When my colleague and I arrived at the Ajah, Lagos residence of veteran actor, Olu Jacobs, we did not know that we were in for one of the most exciting interviews of our careers.
71 this year, Jacobs turned out to be almost as witty and informed as any professional with that baritone voice that often leaves indelible impressions on his audience. This interview eventually turned out be two hours of intriguing discussion on family, Nollywood and politics.
Looking at your journey through your career, how fulfilling has it been?
When we started, people didn’t think that there was any road there. I remember that a lot of my friends didn’t respect what I was doing, but they always said ‘Olu, you are different‘. I will say ‘how different am I?’ If you don’t like and respect somebody in my profession just because of your own bias, how can you say I am different? I am not different; it is to me that those insults are being passed. It went as far as some people dodging me because I came to their offices to see them. Those friends that didn’t respect my talent, I had to stay away from them and I was mingling more with people that were in entertainment like me. At the end of the day, I am what I am today and to the glory of God it has been a very fulfilling experience.
You and your wife are usually tagged Nollywood’s most celebrated couple. How did you meet?
I was having a meeting at the National Theatre and the door opened a young lady came in. I looked at her. I have never met her before in my life and I said to the people in the room ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is the lady I am going to marry‘. Everybody laughed. She looked at me up and down, hissed and left. Today, she is my wife and that was 27years ago.
With the rate at which celebrity marriages are crashing, how have you been able to keep it together?
It is God. There are other forces outside that you need to take cognizance of but when you do, you have to make sure that they don’t take control over your life. You are now thinking for two. No decision you take should be for yourself alone. It’s for two and it must remain for two. You have to always remember that. If my wife goes out, and she finds out that she would not be able to make it back at the time she initially thought she would, she picks up the phone and calls me to tell me. Fine! You are thinking for two, she knows where I am, I know where she is. We still do this till tomorrow. Communicating like that helps a lot, once we are talking, you have an idea of where I am and I have an idea of where you are. I am not saying that it should be every minute calls. Sometimes just being together in a room not necessarily saying anything is also important.
So who cooks for you when she is not around?
I am very familiar with the kitchen. Sometimes, I say, ‘okay everybody move, I want to do the cooking today’. I was a bachelor for a long time and I made sure that no woman would come and do ‘iyanga’ for me. I can cook anything; fish, chicken, different types of dishes, I can cook them. I feel at home in the kitchen so if she is there, I can come and join her though sometimes she drives me away.
How do you resolve your quarrels when you have one?
You learn not to pick on anything your partner says. It interferes with the relationship. If something happens and you want to discuss it, discuss it till the two of you resolve it. Why won’t we argue? I have a mind, she has a mind so why shouldn’t we argue. We must argue but as we do so, we must finish up that argument so we can start another one. We must quarrel, it is resolving it that is the task. Anybody can fight but how many can sit down and resolve it? You must finish one fight before another and you cannot jump because if you jump it will pull you back. We thank God and pray to him to continue to guide us and give us the wisdom to relate properly, and to be as fair and honest as possible. Apart from that, we just take it as it comes.
Since you got married, your wife has maintained her maiden name. Why has she not adopted your own name?
She is her own individual. When I met her, she was an actress known as Joke Silva so why should marrying me now deny her and her audience her name. She is Miss Joke Silva who is Mrs. Joke Jacobs. It is as simple as that. People now begin to say what they like. They have even written that we are separated and all sort of stuffs. When she is working, she is Joke Silva but she is Mrs. Joke Jacobs at home.
What are those things you really love about her and the things you don’t really like about her?
Sometimes, she insists on things. Even when we have resolved it, she will still bring it back. She thinks more of others. She will think of you and remind you of things that need to be reminded of. She is always happy to help anybody. For her it’s not an effort. She cares a lot and of course, we are all boys in the house so she mothers all of us. That’s the way, we handle it, so whatever we need to do, we discuss it.
You are both very busy people, how do you find time for your children?
