Being married doesn’t make me less desirable or out of the market —OC Ukeje, actor
Okechukwu Ukeje known professionally as OC Ukeje is one of the most successful Nollywood actors known for his breath-taking role interpretation and character masking in films such as When Love Happens, The Department, Before 30, In Sickness and In Health and Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie), which he acted alongside, John Boyega, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor. OC rose to prominence after winning the Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO) reality show in 2006 and has featured in a number of prime movie projects. The multiple award-winning actor, who is happily married, spoke to Newton-Ray Ukwuoma about his career and other expectations from fans.
How much of a singer are you?
That’s actually what I started off doing. I wasn’t interested in acting from the beginning. I was singing in an a cappella group in secondary school. When I got into the university I was singing with a music group in a campus fellowship. I only started acting in 2001 because the campus fellowship I was in at that time was doing a stage play and I was forced to audition for a role. I did and played the role.
After the first campus fellowship play, why didn’t you continue with your music?
Other independent production companies came along and I started acting professionally. I Initially, I thought the music will be the mainstay for me. At first I was a difficult decision to quit music. I remember seeking counsel from the director of my first movie, “White Waters”, Izu Ojukwu. He simply said to me, “OC, ride on the wave that takes you higher”. At this time, I had won the Amstel Malta Box Office realty TV show, I had won a car and some money in a short time. So, after he spoke to me I made the decision to continue acting.
Because of the excellence people see in your works many believe you are born an actor, some say you can win an Oscar. What is your secret?
I continued acting because the opportunity was there. So, when people tell me that I am good at it, I was always like, “Ehn”. And that has been my reaction. I didn’t really think I could act. And the only thing I did then was to watch movies and imitate other actors. This is like what everybody does anyways. But the confident grew because people kept telling me that I was good at it. I had a lot of people round me who would say things that boosted my confidence, like mentors.
You cannot be good because people said you are. Do you have people who were entertainers in your family tree?
The only thing I think I picked up from my mother is music. She was in the choir. And in fairness, my father was a caterer and an artist.
Yes. So, I dare say there is a bit of creativity, art, in our system. My older brother studied fine arts in school and that is what he does now.
Most of your recent films are on the cinemas…
I guess, but I don’t choose them based on that. I choose my movies based on the script. But the truth is not everybody goes to the cinema to see a movie. We are still encouraging people to cultivate the habit of paying for Nigerian films. But IrokoTV is still the best platform to market films.
You spoke about encouraging the cinema culture, do you think cutting down the price will encourage the cinema culture?
Yes and No. Yes because we have to win the audience back. For the times we were growing up we were watching stuff on TV. It was the big series like Checkmates, Supple Blues, Behind the Clouds that were reigning. Those were the films that everybody came home between 8 and 9pm to watch. There was a huge following because the series were interesting. People closed from work on time to watch it before the Mexican telenovela took over. Then we entered a period we were doing all kinds of movies and the quality started dropping. However, there were lots of epic films like Living in Bondage, Forever, Taboo and other bunch of movies that people enjoyed. So, if we are trying to win back the audiences we have to do what it takes to get them to come in. Sometimes it might mean free tickets, or paying a little less. However, the painful part is a producer is not going to find that funny because how much he spent making the movie is still how much he spent.
On the other side, if we can assure people of the value, they would willingly flood the cinemas. Did you see how long Black Panther has been on the cinema? Let’s be honest, some of the films like Wedding Party have that value because of the story, the actors and directors on them. That is why I said, Yes and No. If there is noise enough, if there is value enough people will spend their money on it. So, it is not only about reducing the cost, but also about increasing the value. This is what Wedding Party has shown us.
How many movies do you do per quarter?
Now, it is usually one or two. In the last few years, I have done about two to four movies a year, and that is not sustainable. For me it is also a timing thing. In the last four to five years I have been doing a lot of travelling. And here is the thing: it is not because of lack of work. I am constantly reading scripts. I just finished one last night, and I am starting another one soon. I have like two scripts in my hands. I get phone calls all the time. And there are some, who just call like, “Please we want to start a project tomorrow, will you be available?” If I count those ones I can’t say the number of work I get, but as far as the work I have accepted to do, this is the number.
How many of your films have not been released?
I shot this film in Brazil, September last year. It is not out. I shot another film in Atlanta three years ago. We were supposed to do pickups but because people’s schedule were clashing that movie has not been released.
How about the movie you posted on Instagram where you were kissing Rita Dominic? Has it been released?
Laughs. So, we are still on the project. We are still shooting. But I am not at liberty to say more than that. It will be released soon.
That post has received more comments than many other post. People say you love to kiss that’s why you always accept kissing roles.
