daughter had a baby in London and I was there to take care of them. It is by the grace of God.
What's been your most challenging movie?
I cannot mention a particular one. Basically, interpreting my scripts has never being a challenge really even with the English movies; it's not being a challenge. In Needle Eye, my script was this bulky. Times six of it is what we use in Yoruba movies and its not a challenge at all. For me once you say action, I'm giving it to you off the script (laughs).
But what is like to be trained under Uncle Lai Ashadele?
Haa it's very interesting. It's been a long time I last saw him but I loved to see him again. Working with Uncle Lai Ashadele, it's a lot of fun; you wouldn't even know you are working. He plays with us and you won't even feel that you are working. You will think you are in your house anyways we usually used his house as set. He usually throws his door open to us. We even go as far as cooking. Uncle Lai Ashadele is a wonderful person. I really loved working with him. I'm glad he was my mentor.
What are some of things being a celebrity has deprived you?
Sometime you stumble on an Amala joint, where corporate people go do and queue up to eat but as a known figure, it is impossible for you to walk in there and eat like every other person that's one of the pains of being a celebrity. The best you can is to ask someone to go and buy for you in a plate but for you to eat it the way it is being serve there you can't. But no matter how you want to look at it the gain is more than the pain. Stardom opens doors if you know your way.
Would you say you are fulfilled?
Yes, acting for me is fulfilling.