I AM A FUN LOVING GUY---CHIDI MOKEME
Chidi Mokeme's profile rose rapidly in Nollywood. His fame soared as the anchorman of the first two editions of Gulder Ultimate Search. Today, Mokeme has become a household name and has endeared himself to most fans because of his almost seamless delivery. The Anambra State-born lanky actor spoke to us about his career, the Gulder Ultimate Search and why he took a break from acting.
You are one of the actors whose profile rose rapidly in the industry, what's responsible for this?
First and foremost, I just give the glory to God for everything because nothing moves if God doesn't say it should. So no matter the training, education and all of that, if God didn't want me to fly a flag here, I will not. Secondly, I think it's dedication. I came into the industry with a passion and when there was nothing. I had to borrow money from home to go and work, you come back after work and still borrow more money and you tell them you went to work, it didn't make sense to anybody. If you come into something with a passion, I think at the end of the day, as long as you believe in yourself and what you are doing, everything else will just fall into place.
How would you describe your upbringing?
I had a fair and normal upbringing. I guess my upbringing was nothing extra-ordinary. My parents ensured that I went to proper school and had good orientation. I probably didn't have the freedom to be self-indulgent, but I am sure whatever my parents were doing at that time was for my own good. Growing up as a kid, there are loads of things you would like to do - a lot of them irrelevant - but as a kid, you always think that you know it all.
Sometimes it appears your parents are wicked when they try to scold you or prevent you from doing certain things especially when other kids are doing it, you just think your parents are wicked but at the end of the day, you discover this is for your own good. All of the experiences I had growing up have contributed to making me who I am today. My educational pursuit started in Salvation Army Primary School, in Surulere, Lagos, from there I went to Federal Government College, Minna, Niger State and later proceeded to Institute of Management Technology, Enugu, where I read computer science before going into acting as a career.
You studied computer science, how did you get into acting?
I was already doing modeling before I went to study Computer Science. I started modeling as a teenager and I've been involved in shows like Children of Africa Concert in 1980 and Happy Land, Happy World, Disney Project. At an early age, I was already running around with people in front of cameras and the entertainment industry. My parents wanted me to read medicine and at the end I found a balance in between. Thinking that medicine was too much work and I said “why not pharmacy?” So I wanted to read pharmacy but at the end of the day, I had the mighty JAMB to contend with. So, I didn't get to read pharmacy and since computer science is an emerging thing and it is the industry of the future and because of my passion for computers, I had to go for the course. But while I was doing that, I was also doing my modeling in and out of school. I had fashion contract with Dakova. So I guess I have always been around in the industry.
Can you remember a particular incident that led you into full-time acting?
When I came back from Enugu, the modeling and fashion industry was just beginning to blossom. So, I came back and while waiting for something to do I kept myself busy with my hobby - modeling. But I kept it as a secret from my parents. It was unheard of, for you to tell your father that you want to become a model and even sometimes when you go out to do a modeling job, you never say you went to do that. You could say you went to visit a friend. I had an agency called Silver Models, which was run by Alex Usifo, and he was recruiting models for Ripples and the rest of them at a time. But somehow most of us wanted to be part of what was happening. But he always told me to relax and take my time. He was trying to tell me there wasn't really enough to live on. As a teenager he could see that I was fixated on the industry. He wanted us to concentrate more on the modeling than any other thing. So at the end of the day, I never really had chance to appear on those things. But because of that, I have movie friends and I hang out with them most of the times. Then I remember one incident. I had another modeling agent run by Chief and Mrs. Ajufo at that time. I think Chief Ajufo must have had one business with Zeb Ejiro. Mrs. Ajufo later sent me to deliver a message to Zeb Ejiro. After delivering the letter, I went outside to start jisting with my friends but shortly after that he (Zeb) sent someone to call me. He later told me there was a little problem because a member of the cast didn't turn up and if I could fill in for him and I asked if it was immediate and be said yes. That was on the set of Goodbye Tomorrow. It was really a good opportunity for me.
Was that your first movie in the industry?
I can't actually say it was my first movie. The late J. T. Tom West was one of the first people that I met in the industry because he was coming from a modeling background after doing stuff in music with Tina Onwudiwe and the rest of them. He was also doing stuff for Ralph Nwadike who was a producer at that time. I can remember being on location with J T Tom West and Ramsey Noah on Ralph Nwadike's set. I ended up doing one or two roles while hanging around with my friends. They would say “hey, come you just go there and run it down.” So in-between the things that I did for Ralph Nwadike and Goodbye Tomorrow, I cannot really say now that this was my first movie. Even before I started acting I already saw myself as an actor. So I really cannot pin point my first movie, but I think it's between Goodbye Tomorrow and Burden of Vengeance.
How did you feel as a starter?
