Akin Lewis: On Acting, Ambition and Agony

Akin Lewis

The rotund figure flashes a smile behind a dark shade. Understated in appearance, he is unmistakable in his gait, grace and gumption. Methodical and mesmerizing at the same time, he has become arguably the finest bilingual Nigerian actor that has ever graced the silver screen and Nigeria’s effervescent stage. Dressed in simple but stylish cream attire, Akin Lewis lounges in a sofa as he speaks with Funke Olaode. A man of many parts –from the spiritual to the silver screen, Lewis talks about his ambition, acting and agony. There is much more to know about one of Nigeria’s most understated superstars who excels in the film industry with ease and tantalises millions with his sterling exploits both on and off the screen –and, yes, off the stage

Not many movie superstars alive in Nigeria can match his exploits – and his statistics. He is perhaps the best bilingual Nigerian actor – English and Yoruba – that has ever walked the earth. His eternal class is tempered by his simplicity and his success is subdued by his modesty. His rich repertoire of knowledge, experience and exposure dates back to the 1960s – Akin Lewis stormed into the consciousness of Nigerians as a teenage actor on the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) at that time. From soap operas like Spider, Footprints, Two Sides of a Coin among others, the Lagos-born movie superstar has continued to rediscover and reinvent himself with effortless resilience.

Methodical and mesmerizing as an actor, Lewis has become one of the finest Nigerian actors that have ever graced the silver screen and Nigeria’s effervescent stage. Dressed in simple but stylish cream attire, Akin Lewis lounges in a sofa sipping a cup of tea. A man of many parts –from the spiritual to the silver screen, Lewis excels in the film industry with ease and tantalises millions with his sterling exploits both on and off the screen –and, yes, off the stage as an actor who has been in the limelight for almost 50 years. He has had his charming and challenging times though.

One that almost killed his childhood ambition was his father’s refusal to let him become an actor. His father’s refusal was not far-fetched. Acting in those days was considered a profession for drop-outs. The older Lewis couldn’t see the reason his son could not follow in the footsteps of siblings who are now accountants. Young Lewis stood his ground.

The reward of resilience led to his going to the prestigious University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo Ife – to study Theatre Arts – under the tutelage of Prof. Wole Soyinka. He graduated with a first class in 1979. He later got a distinction at a Bulgarian university where he studied Acting and Directing for his master’s degree.

“I have been in acting business for 45 years now and still counting. I am over 60 years. I started very early immediately after secondary school. I joined a group led by the then Mr. Bode Sowande, now a professor at the University of Ibadan. I was based in Ibadan and along the line I got a job with the NTV, now NTA,” he narrates.

“I was told that as a child I was fascinated by TV programmes such as children’s plays. It was the day of comics and I used to read a lot of books. That was how it started – that experience must have awakened my hidden talent. At Lagelu Grammar School in Ibadan, I was a member of Literary and Debating Society and Dramatic Society and we were doing a lot of plays that was when it became clear to me that it was my calling. Immediately I left secondary school I joined a group. Then went to the university and here I am today still going,” he recalls.

Lewis’s life is not about acting alone. He was once a management guru. The intrepid celebrity admits that actors of those days were considered stars with little pay. As time went by in his career, his infatuation with acting began to wane when he started a family.

“In those days, there were lot of jobs around. We had a lot of popularity, we were stars but we didn’t make so much money. It was okay for me because I was still a bachelor. By the time I got married and started having children, I realized that beyond popularity, I needed something to sustain my family,” he says. “So, I branched off and started another career line in marketing management. I had worked in the biggest advertising and public relations companies in Nigeria. I worked in the bank and telecommunications”.

Surprisingly, while plying his trade in both public and private sectors, he did not walk away from his constituency because he knew he was coming back. “This is like a retirement for me. Acting is what I have done in the longest. So it is being profitable,” Lewis admits.

