Anthonieta Kalunta‘s rise to the limelight is not accidental. For the Nigerian actress and journalist, success is about knowing what you want and going for it.
Not long after she graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria in 2017, the fast-rising actress had a chance at stardom gazing at her in the face.
Kalunta got the nod for the audition of ‘The Milkmaid’, a movie by Desmond Ovbiagele, a film director. But for many reasons, she knew making the most of the opportunity would require tough and calculated decisions.
On one hand, the project was her debut in the cinema industry after her stints in stage productions — meaning she had to research and adapt quickly to be able to deliver top-notch performance in an entirely new terrain.
On the other hand, it would require her travelling to Taraba state — which then was her first long trip away from her family.
But the 23-year-old was ready to brace the odds and it paid off in the long run.
After her impressive performance during the movie’s audition, she was selected to play the lead role alongside Maryam Booth. Just like the movie itself — which has continued to snag awards and recognition since its release — Kalunta has also enjoyed popularity for her role.
She was nominated for the ‘Best Young/Promising Actor’ category at the 2020 edition of the Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA).
In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle, Kalunta reflects on growing in the north as an Igbo girl, experience featuring in ‘The Milkmaid’, and issues affecting women in Nollywood.
I believe everyone has an untold story, can you briefly tell us more about yourself?
I am Anthonieta Kalunta. My father is from Abia state while my mother is from Imo. I was born and bred in Zaria, Kaduna state. We’re four — three girls and one boy. I’m the third child.
What was it like growing up in the northern city of Zaria as an Igbo girl?
Primarily, when l was younger, it wasn’t even an issue for me. Ethnicity wasn’t a big deal then. As kids, we attended school together with others. But as we grew a little older, they started taking notice that you’re an Igbo or from that ethnic group.
Growing in the north taught me tolerance because I was able to accept more people. For instance, the environment where l grew up was one where almost everyone was from somewhere different.
So, I’ve always had that mix. I am not like an Igbo girl that grew up around only Igbo people. l know how to relate with others like the Hausas. l was also able to cope in terms of religion because that’s the environment where l grew up. Basically, religion and ethnicity were not a challenge in the north when l was young.
You studied theater and performing arts at ABU but you had stints in local media organisations as news anchor, reporter, and programmes presenter. How are you able to navigate these effortlessly?
During my 200 level in school, l started hosting the red carpet at events. From there, l took a little interest in presenting, so l started doing voice-over for people. By the time l finished school, I was posted to a TV station for my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme. From there, l started reading the news as well as reports and that’s how l developed my presenting skills.
What inspired your choice of acting as a career?
When l was in junior secondary (JSS3), my brother picked a course in theater arts and we went to watch a stage drama together. You know in stage performances when the light goes off, they change the set and when the light comes on, it’s usually a different thing.
That looked beautiful to me and at that point, l decided this is what l want to do. So, I made up my mind to study theater and performing arts and become an actor. I wasn’t sure where that would take me but l knew that l wanted it. So, when l got to senior secondary SS3, l wrote the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and got admission into ABU Zaria to study theater and performing arts.
Prior to your feature in ‘The Milkmaid’, have you starred in any other movie?
No, ‘The Milkmaid’ was my debut for screen acting. Primarily, the ABU school of drama trains us in stage productions, we do a bit of screen acting but it’s only as schoolwork. So, l have done performances for stage but not screen.
How was the switch from stage to screen like for you?
At first, there was a lot of tension because I was a bit scared or say uneasy. l wasn’t sure how it would go. So, l started reading a lot and watched videos to learn more about screen acting because one thing my lecturer told us was that if you can act on stage, you can also do that on screen.
So, l was confident that it was something l could do and came to the conclusion that I just have to do a lot of research, work on myself and own my skill. Therefore, articles on the transition from stage to screen, videos among others helped me before l traveled.
I learned you were selected for ‘The Milkmaid’s’ audition while waiting for your NYSC call-up letter. True?
Yes, that’s true. They even asked us to come on set the same day NYSC asked us to resume on camp. It was a tough decision because NYSC posted me to Abuja, which l always craved then. A lot of people were telling me to go for service but I was really interested in the story, so l made up my mind to go for the movie and do NYSC later.
Tell us about the audition process and how you were selected?
I think the first difficulty about the audition was the fact that l had to travel to Taraba. The state is not close to Zaria even though they’re all in the north. It was also my first long trip away from home, alone. So, there were quite a lot of uncertainties at first. When l got there, I slept in a hostel at Taraba state university and on the audition day, a huge number of people showed up.
There was obvious competition. You don’t know who is who and you’re not sure because they could simply pick anybody. I was paired with one young man for the audition. He played the husband while I played the wife role. So, we went in and did our performance and that was it. They told us that they would get back to us after that which is normal with every audition. You just have to be hopeful. After the audition, l didn’t go back home (Zaria) directly, I went to Kano. But when l was about to leave for Zaria, the director called me and said they’d want me to play the lead role as Aisha in ‘The Milkmaid’ and asked if l could do it. l was really excited.
Would you describe your selection as a miracle, considering the fact most Nollywood producers would prefer already established stars for a hit project such as ‘The Milkmaid’?
Yes. I can’t deny the fact that there’s God’s hand in all of these. As you have said, they wanted someone already established. l got to know later that they had an established actress expected to play the role but she had some issues with the schedule and couldn’t show up. That was why they held another audition to get someone who would fit into the role for which I was selected. So, it’s a miracle. It’s all God.
