Any actor can readily relate to it. It had been tough enough talking acting as a profession in Nigeria back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Yet, it could only be tougher with industry bottlenecks taking their seats; ready to bludgeon upcoming creatives who would later defy odds and become showbusiness moguls to be reckoned with in no distant time.
For, Jude Chukwuka, a veteran actor in his mid-50s, becoming the go-to man when it comes to TV series, production, film directing, and challenging scripts demanded that he ditches his field of study as an accountant for acting—wading through fierce criticism not from directors, who had him on the speed dial, but from colleagues whose demoralising words stung like smoldering darts up a kill.
But he’s not just the name on the lips of screenwriters and moviemakers on account of his flair for acting. With the ability to instigate a strategic revolt to surmount linguistic barriers that accompany scripts, he’s also famed for his skill in alternating between Yoruba and Igbo, two of the three dominant local languages in Nigeria, so proficiently that viewers are left puzzled as to where exactly he hails from.
In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle, Chukwuka, whose professional network pervades Nigeria’s movie scene, discusses his thoughts about film industry dynamics, impediments hampering growth in the Nollywood space, Netflix‘s foray and increased presence in Nigeria’s show business, how the government plays into the narrative, and, of course, his experience as an actor over the years.
Not much has been written about you. It’ll only be logical if I ask that you give us an insight into your background. Tell me, who exactly is this man Jude Chukwuka?
Chukwuka is a son to Sunday Dibiamaka Chukwuka of the Nwoko Royal Family as well as Nora Nwabuogo Chukwuka of the Ofulue Royal Family in Oburukwu. Both are my parents. My father grew up in Abeokuta; mum grew up in Lagos Island. Both are from the Aniocha local government before it became north and south. My mother is from Aniocha South; my dad is from Aniocha north. I was born on June 23, 1965. I attended St Thomas Primary School in Atunrase Street in Surulere. I went to Bishop Age Memorial Secondary School. My father was in Delta state then.
He wanted me to join him there. So, when I was in class three, I left Lagos to join the Ekukuabor Grammar School in Delta state. My relationship with my dad didn’t work out. So when I left Ekuku Abor, I returned to Lagos a year later to start again from class three. When I left Bishop Age in 1992, I proceeded to Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro to Study accountancy, ND. There are some years in-between but I left for Yaba College of Technology, where I concluded my HND programme back in 1995. I’m from a family of seven children and I’m also a father of three children and one grandchild.
It’s common knowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the movie industry, slowed down shootings, and stalled cinema releases. What has been the experience for you as an actor and how have you pulled through; stayed creative?
That’s true but it’s not only limited to us; it’s a global thing. So what affects us also affects every other industry so to speak—except those that run their businesses virtually. As actors, the pandemic has opened our eyes to alternative ways of making ourselves relevant. I’m an actor but I also do the technicals: I direct and produce. But, in the course of the COVID-19 crisis, I knew that I can’t shoot.
I mean, I’m in that age where one had better avoided flouting safety measures of the whole COVID-19 crisis. Rules on staying home, physical distancing, and all that. I had to observe them. But I had to devise ways of remaining relevant. I started doing ‘Talking Owe’, a platform where I get celebs to talk about proverbs in Yoruba and tell us how these are used in everyday Nigerian conversations.
It has been successful. The audience to that project has been growing. I had always been doing contemporary songs that my likes would have seen as noise. When I did the first in November last year, I got comments like, ‘Jude, do you know if you did not say it, I wouldn’t have known what he (the singer) was saying. What he’s saying is not bad after all.’ I saw an opportunity there to do this trans-generational connection between my generation and those whose songs I chose to sing.
It’s almost cliché to say a particular industry or the labour market wouldn’t remain the same again after the COVID-19 crisis subsides. How do you see these realities shaping trends in Nollywood, considering the recent shortfall in cinemagoers?
I wouldn’t call it a cliché. It’s more like a reality. Amid the pandemic, we had Netflix and other on-demand platforms on the net become increasingly relevant. Sitting arrangements in cinema halls may not be respected as a couple can’t go for a romantic film and you expect them to sit six feet apart. These people can, from the comfort of their room, patronize any of these on-demand platforms. It has also opened actors and other creatives to a wider spectrum of viewership. That is the essence. I don’t think the cinemas will go extinct. But I think people have found viable alternatives in these net-based platforms. Even with YouTube, you get anything you want. The internet has provided a wonderful opportunity for people to both obey stay-home directives while entertaining themselves.
Nigeria’s show business bears untapped potentials for revenue generation. What is that one thing you think we’re still not getting right for film—perhaps in the way we engage with foreign partners and production firms or the stories we chose to tell?
