Wale Ojo: ‘Japa’ Mentality is Embarrassing, Unfortunate

Nigerian-British actor, Wale Ojo, has traversed quite a memorable career as an actor in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. He recently won the Best Lead Actor award at the 10th Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards held in Lagos. Ojo’s talent and dedication to his craft have seen him rise to prominence in the film industry. He speaks to Ferdinand  Ekechukwu about his childhood, journey so far in his acting career and his love for Nigeria. He also says taking on the role of Wole Soyinka in ‘The Man Died’ was the highpoint in his career, noting that it was an immense honour for him to play the role because of his admiration for the Nobel Laureate

How do you feel winning Best Lead Actor at the recently concluded 10th AMVCA?

Well, you know I feel great, I feel good. I’m very grateful to God for winning that award. Like I said during my speech, BB Sasore wrote a great script, we had a great team; Ola Cardoso the D.O.P was fantastic, BB directed, Eku Edewor produced. And of course a great supporting cast; Chimezie Imo top on that list, Geneveva Umeh, Demola Adedoyin, Sam Dede was incredible, Tina Mbah was amazing. So, yeah it was good.

Can the movie – ‘Breadth of Life’ – for which you won the award, be seen as a breath of fresh air?

Yeah. It’s a breath of fresh air for the Nollywood industry. I believe ‘Breadth of Life’ is a film that raised the standard; it raised the bar as far as filmmaking is concerned, as far as storytelling is concerned. It raised the bar for Nollywood, for the Nigeria film industry. It reaches the levels of new Nigerian cinema.

How about the role you played in the movie?

Well, a role is always a role for me. I take each role on its own merit. I approach it according to the script and according to the amount of work I had. And when BB sent me that script, I knew that this is not just a normal religious script ‘come to the church and bla blah bla’. It was a deeply philosophical script and so I enjoyed doing it immensely.

 What does this award mean to you considering that you have missed out in a couple of AMVCA nominations in the past?

Well, it’s always good to be recognised by the people in your field. It means a lot and I like to call myself a champion for African cinema. So, to win the Best Lead Actor in Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards, it means you are holding the top position. And I think that’s a wonderful thing; it’s brilliant to be recognised. But I think it also comes with a separate sense of duty to do even better, to achieve even greater height. So, basically from the AMVCA award we then move on to awards outside of the country, recognition outside of the country.

As someone who has graced international scenes, compared to what you see in Nollywood in recent time, what major developments fascinate you?

Well we’ve increased the value of the productions because of the equipment that we are using. A lot of companies are now shooting with very high tech candid cameras. They are paying attention to details which we didn’t used to do so before. They are paying attention to location; they paying attention to costumes and production design. So, all of these they are taking us to a place where it’s going to be very difficult to ignore Nigerian cinema worldwide. Also, with the streaming platforms it is a major development and beneficial to the health and to the growth of the industry because they are bringing in much needed liquid capital into the industry. So, they are much needed. But there’s always an advantage and there’s always a disadvantage. I would like a situation where one can sign deals with streamers and still be able to go to cinemas and still be able to go to film festivals. I think you can still do that, but they are limited on certain licensed titles. I think that most films should. I love the art of cinema. I love when group of people will get together to watch a film in a building, or open air. I think that’s important and I would want that to continue. I would want the streaming platforms to support that as well.

 Has it always been an easy journey looking at how you got to where you are now?

No, it’s been a difficult journey. It’s been a long journey; it’s been struggles sometimes but every single time from the moment I decided in my mind I was going to be an actor. And I wanted to be an actor as far back as I can remember. It’s been a rewarding journey. So the rewards have been greater than the pain, struggle, and years of not working or creating own work.

 Was there a time you ever felt like quitting?

No. I think there was once or twice when I tried to do something else and I ended up in a shop in London putting prices on the products. I think I lasted one day. There’s another time I tried to sell in the UK, I think I lasted one week. Then I tried working in an office, I think I lasted three days. So, I think my mind just told me ‘do or die’, it’s acting (laughing).  

