I won a beauty contest and drew my father’s anger-----Lilian Amah Aluko
Lilian Amah Aluko, is an actress, writer, former banker, and the Vice President of the Association of Movie Producers of Nigeria. She has appeared in a number of films and TV drama series. She tells ADEOLA BALOGUN why she quit her job in the bank to pursue a career in film production and acting.
What is your film, Jungle Ride, all about?
The theme of the film is unemployment.
The life of an unemployed person is like a ride through the jungle. We have a lot of young and well educated people coming out of school and they don't have jobs. So, the film is all about survival of the fittest in the jungle, which is the labour market. Our main targets are young graduates and undergraduates–those who will go into the labour market soon. What we are telling them is that everybody has a talent and something that they enjoy doing; so they should look inward and use their talents or what they enjoy doing to their advantage. That way, they can even create employment for others instead of looking for jobs.
Why did the film take as long as five years to be produced?
I saw the script five years ago and I fell in love with it. I was still a full time banker at the time. It was different from the average Nigerian story. It was well written and the dialogue was okay. So I said I would like to do the movie. Then, I didn't have the kind of money needed to shoot a movie of that magnitude. But when I became a full time film producer, I remembered the script and I got in touch with Ajua Dickson who brought it to me and we started working on it.
You are an actress, banker, writer, and movie producer. Which one of them came first?
Acting has always been in my heart. I used to do that in school. Not professionally, of course. I started my banking career in 1992 and my first movie, Out of Bounds, was released in 1996. So, banking came before acting.
How long did you work in the bank?
I started working in the bank in 1992 and I left in September, 2005. I worked in two banks, then in a courier company, and then came back into banking. On the whole, I may have spent up to 10 years working as a banker.
Why did you quit a job that other people would have given a limb to keep? Was it for want of job satisfaction?
Everybody has a dream. I was not cut out for that kind of formal job, but I took it because I wanted to satisfy my parents. They spent a lot of money on my education, up to master's degree level, and they didn't see why I had to abandon the job for acting. They couldn't understand it and I had to do what I did to please them. But at a point in my life, I decided I had had enough of living out other people's dream. Why don't I live out my own dream? By then, my parents had started realising that I actually had the talent for what I wanted to do. I shot Out of Bounds, they saw the movie and loved it. When I said I was going to leave banking and go fully into movie production, they were a bit sceptical. Even my husband wondered how I would cope. At that point, what my parents said to me was, ”Well if it makes you happy and your husband agrees, fine.” Luckily, my husband agreed and I quit banking, to the surprise of my colleagues. Well, they were not really shocked, because I had been acting all along. But I think they were surprised that I threw in the towel totally.
Maybe you left because you didn't enjoy the job.
The experience was interesting. I had very good bosses. At my last place of work, which was Fidelity Bank, we were like a family. My bosses were very understanding. They knew that acting was my passion and they would tease me about it. Whenever I came to work on Monday, after appearing in Doctor's Quarters the previous day, they would narrate what they saw on Sunday on MNET. For me, that was interesting. So, when I said that I wanted to leave, they didn't like it.
What about writing? Is it what you do in your private moment?
Writing is something I enjoy. Right now, I am writing my second book. In fact, I have almost finished it. I read a lot. It is impossible to see me without a novel or some other books. I write a lot, too, and I write anywhere.
How is your first book, Echoes of Heartbeat, doing commercially?
Well, I won't say it is doing badly. It was published in England and we have almost exhausted what we brought in. I actually wanted to publish it in Nigeria, but Macmillan accepted the manuscript and held it for more than four years. When all efforts to have it published were frustrated, I took the manuscript to the UK where it was published.
Why did the publishers hold on to it for that long?
They said that they had a backlog. Maybe they preferred to publish school books, which is more lucrative for them. Also, I think that they were not eager to do that because it was not written by Wole Soyinka, or my father-in-law, T.M.Aluko, or Chinua Achebe. Again, I prefer to publish abroad because of quality. I am not saying that the publishers here are not good enough, but they don't pay attention to detail. My father-in-law's last book, Our Born Again President, which was published by a reputable publishing house, was replete with unpardonable grammatical errors and you wonder whether any editor worked on it. I hope to publish abroad again, because of quality.
Were you inspired by your father-in-law to write books ?
