By Sola Osofisan One of Nigeria's most powerful, dedicated and professional actresses, Uche Ama-Abriel, formerly Osotule. Uche starred in the hit TV show, Checkmate, and in many movies, including Onome, Playing Games, etc. She is also a respected producer and scriptwriter. Sola Osofisan: Uche, I’ve known you for years as someone who does not like any kind of stress in her life. What is someone like you doing in the acting business? Uche Ama-Abriel: That’s a very good question. (LAUGHTER). I started acting because its something I love to do. In fact, I’ve never really imagined myself in any other profession or doing anything else. It never really occurred to me at all. I did not process it at all. If I had sat down and thought about it for a brief moment, I probably would have opted out. Now it’s too late. Sola Osofisan: When you got into it back then, there was no money in it at all. What kept you going all these years? Uche Ama-Abriel: It was the love of it. It was the love of the profession. Some of us we sit down sometimes together and we gist about the old times, those days at the National Theatre when you do lots of productions for somebody without getting a dime. And then the person calls you up again. You know you were not paid for the last production you did, and you still go. And you still dedicated. You go to all the rehearsals, all the performances, without complaining. I think it was just the love of it. Sola Osofisan: Okay, I have heard many people use this phrase “love of it”. What exactly does it mean? What is this love? Is it that if you don’t do it, you will die? Explain it to me. Uche Ama-Abriel: Come to think of it, if one doesn’t do it, of course one won’t die. A friend of mine was talking to me a few days ago and she was like somebody called her and was lamenting. She has a very good job, she’s very well paid, and she’s miserable at the job because she hates what she does. And she can’t leave because of the money she gets. I won’t do anything – no matter how much I’m paid – if I don’t love it, I will not do it. Uche gets bored very easily, so it really has to be something I love to do. That’s the only way I can keep my sanity. Sola Osofisan: And movies…that’s all you love doing? Uche Ama-Abriel: Hm, I’ve realized also that I actually love to write. I love writing as well. It seems you read my thoughts… A while ago, I was thinking that I really could do without acting if one has to… If I really really have to. It won’t kill me. I know of people who were in the industry, who were into acting – I’m not going to mention their names, but I know of one woman in particular who was very very good. In fact, one of the best we had. She’s not acting anymore. It was actually the thought of her that got me thinking too. This lady used to be so good, but she hasn’t acted since she got married. She’s still alive. She’s still young. So if you have one or two other things that you love doing, you probably can step away from it. Sola Osofisan: Okay, so you can do without acting. Can you do without being popular? You know they are two different things? Uche Ama-Abriel: Oh (LAUGHTER), are you kidding? I don’t need it. That would not mean that one would become a non-entity. I can do without the fame. If there’s a way I can act without being popular… Oh, I love acting and I would love to continue to act. But if there’s a way to act without the popularity – Sola Osofisan: No, that’s not possible. Uche Ama-Abriel: Yes, popularity opens doors. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have its advantages. It does have a lot of advantages, but it also has it disadvantages. I’m a very private person. I was talking to a relation of mine a few days ago and she was like I have just mixed two things that cannot really mix well, privacy and the movie world. You can’t be on television and expect to keep your privacy, unfortunately. Sola Osofisan: No you can’t. Uche Ama-Abriel: Yes, unfortunately. Sola Osofisan: Can you tell me at what point exactly did you become popular? What role was it? Can you remember? Uche Ama-Abriel: I think it was with Amaka Igwe’s Checkmate in the role of Nkemji. Remember that bit where I played the village girl that was brought from the village to take over somebody else’s home because she was an “Osu”, which is regarded as a taboo in certain parts of Nigeria. So the mother-in-law brings this really native girl from the village. Funny enough, that was one role I really didn’t want to take. I auditioned for a campus girl and then when the roles were given out, Amaka gave me a village girl. I felt maybe it was because of my inexperience then. I was a bit young. I was like ah ha, did I look like a village girl or why would she give me a role like that. Then I got to read the script and I would stand in front of the mirror to rehearse the lines and everything… And I started liking it. As soon as I opened my mouth on set and we started recording, as soon as I talked people would start laughing. It started as a very small role, but then it got quite big. That’s the nature of the character. Sola Osofisan: The way Nkemji was speaking, how did it come to be? Was that your own creation or – Uche Ama-Abriel: Yes, that was my creation. It was my