It saddens me that we’re talking this at this time. Film industries bear potentials, so do many other sectors. It’s not about their potentials but more about the people running these industries. Don’t even let us restrict it to just filmmaking. We have potentials in every area but what have we done with it? Don’t let us say just filmmaking. That’s just a sub-sector of the entertainment industry. There are other industries that could have helped the film industry grow but are nowhere to be found. The film industry cannot grow on its own. It’s preposterous. There’s this film that was to be shot in Nigeria. They had to shoot in another country afterwards. We heard, when the producers came from the US, they wanted to shoot in Nigeria because they mentioned Nigerian climes and all.
Bruce Willis was to feature in it. Everybody wanted a bribe. In that environment where bribery is the thing that drives what you do, then those who think the state would do what they ought to do and the private sector do what it ought to do can’t work in Nigeria. Another classical example is that a Nigerian gets fund from outside this country to shoot film, the first thing he does is to buy a house in Lekki, having not shot the film o. Then they come to the acts themselves and begin to say, ‘It’s a small budget. It’s this and that.’ That’s nonsense; these guys are congenital, pathological thieves.
Under them, the industry cannot grow; nothing can. Can a Nigerian actor do one film and don’t do another in the next six months to one year? They would die of hunger! Because producers want to shoot at near free and tell you they’re giving you publicity. Even at my level, some green-horn producers still called me and said he’s giving me publicity. I looked at him and asked, “You, give me publicity? I’ve been doing this thing for close to 28 years. Who are you?” It’s because they’ve heard the big boys say it, that’s why they do so to the gullible ones. The industry is big, yet, so connected.
If you say no, your name goes round [ruining subsequent chances]. They could make up something about you like, “Look, he quarrels on set.” How’s the industry supposed to grow that way? The discrepancy between what producer-directors earn and the peanut pay actors is too large for the industry to grow! There are even no indices to measure growth in the industry. Is it in the earning of actors? There’s no truth in the system! So you can’t know where the growth is. Maybe in picture quality or performance but these alone don’t represent indices on the basis of which one can say the industry is growing. Beyond these industry players, the federal government is part of the problem!
FG might want to initiate a project that would enable the growth of the industry. And the person they’re picking as a representative because he’s a party member turns out to be someone who has done just one film. And because the film was popular in those days, he becomes their ideal person, somebody that is far from being knowledgeable about the realities of today. Somebody that has not engaged in acting directing or producing in the last seven to ten years, the government would say such a person is the choice. What’s such a person supposed to do? They often seem so biased about everything.
Under Jonathan, they said we could get X-Y-Z amount. But they’d give a 16-page document on what you had to do to be eligible. How do we grow! Sometimes, I don’t blame them because those that get these fundings would first spend it on luxuries. Then they tell actors and actresses there’s no money. One baffling thing is that, when these actors turn producers, they do the same thing that has been done to them. It’s a sad cycle! Only when we begin to change our orientation as people —knowing that every man deserves adequate pay for the job they do — that things can change. Look at the dichotomy between the earnings of civil servants and politicians! The least paid civil servant is on minimum wage. One senator’s salary can pay that of 200 civil servants on that scale.
On Netflix, I believe, for every opportunity, one often finds there’s a downside. What do you make of the firm’s recent incursion and increased presence in Nollywood?
If you ask me, that’s another scam. Will they give a Nigerian producer the same amount of money they give to an American producer to run films? And it’s not their fault. Our people have sold us cheap. When someone makes a film with close to N30 million and you’re telling them the best you can give is $35,000. I felt very insulted when I heard that story. So, it’s another scam. And know it, the Netflix they’re showing us here is Netflix Naija o! What they give us is for our environment. Is it easy for people to access them from outside of our environment? It’s very difficult. I told my brother in the US to check out a Nollywood movie and he said he had to go and search. It’s not on their front page like we see here. I told him to munch his front page and send it to me. There was a world of difference between what they’re showing us here and what Netflix was showing globally.
So, our Netflix is for us. It hasn’t added any real value. I say it and I want them to come at me. Oh, are you talking about Genevieve Nnaji? Her story is the enticer. How many people have had the kind of treatment they gave to her since Netflix started in Nigeria. They make Genevieve’s case a pointer but the movie industry is bigger than just that. Why would you point to the fact that you gave her X-Y-Z amount and say you’ve helped. People are coming in with quality productions and you’re saying you can’t give them more than X-Y-Z amount. It doesn’t make sense. We just need to begin to look inwards as to how we can grow rather than wait to leverage on these foreign firms.
You studied accounting. Taking a walk back to your early days in Nollywood, what moment would you say was pivotal to your opting for acting as a profession? What was the first script you took up? What was your first audition like in those days?
