By Sola Osofisan Zack Orji, one of the leading lights in the Nigerian movie world, president, Actors’ Guild of Nigeria, movie producer, director. This interview was done in two parts. The first half was interrupted by association emergencies that Orji had to attend to immediately. The second, just as interrupted, continued because Zack was intent on concluding it because he knew how pressing my time was in the country. At the end of our conversation, he played me a memorable danceable track from his demo tape and I think the world hasn’t heard the last of what Zack Orji can do. Sola Osofisan: Zack, are you aware of the popularity of Nigerian actors in the African/some African-American communities in the Diaspora? Zack Orji (Z.O.): Yes, to a certain degree I’m aware. I’m aware because I’ve received mails, I’ve received phone calls, I’ve had personal contacts with some people and I… I have an idea and it makes me feel very good. Sola Osofisan: Have your guys considered putting up structures where people outside the country can interact with you. My website for instance, www.naijarules.com, people keep coming and they keep saying “why don’t they have websites?” Are you guys looking into the possibility of putting up structures that people can relate to? Zack Orji: Yes, we’re working on things like that. What you see here, these are about eight of the films I’ve taken part in. Some of them I’ve produced and directed. I’m actually planning to do a profile, you know, excerpts from some of these films, do a profile that runs for maybe thirty seconds or maybe twenty seconds of things from each of these films… Put them together (and) they will give you a fairly good idea what the actor can do, a fairly good idea about the person, about his delivery, about everything. Some of us, because of the kind of climate under which we operate, we have not been very opportuned to have websites, to have avenues through which people can get in touch with us except probably by email, except by our phone numbers. But I’m hoping that with people like Sola (Osofisan) somewhere out there, we’ll be able to get across to the entire world for people to know what we can do. Because the movie thing is not something you can confine to your own bothers, to you own national borders. The moment you do a movie and it goes out, any number of people can watch it all over the world – and when they like what you do, they like what you do. It doesn’t matter where. Some of them might want to get across to you and do some collaborative work. We are looking forward to doing some collaborative work with people, both within Africa and outside Africa, in Europe, in America, in Asia and elsewhere. We’re really looking forward to that. And I’m sure we can do a lot because the movie industry in Nigeria is like still… In Africa, let me say Africa, is like still very untapped. We have a lot of stories that will blow your mind. The Western world have used themselves up in and out, you know. They do all sorts of things, futuristic things, science fiction and stuff like that. They have really explored themselves inside out. But in Africa, we still have a lot of things that are unknown to the world because of the uniqueness of certain aspects of our culture, of our traditions across Africa. Some things that would be very alien to people outside Africa, very unique to people outside Africa. For us it would be nice to have websites where people can reach us… Sola Osofisan: How in the world did you get into the politics of acting? I mean running an association, what has that got to do with acting? Zack Orji: Well, you know our industry is relatively young if you compare it to the movie business all over the world. For an association, for an industry that is young, you find a lot of things cropping up that you have to contend with. And for some people who have been around for quite a while, you feel a certain sense of responsibility, a certain sense of loyalty and dedication. And you know that because of your position, you have to do certain things to be able to guide younger ones who are coming up to be able to take certain positions and make certain things known to the authorities about putting structures in place for us to be able to operate without much hassle. So, I just found myself wanting to be able to do certain things. I’ve had certain visions about the industry in Nigeria. I’ve had certain visions… Because of our vanguard position, I believe that we occupy a certain position whereby… Its like we have to set the pace in all of Africa. For me, the movie industry in Africa should be one in the sense that we are one people, we are black people, from one country to another, the cultures and traditions are similar. We’re just being separated by national boundaries which were created by our colonial masters. Typically, the black man is the same all over the world, so you find people in Congo, people in Brazaville, people in Angola and elsewhere in Africa identifying with the things were doing here in Nigeria. And that’s how our movies have gained prominence all over Africa. I have always been championing the cause of a Screen Actors’ Guild of Africa and the Diaspora, you know, Africans in the Diaspora, blacks in the Diaspora. And we have started doing some sort of integration. Orji playing his CD demo in his store (pix: Sola Osofisan) Sola Osofisan: How did Zack Orji the actor become Zack Orji, the leader of men? How did you become the President of the Actors’ Guild of Nigeria? Zack Orji: By winning an election. (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Sola Osofisan: Obviously, but what motivated you into contesting for the election in the first place? What did you see that you thought you could change or influence or affect one way or the other? Zack Orji: I just felt that I had seen enough and done enough and that I’m in a position to be able to effect certain changes that I want done in our industry, instill a certain sense of pride, a certain sense of integrity, respect for the actor. A lot of people think actors are no good. A lot of people think actors are frivolous people, that they are shallow minded. But I tell you, it is not easy to create the illusion of being someone else, because that is what we do, masters of illusion. In doing our job, we create the illusion of being someone else and impact on people to a point of believability. It is not easy to do that, to do at various times and become different people at different times. It takes grace from God; that is one. It takes creativity. It takes talent. It takes discovering what you can do. It takes going deep into yourself. It