I WASH MY WOMAN’S PANTS, SO WHAT? --- ERNEST OBI
As an Igbo, how come you speak Yoruba so fluently that you even feature in Yoruba movies?
I grew up in Lagos. I have lived in Lagos all my life. I went to school in Lagos and Ile-Ife. I speak Igbo, Yoruba and a bit of Hausa.
In recent times, you have not been featuring in movies. You seem to have veered into production…
Yes, I direct, produce and write.
Why? You have moved up or what?
Well, people ask me why I don't feature in movies again. I majored in directing when I was in school, but I started off as an actor. After a while, there were no kicks anymore. The storylines were not challenging anymore; it was the same run of the mill. It became boring. I told myself about eight years ago, 'Why don't you go back to directing?' I started under-studying some people.
Is it not stereotyped directing the same kind of stories?
No, it is so beautiful. Maybe a man on drugs will understand what I am saying better. You have this great surge when you are directing. Again, you have an advantage when you are also an actor who had carved a niche for yourself. The actor you are directing knows that whatever you are asking him to do, you can do.
But do you feel comfortable remaining behind the scene? Do you think you have had enough publicity?
I think I have had my own share of publicity. It is not all about being in the limelight, it is about doing what you love doing. And I think I have gone beyond acting, I want to impact what I have gained on young actors and actresses. I think I have made a mark publicity-wise.
When I go out with new actors, people still remember me.
In other climes, some people would love to remain actors for life. But here in Nigeria, most of you dump acting for directing and producing. Is it because of the big bucks?
No. Actually, in all sincerity, there is no money in directing. There is more money in acting than in directing. But the truth about it is that in Nollywood, people say 'Ah, how can you act and be a director?' I will give you a good example. Klint Eastwood: he is a producer, a writer, a scriptwriter and a director, because he can handle it. Mel Glibbson, I love him, a great hand. He directed, played the lead and contributed to the script. So, it is not out of frustration or because the jobs were not coming. I think I was probably one of the few highest paid actors when I was active in acting. I was one of the few people who crossed that boundary of N300,000 then. A lot of people are still getting below that now.
What makes a good scriptwriter?
He is someone who is able to visualise what to write before settling down to write at all, and to give each character distinctive traits that make them separate from one another. That is why you see in some movies, everybody is talking alike. If you can separate yourself from the person you are writing about, and this same thing is applicable to every other character, then you have depth. Most scripts I work on as a director, I have to rewrite because they lack depth. Maybe that is why I am not on location every week, because I have to rework some scripts before shooting. That is why some people think I am not serious.
In recent times, which movies have you directed?
Desperate Woman, with Clarion Chukwura and Muma Gee. It is the same ritual thing, but maybe you should see it.
It is different from the normal male-male thing. In it, we have women who are doing it.
Which particular movie shot you up as an actor?
It varies with individuals. Some will tell you it is the one in which I washed the pants. A lot of people still tell me about it and it is embarrassing. It is in Glamour Girls. I had the option of washing either plates or pants and I chose pants because I thought it was more dramatic, and people thought I was crazy. But before then, I had done Rattle Snake. There was one where I was Franca Brown's stepson, where she was always beating me. People loved that movie, I can't remember its name now, it was with Pete Edochie. From the first day of the movie to the last, I wept, even when we were not rolling, I was crying because I was able to see myself in the same role, even though I didn't grow up like that. It was a horrible thing. I thought about it and wondered why anybody would go through this. I am a very emotional person.
Seriously, can you wash pants for your woman?
Yes, I do it for my woman. As men, we have this attitude that it is our right to have our women wash our singlets and other underwears. Why can't the man see his wife's pants in the bathroom and wash them? It does not make you less a man.
But most men do not see it that way… Why? Because we are hypocrites. I think it is all about being chauvinistic. I am a traditionalist, somewhat. I love the culture of my people.
But a traditionalist would not do that.
A traditionalist would not soil his hand in blood. So if you go into that, you will see that a lot of those who call themselves traditionalists are not.
How did your career start?
It started on stage way back and very early. From secondary school and all that.
I went to a school called Remax, it was a polytechnic. I did something with Lagos Art Council before television. I was criticising a programme on the TV – Fortune - at the Theatre because it was the in-thing then. A guy walked up to me one day and said he would like me to be part of their production. I said which production? He said Fortune. I said I didn't like some things about it. He said well, I could join and then change what I didn't like about it. He gave me the script in the car and before we got to Festac Town, I already had the lines. He asked whether I needed time to go through it. I said I already had the lines.
I was on every week with the late Tom West, Ramsey Noah, Segun Arinze, Liz Benson, etc.
A lot of people would have made what you are doing a hobby… I had always loved acting. I always knew I could not hold a nine-to-five job. I tried it once or twice and I was bored. I worked with one of my uncles; we were the first people to import super glue into Africa and I got bored before he said I should manage his shipping line. That was much more fun because I was running around the ports and doing some jobs that I was not supposed to do as a manager. I discovered I could not do any other job except acting.
But a typical Igbo guy would prefer spare parts business… Point of correction, a typical Nnewi boy.
I think I grew up with parents who didn't go into that line of business. My parents allowed me to do what I wanted to do, though with a bit of caution here and there.
At the end of the day, my mum was proud of me, and also my dad before he passed on.
Probably you love a profession where you can dress as you like, like piercing your ear and weaving your hair?
No, I won't pierce my ear. Actors are like chameleons, in the positive sense. It gives you room to be someone different almost every week. Two months ago, I thought of weaving my hair and I did. Tomorrow, I may decide to shave it off. That is how an artiste can express himself. But I do not think it has anything to do with my profession; it is my person. My profession does not dictate who I should be. I am a kind of person who can walk down the street and sit down with someone selling akara, buy it and eat it there.
But you can't do that now?
I do it anywhere till tomorrow. I can actually sit down where mallams make tea and drink. That is me.