No. Before I ever met my father in law, I had started writing. In fact, I finished writing this book when I was doing my youth service. But then, my father-in-law is an inspiration any day.
What is your take on how actresses dress?
People express themselves through dressing. I was brought up by parents who believe that there is right and wrong. If I dressed up and I came out and my mother said, ”What do you think you are wearing?” I didn't need to be told twice that I had to go inside and put on something else. There are certain things I don't want to be seen doing because my parents value their names so much and I don't want to drag them in the mud. Also, I am married into a very responsible and respectable family. I would not want the Alukos to be ashamed of what I am doing with their name. So, all these put together make me to be very careful in everything I do. When I dress up, I want to be beautiful and I want to be admired. But at the same time, I don't want to give the wrong impression. When I see the way some people appear, as a woman, I feel embarrassed and I would want to shut my eyes. I don't want people to feel that way when they see me. For me, that determines how I dress.
You seem to be quite attached to your parents and committed to your marriage at the same time. Why did you choose to marry, as a beautiful actress?
There is a misconception. People think that actresses are any how people. They are not. Acting is a career just like any other. It is just that they are in the public eye. That is why everything they do is magnified, at times out of proportion. I have met actresses who are refined and who come from good homes. It is all a question of background: who you are, your values, and where you come from. Even if I become the greatest actress from Hollywood tomorrow, I can't lose my values. I came into acting as an adult. It would be very stupid of me to throw away everything I have learnt and to start messing around simply because I am an actress.
Are you talking this way because you didn't start acting as a spinster?
I was a spinster when I started acting. You see, the point I am making is about moral values. Your parents instilled good morals in you and you imbibed them. And if you don't get carried away by fame, you would not misbehave. Fame is very transient and if people realise that, they would not change who they are. I believe that if you are well grounded in values, no matter the fame that comes afterwards, you will be able to manage it.
Did you get married to somebody in the movie industry?
Well, my husband is artistic in the sense that he is a painter, musician and writer. But by training, he is an engineer.
So, what was the attraction?
The main attraction was the theatre and his love for reading. My husband is a voracious reader. He packs books all over the place and he reads all of them.
Why did you marry a Yoruba man? Did you grow up in Lagos?
I was born in Lagos, but I grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone and came back to Lagos. I went to Warri for my secondary education and finally returned to Lagos for my university education. I never grew up in the eastern states. Although my parents are Igbo, they are very liberal when it comes to relationships. Fortunately, my in-laws are liberal too. Some of them are married to foreigners.
With your looks, I am sure that as a banker, you had a stream of suitors and admirers. How did you cope with them?
Before I do anything, I always ask myself, 'What will mummy or daddy say?' I worry very much about my parents' opinion. For me, they are the most important people on earth after God. So, I don't want a day to come when they will be disappointed in me. My father was a naval officer while my mother was a teacher, and you can see how it is to be their daughter. They were very disciplined and hardly condoned nonsense.
Didn't you play pranks when you were much younger?
Every child plays pranks. But my mother was very quick with the whip and I got whipped quite a lot. When I was supposed to be indoors cooking, I would be reading. I know how many times I burnt food. My mother taught us how to cook, though we had house-helps. We were not allowed to go out at all. If you went out to play, the rule was that by six o' clock, you should be in the house or you would be in serious trouble. When I was in secondary school, my mates would go for a party, but I dared not go with them. Even as an undergraduate here in Lagos, I never attended parties. Not even when my parents were living in Warri. It has become a part of me. The only time I remember going out for a party was when I was in my final year and I won the Miss Amina Hall Beauty contest, and my friends threw a party in my honour in a night club near the university campus.
Why did a 'puritan' like you participate in a beauty contest?
It was not my intention, honestly. On the day of the contest, a friend persuaded me to participate. In fact, she went to obtain the form, took me to a beauty shop, to a fashion designer, and got me made up. To be honest with you, I didn't think about the implication until it was late. When we were going for the event, I suddenly realised what I had done. I asked myself how I would explain to my parents. I had to run to my boyfriend and I explained to him. I begged him not to be annoyed. But he was not happy at all. When I won, I felt that I was in trouble. Eventually, I explained to my parents, but my father did not like it and I was never tempted to do it again.
Was that the boyfriend that you later got married to?
No, he is late now.
Sorry about that. But is his death linked to the title of your book, Echoes of a Heartbeat?
I will not answer that question.