I WAS A SHOE MAKER--ZACK ORJI
Nigerian movie star, Zack Orji has featured in over 150 movies. Orji came to Uganda on invitation of Paragon Promotions to produce the first international movie co-production between Nigerian and Ugandan actors. Rafsanjan Abbey Tatya
spoke to him
Who is Zack Orji?
I'm in my forties and I'm a very spiritual person. I believe I am where God has gifted me to be and impact on people positively. I studied stage management in the University of Nigeria. I partly studied in Togo and graduated 21 years ago. I am an actor and filmmaker. Because of films, I have been to USA, U.K, South Africa, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and now Uganda, and will be in Ethiopia soon.
Why did you come to Uganda?
We want to involve other Africans in the movie industry not only Nigerians. I'm in Uganda to do a movie of Ugandan actors alongside Nigerian actors. The multiplier effect of the films we churn out each week helps contribute to the national economy.
I hear you once put movies on the backburner...
Yes I had, because I was working on music but now I'm doing both.
Music is my first love. I hail from a family of singers. I was told that my grand father was a singer and that my uncle was a musician who travelled to Ghana and other countries. I grew up fiddling with the acoustic guitar. In my fourth year in secondary school, I wrote a song in French, which was featured in a show on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Channel 8, Enugu. I did my first demonstration in 1987 and went into music before movies. Basically, I will feel unaccomplished and unfulfilled, if I die today without expressing myself musically. I even have a full album of 10 songs that I plan to release sooner than later. Moreover, there has always been a bond between movies and music. In America, artistes (like Whitney Houston) usually switch from movies to music or vice versa.
Who writes your songs?
I do. I obtain a lot of material from the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, and it contains many praise songs. I derive inspiration from messages that are preached both within my church and at different Christian functions that I attend. I sing mainly to praise God and I do this in different forms. I am also going to collaborate with Ugandan gospel musicians on some songs, though I am here basically for a movie project.
You must have had an interesting background.
Anyway, while in secondary school, I was a member of the Dramatic Society. We used to travel to states in Nigeria for stage performances. My inclination has been mostly towards the arts, although I was a science student. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor, but I refused. I was good at drawing and Fine Art was one of my best subjects.
You mean you abandoned school for theatre?
No. After graduation, I did so many things. I did clearing and forwarding. Since I was also good at drawing, I went to Balogun market in Lagos, looked at the designs of shoes, made them and sold. I made one or two batches, which were even sold abroad. Unfortunately, one day, I went to my shop and discovered that thieves had broken into it and made away with everything. I believed that when God is ready to take a man to a certain destination, He makes him pass through certain routes. I just moved on without any regrets.
Later I went into buying and selling, I did supplies too. In the process of supplying some goods, I met a friend, Ekenna Igwe, who is now president of the Screen Writers Guild of Nigeria. He introduced me to a number of friends who were then working on a movie script The Unforgivable Sin. It was an Igbo movie with English subtitles. It was the first movie I starred in.
The Igbo are the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria. Though I come from Gabon, I was very fluent in Igbo. I have lived in Nigeria for years. That film got me my first nomination in 1995 AMEN awards as the best actor. After that, I began to get offers to star in movies. Since then I have featured in about 150 different films, playing leading roles.
Ever featured in movies beyond Africa?
Since 2003, I have not featured in any production. I have been re-packaging and re-engineering. My focus now lies on international productions between Nigeria and the United States and as I talk now I was invited to star in a movie, to be shot in Hollywood, but the issue of the work permit came up and we are still sorting it out. This project is going to be shot in the United States, but it is a Nigerian story about Nigerians living in the United States. We wanted to shoot the video, but it had to be done on celluloid and the script had to be re-written.
In Uganda artistes date each other. Is there any sex for roles in Nollywood?
This is found all over the world and it's very dangerous. It does not only exist in the entertainment industry, but in other sectors. But an artiste has to first believe in him or herself. There are ladies who are ready to offer their bodies in order to catapult into stardom. There are those who believe they have something that cannot be toyed with by somebody who calls himself a producer simply because he finds himself in that position. The producer might want to take advantage of another person, but this is bad. Sex for roles is real in Nollywood.
Now that you are popular, I think your movies sell like hot cake ...
No, that's a wrong perception. I cannot afford to do any shoddy job now because it would affect what I have been able to achieve in the movie industry. I cannot do anything sub-standard. That is why I am not in a hurry.
Some critics say Nollywood produces cheap and predictable movies.
Mass production is for the consumer to decide. It's private business. Once you have the money, you shoot the film but it must meet certain standards. At the end of the day, it's the consumer to judge the quality of the movie and decide whether to buy it or not.
What should Ugandan actors and do to succeed in this industry?
Uganda needs continuity to succeed. Movies are there to entertain, inform and educate but at times we need some profit from the movies. If Ugandans don't support promoters like Paragon then it will be a lukewarm thing. In states like Lagos, Enugu, Abuja, we release 10 films every week. This is how we sustain the industry.
Ugandan artistes have been hampered by an inactive copyright law. What is it like in Nigeria?
We are surviving amidst the piracy. Whatever piracy Uganda has, it's not even 10% of what Nigeria has. Even advanced countries have it but their laws are stronger so it is brought down to a bearable level.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
In films you normally create a utopia like situation in order to bring out what people should aspire for. You do something that people should look forward to doing or would want to be like.
Do you choose your roles?
Sometimes I choose roles but at times I don't. I also turn down some. Every new role is challenging. In my latest film, written by someone else, I play an unpleasant role depicting guys who practice anal sex. This is reality in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, it's really happening. It's not fiction.
Tell me about your family
I have been married for 16 years. My wife is called Ngozi Orji and we have three children (a 14-year-old son and two daughters aged four and two years old).
Doesn't your family miss you?
True, my acting career has affected my family in both ways. Sometimes they do miss me but above all, my children are happy. Besides, we are a family of entertainers. My son, Emeka has started acting, he featured in Evil Genius and Black Powder among others, though I told him to relax and finish studies first. The two daughters are still too young to act. My wife, Ngozi, is an actress and has featured in about four films (Betrayal, Women's Cots, Web Tenterhooks and Return to Kazondia where she acted the wife and I acted the husband). She also left Enugu recently where she was taking part in a movie production. She is also a costume designer. So she understands the nature of my work.
How did you meet Mrs Orji?
Um, she was that special and great girl in my life and we met in 1985, shortly after my national youth service. We got married before we joined the industry and are actually from the same town. We understand each other, and we have never brought in any third party into our affairs. Our children don't even know when we quarrel. But there is no marriage that can succeed without God. We depend on God, we pray together, we pray separately. You must have the desire for your marriage to succeed, when you have the desire, God will help you. God loves marriage and it is an institution that enables us to procreate.