Laughs. But it is interesting because there are few films I didn’t kiss anyone. I didn’t kiss in In Sickness and In Health. I didn’t really kiss. It was a small peck in the beginning.
Another fan said you are the master of chemistry because you know how to put a lady in the mood?
The truth is you cannot create chemistry by yourself. It is the people you work with. Honestly, it will be impossible if you are feeding people and they are not feeding you back. In fact, there are times you have to create an air of comfort for you and the person for the purpose of the scene. The atmosphere is usually tense on set because first, there are people in the room and second, you haven’t met this lady before. If you have, you have never been in that position before. So, you have to create that air so that both of you are comfortable with each other.
You do this behind the scene?
Yes. These are the things I do before they say, “Action”. Because kissing someone is not easy. You don’t know what their body language is. It is a difficulty scene. This is why you have to have a conversation about what is acceptable to the girl and what is not. So when people think I am a kisser, it is not that easy.
Did you have that conversation with Rita Dominic before that scene?
Fortunately, Rita and I worked together in my first film, White Waters. It was very scary for me in the beginning, but honestly she made it very easy for me. And because of that we have built a relationship over time. She is obviously a much bigger actor than I am so the access is not there. But she has also been generous enough to invite me to almost all her Christmas parties. So, I dare say that there was already a relationship between us which made certain things easier even in that film. And really, if Rita wants to kiss you, you must submit yourself to the process.
Did you think that moment was epic?
Yes. I thought that it was very strong. If I compare the first time that we acted together and this one this is a build-up of many years of experience from both of us. I think it was very strong and I am looking forward to the release of the movie.
How many more people would like to kiss? Do you have some unreached milestones?
Laughs. To be honest, I can’t say kiss because I do not determine what happens in the scenes, but I would like to work with Genevieve [Nnaji]. She is someone I have been wanting to work with for a long time. You know how you want something and it doesn’t happen in two years and you are like, “You know what, if it will happen it will happen”. If it doesn’t happen then she is the one that got away.
What attracts her to you?
For the longest time I have come to see Genevieve as the future of Nollywood. This was my thinking back then when I was starting out. And it is not that I am saying she isn’t now, no. Anytime I see her I am always like this is what it should be like and I thought it will be great to work with her. She is good at her job.
Do these people rob off on you when you work with them?
Yes. There are things that you learn. I have worked with Joke Silva, Rita Dominic, Norbert Young, Sam Dede, Ramsey Nouah, Chioma Akpotha, and Desmond Eliot. With these people you learn about process.
Some ladies are not happy you married too early. What do you have to say about that?
Well, what is the definition of early? I am 36. I will be 37 in two months. I have been married since three years. In my opinion I married late. Everyone wants to marry early to have kids early, but those things don’t matter. I think I married because I felt I was ready.
How does being married help grow your fan base?
This is how I feel about it: no matter what status in life you attain, you are going to gain and loss some following. Once you come to terms with that fact you will not worry too much. True, staying single might be a good business decision for some time because once you marry it changes the opinion of people who see you as either a sex symbol or a potential lover. But for a long time this was the yardstick people used. Sometimes you do things for the public and sometimes for yourself.
What are you doing for the public, especially for those crushing on you?
I think that being married does not automatically throw you out of the market.
Are you saying you are not out of the market yet?
I am saying that I am not any less desirable. Being married should not change the desire for me. It does not change the desire for wanting certain married people. I know, being married provides a limit, and being single doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything. I don’t think I have become uglier because I am married.
There was a time you kept your beards and people didn’t like it. How did you handle that?
It was because I was working. I needed the extra hair. I got it off afterwards. But sometimes I like to stay rough. I am an actor.
What made your wife the best choice for marriage?
We were long term friends. We had discussed everything that could be discussed. It has its own ups and downs when you finally come together, but there was a high capacity of her being my girl and my guy at the same time.
Where did you meet her?
I met her in my first year in the university. We have been friends since then.
What was your lowest moment growing up?
I had many low moments growing up. The lowest I think was when my dad died when I was still in school. It was one of the most difficult moments when you couldn’t do anything to help but knew how much effort was put into your upkeep.
How old were you at the time?
- I am the second child of three children. That people was very difficult.
What did she do to keep up?
She was a civil servant. She always raised money. Sometimes my uncles helped out.
How has been raised by a single mom shaped your view on life?
The difficult part is that you get to a stage in your life when you need strong male figure. I had a lot of male figures growing up, but not at this the season of my life where you are largely by yourself, trying to figure out crucial decisions whether it is a new business decision, a career shift, etc. I didn’t realise how difficult it was to grow up without a father figure until these recent years.