They are grown-ups now but we are still together. When we are together, we ask the children what they think of this or that. You don’t leave them out of it, they have come into the circle and they did not choose to come, we asked them to come so we must make the time to make sure that we look after them, guide them and be with them. Sometimes, that is more important than saying anything, just being with them gives them that extra calmness. You know in our job, we do a lot of travelling, but if I don’t have anything to do outside, what am I looking for? I have the phone, if I have to book an appointment I do so. If I have to go out I go out and if I don’t have to go out, I don’t go out and I am quite happy.
Before television, you were deeply into stage productions when you came back to Nigeria. What was that era like?
I came back to Nigeria in the 70s and we started organizing stage productions at the National Theatre. I thought to myself that what we were doing in the UK, we could do it here. That kept us busy and during one Christmas, I think we did about 23 performances straight non-stop. We did a play by award winning UK journalist and play writer, Tom Stoppard ‘Night and Day’. It was quite a successful play. People were amazed and we were able to get the network news on Sundays to come to our rehearsals. The most fantastic thing was that people in Sokoto, Maiduguri, Makurdi, Minna, Kano, Zaria, were calling NTA and also calling their own relations that featured saying ‘We just saw you on NTA in this play. Is this what you say you were doing? oh, this is fantastic, wonderful’. All the actors were very happy knowing that something was communicating to their people more than anything else that they could say. One day we were doing a show and Hubert Ogunde was doing his show upstairs. That is the man I saw in 1949 that made me decide that I would do nothing else but act. Our show was full but his was not. Our show was full because we did it in English language and many of the people that came to see it were non-Yoruba speaking.
But then, we had the social problem-car snatching. You went out, you were not sure if you will get home with your car. NEPA was doing its worse, armed robbers and all of that was going on, and it was discouraging people from going out to watch all the shows. They would watch maybe half an hour of it and leave. So that slowed us down but at the same time, it was to our benefit because we are now making movies that we are selling outside that you can go and watch at the afternoon at the National Theatre.
It is sometimes believed that the advent of home videos has dramatically affected people’s interest in stage productions. Do you agree with this assertion?
When cinema came, stage was not doing well anymore. Like I said, it was not safe to go out at night because of armed robbers and car snatchers. Even in the buses you were not safe. You join a bus going to Agege and when you get to Oshodi Oke, it turns and goes somewhere else then they park in the middle of nowhere and you were robbed. So when the movies came, you could buy and take it home, lock your door and watch it. Of course, there is going to be competition but it has not done any harm to the cinema. Stage is very expensive. We are trying but it is not easy at all. To get a venue now will cost you maybe quarter of a million per show. So maybe you can squeeze two shows in a day and that will be half a million. Why? And you have to advertise, you cannot rely on sponsorship, nothing can survive on that. They come in occasionally, they can’t come religiously and when they do, they reduce. What is happening to the field of entertainment is only a natural law. When people cannot go out, they will stay in. If they can do in their homes what they want to go and do outside, better. At the time they discovered they could do it at home, it appeared like the one outside is doomed, everybody is staying home now. Tell me, somebody comes to watch a show at 8pm and he is on his way home and robbers attack him, who is he going to blame? So he looks for money, buys the tape recorder, sits at home and even invites his neighbours to come join him.
As Nollywood celebrates 20years, what is your assessment of the entire industry?
In 20 years, a lot has happened. We have seen a lot of talented people, we have seen a lot of ‘cowboys’, and we have seen a lot of people coming and get thrown out by situations. Some cannot cope while some can cope. Some are still fighting to survive but above all, the ‘baby‘ is very much alive and is 20 years old. A 20year old baby is a damn young man. Our baby is doing well, like I said, there are some cowboys, there are people who like to cut corners but we are beginning to get more people who know and more people who want to know. Most of the people who ignored me and went away from me have been calling me for the last 10 years. When they saw the change and what was happening, they began to call me saying ‘My son is taking after you. He says it is Theatre Arts he wants to do, I said well your uncle is there, let him talk to you. He will explain better to you how it is run‘. With all these happening now, more and more want to know where they can train, that is good. And we are beginning to promote knowledge, with our academies. So I would say that we are on the right path.
But in the last 20years, it seems that we have not improved in many areas like in our pictures and stories?
