Probably one of the greatest understatements ever uttered is to say Nigeria, the most populous nation on earth, is blessed with some of the best talents the world has ever witnessed. Plagued as it is with numerous challenges and low points, one leverage that earns the West African economic hub undeniably high ratings locally and internationally is the slew of top quality talents it unearths on a daily basis in diverse fields of expertise, despite a world-renown history of past legends that had arose from its shores.
This is especially true of the Nigerian entertainment industry, of which in this discourse the focus is on Nollywood, the burgeoning and vastly spreading movie industry of Nigeria. This an industry run majorly on entrepreneurship, notably with very little resource from any ruling government of the country, past or present, which still manages to churn out an incredibly large range and quantity of products yearly, ranking among the world’s highest movie producing industries. Talent is in abundance, the work rate is high in spite of economic setbacks, the competition is intense, and the media permeation is intriguing.
And here’s what makes Deyemi “The Actor” Okanlawon so special. It’s one thing to be a moving, functioning part in the huge Nollywood machinery, and it’s entirely another to evolve so well from that state to become an essential. An inevitable. A jewel. He’s the bookworm kid with fantastic worlds in his head who grew up, rose through the ranks for close to a decade to evolve into one of present-day Nigeria’s most favored faces on television and films. His range is incredible, and, on a closer look at the man, he’s evidently in a well-gripped touch with his craft as well as the perks that come with, especially working as a thespian and an entrepreneur in Nigeria.
Munirat Bello of SIMPLE had a sit-down with Deyemi, and he took us through his growth from a recluse childhood to attaining inevitable fame, the Nollywood industry and family life.
EVERYONE KNOWS DEYEMI THE ACTOR, BUT WHO IS DEYEMI?
That phrase, “Deyemi the actor” is not particularly true. I don’t really view myself as an actor; I’m more of an entrepreneur. And if you see clearly, anywhere that I put my bio you’ll see Actor-preneur. Literally, I just try to add value to people who hire and experience me. Yes, I’m an actor but its one of the many things that I function as.
ASIDES BEING AN ACTOR, WHAT DO YOU DO?
What don’t I do! I do a lot of things. So a lot of people do not realize that I have a 9-5 job. I head film distribution at Silverbird Film Distribution. I am responsible for managing Nollywood releases, as well as Sony, Universal, Paramount. I’m constantly liaising with representatives from this company across the world. Then of course I have other things I do.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR DISTRIBUTION JOB?
When I got into Nollywood to pursue a career in acting, I discovered that a lot of filmmakers knew nothing about marketing or promoting films, and because marketing was something I found exciting, (I’m a natural salesman) I liked to sit and ask the film producer about the plans as regards promotion and distribution. Back then, budgets then were very humble and I was good at gorilla style and street marketing, so I will help them draw marketing plans. These producers will then run to their film distributors and show them “hey we have a plan, this is what we want to do for our marketing” and I will always put my name on those plans. And so all the distributors knew about me, Silverbird, Genesis, Film One, and that’s how the distribution executives got to know who I was then, and I just started networking with them. Then the head of Silver bird film distribution at that time reached out and said she’ll like me to come and work with the company as a consultant and I agreed. And so a lot of movies that were distributed by Silverbird at that time, I was doing some consulting on those projects. In fact, the in house joke was that “if you like don’t cast me in your film, I’ll still chop your money” I will still get paid for being a consultant. Apparently people now started calling me to say ‘Hey Deyemi we will like to work with you, not only because you’re good at that, but because you can help us”. So its added value. The more value you add, the more opportunities that will come your way. So I just pour value, and if you put in more value than what you’re getting, what’s going to happen is that you’re soon going to be getting more value in return. The universe doesn’t work like a vacuum, you can’t give a lot, and little will come in. Eventually, it’s going to level up and that’s what eventually happened. The head of silverbird at that time, definitely the business, I got a call from the management of the company to come and join as one of the team members. So I took on the position of head of marketing. Within 3 months I was promoted to head in-house Nollywood account, and not too long after that I was promoted to head the business. So, that’s that story.
IS BEEN AN ACTOR A LIFE OR SELF MADE DECISION?
I was having fun. I was just skipping down roads somewhere, having fun. Acting in some video house. Always doing some acting from the time I was a child. You know all those primary school plays right. So I did a lot of those, and I as well joined this drama group in University, graduated from University joined another drama group, was head of one drama group while I was a member in another drama group in the same church. And I was really just having fun, I was having a great time, what I didn’t realize was that as I was having fun I was learning, I took it really serious.
