Oghenekaro Lydia Itene figuratively shifted her make-up kit aside to create a new persona on screen a few years ago and the result is a new flame in Nigerian movie industry. Yinka Olatunbosun reports on an unusual encounter with this actress last week.

It was really a case of “mountain going to Mohatma” last Wednesday as this reporter received a call from Itene that she was coming to visit her. Of course, a journalist usually goes after personalities and not the other way round. To fully glean how that happened, a little flashback is necessary.

It was agreed that both of them would meet at LTV grounds at noon that day but when this reporter arrived at the venue, the actress couldn’t be reached. After several minutes of window-shopping at a popular mall in Ikeja just to kill time, Itene finally called but she was going to change the venue to somewhere else around Allen Avenue. With the lethargy of the traffic officials at Allen roundabout, the short drive became so prolonged that Itene was on the verge of leaving. Frustrated at the needless merry-go-round, especially with post-malaria recovery, this reporter returned home.

Of course, Itene didn’t know about the malaria. She only sensed that the reporter wanted the story and not the trouble. Besides, this reporter made a remark about people in Nollywood that she had to correct. Ask any journalist, it’s never easy getting Nollywood stars to sit for an exclusive interview. They are usually targeted at press conferences and other events for a chat. They are too busy, usually ignoring calls and their friendship with the press seems to end on the red carpet.

Hence, she totally surprised this reporter when she insisted on coming to her home to have the interview. In company of her aunt, a music and movie producer, who was visiting from United States, she arrived at this reporter’s apartment in a secluded area in Iju, Lagos.

Intrigued by this actress’ determination to change this age-long perception of Nollywood stars, this reporter chatted freely with her about her career and a bit of personal life, quietly deciding not to abuse the privilege of the unscheduled visit.

Itene had pursued an acting career spanning three years and had recently returned to Nigeria from South Africa where she had been shooting a television series titled “Lincoln’s Clan’’ produced by Total Recall Productions. It is a collaboration between Nigerian and South African producers and has been screened on Multichoice channels. She’s also in “Tinsel’’ as the wedding planner.

Her foray into acting wasn’t deliberate. Her childhood was fun; she enjoyed playing lead roles in school dramas. But then, she had a vision to be a medical doctor. She stumbled upon Biology at the University of Benin where she obtained her degree qualification and thus, life landed her in a theatre- not as a physician- but as an entertainer.

“Even at NYSC camp, we did drama and my platoon won the 4th position out of nine platoons,’’ she began. “There was a drama I did while in primary school. I performed before an audience of more than 7000 in my school in Delta State. I became so popular in the whole of Delta State because of that drama. It was huge. It was a popular musical where I played the role of a young beautiful woman who is wooed by several suitors but only wanted the one with money and didn’t get to marry at the end of the day.

“I didn’t see myself as an actor I have always wanted to be a medical doctor. But somehow I fell in love with make-up artistry while watching run-way models during their back-stage prep,’’ she revealed.

Subsequently, she went for a professional training after university education. Doing make-over, thus, became a passion. She began to get clients from Nollywood. In 2013, she was called to do make up in a movie production and the person who was playing the sub lead character with Nkem Owoh was delisted from the cast. Some other persons also came for the audition. But she was the preferred one.

“That was how I got my first role. That was how I veered into acting. I was not desperate to get into acting. I just tried and I got in. I was even reluctant to be before the camera. I wasn’t ready to be popular and lose my freedom. I don’t like getting undue attention when I am going about my daily activities. But I didn’t think I was going to go that far. I kept getting calls to come and take roles.

I even got some encouragement from fans. It really brought the attention I didn’t bargain for. I usually go for auditions and that was how I got into Tinsel,’’ she recounted, refuting the misconception that juicy roles can only come through back-door activities.

When she’s not acting, she’s minding her make-up business. And she usually sources for good movies to associate her brand with. Her definition of a good movie is one that impacts positively on lives. But there are instances when a role demands nudity and the end result is a positive message. This reporter put this situation before the actress and she solved it like a riddle.

“First of all, this is Nigeria. People don’t see nudity in good light here. This is my market right now. I don’t think I want to do it for now but change is the only thing that is constant,’’ she responded.

Itene is currently working on a new project titled “Esohe’’, directed by Charles Uwagbai, starring Hollywood actor, Jimmy-Jean Louis. She has the role of Itohan and the main location for the movie is Benin. Itene is keen at learning more about movie production and telling more African stories that the world is yet to learn.

“I think there are a lot of African stories that should be told. We are used to romance stories. Meanwhile there are different cultures and narratives that we need to explore,’’ she said.

She looks up to many in the industry, although she is highly inspired by Genevieve Nnaji and Angelina Jolie.

“I love their craft. It’s natural. They don’t overdo it. It is like this conversation-normal. That is what I admire about them. And they are also into charity work,’’ she observed.

She adores both movie and television series production although with the benefit of hindsight, she’d readily say series is more demanding.

“You can be called up for weeks and when you think you are done playing that role, you may be called once more to come and shoot a few scenes. When you are playing that character, you assume that character, you live that character,’’ she remarked.

Her current role demands her adding some weight. In the era of weight loss campaign, this is a huge sacrifice. But she’s poised to do more, such as learning to speak Yoruba to get some roles in other movies.
In retrospect, the Isoko-Urhobo actress recalled how working outside Nigeria differs from being at home.

“No much difference. It is as demanding as it is in Nigeria. The way they shoot in South Africa is quite different. They give longer break time between the shoot. We can shoot overnight here in Nigeria. We are used to the hard work here. I am not saying that is bad. The budget is usually a major factor here,’’ she said.

Itene would have loved to have her parents at a movie premiere where she is a member of the cast but they died before her career in acting blossomed. Her mother passed in 2010 and her father, 2013.

“My mother had always supported me when I took part in cultural dances at school and I think she would have loved the fact that I am acting now,’’ said the actress who had featured in movies such as “The Prodigal”, “Glass House” and “Shattered Mirror’’.