What was your experience playing the role of Aisha in the movie, especially as an Igbo?
Firstly, I’m an Igbo girl but remember I grew up in Zaria. When I was in primary four, we moved to a part of Zaria called Zango, which is dominated by the Hausa people. So, I grew up among Hausa and Fulani people, played with them and in the process, I learned to speak the language too.
That’s one of the reasons that also earned me the role because being able to speak Hausa was one of the requirements. Going on set was a bit tricky because the Hausa that l could speak was not the proper one. So, we had a language instructor who taught us the proper Hausa and Fufulde. Generally, it was a beautiful experience.
Having lived in the north for years, how will you describe issues such as early marriage and others addressed in the movie to happenings in the region?
I don’t want to talk about early marriage in northern Nigeria like anyone from the south would do. Yes, many consider it bad but that’s not always true because they operate a penal code, which is the Sharia law. So, there are laws that guide it as well as culture and tradition.
The truth is that even for those of us down south, it’s just the adult education and probably religion that stopped people from getting married early now. If you ask our mothers, most of them got married quite early.
One thing that I always say is that it’s a conversation that we have to address together as a nation. If as a country we have a general law that defines children and the least age people can get married, that would be fine. Until we have such a law across the country, I don’t really think we can say some are marrying children because the definition of a child is not really clear in many northern states.
‘The Milkmaid’ was no doubt a daring one considering the perceived risks involved. Were you at any point afraid of death or being attacked on set?
When you read the script and see the kind of things we’re to shoot, it’s normal to be scared. I was more scared before going to Taraba state. However, when I got on set, all the fears vanished. I felt protected because I was not the only one on set, we were many. We also had security operatives as well as the support of the community people. While on set, we heard of attacks on some villages.
You were nominated for the ‘Best Young / Promising Actor’ category at the 2020 AMAA for your role in ‘The Milkmaid’. What’s the feeling like?
It’s exciting. l feel people made me more excited about it because everyone kept reminding me of that. My family and friends were so happy. That also made me happy because I have always wanted to make them proud.
Also, it’s an honour to be nominated for the AMAA on your debut. That doesn’t happen always. I know many established actors that haven’t achieved that feat.
Did you feel sad not winning the category?
I didn’t, to be honest. I actually reached out to the winner of the category (Faith Fidel) because when I checked the works of everyone on the list, I was so impressed by hers and the fact that she’s really young.
What was it like working with the likes of Maryam Booth and other movie stars on the project?
Maryam is an amazing person. The first day we got on set, the director introduced us and we picked up from there. We sat together, bonded a little, and even slept in the same room on the first day because she’s really free with people. I learned so much from other members of the crew too. Basically, I feel the relationship we had away from set helped us to play our characters on set well.
How has it seen since the movie was released in terms of opportunities?
I have had some offers but I’m trying to be careful as much as I can because when you feature in a movie like ‘The Milkmaid’, you don’t want to start all over again in your next movie. ‘The Milkmaid’ has put me on the pedestal, so I need to be careful as regards the offers I take and consider things thoroughly.
Nollywood is considered a difficult place for women because of some inherent ills. We’ve heard of actresses revealing how they were rejected for movie roles because they didn’t agree to producers’ sexual advances even when they’re qualified. What is it like being a female in Nollywood for you?
The truth is that I can’t debunk claims by some of these women because l think they are valid and it’s not just the Nollywood, it’s more like a societal problem. For me, I have not had such experience in Nollywood but having been to several places while hunting for a job, I know what it’s like. Even in the media landscape, it’s common.
But I feel the narrative is changing because women are becoming more open to talking about it. However, as much as there are bag eggs, there are good ones in Nollywood who are majorly after discovering talents.
Critics often question the sources of income of females in Nollywood when they buy cars or build houses. We saw the case of Destiny Etiko recently. What do you have to say about this?
One thing that really amazes me is how the society is quick to bash a woman’s success and attach it to a man. We have seen it in several cases and it’s not just about the actors. Over the years, you hear people say why are the male actors not succeeding like their female counterparts? It also boils down to how the society is structured. Women may be more open about their success and it’s not the same with men.
Also, if you put a woman in the limelight, she would be getting offers, endorsements among others naturally. Moreover, you cannot deny the fact that they are also great actors. So, l don’t think it’s a valid argument. it’s simply one of those things people say to undermine the progress of women which is totally unfair.
You earlier talked about choosing ‘The Milkmaid’ over NYSC. Looking back now, what do you make of that decision?
I don’t think it’s about choosing between going to serve Nigeria and pursuing my dream. This is because, at the end of the day, my dream is to serve Nigeria. Whether l become an established actor or go for NYSC, I’m still serving Nigeria. It was simply about choosing a pathway for myself and making the best decision given the time. Looking back, I don’t regret for one second not going for service then. I’m really grateful that l was able to make that decision then.
As a matter of fact, I have completed my NYSC programme.
What do you have to tell your fans and ‘The Milkmaid’s team?
To my fans, l love you guys and I’m really honoured that you’ve chosen to support me. To Desmond Ovbiagele, ‘The Milkmaid’s’ director and producer, one thing that I would always say is that I’m grateful for the opportunity. They saw a young talent and they were willing to give her the platform.
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