I didn’t think people liked me very much, because I remember back then when I set a meeting for 3.15pm, if I don’t see anybody I’ll start the meeting by myself and keep it moving. I was very firm about what I wanted to achieve. Many years later, I had a random conversation with someone and he just asked ‘what else do you do?’ I said okay, I do a little bit of acting and he goes oh I have some friends who are auditioning, they’re going to shoot a film, let me send you the information. He sends the details, I went for audition and I got two roles, one for a feature film and another for a short film, from my first audition. And that kind of led to where I am today.
WE DON’T SEE YOU IN ALL MOVIES, ARE YOU VERY SELECTIVE ABOUT THE ROLE YOU PLAY OR YOU JUST HAVE A THRESHOLD OF FILMS TO WORK ON PER PERIOD?
That question is hard o. I’m in all types of movies, when you name the right price. The interesting thing about me is that, it seems as if the films that fit me come to me. Do you know what I said from the get go, the very first thing I ever did, they were always of a certain standard, and my entire career has been a series of movies that have been adding very high standard. I’m grateful, you know, and I hope that we keep doing more of higher standard movies.
ARE YOU A METHOD ACTOR OR MORE OF A CLASSIC ACTOR?
First of all you have to understand the difference between classical actor and method actor. Method acting came out of classical acting. I mean, you can google these things but Stanislavski, a Russian, had this whole concept about acting that in his time was very innovative. Previously, people actors were very stiff there was a set way to do this, he came and he broke that move with his classical acting technique. Lee Strasberg went ahead and he refined some of those things. And for me Strasberg’s method acting wasn’t so much as trying to portray a character, it was more of truly becoming and living a character, and you would know that would take a lot of work. To totally immerse yourself in a character. I will use an example, Daniel Dave Louis for example, I don’t remember the name of the movie that he was were he was a hunter, and Daniel Dave Louis literally went into the bush, got himself a cabin and would only hunt to eat for months and so by the time he came on set and they said action, it wasn’t Daniel Dave Louis that was on set it was Lee Carter, the person alive. Now if I was to do that, you know, perhaps I will do one film in six months. It takes a lot of you mentally, emotionally, physically, so I respect it and the elements of it that I employ in the work that I do. But I am totally in awe of method acting and I can never at this moment right now, call myself a method actor. I have my own style that I just filter from different techniques that I know.
THERE IS A SAYING THAT: “WE ARE ALL ACTORS IN THE FILM OF LIFE”, HOW VALID IS THIS STATEMENT IN RELATION TO ACTING TALENT AND HARD WORK?
You know people lie; people can lie from childhood, that’s part of this thing you’re talking about. So acting is something that comes natural to human being. It’s a survival skill. We literally are all actors, and we’ve been acting our entire life. The difference between what you do and what I do is that I am a professional actor, that’s the only difference, and the whole world is a stage and we’re doing a big performance and if as I do you believe in the eventuality of heaven and hell. One day the film of your life will show and you will see. But more seriously, yes, we are all actors in this film of life and we all have our roles to play and I do believe we all get to the end you know, that final credit and there’s a standing ovation for each one of us.
OVERACTING WHICH CAN BE USED TO GREAT EFFECT IN FILMS SEEM TO BE OVERDOSED BY SO MANY ACTORS, AT WHAT POINT DOES A PROFESSIONAL ACTOR UTILIZE IT WITHOUT APPEARING TO BE OVERBOARD?
Nobody should overact, at no point should anyone use overacting. You should never be seen to be acting. If I feel as if I’m acting, I’m in a scene and I can sense that I’m acting I will spoil the scene because I’m acting. I should not be acting, I should be re-acting. Acting is not pretending, acting is finding the truth or being real in imaginary circumstances. So yes, the scene might be imaginary or constructive, but what is happening in that scene is real. So for the first time you say a line and say “HI Deyemi” its going to be the first time, even though I have rehearsed it but it has to be that it’s the first time this character is hearing you say “Hello Deyemi”. So the response to that “Hello Deyemi” is unique, it’s new. It’s the first time I have ever said it, it’s the only time I’m ever going to say it as the character, so it has to be real. So, you should never be seen to be acting, much less overacting.
DO YOU THINK ACTORS OF OLD HOLD GREATER ADVANTAGE IN TERMS OF SKILL AND FINESSE COMPARED TO MODERN ACTORS IN NOLLYWOOD AND WHY?
