Before Paul Papel tapped Enyinna Nwigwe to play the lead role in a movie project he’d been working out with the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), the latter assumed that conflict-oriented Nollywood scripts with such tasking shot list and elaborate plots would definitely require that its producers make do with only the scarce resources they readily had at their disposal. He didn’t envisage the lengths to which ‘Eagle Wings’ would later go towards actualising the technicalities and sceneries it scripted.
It didn’t take long after agreements were sorted out before the Imo-born movie star found himself traversing Abuja, Borno, and Kaduna while flying over actual danger zones in the northeast in a bid to capture realism. Suited in an airforce overall reserved for wing commanders, Eyinna was immersed into the system as part of the film shoot such that actual NAF officers who were oblivious of his mission across the bases paid respect at the sight of his rank. And there were the riffles too, among other equipment he had to get used to as the movie’s storyline quickly unfolded.
Even as daunting as it had seemed then, it wasn’t the first time Eyinna would handle top roles. Over his 16-year career, he appeared in socially engaging films and was cast in ‘Black November’, a 2012 action drama, opposite the likes of US’ Oscar-winning Kim Basinger and Akon, the Senegalese showbiz mogul. He also starred in the coming thriller ‘Badamasi: Portrait of a General’. While engaging with Hollywood executives, Eyinna has been contacted for roles in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, and other climes.
“I’ve been involved in socially relevant conversations throughout, not just films. It’s a journey I found myself on. It’s not a case where it’s only what I want that comes to me. But you can call it the law of attraction because I had genuinely wanted to tell stories that initiate conversations. The experience from the project and the social network I amassed… has set me up so that people who saw one or two of those films could trust that I could work on a global scale. When they think of someone who can carry scale, they’ll come my way,” he tells TheCable Lifestyle in a chat.
One recent movie you acted in is ‘Eagle Wings’ and viewers are talking. To what extent do you think its storyline portrays the realities of the military beyond sharing that always-triumph narrative?
I believe it reflects the inner workings of the air force, which was our focus. Armed forces also include the army and navy. We dwelled on the air force, their role, and how they operate. Film as a medium is beyond telling true stories. You have room for fiction and motivational storytelling that shapes the perception of what you want to represent, even as they’re ways to tell stories of what is going on. I would say it focuses more on what happens in the space. We know the men in camouflage to just be armed forces, some of whom we interact with daily. People have biases to certain conducts but that is just a percentage of what they represent. We have the experience of being integrated into the force. They’re pretty much on standby to go on missions even as they all have families they leave at home.
They wake every day to defend the nation upon any order. Some go on missions and never come back. Some did while we were filming and never came back up until when we released the movie. And there’s a lot more the force does beyond flying fighter jets and shooting rifles or missiles from the sky, in terms of humanitarian services. It’s all-encompassing. Not to say they’re perfect all the time. But the story was, in this case, told to demystify whatever it is that is an impression among Nigerians and the world at large. It humanizes them and gets us to understand these are people who have their own shortcomings but do all they can, against all odds, to allow us to sleep at night.
Tell us about how you were hired for that role. What was the experience embodying the character you played? To what lengths did you go to optimise your interpretation of the script assigned?
Paul Papel, the producer, called me and told me what his plans were and what he was working on with the force. It had never been done on this scale in our clime, you know, seeing the kind of support the air force gave to create the film. It’s unimaginable that there’s a chance for Nollywood to access these facilities the way we did to tell the story. We had a short time between agreement and going on set. Being a sensitive conversation — by which I mean having to use fighter jets, helicopters, and the rest of the props I refer to as the actual stars of the movie — it required very precise timing and openings when available because these are the same tools that are used to protect the nation.
And when we had those chances, we didn’t have the time to pre-train to perfection. We had to be quick, learn what we needed, and shoot at the moment as we went with storytelling. Air force personnel were attached to ensure we captured excellence and that nothing slipped that misrepresented them. We also had to be very quick on our feet to ensure we got it right or we don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity again. In some cases, we were integrated into real missions to obtain certain shots, going over the actual danger zones to capture realism to a very great extent. There was just so much that is nothing like I have experienced. I woke up everyday dressing up in my flight suit.
I went to work that way as we shot across the Maiduguri air force base, Kaduna base, and Abuja. There are different places that had different facilities to capture the story. I had to go there as a lead actor with my other co-lead actors. We were literally going to work in uniforms, being that the story was tied around my own experience. I joined in the crew room with the real fighter pilots, waiting for an opportunity to shoot my scene with the ambiance and the real backdrop of things happening within the base camp. We watched men go on the real missions while being saluted by officers who respected the rank I wore as wing commander, being ruffled around the first time so I don’t end up having any problem later that would send me to the guardroom (giggles). I’m like, “I’m an actor. I got to explain.”