There is no way that we can use celluloid to make movies in Nigeria. It can never happen because everyone else is moving away from celluloid. It has got to be video. If we didn’t have video, there is no way this industry would have grown in Nigeria. It is not possible. Even Japan doesn’t use celluloid at all. They have been using video and that is why they have always been on top. If you search for video, they are number one. We will be deceiving ourselves in saying we want to go back to celluloid. We won’t be able to do one film in 10years. It is quite expensive and they themselves are running away from it. BBC and other news stations have been using videos for years, that is why they can do a recording, rush to the studio and air it. We have good cameramen, technicians and lightmen. The educational aspect is very important and we are trying to see if we can get the government to subsidize it because the people who are teaching them are professionals. To get the best you must be able to pay the best prize.
What motivated the establishment of the Lofudo Academy and how far has it gone in training a younger generation of actors?
My wife and I both agreed it was obvious. Apart from Theatre Arts in the universities, there were no other institutions teaching acting. Even in Theatre Arts, they don’t cover more than the theatre. There is hardly anything else on television or films. We are behind time, we have got to move beyond theatre. Mass communication has a bit more modern equipment so you find Theatre Arts students going to Mass Communication to perch but that is not it. That is what gave birth to Lufodu Academy of Performing Arts. We want you to train, know what you are doing, why you are doing what you are doing, how you are doing it, with whom you are doing it and when you are doing it. When you fulfill all of these answers, then you come back accomplished and you can fire with confidence because you know where you are going, you know what you want to achieve and that is what we are after. The school, I am glad it is going well but the fees, like I said, the government needs to subsidize as they are subsidizing education, they should consider us the same way so that what we charge our students will be low enough to encourage them to learn.
My wife and I both agreed it was obvious. Apart from Theatre Arts in the universities, there were no other institutions teaching acting. Even in Theatre Arts, they don’t cover more than the theatre. There is hardly anything else on television or films. We are behind time, we have got to move beyond theatre. Mass communication has a bit more modern equipment so you find Theatre Arts students going to Mass Communication to perch but that is not it. That is what gave birth to Lufodu Academy of Performing Arts
What are some of those gray areas in Nollywood that need to be tackled?
You see, our problem is not so much the product, we have product, it is the marketing and distribution- that is our problem. When you say, this film is coming out next Tuesday, it should mean national. At the moment, we cannot do that. So the pirates have filled in the gap and then we are blaming them. We cannot blame them. As we are doing here, that is how they are doing in the UK and America. You find some people, when they are doing their movies, they go outside first because on the day it comes out here, people are on stand-by in different locations already mass-producing it and taking it to other locations. So, we cannot blame them until we are able to fashion out a proper distribution system. What we are asking the government to do is to create enabling circumstances for us to function.
I have been talking to some governors but I have not heard any response even though they showed a lot of interest when I mentioned it. I said every local government in Nigeria should have a leisure centre that will have maybe two or three studios and cinemas where you can watch movies, do live shows and musicals. You make those centers your outlets for every local government area so if you want to sell your movies, you do that at each local government. Before pirates come in, you would have sold enough then you go into the market and slash the price. The marketers can afford it but they (pirates) can’t afford it. Now, you turn the table on them and in those leisure centres, you are creating jobs as well. All these things, we see them work in other countries, why not ours? We are our own impediments. There is no reason for us to have the problems we are having.
What are your thoughts regarding the renovations that the Federal Government is doing to the National Arts Theatre?
When we talk of National Theatre, we are talking of theatre at the highest level and it must have a standard. It must be of the highest standard. Then we have to be realistic, who will fund it? It is big enough, it is spacious enough and it has got enough facilities. When they give us certain standards, we mess it up. If we don’t mess it up, we cannot function with it. All those things have to stop. If after all these years, this is what we can make from it, then whoever wants to try something else to dignity the national theatre, should be allowed to do it. Those of us who know that theatre, we know that it is equal and superior to most theatres around the world. That main auditorium will take four thousand five hundred people. You press a button and the whole thing changes into an arena where you have your ring there where wrestlers and boxers can have fights. I think it is a good development on the path of the government.
All through your career, which moment has been the most memorable that may have caused you to be thankful that you choose this profession?