Can you take us back a bit to the beginning of your acting journey?

Well, I would love to go as far back as watching television with my elderly brother, Niyi at one point watching “Combat” which was a war series on TV. So, I used to emulate them, copy them and mimic them. Then sometimes I will be dancing for my mum and my dad and the family in the living room and stuff like that. And then I knew I had a gift for acting when I was doing public speaking when I was at the college in England, I started to do public speaking, then I got into the school play, then I realised that ‘you know what I think I would love to do this for the rest of my life’. That was when I set myself on that path. Then of course everybody thinks ‘you are just joking’… but I kept going. Before the college period I got some exposures going to location and all that here. I was a child actor with WNTV Ibadan, and that’s really where my career started at the age of 8.

 How would you describe your childhood?

Fantastic! I had great childhood. I will say I was brought up with a silver spoon in my mouth, probably very spoilt. My mum took me all over the world. And I would go to my father’s side, my grandfather was royalty in Ibadan. I will go to my mother’s side in Edo State, my grandmother and my grandfather were royalty in the Edo Kingdom. So, wherever I went, I was just spoilt. My childhood was great and one of my strongest memories is that my grandmother on my mother’s side had a hotel called Flamingo Hotel in Ekpoma, in Edo State. And only recently I realised that the musician that used to come and play in that hotel was Victor Uwaifo! And also, Victor Uwaifo’s brother used to come and play at the Flamingo Hotel. And I grow up in that hotel in Ekpoma – my cousins and I grew up in that hotel. Furthermore, I used to go to the market square in Ekpoma and watch John Wayne films; I will steal away, my grandmother would be so angry with me, I will steal away and just sit there in the courtyard watching John Wayne. And I used to admire John Wayne. John Wayne was my hero. I used to love it when he used to kill all the Indians. I used to scream and shout. It was only later I realised that it’s the Indians that own the land and John Wayne, a Ku Klux Klan member, was a criminal. From that day on I didn’t like him anymore.    

You started out acting on stage. Most of your works have increased and taken major part on screen. Do you prefer one to the other?

Well it’s difficult because I like the detail, the intricacies, and the sweat that one can put into film. But stage, I think stage takes the edge. It’s just that once you get on stage you can’t turn back, there’s no cut. You have to race on to the finish line. And the applause from the audience at the end of the day is what tells you if you have done your job or not. But in yourself you will know because acting is an organic thing, it’s all about the transfers and the exchange of energy between a performer and his audience. So for most good actors, stage is it.

Which is your most memorable career moment as an actor?

I think one of my most memorable is playing a cockroach.

In an animation?

No, not animation it’s in a stage play. I had to be a cockroach and play a cockroach and drop from a ceiling onto the floor and all kinds of things. It took a lot and that was one of my most memorable. I trapped a cockroach in a bottle and I studied the way the cockroach moves in preparation for the role. Poor cockroach I imprisoned it in a bottle and studied the movement, study the way it shook its head, everything and did that on stage.

 Who has influenced or played a major role in your career?

There have been many people; from university lecturers to people who are not even alive, people whom I have not even met. Chief of all of them has to be Michael Chekhov, who was a nephew to Anton Chekhov, the Great Russian writer. I just loved his approach to acting. He started in acting school in Russia. He worked in the Moscow Art Theatre. He was Konstantin Stanislavsky’s favourite student. And if you know Konstantin Stanislavski, he’s the person who started what we call The Method for Actors that then went on to America. For me Chekhov was an originator of a very different kind of method; a method they call – For the Use of the Imagination. There are many people along the line. I can mention Paul Robson… Mohammed Ali. You could remember Ali was a performer; he was an actor in his own right. And then coming back to home, Hubert Ogunde, Tunde Kelani, Sam Loco Efe (late), and the rest of them.