I started out as a comedian among my friends. I never thought of making money out of it. I joined the drama ministry in the church. It was rich; it had people who were not afraid to take on subjects that bothered the church. This team included Femi Mafe, Tony Okoro, Bimbo Afolabi, Isreal Eboh, Simon Kolawole—your Simon Kolawole, Dike Dimiri, Mike Dara. Even our president, Biola Filani, was part of that team. We did scripts that were confrontational; they tell you what you fear to hear and you’ll still like it. Israel Eboh was the secretary of the NANTAP Lagos; we were members then.
My performances impressed him enough to offer me a movie role. The first thing I did for him was ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, that was the opening scene, Captain. Then, the next was ‘Elechioma This Concubine’. It was Israel that told me,’ Jude, I’m not saying you’re too good for the church but you can make some money doing this.’ That was how the journey started. He was also influential in my breakthrough. It’s called ‘The Station’, which was shot 15 years ago. Niji Akanni was the casting director. I didn’t need to impress him because he read it and said, ‘Jude, this is you.’ That was how my film career started. Before then, I had done stage plays. It had been very challenging back then.
Because there are times when you won’t find films to do. It was not an easy road but I stayed on it. Tope Oshin, Tope Alake, Uzoma Okpechi, and many others also influenced my career. I’m grateful to those who were confident in me. Rogers Ofime was one. I owe gratitude to Mo’ Abudu. When we did ‘Ojos in the House’, it was said that Ebony Life wouldn’t feature anyone twice for series. But I’ve done three different ones for them. Aside from ‘Ojos in the House’, which we did seven years ago, I was also on ‘The Governor’ and ‘Castle & Castle’. In all three series, you’d see a distinct character.
Of all the roles you’ve taken up, which would you say was the most challenging?
Overall, the first script I took up was a TV ad in 1994 directed by Israel Eboh. I’d learned the lines but didn’t know it wasn’t drama. Whenever he yelled action, my face always dropped. Israel had to beg me, “Bros, I hired this camera. Help my condition.” Eventually, we pulled through. The next I had the opportunity was in 2004 with Tunde Olaoye, the advertiser-cum-director now of WAP TV. The most challenging movie role I’ve taken up is the only one outside my choice of movies. I like to do movies whose stories are relatable. Mentally, it was a script that had me portray the impact of smoking weed. It was 80 percent in the imagination of somebody who had just taken weed.
It was challenging in that you had to create a language and all. James Abinibi wrote it. Another was in ‘The Governor’. My daughter who is studying Dramatic Arts in Ife told me I wasn’t acting; that I was wicked naturally. Another quite challenging one was playing Captain in ‘Castle & Castle’. It was tough ’cause there was a bridge, an old man trying to woo a young girl. To pay that role, I listened to music that would make me feel young and motivated enough to be interested in wooing a young girl. Hard work went into it. They’re things people would see and say, “Jude, you did a good, job.”
For a man of Igbo background, you speak Yoruba surprisingly well, even better than some native speakers such that you’re well attuned to the language’s cultural norms and idiosyncrasies. Did you pick these in the acting process? How did it come to be?
I didn’t pick up the language in the acting process. No, no. Yes—Igbo background, but I was born and raised in Lagos. For me, speaking Yoruba came as the consequence of three levels of influence. The first came when I was in high school. There was this girl, Muyibat Kabiawu, now in the US. We had this Yoruba literature we read then. She’d just gloss through it like a hot knife cutting through butter. I was always like, “God help me! When would I be as proficient as Muyibat?” She left a mark on me when we left school. Another level of influence was in those days when we had the likes of Mike Enahoro and Bode Alalade. After they’d cast the 7:00 news, I would wait for Diran Ajijedidun to do the Yoruba version. There was always an adage to take away, most of which I’ve forgotten.
The third level of influence was when Yoruba movies started gaining traction. You would hear men like Babawande Lere Paimo, I Show Pepper, Fadeyi Oloro, deliver Yoruba, unlike the contraption they call Yoruba films these days because it’s acted by Yoruba people who have no language thing to teach. You can’t watch people like that and not come out with something. Of course we speak Yoruba in my house but those were the three levels of influence that helped me become fluent. As a child, if you speak Yoruba at home, my father would beat you; slap you red and that was how we came to speak our own local dialect. Then, I went out of my way to learn the meaning of adages.
For ‘King Invincible’, you played the role of Anikulapo, the wise one, which saw you do incantations. The director could’ve opted for a native Yoruba speaker. How did you fit into this role? Would you say this shaped your fondness for Yoruba proverbs?
You see, in ‘King Invincible’, the director-producer wanted someone who could do incantations. But he was also conscious of the fact that it was a Christian movie. When he gave me the brief, I called a friend of mine, Ajayi Olawore, who was deep in Yoruba, to work out something. What we did was to pick verses from the Bible, translated them into Yoruba, and presented them like incantations.