Blessed with adorable and beautiful girls, Lewis’ constant travels because of his career have left him with a tag of the ‘absent father’. But the veteran actor admits that he has been able to juggle being a good husband, father and home front with the support of his family. “As a professional, you must find way to work around it. I must thank my family for taking me for who I am. It is the nature of the job and there is nothing I can do about it. This is what puts food on the table and when you come back you make up for it by spending time with them. I love watching television and even like to sleep on the floor in my house watching TV, and everybody will come down and sit with me. So there is a family bond and after sometime when they fully recover my long absence am on the move again.”

In a society where a male child is often idolised, Lewis – a father of four girls – may be under some pressure to have a male child by all means. But he says: “Never. If you understand life, it intrigues me that God must have made me one of a kind to help this world to progress. I understand that clearly and it makes me feel special. I know many people believe in a name that will outlive them. What is in a name if you don’t have character and integrity? So it never bothers me whether I have a male child or not.”

For Lewis, even for a celebrity, Nigeria’s economy is biting hard. ”You know the way it is in Nigeria if the economic is up there it affects the entertainment industry but when it is nosedive it also goes down because people don’t have the cash and they will begin to rationalize. It should be the other way round just like outside when things are down the entertainment industry goes up so people can have places to go, relax and ease tension,” he admits with in a rueful tone.

Lewis had once left the silver screen for the spiritual stage. He was ordained as an evangelist at International Church of Christ in Lagos. That course of life had taken him all over Africa including Muslim nations spreading gospel of salvation. How did he become an evangelist? “You know you sometimes feel you are Christians, live like a Christian then a day will come you meet a group of people who open up the Bible to you and you realise that a lot of things that you are doing are not right. And if you have a heart for God and you fear him you will follow the Bible,” he explains with a smile on his face.

Continuing, Lewis says: “That was exactly what I did. I joined the church, went in there and became one of the disciplines. Got a calling and was ordained as an evangelist, went all over Africa starting from Senegal to South Africa. I used to preach in French and English. I had preached in a place where they used to cut both hands if you dare talk about the bible but I survived because I had faith in God.”

But his spiritual encounter was short-lived due to a crack in his relationship with the spiritual authority. He quitted the congregation and went back to acting. Throwing more light on what went wrong, the actor tells THISDAY: “Nobody is perfect but when you begin to think you are perfect then there is a trouble. They don’t like me challenging the establishment. And I was quick to point out that you put me through the Bible and I am using the same Bible and somebody would say to me: ‘But you work for me’. Then I would say, ‘I don’t work for you. I work for God.’ There was a lot of pressure and eventually I resigned my commission. They were not ready for that but I had already communed with my God. So I quit. I am still a Christian. I may no longer be a preacher but my life has been shaped by that experience.”

After almost five decades plying his trade, is he planning to quit? “I can’t quit acting. If you look at my trajectory, my roles have changed over the years from a little boy, to the teenager, to the young man, the lover boy and so on. Now I am playing the roles of chief, king, etc.,” Lewis reveals. But he adds: “Who knows? A time will come that I will play the role of a grandfather so as an actor you keep evolving. You see when you look act generally, it deal with life and that is my commodity. Wherever I am I see more and hear more than you. That is my training. I am also a strategist. So the experiences of life that I have and use in my work motivate me and will keep me going.”

Just like other famous actors who have used their popularity to go into politics such as former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Desmond Elliot, Kate Henshaw and a host of others, Lewis is unlikely to go their route. “I don’t think I am cut out for that the way politics is played in Nigeria,” he confesses.

Explaining his stance, the actor adds: “Let me be frank with you: the way politics is played in Nigeria if you can’t lie, kill, and steal, can you survive (in politics)? I am an opposite of that. Yes. It has crossed my mind and people have talked to me but I know myself to get into politics I will need a paradigm shift. I will need to change before I can go into politics otherwise I will be a failure because if you go against the establishment everybody makes sure that you fail. People get killed. There are unresolved murders. I am not afraid but I don’t want to be tainted.”

There is something else that bothers him about Nigeria? “Well, what bothers me about Nigeria is that anything can happen anytime anyhow and this is very scary. People get robbed in broad daylight and nothing will happen; people’s houses are being bugled or people getting killed during rally. So the feeling of not being safe bothers me the most. I can’t run away. I am going to live and stay here.”