RITA DOMINIC: ON BECOMING LA FEMME ANJOLA

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Sultry, suave, and self-assured are the words that best describe Rita Dominic’s character Anjola in a new film, ‘La Femme Anjola.’ Vanessa Obioha writes about the actress and fashion icon’s peerless interpretation of the fictional character

The moment she waltzed into the bar, time ceased for a moment. Everyone seemed enraptured by her commanding aura, frozen in awe by her astonishing beauty and poise. Whether aware of her magical effect on the lookers or not, she elegantly took a seat and assumed her place in the band, meeting their stares with sassiness. This is Anjola, Rita Dominic’s character in the newly-released film ‘La Femme Anjola,’ a one-hour neo-noir film.

The film centres on Anjola, a singer and performer who is as sultry and mysterious as her looks. She is married to a wealthy gangster Odera Kalu (Chris Iheuwa), who owns a nightclub. It is here that Anjola entraps her prey with her captivating beauty.
Dominic embodied her character with panache. Each time the camera panned to her face, it revealed the complexity of her character. There is Anjola, the submissive wife, the sultry and arrogant performer, the damsel in distress, and the calculating and deadly woman.
“The thing about Anjola was that all the men in her life thought she needed saving. Meanwhile, they needed saving from her. She was the most dangerous person,” she said.

Playing different sides of this character was not easy for Dominic, who at 45 has interpreted more than a hundred roles. Her career launched in 1998 when she starred in the movie ‘A Time to Kill.’ She would play a role in other productions such as ‘Aba Riot’ starring alongside veteran actors Olu Jacobs and Segun Arinze; ‘True Romance’ with Richard Mofe-Damijo and Desmond Elliot. By the 2010s, Dominic was among the most sought-after actresses in the industry, having steadily built an enviable reputation.

In 2012, she starred in the movie ‘The Meeting’ written by Tunde Babalola and directed by Mildred Okwo, who also co-produced with her under their joint production venture, The Audrey Silva Company. The film fetched her many awards, including the Best Actress in Comedy award at the 2015 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award (AMVCA) and Best Actress in a Lead Role award at the 2013 Nigeria Entertainment Awards.
‘La Femme Anjola’ reunites the trio again. When she first got the script written by Babalola, she reacted the same way her friend and business partner, Okwo, reacted.

“When I first read the script, the character scared me. On getting to the end, I was like, what just happened…I started reading again, and it was that intriguing. I thought we really had to acquire the script.”
“It was gripping. If you get a script that gets you hooked from the beginning to the end. Shoot that film,” added Okwo.
Both hailed Babalola for writing a story that is classic and challenging.

To prepare for her character, she took a refresher course: a masterclass with the English actress Helen Mirren. These courses, she said, helped her to stay on top of her game. The late energetic South African singer and songwriter Brenda Fassie was also an inspiration.
“May her soul rest in peace. The late Brenda Fassie was my go-to-person in terms of performance as a musician. I watched her a lot when she performed. When she performed on stage, she was always such a joy. It’s like something took over her. She was my case study.”

Indeed, Dominic was exceptional in ‘La Femme Anjola.’ She transformed into a woman whose beauty was as deadly as it was captivating. Always dressed in elegant attire, she puffed on cigarettes, releasing white smoke that rolled to the sky before stylishly vanishing into thin air. In real life, she is miles away from nicotine. A device was used on set to prevent her from inhaling the addictive substance.

“When I was shooting the last scene, I was so grateful the smoking would end,” she confessed.
On stage, for a moment, one is led to believe that she’s a singer. Her mannerisms — flinging of the hair, the caressing of the mic, the movement of her hips, her sitting posture — made her so believable.
She revealed that the backstory of Anjola helped her to understand the character and interpret it well. More so, Okwo allowed them to improvise, particularly when it enhanced the film’s narrative.

In more ways than one, Anjola required Dominic to reach the depths of her being.
But like most actors’ dilemma, Dominic has no control over her character. She has no power to alter her world. The more she studied her, the more intimate the character became. Thus, leading her to a place where most actors dread: becoming the character in reality.
“Rita scared me,” said Okwo, “People would usually come on my set to show off, but she didn’t. I didn’t even know what to say to her because you ask her to do something, she does it, picks her clothes, and sits in a corner, and she will not talk to anyone. The day we shot the killing scene, she was so depressed.

“She wouldn’t talk to us. She was sad. This was somehow unusual. I thought I would be doing a lot of talking on set, but she said to me that I have been talking to her for five years. I was very lucky with the actors on this project. They prepared. People would prepare for you when you give them the right tool.”

“It affected us all,” admitted Dominic. “When we shot the basement scenes, I couldn’t sleep. I felt like Anjola. All through, I was in her character. And I think for every actor, we all try to find a character that we connect deeply with.”
On Instagram, she made a post about having a conversation on ‘what actors go through to get into character and the long process it takes them to get out of it.”

Dominic was not alone. Her co-star Bassey suffered the same fate. On one of the shooting days, he broke down after shooting a scene that took the whole crew to calm him down.
Understanding the emotional burden of the film on her actors, Okwo sent them on a mini-vacation.
“I sent them away to give them that time to detox. It’s important for me to know how they feel after shooting. They felt bad, but I talked to them about it.”

Clips of their vacation were shared on Instagram, where Dominic could be seen having fun on the beach with Bassey.
With the dedication and devotion she brings to the screen, the graduate of Theatre Arts doesn’t regard herself as a method actor. She believes for one to wear that garland proudly, one must have trained very hard.
For Dominic, Anjola reminds her of a lot of people.–
“I think Anjola reminds us of a lot of people. We all have an ‘Anjola’ in our lives. There is an Anjola everywhere. She looks like the damsel in distress, but she isn’t really one. Not every damsel is in distress,” she concluded.
The film is currently in cinemas.