Chiwetalu Agu with Fides Editor, Jude Atupulazi
He is easily one of the most popular actors in Nigeria’s film industry known as Nollywood. To many, he is the last of the true actors. His acting style is also unique and many will not mind watching him non-stop. He is no other person than Chiwetalu Agu. By the time you watch him next, however, he may have changed his name, as according to him, he now wants to be known as Chiwetalu Chukwuwetalu. Fides editor, Jude Atupulazi, ran into him in Awka and managed to get him talking about his early acting days through his present, to some of the knotty issues in the industry.
Who is Chiwetaluagu?
By the grace of God, we will change that Surname, Agu to Chukwuewetalu and it’s spreading across the media: we will change it to Chief Chiwetalu Chukwuwetalu. He is man who was born and bred in Enugu City in 1956. Schooled in Enugu, at St. Luke’s Primary School, Ogui Urban Area; College of the Immaculate Conception (CIC). I was in the same set with former Governors of Enugu State, Sullivan Chime and Chimaroke Nnamani, even Chief Agbakoba; but he was very far ahead of us.
From there I went to former West Germany. While I was there, I did Dramatic Arts. I came back to Nigeria and did my Youth Service, then started professionally in 1981 as a guest writer, quest actor, guest producer, guest director in NTA Enugu. Now, former Governor of the Old Anambra State that also had Enugu, Chief Jim Nwobodo, had built a powerful T.V Station, ATV Channel 50, so we were shuttling between NTA and ATV in the course of practicing the career.
Initially we went into local programmes with titles like ‘’IKOLO’’. It was produced by one Joe Onyekwelu from Nimo. It’s a satire. Ikolo was a wonderful thing in those days. I became part of it. At a point I started writing for Ikolo to the extent that I wanted to co-direct it, because the directing pattern was a civil service pattern in those days. So when I came in, I pleaded with him that the knowledge I had in the drama business and the directing part of it would require working even beyond 3.30. He agreed because the initial scripts I wrote were all wonderful.
But this particular one I titled, ‘’Baby Come Now’’, became something else. There is no time we would put within the civil service time that would be enough to give the public the kind of taste and quality I wanted to create. So he agreed for us to work extra hours. So it afforded me the opportunity in the co-directing to get vital shots that normally in Hollywood make a difference.
I wanted to give attention to directing against the norm that time. It all had to do with me playing the devil’s incarnate, luring a girl who lost her father and the burden of getting school fees fell on her mother. But her mother couldn’t find how to get used to such a burden. So when this girl left school, after being sent home, the mother said, ‘’Don’t come here, your father is dead, so how do you expect me to pay this and that?’’, you know.
At that moment, I came in in a Passat car which was in vogue at the time. So I used my car to lure her. All I was saying as a sing song was ‘’baby come nah, baby come nah’’. Sheepishly she entered the car in her school uniform. Then, rather than taking her to where I could know what the problem was, I took her to a beer parlour and before we knew it, the alarm was raised, the mother and all her neighbours came.
When the drama was aired, it was every Wednesday, people took to TV to watch like they never watched before.
So we moved on. I and some of the guest artists we had that time, who were committed, formed a drama group called ‘’The Inspirers’’ and I was the president. We moved on and started performing at popular places in Enugu at that time like Liberty Hotel, Abakpa; Presidential Hotel; the Enugu Municipal Council. We continued to perform at weddings and ceremonial outings, until 1985, to prepare for ‘’Things Fall Apart’’. We shot it. I think it came out in 1986.
In ‘’Things Fall Apart’’, I played the role of Aniukwu, one of the fathers-in-law of the character Okonkwo. After ‘’Things Fall Apart’’, I now had to write a soap opera I submitted. But NTA Enugu told me in their verdict that the money to sponsor it and then the supporting staff who must be lawyers, could not be found it NTA Enugu. They gave me a letter-headed paper to go to NTA Headquarters’, Victoria Island. We didn’t have NTA Abuja that time. It is a long time ago now.
When I was going there, I thought it was going to be a two-week affair but I found out in NTA, Victoria Island, that the vetting producer would take a long time. The first person I met in NTA was Dr. Victoria Ezeokoli who was director of programmes. She delegated my script to the junior lieutenants. Eventually, it took even more than one year because their procedure was that any big officer involved in vetting a script meant for national consumption, must in the end pen down his or her signature.
But it was unfortunate that some tables my script came to, the boss in charge would traveling abroad for official assignment. Any time anyone travelled, you must have at least four weeks that would elapse. So I would wait for four weeks or eight weeks. In the course of that frustration in quote, I said, let me find a way out, let me not depend wholly on my own soap opera, ‘’The advocate’’. Somebody I came with to do the same thing, Zeb Ejiro, his own got ready before mine, so I went to him and said, ‘’My friend, get me a role let me be busy while waiting for my own script’’.