The supervising officer then told me, “look, some people may or may not know you’re an actor. It’s the rank first. If they should decide to respect the rank, you’re wearing it.” It’s what it is. It helped shape my mind and conditioned me into believing I’m actually a wing commander. It got me immersed physically and mentally. It did help that we had real costumes, the real environment, and the real facilities. It all came together to shape Nura Yusuf, my role.
How does it feel shooting across NAF bases in the north, being fully aware of the security risks?
Especially in Maiduguri, we heard all sorts of stories. I was even shocked at how beautiful the town was. But I’m an actor and the one for adventures. My job takes me to nooks, crannies, and all sorts of situations to get it done. The first thing that came to mind wasn’t the danger but the excitement of capturing. Integration took over. We were desensitized. For me, it was, “what next?” A bomb could go off in a corner, and people would be like, “Oh, that’s another one.” There was just that acceptance and calm. I don’t know, I could feel that chill in the air that it wasn’t about me not being safe. Maybe it’s because I felt protected by the environment or the people I was working with.
But I did go out of the camp beyond the air force space. There was just that thing, the stories of the foot soldiers, the special forces men that have been to missions and lost both friends and brothers. All that came together to form the experience and keep me focused on the reason why we were there rather than anything about being in the north. I was more preoccupied with telling the story from the point of view of a fighter pilot and optimising performance.
You’ve partaken in many other movie projects and there has been this pattern of playing conflict-related roles. Is this an inclination? Do you have anything specifically for conflict-related roles?
Not at all. I wouldn’t say that. But on communicating purposeful conversations and bringing narratives to the fore through my vessel as an actor, then yes. I’ve been involved in socially relevant conversations throughout, not just films. It’s a journey I found myself on. It’s not a case where it’s only what I want that comes to me. You can call it the law of attraction ’cause I genuinely want to tell stories that initiate conversations. And they come. They just do.
What are your thoughts about this actor-role stereotyping tendency that exists in Nollywood?
It’s an interesting question you ask because there are different ways to look at things. 10 plus 10 is 20. Same goes for 19 plus 1, and 9 plus 11. There are different ways to get 20. One person could be so passionate that they diversify from the onset, where they want to be given the opportunity to play and show range while someone is there playing a good policeman every time so much that people know him as one. And he’s built his popularity and social capital of that, you know, niche and stereotyped character. If tomorrow, a producer comes with investor money and wants to hire an actor, most times, it makes sense business-wise to hire those that are known and can return the investor funds. They make the policeman play that stereotype. So, they get the value of their fame over a range of talents.
Not to say there’s no room for talent but stereotyped characters can work for someone who already has something going for them without turning down roles because of stereotypes. They consolidate that to build a brand that is now more marketable for any other role. But some other person would say, “Oh, I want to establish the range from the beginning.” Tomorrow, they’ve won several awards. The other person might not be winning several awards but could be more famous (laughs). It all depends on what you want. Beyond being about talent, actors should have a mind of their own and be attuned to their own consciousness. You have to be aware of what’s happening around you and the influences that be. There will be doubt every now and then because of distractions — social media and everything. But, within you, you have to be in tune. That’s what guides one to the greatness that there could be.
Of course, there’s the money, but what informs your choice of movie scripts?
…When it excites me from the first read; when I can read and images come with the words. If, after the first three pages I don’t feel that, it’s not for me. In truth, there are times when it reads well because you’re going to get paid big. Maybe if you weren’t in need of some good money at the time, it won’t excite you as much. We make decisions based on the moment a lot of times, even though there’s a core of what you wouldn’t go below. But there also room for a play-around without rejecting scripts all the time ’cause it’s not a socially relevant narrative. There’s a market for regular slapstick or straight-to-DVD movies that these other ones may not reach because they go from cinema to Netflix, festivals. Before they do their tour, it’s two years. This is while you have some that just keep feeding another market too, which comes together over time to define what you represent. It depends on how you feel as the actor.
Your filmography is stunning. We’ve seen you go to and fro in these Nollywood-Hollywood projects like ‘Black November’ and ‘Turning Point’ as well as other A-class stories. What’s your strategy?
At a time when you’d ask any top actor here what their five-year projection is and they’d say Hollywood, I had a chance with ‘Black November’ – listening to myself. I was the lead. There was Kim Basinger and Akon. I achieved this as an actor from Nigeria, not the top actor there is in Nollywood. I had lots of experience on that set that was like an awakening to the reality that, “this is me here as a local guy, yet, working with Oscar awardees.” I had this blank moment when I was to take my lines with Basinger before going on to shoot in the vehicle. I had a chance to say, “I’m in the Hollywood everyone wants.” I could stay there and apply the experience. But I’d just be another guy from Nigeria that can’t be more Black American than the people born there. They can’t be more Nigerian than I’m.