It was fun and I was happy doing it. I have a huge physique which was very much in place. So I got non-speaking roles, maybe a bodyguard, so you keep appearing but not really saying anything.
Would you say it was a chance meeting with Zeb Ejiro that actually gave you a major break in the industry?
My meeting with Zeb Ejiro was a big part in that.
How long have you been in the industry?
I have been in the industry, commercially since 1995. But if you add my modeling and other stuffs, it will be a long way back.
So, how has acting been so far?
I think if I have the chance, I will do it all over again.
Which would you describe as your most challenging movie?
I think I am still expecting my most challenging movie. Initially, the challenges were there, the fact that you are going to be doing something for the first time, was a challenge to me. But afterwards, you convince yourself of what you want to do and you train and prepare yourself for it. So, I don't think I have really met that challenge so to speak. Having said that, I think every movie has it own peculiarity and challenges because the character that you get to play are different from what you did the last time and an artist is as good as his last job. So, every movie came with its own challenge. As a matter of fact, the movie that readily come to mind is one of my early movies is Igodo. It's an epic movie. I remember when the auditioning and casting were going on, the director and executive producer has taken a special liking to me. They had a running battle amongst themselves that I was more of a gangster act. They didn't believe I could cope and blend in the bush. And they had a problem believing that I can actually be myself. So I think that was a challenge. But at the end of the day, that challenge came and went.
How was it like acting in the bush?
It was different entirely from everything else we had done. I was used to working in and doing everything in Lagos, but on Igodo set I found myself moving from Lagos to other parts of the country. We were shooting along the expressway till we got to Oshogbo, sometimes we just stopped somewhere, parked the cars and began to go into the bush looking for somewhere to shoot. We spent some days in Osogbo and visited Osun-Osogbo and we had to chill with the mama put anywhere on the road. From there we moved to Enugu and Awka in the same movie. So it was really a big experience. It was a good experience despite the fact that the inconvenience and discomfort was there. The whole experience of being an actor on the move was splendid.
You've been in the industry for over 12 years, how would you assess the growth of Nollywood?
There's been tremendous growth in Nollywood and nobody can take that away. Nollywood was built entirely by private investors and individuals who just woke up on their own and said this is what we are going to do. But over the years while Nollywood has grown and is still growing, I think the pace is very slow because a lot of mistakes had already been made by people who were there before. So there was already a long history of dos and don't to look at when we came in. I am seeing us now doing like we are here for the first time and trying to look at areas where we have made mistakes when we ought to have learnt from the mistakes that have already been made and just catch up with what is going on. That is what I think is responsible for the technical and professional mediocrity in the industry. Every Tom, Dick and Harry just want to be an actor, director and producer because they think this is where the money is and that is why the industry is not growing as it should.
So what is the solution?
I think the industry is sorting itself out. We must give the marketers and producers credit for part they played. I think they had a role to play and they played it very well. They took the industry from what it was and brought some glamour and money into it. Now government is beginning to notice what is happening and there are new guidelines. This means there is activity and that things are happening whether for better of worse it is going to be progressive. The marketers have their own grouse with the new government guidelines but I think at the end of the day, there is going to be a round table discussion and they are going to come together and agree on the way forward which can be nothing but progressive.
Are you working on any script at present?
I have a couple of scripts. I just got one yesterday (Monday) that is going to be on next week if I agree to be in it. I have a script that I am looking at from producers in Abuja, with a working title The Harbinger. I have another script that I am looking at from some guys in Dallas. At the moment, I have ten scripts that I am looking at. But then it is not about the quantity of script. Over the last one years, I have seen over 35 script and I have not appeared in any of them.
How do you pick your roles?
First, it used to be about content. Like I said coming from a background, it wasn't money first because we have learnt to work without money. But now when you have a foot-hold of your own in the industry, you have the liberty to say this story must carry some contents and must be society relevant. I always tell people, if I run into a really tight script, it will be difficult for money to be an issue. No matter what I say money wise, I am not going to allow the script go. So it will be up to you to bargain well. If you want to bargain N10 and you know what you are doing, you will get me for that amount. All you have to do is to see the kind of interest I have in the story. But most of them, never notice this fact. Secondly, there's been loads of sub standard production and added to that is the fact that money isn't worth taking home anymore. So rather than wait to be banned I think I have banned myself to sit back to watch.
You've not really featured in movies recently what's happening?
I have been on break for over one and half years. Some people come to say haven't they unbanned you and I tell them I wasn't banned and that I am just by myself.
What informed your decision to go on break?
