Chris Obi: I’m Still in Touch with My Nigerian Roots

Chris Obi, the actor, who trained at the Drama Centre London, might be a recognisable face for those who’ve seen Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2016 Roots miniseries and Klingon captain T’Kuvma in Star Trek Discovery. But back home, the British-born Nigerian is popular for his rugged role in ‘the Ticket’ Guinness advert, acting as Femi, a struggling man in the city. He comes back to the village to fetch his younger brother, who will join in search of great exploits. “A boy dreams but a man does. Brother are you ready to drink at the table of men?” The younger brother is then given a bus ticket to the city, making it his time to follow in the footsteps of greatness. Despite his British accent and posh leanings, his ability to infuse into a typical everyday-Nigerian hustler has further proven his dexterity as an international actor. He speaks to Omolola Itayemi about the need to come back home to pursue his craft, filming ‘the Ticket’ and his love for pounded yam and egusi at the cosmopolitan George Hotel, IkoyiFrom such a huge crew of Star Trek to the minimal one of ‘the Ticket’ Guinness, what’s the transition like?
I played T’Kuvma, the Klingon leader seeking to unite the Klingon houses, on Star Trek: Discovery. As you said, huge cast, big logistics, cinematography at its best and immense technology advancement. While ‘the Ticket’ was a much smaller one, it meant a lot to me because it was my first project back home. It was wonderful and more personal. I was with a very crazy Italian director. I was the brother in the shoot and yes, I was different, though still of international standard.

How did you get into acting? Theatre is huge in England where you live and studied, what was your professional theater debut?
I studied at Drama Center London and later trained students at Actor in Session, also in London, where l served as an Artistic Director.
I made my professional theater debut as a Messenger in Edward Hall’s 2002 production of Macbeth, which starred Sean Bean and Samantha Bond. I had earlier performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including productions of Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, and counts among his film and television credits State of Play, Doctor Who, Snow White and the Huntsman, American Gods, Ghost in the Shell, and Roots (2016), executive produced by veteran Star Trek actor and director LeVar Burton.

Do you come home often?
No, the last time I was home was for the commercial, ‘the Ticket’ for Guinness. No, I came afterwards for the AMAA’s in 2013. Basically I’m still in touch with my Nigerian roots. We need to be in touch because there is a lot happening in Nigeria for actors in diaspora. We’ve got a new breed of British-Nigerian actors who are keeping that connection going including the likes of big Hollywood breakout stars like David Oyelowo and Chiwetal Ejiofor.

Are you in touch with David Oyelowo?
I love David, he’s like my brother. We were in Los Angeles together.

So where are you based now?
It’s kind of hard; I have just finished Star Trek in North America, that’s where I am most of the time. I’m London-born though, so I’m always shuttling between UK and other parts of the world.

It looks like there is a migration of British-born artists towards acting in the USA?
Yes, but we’ve got loads of us doing that. Without being boastful, Nigerian actors are very ambitious and intelligent. It’s very limiting to work in England unless you are doing the Shakespeare work but even then, it’s only very recent people started to say that David Oyelowo played Henry VI. But in Theatre now, they are beginning to say black guys can play any part. In America, there you get a better range of characters to play. Oh definitely, there is a migration.

Are you immersed in Nollywood now?
No. Jeta Amata was my friend at one point but I haven’t been in touch. I might hopefully meet him whilst I’m here. I also know Wale Ojo well and I hear he’s doing a lot here. There’s always that thing about acting here. The older you get the more you thirst for your roots and you want to make that connection.

Your Nigerian roots is Igbo, where exactly?
I’m from Nsube, Anambra.

What will you say is responsible for the move to work back home?
That’s a very good question but without sounding too mythical, it’s just a draw, it’s in your body. For me, anyway, that’s what I’m experiencing, I have no reason to be here spending all that money. We have an arts community that is doing so well and one thing we have in common is that we are Nigerians. We are highly respected.
I enjoy coming home because I have never lived here. I went to a boarding school in the UK but my father always insisted we come back home to Nigeria for long holidays sometimes.
Nollywood isn’t where it ought to be despite our position as 2nd worldwide, what do you think is responsible for this?
I think it’s the marketing. To be clear, it’s a hustlers market and you don’t get a lot of artists willing to hustle. There is a system and most of these places have a good distribution network but here you have the actor being the producer and the distributor. You don’t have the right system. If a network shows your film, you should get paid but that’s not happening. If the industry is not well organised, you can’t get things done well. It’s the right connection. We need to organise a festival where everybody can meet each other and bring their products, so we are educated. I’m just hearing about AFRIFF. We know about Nollywood but we don’t really understand how it works, I mean, for us in the diaspora. I know Jetta was trying to open the industry up to outsiders. The industry has grown more than it was envisaged and we need to move along with other industries in the world.
USA at a point was using the film industry to colonise the world. Nigerian film industry has grown to that level but not doing same. We need to use it as a medium to educate the world about who we are. Look at what Europe did with the Renaissance period; the Italians expressed themselves with their paintings. Africans once did that too on the long past with their arts and crafts but not so much now. Definitely now, Nollywood is a great medium to use. We need a good film festival in Lagos.

What’s your full name?
Obiakwe Chukwunondo

You’re still connected to your roots, what’s your favourite Nigerian food?
Definitely pounded yam and egusi. I love it and it doesn’t have to be pounded. I buy the powdered one and make it and when I’m on the road, I look for the closest Nigerian/African restaurant to dig in. If Egusi soup is not available, ogbono soup is good to go. That’s a major highlight of my trip back home.

Are you married?
I’m not talking about that.

Hmm! not just going into that. Thanks.

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