I already had an experience in an industry the world is about to hear from (Nollywood). I knew we’d make films that’ll go beyond cinemas to do global festivals and platforms. I knew if they (Hollywood) wanted an African, they would shop from an African market as against making a Black American play. If I’m going there, I wanted to come from a solid market at home, not to become a second-class Black American. There are not too many stories of theirs that are original to us, except you position yourself in a way that the stories are written to accommodate you in your originality — which is also about how you brand yourself prior, coming with some commercial value. Knowing our market share in the space, I decided to be there for the project. But it still felt like I wanted to do it from here.
The experience from the project and the social network I amassed while working on it has set me up so that people who saw one or two of those films could trust that I could work on a global scale, even though I’ve not really given much thought to it in this kind of detail. I guess that when they think of someone who can carry scale, they’ll come my way. If we focus on giving the best to the opportunities we have, another will likely fall on us. I give 100 percent.
Traversing between the US and Nigeria to take on acting and TV gigs, what has been the routine?
It hasn’t been just the US. I’ve done quite a number of projects in South Africa. My recent take is in a South African Netflix original series ‘Kings of Jo’Burg’ is out on Netflix. It’s been great, really. I’ve been one for adventures and connecting. I’ve been called in Kenya and even in Rwanda for projects. There hasn’t been a fixed routine. It’s just as the projects come because we’re now more on a global stage, especially through Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other platforms now trying to collapse content from across the world. It makes it a lot easier and it’s not a case of having your foot physically across countries to get things done. Eyeballs are seeing things from different regions and zones. What’s yours is yours but you can’t be in every picture and inspirations are coming. But as they come, if you’re positioned right, it’s still based on experience and family action, numbers that they see in the analyses, and stats across the platforms. These are the things that are not in control but count in all these opportunities and choices.
So, you’ve been in the industry for over 15 years. What projects represent your highest wins so far?
15 years. Put it in perspective and you’ll be like, “wow!” (laughs) Those would be the ‘Silver Rain’; ‘Black November’; ‘Wedding Party’; ‘Badamasi’, an exclusive biopic where I play Ibrahim Babangida. It’s not out yet. ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Eagle Wings’ were great as well. I mean, I won’t take away from the small ones because there are markets that boost the ones we call the big ones but they all have their places in the building blocks of the brand today. These are the ones that have encouraged me to stay in acting and guided my thoughts about where we’re headed in this. I can only wish that we put ourselves more together so we get value for our dexterity and content as we go international.
You stated you’ve not been a fan of auditions. Tell us about how you landed your first movie role.
It wasn’t in a conventional way. I was on a set to observe the director working while I was in the university and he just pushed me into the film after he needed an extra person to fill up a role which was in my age group. That was how that started. I was never a performer prior. I had come out of my shell and started pushing it until it felt right. I didn’t like to do things I couldn’t reconcile with my mindset and what I could give my genuine passion to. I grew into the actor I’m today paying attention to the times. When it felt true, I pushed. When it didn’t, I stepped back. I was pretty much the same when I pushed the throttle full. The first I played is ‘Wheel of Chance’, the film on HIV.
What was it about your roots and upbringing that prepped you for a successful career in acting?
I stumbled into acting. I didn’t know I was going to do acting while studying economics. I’d gone into school before I understood myself and what direction I wanted to go. It was a case of continuing education after secondary school unlike your mates that wanted to miss a year. Along the line, if you found you didn’t like what you were doing, you could always go for a second degree. I don’t have any foundation that set me up for acting. It was serendipity. My very first experience trying to act as a kid was a very terrible one. My school was to hold a drama on TV. We had to do a presentation. I was auditioned first in my class and sent back to my seat in three words as I could hardly open my mouth to speak and the person who ended up playing that character happened to be my rival in school who would have a couple of points above me in the results and I would outdo him in sports. That was the final punch for me. It was that dreamy thing of “I want to be a doctor or pilot.” Growing up, you find yourself where you are and realise everything had been connecting up to where you stand. Some wake up at 12, 16, 20 and we’re on the journey.
Now, there’s this industry trend where reality shows create celebrities without any strong acting portfolio. This same category of actors is then starred in Nollywood movies in a way that some have started to argue denies existing actors and actresses a place in projects. What’s your say on this?
You cannot control times. I don’t know how to answer this without hurting anyone’s feelings. The world is evolving. Looking at it from what Nollywood used to be, we had fewer people on screens. We had Living In Bondage’s Andy and a few of them grew into the TV series — the Checkmates and the rest of them. We had the RMDs, the Ramsey Noauahs. We got into the DVD era with the Alaba people. We had Jim Iyke. It’s always an evolution. At the time, they were the only ones on the screen. Then came social media that now gives everyone a leveled playing field. It’s now free game such that a man that goes to work and likes to talk on his way can make videos and become even more famous than another who has been there years. That’s nobody’s fault. So, everyone has to stay evolving, which brings us back to doing things from our strengths and letting it play out instead of trying to be like everyone else.