I decided to go on break because I want to sit down and appraise happenings in the industry and where I want my career to go. The break has opened me up to a whole world of opportunity. You really cannot implement change if you don't have the resources to do that. There are a lot of professionals in the industry who doesn't have the resources to make things happen. The people who have the resources to put things in place do not see the vision you see. So my break in the last one and half years has enabled me to dabble into other things that I am interested in and from where I think I can pull a lot of resources and funds to come and implement the change that I see in Nollywood
You anchored Ultimate Search for two consecutive years. How would you describe the show?
It's been fantastic. It was a different level entirely. Ultimate Search was an opportunity to be in a virgin terrain. It was virgin terrain for all of us because it was the first time anybody was attempting a reality show. So it was a learning experience for everyone and we all went in hoping to come out strong. That led to the success of the show because there was no slacking so to speak. Everybody has to be on their toe to deliver from their end. It was a project that I love so much and it offered me an opportunity to bring out the energy in me and that was what happened.
Now, a lot of people believe that something went wrong that led to somebody else anchoring the last edition. What actually happened?
I had a performance contract but it wasn't a contract for a period of time and at that time being the first of its kind, I don't think the organizers and producers of the show were looking beyond the first show. Everybody wants to make a success of the first show. So our contract was for the first show. Having done that and the show came out the way it did and was a blast we said okay lets do another show. They came back and had another contract to do the second edition which was also a huge success. For the third edition, maybe they were comfortable with the show or they were trying to explore new ideas or avenue. But whatever it is, it wasn't discussed with me and of course they deserve the right to do whatever they desire for the show. Having said that, by the third show I was preparing and willing to anchor the show but it turned out that at the end of day, they had another anchor in mind. My only disappointment was that I was looking forward to the show. I wasn't disappointed that I didn't handle the show because it's not mine. In the first place there were loads of other people who wanted the job before I eventually got it. My disappointment was that I started preparing in January for a show that will be coming up at the end of year but what you get to hear is that you are not doing the show this year. But I did not begrudge them for not letting me do the show
I won't say there was any regret and I wish I didn't have to say this, that the third edition didn't make as much impact as the others. When I heard that the show was going to someone else I was curious to know who the new presenter would be. The first time I saw Sam Dede and I said if they gave it to him, I respect him a lot but only to find out later it wasn't him. I didn't really judge him because it was his first time just as it was mine two years before him. Since it was his first time, I understand if he was still having problem settling down and others.
What is your guiding principle in life?
Everyday, I run into something new. You know we have so many wise men but one thing I try to do in my life is that is to do all the good I can to anyone in any place that I can and in anyway I can, everyday I can.
How would you describe yourself on and off set?
On set, I am very passionate. Off set I am a fun loving guy. I have my hands on so many pies. I am trying to do security, fashion, entertainment and event planning.
How would you describe your person?
I am a working bag of surprise because a lot of times before people meet me there are loads of perception in their minds I make sure that anytime you come in contact with me for the first time, my first surprise is you begin to doubt yourself and all of those perception and things you thought you knew about me. So I make a conscious effort that anytime you meet me I try to redirect your perception and make sure you are thinking along my line.
Who are your role models in the industry?
I like to go back to the beginning- I respect everybody who has put in sweat and blood into making sure we have such thing like movie industry. Secondly, I love method actors like Nicholas Cage and others who put everything into the character. Coming back home, I have always liked Pete Edochie from the days of Things Fall Apart. I love Olu Jacobs because of his pedigree and he has seen movie shot the way it should. I love the Ogundes because if we are still having difficulty in shooting on celluloid and the Ogundes were already doing film on celluloid way back, I think I have to doff my hat. I like Richard Mofe-Damijo.
How do you cope with your fans?
A celebrity is someone who spend the first part of his life trying to get recognised and the second part trying to hide from recognition. So one of the things you loose immediately as a celebrity is your privacy and you can't just do anything all by yourself anymore. But it's not entirely for bad because at the end of the day a lot of the success you have as an artiste depends on the people out there. So you really cannot separate yourself from your fans.
How do you relax?
I like to watch movies. I have secretly loved the idea of having the biggest DVD collection in Africa. I love to go on the internet. I play snooker and hang out with my friends
What turns you on and off?
I like people being plain and straight. I have a problem with people who have pre-conceived perception before they meet me and that is a burden I have to carry. Aside that I like people who love to have fun and people with free spirit.
How old are you?
My birthday was a few days ago. I was born on March 17th, 1972.
Are you married?
No, I am not.
How soon do you hope to get married?
Where do you hope to be in the next five years?
I have loads of ideas that I am working on right now. I am always trying to re-brand and re-invent myself because I am in a peculiar industry and you really cannot make that kind of projections. So as an entertainer, your now is your now. Tomorrow they might introduce a new tape that is different from VHS so all my plans to have a VHS manufacturing company would be gone. Having said that, in five years from now, I want to be CEO of 10 operation companies.