characterization. But it was with Amaka’s lines. That helped a great deal. I mean reading the lines, I couldn’t have played it any other way. Sola Osofisan: So Amaka played a very important role in you becoming “popular”, because you had been acting long before that – Uche Ama-Abriel: I’d done a couple of Telemovies. These NTA TV dramas, I’d done quite a bit of that as well. It was actually during the recording of one that Tammy Abusi, one of Amaka’s colleagues, said a friend of hers had a production and an audition was coming up and she invited me. So that was really how I went and met Amaka, did the audition and landed the role of Nkemji. Sola Osofisan: In retrospect, when an actor looks back and he says this was a turning point in my life, still talking about popularity, does he feel obligated to the producer or director who cast in that role in any way? How does it feel meeting that person years later? Is there any special relationship or something? Uche Ama-Abriel: Obligation? I really don’t know about that, but I would say that Amaka is somebody I’ve always respected and I still respect a great deal. I’ve done other productions with her. By the way, another production I did with her, To Live Again, gave me two awards, and according to her, when they were trying to cast that role, the character was supposed to be a very bitchy woman. And others felt that Uche is a very gentle person, Uche is quiet, she cannot carry this role. And Amaka kept on telling them “this is Uche’s role. Give it to Uche. Let’s give it to Uche”. Anyway, eventually, she gave me a call. I went to her office and she gave me the script. I read it and I got back to her. She asked me which of the roles I felt she would give to me, and I said Biu the lead character. And she said that was exactly it. And I played it. She directed it very well and I think I played it very well as well. I got two awards for that. So I think she really played a major role in my career. If I have to do an autobiography, it would not be complete without the mention of her name. Sola Osofisan: At some point, I had this distinct feeling that you were trying to get away from the Nkemji character. Is that the case? Uche Ama-Abriel: Not exactly. When I got it, I wasn’t very excited about it. Eventually I grew into it. I loved it. People were actually looking forward to that particular family just to hear Nkemji talk. And on the street, people would say “I lilly lilly wan go village”. I grew to like it and got used to it. Sola Osofisan: I’m actually talking about after the show or character was rested and you were doing other things. Uche Ama-Abriel: Maybe you noticed that because you’re close to me Sola Osofisan. (GENERAL LAUGHTER). Maybe, because even now people call me Nkemji and I go “Oh please that was years ago”. (GENERAL ALUGHTER). Sola Osofisan: So, how many productions do you do in a year? Uche Ama-Abriel: I’ve never really been one of those prolific ones. Maybe two – three productions every year. Sola Osofisan: And these make you enough money for the whole year? Uche Ama-Abriel: No, I do other things on the side. Occasionally I write for people, but I’ve learnt that it’s not advisable to write a script and give to another person unless the producer is really a very good one. I hardly do that these days. I do a couple of other things. Sola Osofisan: What do you look for before deciding to do any of those two – three productions you do in a year? Uche Ama-Abriel: The script has to be very good. In those days, I looked at maybe just a good script and a good director, but over the years, I’ve also realized that apart from the director and the script, it’s also good to know the other people who are going to participate in a production, even the other artistes. And the producer has to be good as well, because a bad producer can destroy a good production. So, I put everything into consideration: the script, the other participants, the producer, the director… And that hasn’t really been very easy. That actually put me in trouble once. Somebody brought a script and it wasn’t a very good one. I read it (and) I felt that making an objective criticism would augur well for the entire production, so I told them that the script was badly written. It was watery and I said they should beef it up and work on it, make it better. And then the news started going around that “Uche say our script no good”. I was sort of blacklisted. So, these days when you bring a bad script, I just say I’m busy and won’t have time. Sola Osofisan: You don’t bother to comment on it anymore? Uche Ama-Abriel: No, I just keep my opinions to myself. Sola Osofisan: Let’s talk about your childhood briefly. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? Uche Ama-Abriel: Ah, I grew up in different places. My parents were teachers so you know with the transfers and everything, you’re here this year and next year you’re moved to another place. But it was mostly in Delta State. I had a very protected childhood. Very very protected. Sola Osofisan: In what way? Uche Ama-Abriel: Parents are forever asking questions, wanting to know where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with… Your friends are screened… Sola Osofisan: Did that bother you? Uche Ama-Abriel: It never bothered me because I have never really been an outdoors person. I think it molded my character. It molded it well. Thanks to them I’m what I am today. I can stay indoors for two weeks and just mind my business and not bother with what the next-door neighbour is doing. It kept me out of trouble. The same things go for my siblings. Sola Osofisan: You’re a first child? Uche Ama-Abriel: Yes, I’m the first. Sola Osofisan: How many younger ones do you have? Uche Ama-Abriel: Four. Sola Osofisan: And you’re close to them? Uche Ama-Abriel: Oh, very very close. Sola Osofisan: What kind of responsibilities have you had as the first child? Uche Ama-Abriel: I don’t know… Was I really… Like my siblings usually say, I think I was really the pampered one of all of them just because as the first girl, you know how that is with fathers… You tend to get very close to your father. And my mom as well. I think I was the only pampered one. I wasn’t really… They would be working sometimes and I would probably just sit by reading my novel. They used to say while we were growing up that they really wished they could be in my shoes. But certain things turned around and one had to grow up overnight and took up responsibilities that one didn’t really have to take up at a certain age… Sola Osofisan: I have a feeling you’re speaking vaguely and there are things you’re not telling me. Uche Ama-Abriel: Of course you know I will speak vaguely. (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Sola Osofisan: Okay, I will leave that topic. So, is being the first child what has made you the take-charge person you are today? Uche Ama-Abriel: Maybe. Because I really had to take charge of my younger ones and take charge of my life at a very early age. As I said, I grew up suddenly, almost overnight. I never went to the market to pick up the simplest things, even for myself. My mother always did that. Or my dad. Suddenly everything changed and I had to. I really really had to. Sola Osofisan: You’re known also as a screenwriter and I know writers borrow a lot from reality. There’s a lot of talk that Broken Chord, one of your scripts, is a true story. Is it? Uche Ama-Abriel: It’s amazing. I really don’t know how people arrive at such conclusions. This Broken Chord, it was said that it is my life story. Broken Chord was totally from my imagination…Totally. And then again, funny enough, somebody else around that time called me and asked if anybody told me her story. I said no, why would anybody tell me your story? I mean we didn’t move in the same circle, we didn’t have mutual friends. She said sometimes you hear things that have been passed down from one person to the other. Onome too was said to be my story. I wasn’t the one who wrote Onome. Onome was done by Opa Williams, probably written by him as well. They said Onome was my story. Sola Osofisan: You just got a script for Onome, right? Uche Ama-Abriel: Dear brother, and they said it was my story. I’ve written a couple of others that I’ve heard stories that they were my stories… Sola Osofisan: What other scripts have you written? Uche Ama-Abriel: I’ve done Sinners, Broken Chord, Sisters on the Run, Footprints… Sola Osofisan: Which one of your scripts has given you the most challenge? Uche Ama-Abriel: I think Broken Chord because I started with that. If you remember when we met, I was trying to do a drama serial and then I think I gave it to you to read. So Broken Chord was actually one of the stories I lifted off that serial I was doing. I think that gave me the most challenge because I was just starting out. Sola Osofisan: As a writer, do you think the movies produced from your scripts meet up to the picture you had in your head when you were writing it? Uche Ama-Abriel: Like I said to you earlier on, I’ve actually stopped writing for people because I realize at the end of the day, they cut corners so much that you begin to doubt that is the script you wrote. There’s one I haven’t seen till today and I really don’t want to mention the name because as soon as I give you the name of the script, you will know the person I’m talking about and every reader would know. I wrote that and traveled and before I came back it had been produced and I hear that a lot of things had been changed. If it changed for the better, oh brilliant because at the end of the day I still get the credit for doing a bloody good script. But if it becomes wish-washy, oh it will rub off certainly on the writer. How many people are you going to tell that “hello, that wasn’t what I wrote”? Sola Osofisan: Who is your favorite director? Uche Ama-Abriel: Tade Ogidan of course. He’s very patient, he’s very sensitive. In his patient and quiet and calm manner, he brings out the very best in you. And then I see him as a very spontaneous director as well. Things just occur to him at the spur of the moment, sometimes on set, and then he goes “Uche add this”. And it just makes it better. Sola Osofisan: Is that also why his productions get so long? (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Because he’s always adding things? Uche Ama-Abriel: I will just laugh and not comment. You know Tade is a very meticulous person and if something isn’t right – like when we were