You have often described Prof. Wole Soyinka as one of your most iconic figures. How did you feel taking on his character in the adaptation of The Man Died?

Yeah of course I often talk about Wole Soyinka.  Taking on the role of Wole Soyinka in ‘The Man Died’ was definitely a highpoint in my career because I have worked with him now for close to, on and off, for about 30 years. So, I think ‘The Man Died’ is such an iconic book in the canon of world literature. And the figure of Wole Soyinka is an iconic figure in the world of literature. So to take him on, to play him in that book was an immense honour.   

If you weren’t into acting what would you have been doing?

I have no idea (laughs). I think I was acting from my mother’s womb. Maybe I would do music; though I still do music. Maybe if you are talking of something not in entertainment, maybe a lawyer, but no. I probably would have been. But because lawyers, I don’t know. I have had situations with lawyers. Lawyers can be very funny people. 

Maybe a politician, I think I care about people. And I like to see things done right. So, I may have become something of a political activist. I may have settled on the quest for political power.

You have also produced and directed a couple of movies. Is it likely you retire as a director or producer?

No, I will never retire! The world retirement is not coming to my radar at all. It doesn’t, I will never retire. I will metamorphose into the realm of the ancestors singing, dancing and acting by the power of the owner of the sky.

 Aside acting, there are other sides of Wale Ojo. Like music. Talk to us about this aspect of your craft. How did it start and what was it that got you into music?

I have always played music. Music helped me to survive in London when there was no work as an actor. So, music helped me survive I formed many bands, I have been in many bands, and I have a band in Lagos called ‘The Milagros.’ It used to be called Wale Ojo and The Milagros. It’s a fantastic band. The core members of that band the three players Jude Aduragbemi on drums, Michael Gbadebo on bass guitar, and Gbenga G tones on keyboard. That’s the core of the band. Yes, we play concerts, at Hard Rock Caffe. We’ve played for Johnnie Walker. We welcome brands to come along and perform with us. When I perform with the band I bring my acting skills, I create a whole entertainment for the audience. We are looking to perform hopefully in Brazil and the United States in the future. Yes, we are looking to perform in those places.

Have you got any musical work that one can point to?

Yes, I have a single out now called ‘Afrika’. It’s out on all the major streaming platforms. Put Wale Ojo Afrika you will get it. It’s an original afrobeat composition done by myself and my band, The Milagros.

What are you engaged with when you are not on set?

A script, a movie, a poem, a monologue, a song, a dance, I’m always creative; creativity for me is key.

And how do you unwind?

I unwind by swimming with turtles or dolphins. I swim a lot. So, I go to Islands I dive into the middle of the ocean and just swim. I love to swim.

Some of your posts come off as someone who is conscious and passionate about Nigeria. What aspirations do you have for the country?

A lot of aspirations. Over the years it would have been extremely easy for me not to come to Nigeria at all. I could easily have stayed in United States, or United Kingdom, or Germany or even Russia. And I know I would have been okay doing what I do there. But I love Nigeria, and I will always love Nigeria no matter what. And I have a lot of vision for Nigeria. And that vision is one that encompasses a country where everybody doesn’t want to ‘Japa’. The ‘Japa’ mentality I think is embarrassing. I think it’s unfortunate, you know where doctors think they go and do their stuff in elsewhere and whereas when I go to the United States or go anywhere, Nigerians are applauded of their ingenuity. And you will come home there are many problems. I want to be a part of the solution; I don’t want to be talking about the problem I want to be a part of the solution. And I put a lot of things in place to bear the solution if the government wants to engage with the creative industry they need to come and talk to people like us because we have a vision for the country; we don’t do ‘follow-follow.’ Ronald Regan was an actor before he became a president; Donald Trump was an actor who became a president, Polish President, Lech Walesa was a playwright who became a president. And of course, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine who was a popular comedian. Creative people, ultimately passionate people and I am passionate about Nigeria.

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