takes entering into the scheme of other people to be able to do that. It takes a lot of brainwork to be able to do that. And we are not shallow-minded people. We’re very serious-minded people. Sola Osofisan: Actors are generally a disciplined lot when they get on set doing the work, but when they are off-set, its something else to control them. How do you – Zack Orji: When they’re on set, they’re very disciplined because … I mean you know what its all about. Sola Osofisan: Exactly. But when they get off – Zack Orji: - they want to be able to feel free to speak their minds, to wear the kind of clothes they want to wear, to express themselves, to take themselves away from that discipline they subjected themselves to and just be themselves. Sola Osofisan: How do you work with them? How do you head their group? These are an undisciplined lot – Zack Orji: No no no, they’re not undisciplined. They’re very free-spirited free-minded. They’re not undisciplined. You understand? The actor, in doing his craft, brings himself to a certain level of freedom where his creative faculties are let loose. That is what happens. You understand? And because of the multiplicity of roles we play, we become so versatile. We become so extroverted. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not ourselves, we’re not our individual selves. We all have our individual selves, but we want to be able to express ourselves in various ways, which a lot of people cannot do because they are constrained either by conformity, either by the professions they belong to, either because they don’t want people to say this or that, either… for one reason or another, a lot of other people are constrained, but we do not feel that constraint. We are free spirited people. That’s the difference. But believe me, any human being is capable of anything under certain conditions. Sola Osofisan: So a lot of people are in chains, but the actor is free… Zack Orji: That’s right. Well put. (GENERAL LAUGHTER) Sola Osofisan: Okay, another quick question. How do you balance the activism now with your work? How does Zack Orji the actor balance what he does as an actor with the activism that’s necessary as the leader of actors? Zack Orji: Well, the activism itself comes from the job… from doing the job, it happens. Okay, I could be here now and I just receive a letter that one of my actors has received his fee for a certain job and has refused to do the job. I need to find out why. These are things that happen in the course of doing our jobs. We have some cases we’re handling right now. We need to find out why he did what he did. Sometimes, we take punitive measures. Sometimes, the actor is right. Sometimes, he’s not right. But in all, we try to be as open-minded as possible. We try to be as fair as possible. So, most of the activism you’re talking about, I just take it in my stride as a part of my everyday activity. Sola Osofisan: I am familiar with you as a respected actor, but in the last few years, you have been expanding your horizon. What other areas have you been exploring? Zack Orji: I have been producing. I have been directing. As a matter of fact, my directorial debut which is Webs – it was shot in the year 2000, I shot both in Accra and Lagos – it won best collaborative picture in the Ghana Malaysia Film Awards which was held in Accra in the year 2001. That was my directorial debut. Thereafter, I have directed about seven works. I also do produce my own films whenever I want to go on location. I’m a singer too and I’ve started recording a gospel musical album in South Africa with Creative Kingdom Records, USA. I’ve already started working on that and before long, people will see and people will hear. I just believe that every human being has a responsibility to delve into himself and discover every area where God has gifted him and make sure he gives it full expression. That’s what I’m doing. And I thank God for His grace. Sola Osofisan: Great. We will talk about your music some other time, not right now (LAUGHTER). You mentioned South Africa and Ghana. I’m aware that you have been producing and directing and editing in Ghana. And now you’re talking about the music too in South Africa. Why are you taking some of the things that we can work with here outside? Why are you taking the business away from us? What’s going on? Zack Orji: Nooo, I’m not taking it away from us. I am bringing Africa together. I’ve always believed that there should be a movie industry, a motion picture industry of Africa and the Diaspora, of all black peoples in Africa and the Diaspora. And by Africa, I include North Africa, including South Africa, every part of Africa and Africans in the Diaspora. I believe that the African is the same wherever he is. We are just being separated by our national boundaries which were created by man. But typically, the African is the same, whether he is a Nigerian, or a Camerounian or a Togolese or from Burundi or from Tanzania or from Zambia, we’re all the same. That is why people from all over Africa and the Diaspora enjoy the movies we do here. Now, our brothers in other parts of Africa are yearning to be part of what we’re doing and its only by reaching out to them and doing collaborative work that we can come together and have a common focus and have some common objectives and have a common vision about what the African motion picture industry should be. That’s what I have been doing. I have shot some of my films in Ghana. I was in Congo last year, I speak French too. Sola Osofisan: I’m aware again that you were on tour of the French speaking parts of Africa. What did you go there to do? Zack Orji: I travel a lot. I look around. I learn new things. I get new storylines. I get fresh inspiration when I travel. Some of my best stories have been generated from my traveling here and there. I meet new people, I hear things, I make enquiries, I investigate certain things and I get new storylines and I meet new people. I have already worked out something with our brothers in Congo. Even while I was there, I did a promo for Vodacomm to promote their short mail service. Very soon, before the year runs out, I intend to be in Congo again to go and promote the film I just shot. I was in South Africa in July. I spent the whole of July in Johannesburg where I was invited to take part in a movie and it was great getting connected with our brothers in South Africa, working with them, some notable actors in some of their notable soaps like Isidingo, Generations and all of that. I was on ACBC while I was there. I was on ETV talking about the Nigerian movie industry and it was great working with the South