An actor is an actor, actors of old… there is no such thing. It’s like asking me if doctors of old and doctor of now, they are both healing people. The whole purpose is to heal people, right! And techniques get better, technology comes in to help you get better and hopefully what happens is people get better over time, an industry gets better over time, a profession; you get better at it over time. You know, of course if you’ve been at it for 30-40years, if you’re an RMD for example, you have reached genius level at your craft and if you’re saying me who’s just a few years into the industry; there’s definitely more to learn but guess what. It should take me much less time to achieve that genius level mastery level that we’re talking about than it may have taken RMD because then again I have more resources. He didn’t have the Internet; he didn’t have access to Kevin Spacey, Denzel Washington, and their videos and training materials. You know, he had access to what was available at that time, and he’s gotten so much better over a long period of time. It should take this new generation a shorter period to reach genius level if they out in the work. That’s all there is to say about that.
THERE’S A STRONG BELIEVE THAT MANY FILMMAKERS ARE HEAVILY RELIANT ON HUMOUR AND COMEDY TO SELL THEIR STORIES, WHAT’S YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
I don’t think that belief of filmmakers relying on comedy or humor is true. It’s really about the filmmaker. Different people want to tell different stories in different ways. You might want to tell a story about a social vice, or like a social issue, domestic violence, you know. And you decide that you want to do it in a very particularly serious, very dramatic format. And somebody else decides they want to tell this same story, but they want to make the woman the violent person and you see big woman with this smallish man and they’re trying to do comedy. It’s the same message that’s being passed across, but they are just using different tools to pass the message across. I don’t think any way is better than the other, it’s just how you want to express yourself and that’s the right of the filmmaker. Nobody should judge them.
FUN QUESTION, IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE BETWEEN PLAYING THE ROLES OF JAMES BOND, INDIANA JONES, OGBORI ELEMOSHO AND MISTER JOHNSON, WHICH WOULD TINGLE YOUR ACTING PERSONA MORE?
I’ll combine all four of them together and be everyone I want. So I’ll be Yoruba speaking James Bond then I’ll now use my ring to carry her. (Laughs).
AT SOME POINT IN THE PAST, THE FILM INDUSTRY IN NIGERIA WAS HEAVILY DRIVEN BY CINEMAS, DO YOU THINK WE WILL EVER GET BACK TO THE SPLENDOR OF BOX OFFICE WITH THE HEAVY LEANING TOWARDS STREAMING?
When you say sometime in the past, which year in the past is it last year, 4 or 5 years ago, 10 years ago because just December we had the highest grossing Nollywood movie in the history of Nigerian box office and I had the fantastic opportunity to have been cast in that movie as Femi Stone working alongside Funke Akindele and JJC Skillz in “Omo Ghetto” The Saga. So, Nigerian cinema is here to stay. You need to understand that how you consume contents also matters and in different experiences. The cinema is an event, you going out. You’re in a space, it’s loud, and it’s huge. We see the difference from sitting back at home relaxed, deciding how you want to be dressed – whether or not you want to be dressed, and you’re watching a small screen – and you pause, rewind and insult people “why did he do like this!” You know, it’s a different experience. So cinema is here to stay. That experience is as important and as different as going to a music concert versus buying the CD or streaming it online or something. Those are two different ways to consume the same thing and with different feelings.
HOW WAS IT LIKE PLAYING FEMI STONE IN OMO GHETTO
It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. One of the most difficult roles I’ve ever had the opportunity to take on, and I’ll tell you what; I was scared. Thankfully, I’m used to going in the direction of my fear, I’m used to doing things afraid and just like “you know what, las las everybody go dey okay. I no fit die nothing dey happen”. So when I got off with the role, I begged for help, every single person I thought could help me get into character and understand that character. You know, I had done too many movies where I played some type of roles, speaking a certain type of way, and I’ve seen it happen to other people where you get boxed into one thing and when you have the opportunity to do something different, you just revert to the status quo. So literally had somebody by my side the entire production period who was mandated to make sure… it was almost as if he had koboko. If you see Deyemi flog him, do you understand what I’m saying you know, you must see Femi Stone. I’m super grateful to Funke Akindele and JJC Skillz because It was like JJC was the technical director and Funke was like actor’s director and I was inter-phasing with both of them and they kept me along that line. Like I watched the movie and I was like “how did I pull that off” and I’m super grateful, the entire production team. They were phenomenal, I had a great time. One of my best ever experience.
THERE IS A BAD-BOY SIDE TO YOUR ROLES NOWADAYS, STARTING FROM FEMI STONE IN OMO GHETTO, AND FUGO IN THE PROPHETESS, WOULD YOU SAY THAT’S A NEW STYLE FOR YOU?