You’ve done several films. Sitcom. Series. Short movies. ‘May 29’, ‘Castle & Castle’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Birthmark’, ‘The Last Heir’, ‘The Delivery Boy’, and even African Magic’s ‘Ajoche’ to mention a few. Which was the most spectacular with regard to the reception?
No doubt, I’ve taken up several of them. I’ve been more of a series person. But one that I considered special is playing alongside my Idol, Joke Silva. I enjoyed ‘Delivery Boy’, not talking in terms of reception but performance. ‘Ajoche’ would be my foremost in both reception and performance. It was the first epic that I did and every single moment of it was spectacular, although it came with its own challenges. Life is about peaks and troughs. I’ve had low moments but at no point did I ever contemplate quitting. If I quit, what would I do? Start looking for a job with the NNPC at this age?
During my stage performance days, there was this boy, Bassey Okone and Charles Omorogbe. They were so foul-mouthed they can say anything to you, “Ehen! You’ve been given one line and you’re bragging like a man of activity. Jude, you know why you were given that role? It’s so they’d use you to block unwanted rays of light.” These came in as criticism but anyone who didn’t have a sense of humour would’ve taken it as an insult. I took it as them being critical of my acting skills and I went ahead to polish my performances as much as I could to prove to myself that I could do it better.
You were in the news for making a video of yourself rapping Naira Marley’s ‘Mafo’. What attribute did you admire in his style? And beyond wiring N1 million, has there been any other conversation as regards you both engaging each other creatively?
If I were to start on a funny note, I would say that more than 200 people already wanted tithe from it. I’d eventually owed people for winning the sum. Actually, my interest in Naira Marley came when people started thronging to his songs. I got a bit closer, heard one or two of his tracks. I first listened to ‘Soapy’—you know masturbation and all that. He was talking about it in the sense that it is a reality. I do not support it but it is what it is. But his boldness in broaching that conversation is supposed to provoke thoughts among our psychologists. Why are people turning to that and rape at this time?
He wasn’t encouraging it. What he’s always done is point us in the direction of the problem. People don’t see it. Our leaders should look into these vices, not attempt cutting him down. His ‘Mafo’—why should you be afraid when you’re on the right side of the law? He’s in the right as he hasn’t been proven to be a criminal in any way. He was badmouthed and still got his way. Is Naira Marley responsible for shifting education from 27 to near 11 percent [of the budget] or less now? People always want to smother those that challenge their administrative capabilities rather than address the problem. Beyond the N1 million, I think engaging each other creatively might be a possibility.
FG recently pulled Nigeria out of the WASSCE for fear of having a major health crisis break out among students. What are your thoughts on this? Are there alternative strategies you’d suggest with regard to safely reopening schools for these students?
Honestly, I’m absolutely in support of the government’s move. I’d rather my child loses one year than risk losing my child. It will not change anything in their lives. It’s an across-the-board thing. Everyone would lose one year but, of course, we’d have our children to see when the pandemic subsides. So I’m 100 percent in support of FG’s decision to pull out of WAEC for this year. On my thoughts as to what it isn’t doing right, I’d say it’s too late to discuss that. It dates back to 1960, so talking about it now is a waste of time. We make it look like ‘government’ is different from Nigerians. Nigerians run ‘government’. As long as we have that mentality of looting; acquiring public wealth for personal use, there’s nothing we can do. There has to be a radical change for these things to turn around. It’s not just in health. What about education and telecommunication? (sighs)
Talks pertaining to cybercrime recently dominated discussions. How do you think FG can better address this vice towards salvaging our dwindling reputation as Nigerians?
Pertaining to cybercrime, the system has shown the youth and the children that you don’t need to work hard to make money, and cybercrime has given them a platform to express that. That’s just how simple it is. Look at politicians, ex-thugs running this country. If crime led them to run these offices, then cybercrime could probably help youths raise money, rebuild their image, run for political offices, and steal massively. That is what the system has turned them into.
If you block one way, the talent we have in our youth would find another to express itself. We’ve always prayed it wouldn’t be a bad one. But, as we can see, it pays to be bad in Nigeria. How many contract defaulters have been sent to jail? Orji Uzor Kalu was sentenced but later released on technical grounds—because he’s a person of financial influence! It’s clear you’re telling young boys to look for money any way they can to become relevant in the society!
How do you spend your time when you’re not acting? Considering the rigours that come with it, how have you juggled acting with connecting with your family?
Say, for the length of time I work, I enjoy acting. I can work on a film project or TV series for as long as it takes. On how I connect with my family while at this, we’re a bunch of comedians. My children, my wife. We find a way to express serious matters when they arise and that helps me take things lightly. As a young man, you’ll hear adults say you should look for what you love doing as work, so it’ll be playing all through for you. That’s what I’m experiencing now. In fact, on set, I would tell them they’re paying me to play. I connect fine with everyone and we’re all okay.
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