Not the girl next door
When Nse Ikpe-Etim played Omoze, fiery wife to a philandering husband (the usual suspect, Ramsey Tokunbo Noah) in the 2008 Emem Isong hit, 'Reloaded', little did she know that the character would fetch her instant fame. She immediately struck a chord with viewers, especially the female folk, who responded with empathy.
Not only is 'Reloaded' her most talked about movie to date, it earned her a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) a year later (Funke Akindele won the award, for 'Jenifa'). After a 13-year hiatus from the scene, the leggy actress bounced back with a sterling performance which, in her own words, surpassed her expectations. “I had an opportunity to see the script before anyone else, so I knew about the story line,” she says of 'Reloaded'. “It was not the role I wanted, but when I was given [it], I only prayed that the director (Isong) will not have my head because I knew I was really rusty. I had not done anything in a while, but I guess I delivered. Then I did 'Guilty Pleasures'.”
The ambience of the Swe Bar & Lounge on Lagos Island, where this impromptu interview holds, is serene, with only pockets of people in some corners, yet the Akwa-Ibom born actress does not go around unnoticed. As soon as she steps in a few fans recognise her and then a male fan walks up to her, hugs her, and says, “Oh, you are so beautiful!” Embarrassed, she mutters “thank you.” At first glance, she does not come across as an 'in your face' actress, yet a conversation with her is a roller-coaster ride, as her assertive nature and storytelling prowess kick in.
As the first child in a close-knit family of 6 children, the actress was at an early age entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her younger ones. “I learnt to read at an early age because my daddy would not let me read what girls my age were reading, so I grew up really early. I started reading Sidney Sheldon when I was about 11 or so. I had one doll; I also had a dog and a canary. I grew up reading books much more than I watched TV.”
As a child, she knew she would end up in the arts but her banker-father, like many Nigerian parents, would not hear anything of that because he wanted her in the sciences. Ikpe-Etim was a step closer to reading her dream course – Theatre Arts – after her father's death, but she still had one more hurdle to cross: her mum, a teacher.
“My mum filled my Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) form for Law but I tore it up, went to my dad's friend, and begged him for money (told him I didn't have money to buy JAMB form). I bought the JAMB form, and then I filled in Theatre Arts (laughs). Mum found out a year later; I was already studying Theatre Arts at the University of Calabar (UNICAL). There was nothing she could do, but she has been supportive.”
Nse enters Nollywood
As one of the few actresses who starred in the early Nollywood flicks, Ikpe-Etim's foray into movies began in 1995 upon graduation from the university, when she appeared in 'Venom of Justice' as an extra. She was then cast in 'The Scars of Womanhood' – as an extra, but as a friend to the lead actress, Kate Henshaw. Ikpe-Etim later featured in other movies, including 'Rampage' and 'Inheritance', before she left the scene in search of bigger challenges.
As a self-confessed perfectionist, the actress has spent her life searching for greener pastures in various disciplines. She tried her hands out at banking but left because, “It was a bit too much and stifling for me, and I couldn't handle it. I was in banking for three and half years; in two banks.” A love for fashion then led her into the fashion industry “as a back end.” “I sewed lots of things, clothed men for a while, and worked for an establishment as their brand and marketing director, and then I left.” With a childhood love for cooking, Ikpe-Etim turned her culinary expertise into an income generating business, launching a catering outfit in Abuja.
Now back in the Nollywood fold, she's convinced this is where she belongs. “I came back to the industry two years ago because I think I had tried everything and found out that my heart and soul lay here in Nollywood. After 'Reloaded,' I discovered that I should come back to Nollywood. I was literally forced to do the role by Emem Isong, so I did it. She was like 'you want me to call someone else from Lagos when you are here in Abuja? (the movie was shot in the Federal Capital Territory). It's up your street...' So I did it.”
During her active years, Eucharia Anunobi was dubbed Nigeria's Sharon Stone on account of her steamy roles. These days, she seems to have found a match in Nse Ikpe-Etim who fills such roles convincingly. Laughing, she recalls her infamous swimming pool and parlour romance scenes with Ghanaian actor, Majid Michael, in 'Guilty Pleasures.'
“I believe that as an actor one must realise that you need to get into characterization properly. I decided that I have to steal from different styles of acting, so I stole a bit of Stanislavski and so I just go into it with situations and emotions within me, and bring them out and I used them for my scenes. It only gets difficult to interprete if you put them into your mind and say: “my society”. So, as an actor, I have to give my best.”
Nse seems to be living out her childhood love for acting these days, with a high regard for Italian movie legend, Sophia Loren (the first actress to win an Academy Award for a non-English-speaking performance). She would stop at nothing to reach the zenith of her career. For budding actresses who wish to play her in real life, she has some tips: “You would have to live with me because I am not the girl next door. Sometimes, I am called a ladette.”
Not every script tickles her fancy, and she says she wouldn't jeopardise her good name and professionalism for anything in the world. “I don't feature in just any movie. I look at the construction of the script, I liaise with the director on how he wants the story to be interpreted, and then if I am in tune with the story, I give it a shot.”
The stage will always be the first love for Nse Ikpe-Etim, born under the horoscope sign of Libra. “There is no feeling like the stage because you feel like a demigod, and you so can't afford to make a mistake. If you do make a mistake, better make it look as though you are acting. In a film, you can just swing it because the director can say: cut.”
The actress says she has learnt from the school of life which, according to her, is the best place to gain knowledge. As this interview comes to a close she shares with me the greatest thing she has learnt as an actress. “I have learnt to accept my mistakes, accept me for me, live with my mistakes, and just move on with the times.”