African brothers and sisters. It was great. Both white and black, it was great working with them. It was like we worked with an all white crew, from the director to the boom operator, to the cameraman, to the sound recordist, they were all…You know, a white crew, but we worked so well, we blended so well. I intend to be in Monrovia. I intend to be in Freetown - all of these places before the year runs out – to generate some level of activity and to encourage those who have been yearning to be part of what we’re doing here in Nigeria, to encourage them and show them how to get certain things done. Because some of them have been visiting all the way from these places, getting in touch with me that they want me or some of our other colleagues to bring them into the fold of what we’re doing. And that’s why we’re traveling here and there to do that. Sola Osofisan: Have you noticed that actors have a tendency to grow and become directors? Not in all cases of course, but is there an explanation for that? It even happened to you. You’re directing now. Zack Orji: It’s a natural progression. You spend years acting, being told by other people what to do. And there’s a saying that “he alone can command who knows how to obey”. You obey all these years, then after some time, you start feeling like doing your own thing because you have acquired a certain level of know-how and every human being wants to be able to do his own thing, to create his own thing. So it comes as a natural desire. In Hollywood, we have people who have been there for decades like Clint Eastwood who is now a producer, a director, an executive director. We have people like Eddie Murphy who started early doing his own thing. Also, we have Robert De Niro who starred in his won directorial debut. We have Danny DeVito who’s been doing his own thing after long years of acting. We have Kevin Costner who is doing likewise. We have a lot of people. We have Ice Cube who stars in most of his own films that he produces and executive produces. There are lots of them, so it’s a natural desire that comes after years of acting and wanting to do your own thing. Sola Osofisan: So how do you balance wearing the multiple hats of a producer, director and actor sometimes on your own production? How do you balance it? Zack Orji: Look at Tenterhooks for example. I produced it, I was part executive producer, I directed it, I starred in it, you understand. Now you look at Webs, my directorial debut. I produced and directed, I also part executive produced. I also played a little role in it. In each case, I usually have an assistant director or sometimes. More than one assistant director. You have a broad picture, a general overview of what you want to achieve in the production. You share it with them. You have your storyboard, you work out a shooting schedule, you have a D.O.P. (Director of Photography), you have your camera man, and when you sit with your team, with your crew now, they are able to know from you what kind of dream you have for this production, what’s your vision for this script. And then, each one now begins to do his own part. So, its beautiful, its feasible. Its feasible because in one production for example you have everybody doing his own part, but then the director is now the one who interprets the script, sometimes both technically and artistically. And he has people on set to assist him in doing that. Sola Osofisan: As a leading man in many movies, you played against several leading ladies. Which one would you say has been most inspiring, most motivational when you’re on set? Which one has pushed you a little more than the others? Zack Orji: It’s difficult to say because every script is unique. Every story is different and the casting is also done according to the story. I have been lucky in the sense that I think I’ve starred with every leading lady in the industry. If not all of them, let’s say about 98% and most of them are great actresses. Some of them make you believe that what you’re doing is for real. They do it so well and you blend so well that they bring out the best from you. Sola Osofisan: Give us some names. Zack Orji: Oh, there are many of them. There is Liz Benson, Eucharia Anunobi, there’s my wife Ngozi whom I have starred with in various movies, Ngozi Orji. She’s an actress, she’s a costume designer also. There is Regina Askia, Sandra Achums, Ibinabo Fiberesima, Gloria Anozie, Uche Obi-Osotule whom I starred with in my very first movie, The Unforgiven Sin. That was my first movie. And that first movie got me nominated for best actor. It was a great movie. I love that film any day. There’s Genevieve Nnaji, I’ve starred with her in various movies. There is Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Edyth Jane Azu… There are lots and lots of them. Sola Osofisan: And in conclusion – let me release you now – look at this industry as it is now and look into your crystal ball. Are we on the right track? Do you think we will get there? Zack Orji: Yes, we are on the right track. We are on the right track because we have been growing over the years. In just ten years, the growth has been monumental. Numerically, in terms of (the) number of actors that have come into the industry, in terms of number of films that we churn out on a weekly basis, in terms of number of entrants; directors, producers, cinematographers and lots of other people… And technically we have grown a lot. Artistically, our stories have improved so much. A lot has happened and we have gained a lot of attention worldwide. I have been spoken to by people from Los Angeles Times, New York Times, people who came all the way from universities in America to know what is going on in the Nigerian movie industry… I mean we have gained a lot of attention. BBC has written about us. A lot of other folks you know… I was in Congo last year. I entered a church on a Sunday and immediately, it was like the entire congregation – some women were removing their scarves to come and clean my shoes and before I knew what was happening, they had carried me shoulder high and were going round the church. I mean it was great because I said “oh, even in another country they watch our movies this much”. It has been tremendous. I was in Sandton Mall in Johannesburg, people were just recognizing me here and there, people of all nationalities. This one would come and say oh he’s from Tanzania, “I’ve seen your movies in Da res Salam”. This one says he’s from Zambia, this one says he’s from Zimbabwe and various other countries like that. For me, it feels great to be a Nigerian actor. It feels great. It makes me feel proud to be a Nigerian actor.