You owe it to yourself to find a way to stay in business while being sure it’s your work representing you on social media because they form different kinds of foundations in the end. You can become famous by doing a film while it takes another person five years to get the right project. The fame of some burns out in a few years while others grow a formidable career. Give others the opportunity. Everyone has the right to enjoy what comes with tech and times.
You have your hands on other things. What do you do aside from acting that many don’t know?
I’m a private person in a public field and I like to have my normal human moments as opportunities arise. Because of the nature of my work, I get to meet people and interact. When I see business deals, I take them. It might not be long-termed. These are not things I bring to the press. Perhaps, when my product line comes, we’ll get to know. I’ve been on the backend of films and beyond what I’m known for. But giving myself out as an actor is the most I do publicly. I’ve been working on my own movie production brand and it’s coming along fine. There are no timelines for these things. You need to be ready to roll out. I kind of feel there’s not so much to prove in the acting space so there is also the business side. Having built a brand as an actor, you need to make sure you have certain things that communicate the standards you want. I’ve been involved in productions behind the scenes in capacities I may not push my name as. We’ll know once we’re ready to fly. On the movies, I’m working on something to be announced.
How do you manage these things and still have time to care for yourself physically and mentally?
Working in the leading-man capacity with all the ups and downs in production can be difficult. And we’re a location industry, not a studio one. We don’t have control over the environment. You can’t control the typical neigbour with his generator; cars on the road. We have to integrate ourselves into real-life experiences. But I’m a solder. I try to soldier on the late hours being on the road, the risks, working without eating sometimes. Those things are tedious. I try to find moments to just be still. When I’m not working, I just enjoy being at home, the most I do socially being social media. I just try to live and find a balance without losing any sense of who I’m. I enjoy the little things that matter to me, some of which I won’t change because of status. I’m energy-sensitive too. I could protect myself by self-preserving but I’m still that kind of person to walk down the street to enjoy the evening breeze if I want to do it.
If I’m out of my space, I’m socially open, knowing it’s what I do. I try to find the balance and live life on my terms as regards things that keep me sane through the roughness of the hustle and bustle in Nollywood. When I travel out, no matter how heavy the project is, it’s always like a working holiday. The way it’s done, it’s like standards are set. You have a trailer on set. It’s different. In Nigeria, we do things differently. Working internationally is easier for me.
We see videos of you in grueling workout sessions. Does this have anything to do with the acting?
I’ve always been a sport-inclined person. My dad played tennis. He used to work for Total and used to play for the Oil Games. My mum was a PE teacher in a federal school. She used to take us jogging on Saturday mornings at the stadium. I’ve always had sports around me. That was inculcated earlier in my life. I took up tennis at 13 and represented my state in the teenage championship and won, for Imo. At 14, I retained the cup. I thought I’d be a professional tennis player. That was my foundation for fitness. Then I grew into trying out modeling and getting into acting.
It was only just natural this is who I’m. When I was at my fittest, I was not an actor. Now, I do the most I can when I get the chance ‘cause once work starts, there’s barely any chance. Any breathing space I get, I want to rest, not stressing myself. I do the most when I set out time off work. I wake up in the morning and know I can gym and I do it with such intensity so I keep a decent body while I work before I can get back to it again. Our schedule makes it hard to integrate that while working, which is one of the things I hope we’ll attain at some point. Regulation. We’re humans, really. In other countries I’ve worked, there is a 12-hour turn-around time, whatever it takes. Here, we’re flexible in Nigeria. It’s more about relationships and supporting ourselves because we don’t have all the structure.
What is it about the struggles an average Nigerian actor you think the fans misunderstand?
It’s common beyond actors. Entertainers are humans. The validation they get can either make or break them. They have emotions. It can be fun or pressure. They have bad days too. You don’t expect them to react to certain things at certain times. They have real issues too. They’re pressured to live up to expectations. People don’t understand the risk we go through and the behind scenes. They just enjoy the glamour on TV and red carpets. People don’t know we go through hell to produce. To fans, I say keep supporting us. We’re making progress in Nollywood. We need ours to support our local productions because if we don’t succeed internally, we won’t be taken seriously externally.
I know you get this a lot but I can’t help asking. Are you still single? Has the status thing changed?
(laughter) Why do you guys ask this question! You’ll hear about me soon and that answers it. I’m a private person, I don’t want to be out there. Whenever you hear a wedding happening, then it did. If it already has, then you’ll hear.
Copyright 2023 TheCable. All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from TheCable.
Follow us on twitter @Thecablestyle