It’s not a new thing. Guys I have been acting professionally for about 8 years. It will be 8 years in August 2021. I’ve done a lot of work, and I’ve done a lot of roles. What has happened is that, I have gotten better because I’ve been consistent. I’ve always wanted to be excellent whenever I do anything, no matter where I am. If I go on stage, I will strive to be excellent. What has happened is that the same ideology is what has just been consistent in my life and then I find myself now on a bigger platform, on this big cinema screen, literally just being excellent. So its not like this is new, its not a new thing. I’ve done a couple of roles that people will consider to be bad boy type role in the past but its really about consistency and doing things differently. And if you look at it, maybe in the next 2/3 movies you’re going to see come out in cinemas, it’ll be totally different. Femi Stone is totally different from Fogo Bombastic, but the next movies I’m on are totally different roles. It’s heavy on drama. So yeah, I’m just happy to be working, doing what I love and just having these various opportunities to do them.
THERE USED BE A PALPABLE DETAIL IN PLOT, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, PRODUCTION DESIGN, SUSPENSE AND CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF HUMOUR IN MORE OF OLDER FILM PRODUCTIONS, LIKE “TI OLUWA NILE”, “OWO BLOW” ETC. COMPARED TO RECENT TIMES, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS RESPONSIBLE?
What we need to realize is nobody ever gets it perfect, we strive professionally but we’re never really. Like you mentioned “Ti Oluwa Nile”, I’m a huge fan of that movie, whilst they got some things right, there were a lot of things that probably didn’t meet up to certain standards. And there might be movies now, which are not getting what “Ti Oluwa Nile” got, but in other areas they’ve excelled. I think what we just need to do is keep learning and not drop the ball if the generation before us has set a certain standard, we must learn from that generation and up that standard while we also imbibe the new things that we know. So generally what we have is a growing film industry.
I KNOW YOU ENJOY WORKING WITH SO MANY PEOPLE, BUT WHICH ACTOR OR ACTRESS DID YOU ENJOY WORKING WITH THE MOST AND WHY?
It’s like me asking you, who do you enjoy going out with the most. I’m sure different people bring different vibes. You have a quiet friend so you just know that they’re dependable. Different energies, I don’t think there’s any such thing. It’s called a playwright acting. So we are literally just playing and having fun. So is there a person that I have more fun playing with? No. They’re just varying, you know, everybody brings different energies and it’s all so beautiful. And the most important thing, it’s not about other people, it’s about me. It’s about me as a person, my character, my personality. It’s what am I putting out there and in response, what am I getting. So if I’m a good person, I have a good heart, and I’m open, you know, and I love people, then I’m going to get that in return. So that’s what I get, and I love it. I love everyone that I work with even if we have issues. I’ve had issues with people, I’m too old to be playing games, I will call you aside ‘I have an issue with this, and its not going to be a problem. I just want you to know we can resolve this as co-personnel, its fine. If I offended you, I’m sorry’ and we move on. Life is not difficult, it isn’t.
IF YOU WEREN’T FAMOUS, WHAT WOULD YOU BE UP TO RIGHT NOW?
I will be famous, no matter what it is I’m doing. Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola, Mike Adenuga are all entrepreneurs, they are all in different fields but because of the spirit of excellence, they are all known for the work they do. Whatever it is I was doing differently if I wasn’t an actor; I will still have this same spirit of excellence and I’m not looking for fame, I’m just looking to be very impactful and that has always result into the way I came with fame.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND GROWING UP?
I grew up in a family of 5 kids; my mom ran a company called Bakers World. It was at that time the biggest cake bakery shop possibly in Nigeria, West Africa and then my Dad worked in Nigerian Airways as an Aircraft Engineer, so I have always had a bit of science and arts at the same time. This is why I studied engineering but you find me acting in stage plays and things like that at the same time. I like to say that I grew up alone because I spent an inordinate amount of time by myself as a child in my room with my head buried in some book. I was a bit of a nerd. I was reading science books, novels. My imaginations ran wild, my mind was just beautiful but I was also very analytical because of my scientific thinking. I like to say I grew up alone because most of my siblings go out and they play and I’m just at home thinking, it was ridiculous.
ARE YOU MARRIED?
Yes, been married 8 years, I got married January 2013. I have two beautiful boys.
Watch full interview on Youtube
Words: Collins Dada
Interviewed: Munirat Bello
Photographer: Rayo Kasali
Videographer: Ebiniyi Fisayo
Production Assist: Anuoluwapo Dada & Adebayo Adetola
Creative Director: Edun Adedamola