shooting Playing Games, the one that came out not too long ago – we didn’t have a particular location. When he writes – and you’re always doing that as well Sola – you people write without a thought of where the extravagant location you’re writing will be found. You just write. You just let your creative juice flow. Sola Osofisan: Some say that it’s best to just throw it on paper first and then worry about how to realize it later. Uche Ama-Abriel: So Tade does that sometimes and I think maybe he overdoes it because he writes stuff and I ask him where do you think you will get all these from? Look at Hostages several years ago with those helicopters and everything…not many directors would have actually thought of that. They may think about it, but how many directors will actually have the nerve to write it and actualize it? Talking about Playing Games, we had a particular location and that stressed us for a month. We were looking for something on this location. We will now get one place and we say okay, let’s manage this place… Tade will not manage. He’s not in a hurry to earn whatever, to get back whatever investments he’s put into a production. I don’t know, he just seems relaxed with everything he does. Sola Osofisan: Talking about Playing Games, is the second part out? Uche Ama-Abriel: No, it’s not. They have just finished putting finishing touches to that. It will be out soon. Sola Osofisan: A lot of people are looking forward to it. Uche Ama-Abriel: So I heard. Sola Osofisan: How did you get into Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt? Uche Ama-Abriel: I got a call that Tunde Kelani wanted to see me. I’d never met him even though I’d always known his name. That he had this production and he wanted to see me. I had a meeting with him and then he gave me the script. I didn’t go for an audition. I guess they had already done their table casting. But he later told me that a majority of the people who read the script said this is Uche’s role. He’d never really seen any of my movies, so he went out of his way or so to get something I’d done. Sola Osofisan: And what has the feedback been for you taking part in such a different production? Uche Ama-Abriel: Thunderbolt was one of my best productions professionally and otherwise. It gave me two awards as well. When I meet people on the street, they’ll say “Oh I saw one of your films, a really good one”. When you ask, it will turn out to be Thunderbolt. And I have met people on the street who tell me that it had a great influence in their life. And you know it was really a good production, I think one of the best that has come out of the movie industry in Nigeria. It’s been very well received. Sola Osofisan: So you write and you act. What else do you do? Uche Ama-Abriel: I produce as well. I’m also working on something to improve the condition of Nigerian women and children. Women in particular. I’ve witnessed a couple of things that are done to widows, the way that they are treated… It touched me…Things to do with women and children basically. Sola Osofisan: You’ve always managed to separate your work from your private life. How do you do it being in such a public thing like acting? Uche Ama-Abriel: Maybe it’s because I am naturally a private person. I keep very few friends. And I hardly go out. You can almost predict where to find me. Office, home, office… But that way, I don’t get into trouble. I don’t do it consciously. It just comes naturally. Like I said, maybe it has something to do with having a protected childhood. In my family, we keep to ourselves. We mind our business a lot. Sola Osofisan: Uche, many of my readers are aspiring actors and actresses. Many of them don’t even know where to start. Have you got any ideas for them? Uche Ama-Abriel: I always tell people if it is thinkable, it is achievable. And if you have a talent, dreams never die… If the talent is there, go for an audition. Don’t go expecting to use your big eyeballs or long eyelashes to get a role because I really don’t know how far that will take you. If you’re talented and you’re determined, there’s nowhere determination cannot take you. With God on your side… Sola Osofisan: Many of them want to be in the Nigerian movie industry, but they are based outside Nigeria. Where do they even begin? Uche Ama-Abriel: A number of our productions are being done abroad these days really. We know people shooting in Sierra Leone, a couple of productions as I’m speaking with you are going on here in London, you goings are working on something in the US, some people have gone to shoot in South Africa, Ghana… So it really depends on where they are. They should just keep their ears to the ground, maybe move in the right circle. You also write about a lot of these stuff on your website as well. Sola Osofisan: Where do you see the movie industry going? What are its prospects? Uche Ama-Abriel: It’s only the beginning. I think this is only the beginning… There’s a very bright light at the end of the long tunnel we’ve all traveled through over the years. I’m really looking forward to beautiful things happening. But I hope I’ll be a part of it. I won’t just be on the sideline watching. Sola Osofisan: I think you’re already a part of it. Thank you Uche.