Any award is humbling. I feel humbled that in fact I have been able to touch people, which is why I came into the business so every award does that even more so, when you least expect. I had an award, AMAA award (2007) I didn’t know I was going to win. I believed in the AMAA award and give them support. I was told one of the movies I did with Tchidi Chikere (Director) and acted alongside Rita Dominic got a nomination. When I got to the venue, that was when I saw the program. They said they wrote me a letter but I didn’t see it. After a while, I felt like walking out but decided to stay for a while. When they got to the category, they announced me as the winner. It was very humbling and Bayelsa where the award was held happens to be a state that I am very fond of.
With your years of acting and experience, do you plan to take up other roles such as producing and directing like other actors have done?
Is there any other role for a character like me? I can still play the role of a father, grandfather, uncle and the likes. I would not go and play a school boy. It is as simple as that. I am not taking any role from anybody so why should you be expecting me to write. Do I write? I could produce because I care about the profession and whatever product we bring out. I could direct but my main passion is acting, so if I am handling a production. I will make sure the artiste, technicians and my principles got a fair share. Nobody must cheat because I have been on both sides of the divide and I know some producers and directors do. When I go there, I pre-empt making sure that everybody is fairly treated. If this industry is going to grow, then fairness has to come in.
You seem to feature more in English movies than the Yoruba movies, why is that so?
I don’t choose that. It is unfortunate. Now, I am here with a script I am working on. Somebody has taken the time to inform me well ahead of what I am going to do. I have looked it up in principle, and said yes. Maybe a week to the resumption of this one, some else will bring a Yoruba script, I can’t be on two sets at the same time. You should give me a bit more time. I have done some. I think I have booked myself for one next year, in the middle of January but I love the theatre, I love the joy of having the advantage of being able to do the two, English and Yoruba. How I wish I could speak Igbo too.
Crying on set doesn’t seem to always be a problem for you. How do you always easily get out emotion out?
It is called ‘emotion recall‘. It is something you have to practice on your own in your own room with the mirror. You must have a mirror that is long- that is one friend that will never lie to you. Whatever you put there is what you will see. You practice it and everything you think must show on your face. What makes you stand out as an actor is a lot of work. You have the script so you have to recall it at home, know how to handle it, know where your queue is from, where it begins to develop, where the camera can begin to pick it up so that by the time you say the next word, you are in the character and from there, you build up. The repetition of an act makes its performance almost automatic. Before I could reach here, it took a long time and practice.
Aside acting, what do derive happiness in doing?
It is still the same thing, I love anything to do with the business of acting, whether performing, producing, directing. Singing is another area that I like. I used to sing when I was much younger but I haven’t done that for a while. It was one of the things that helped me in the manipulation of words, when you can sing, you find it easier to speak and manipulate words.
What is your take on actors that delve into other fields like politics, music, fashion and all of that?
What we are just trying to do, especially those who want to go into politics is to gain recognition and a platform for other endeavours. They can use that platform to do other greater things in life. If they can handle the pressures that comes with it, goodluck to them. So, for me, it is really not a problem.
A lot of actors these days have been getting political appointments. Have you been approached for any and you turned it down?
No, I am not a politician. I don’t see anything wrong in any appointment given to people. If they are capable, let them do it. I think it should be encouraged. People that are called are people that the government themselves are aware of and they know how good they are and how efficient they can handle the positions. If they don’t, the governor will remove or push them back. But generally speaking, I think it is good thing. There are certain people that the public respect and for a government to get those kind of people on their team is a big credit to the government.
A few months ago, there was a rumour of your passing away. How did you feel when you heard the rumour?
I am here, you can testify to that. I don’t know. Like I said, we are restless, we panic too much, we don’t get full information before we jump the gun. Maybe they just mentioned Olu, the next person will now add Jacobs to it and it spreads like that. Some people called me to verify and when they saw I was alright, they say we will talk later and drop the phone. Now, they will help debunk the rumour but that information will not move as fast as the one that talked of death.
Considering your age, do you plan to retire anytime soon?
I don’t know. Does one retire from life? My job is life so why should I retire from it. There is no retirement because everything I am passing through is life. Where do I retire from, from being granddad, uncle or dad?
Source: Nigerian Entertainment Today