He created a role called Chief Akunna in ‘’Ripples’’. I wasn’t there originally, I started doing well there. The concept was that I could speak as an Igbo chief, a business man who at the end of the day would like to go and dine and wine, getting girls to keep him company. He agreed to create it and the concept was that I would speak good Igbo for embellishment. So it was this Igbo Language that I was putting in English that attracted the attention of Chief Kenneth Mokwe from Mgbidi, the owner of NEC Video Links that produced Living in Bondage. He was into Yoruba business, whether marketing, producing and all that. So he wanted to venture in a movie in Igbo Language but didn’t know the person to call upon. So when he saw me speaking English and Igbo, he felt that he had got his persona. He sent for me and I came to his office at Adesina Street, Ijesha, Lagos. And we talked.
I organized the auditioning for ‘’Things Fall Apart’’. I picked the key characters like Kenneth Okonkwo who played Andy. I went to where he was squatting with his elder brother who was about getting married and informed him at Number 39 Amudo Street, Apapa.
He came along. I went to KSM exporting place in Mafoluku; I went there, I dropped a message. That was how ‘’Living in Bondage’’ took off.
From ‘’Living in Bondage’’, I went into other blockbusters like ‘’Tahoho’’ which made waves and was especially about the Osu caste system that was practiced in Igbo land at that time. From Tahoho, to many other titles. In the whole of the 90s, it was Igbo movies, Igbo movies. But the average marketer, thorough business men they were, decided to graduate to English, believing that it would be wider in order to make his profit wider. The idea succeeded and that was how we came to where we are today. Home movies in English, even the Igbo that was the progenitor is now going down.
Today, by the grace of God, I am the most popular actor award winner, nobody has taken it away from me.
Secondly, I have the biggest number of awards. I had to celebrate it with two cows in our Church Village in Amaokwe. I have the highest number of productions done so far. Right now, about 757, counting. The second person couldn’t have gone to even 150; so you can imagine the gap.
I am the current Best Veteran Actor of the Year given in 2014, and those who packaged this award in America, Colombus Ohio, called me to come and they took care of things. I always emphasize that if you call me for an award anywhere in the world, don’t get me to spend money, if that award is really meant for me.
So they formed the partnership, one partner got the transport going and coming back, Arik air; the other one, hotel accommodation. The other one, the things I ate and the things I drank. In the nominees were people like Olu Jacobs. They thought I merited it and until today no one has taken it away from me. And many records I have are difficult for people to challenge, as well as the number of productions. By the grace of God, I am called on set every day. Except a day I forced a break for myself which is necessary because three years ago I fell down on the first day I was going on a set because of over work.
In Enugu, somewhere at St. Michael’s Hospital, Ebony Road, I was admitted for 7 days before I could recover. At the end of it the doctor said I should apportion a day or two to myself for rest; that it would be good for me. But the pressure from Nollywood is so over bearing. When they call you and you say you don’t have time or whatever, they don’t feel happy. They feel that you are not helping them to grow, so I try my best to in-between; I try to fix a break and I need the break.
So right now, when we have time, especially in breaking record, the attention our business is getting now is out of hand, though it is positive. So people like you need to put down records of what we are doing. Because it has even attracted more than government attention. About three or four years ago, the former president, Goodluck Jonathan, made a confession. He said that in all the travels he made overseas, foreign presidents were asking about Chiwetalu Agu, about of Jim Iyke and many others. They said that what these we were doing was adding so much value to the country, so he came back and felt guilty, and wondered why he appreciated us late; that we were his children, his brothers and sisters and so on.
So he said for that, he was going to deposit three billion naira in our account so that anybody that would like to go for one training or the other, would draw from there. So while I was in America receiving the Best Actor of the Year Award, many of them who drew from the account met me in America. In fact you would have to write to an internationally known academy that must be in the web site, it was there that they put the money that you would use to do your training.
So the attention we have now got has even gone out of hand because this is a thing that should have been the headache of the government. But we single-handedly pioneered it, carried it for long, until the image of Nigeria began to read positive.
Do you know the first four years of the former president Obajanjo? If you have your records, he was travelling every year abroad. On one occasion, he went to the World Bank to claim we were poor and needed economic revival, but they told him, ‘’No, you are not poor’’. They told him that from what they saw in movies from Nollywood, we had the best mansions in the whole world. The kind of mansions you can see in America. So they told him that his country could not be poor. He was beaten. He then asked them if he could get experts to revive his country, and they said no; that he didn’t need them from there as they were in his country. He said who are they? Where are they? They told him about Ngozi Okonjo Iweala who was at that time in World Bank. They told him about Professor Charles Soludo, I don’t about others they told him about. But with their instructions, he went back and picked these people on his return.
At the time Ngozi Okonjo Iweala came in as the finance minister, we had a foreign debt running into 57 billion dollars but Ngozi ran the finance minister for two years. We started having the same amount in reserve. So you saw the wisdom in the advice given to him by World Bank experts. You also saw how Professor Charles Soludo revived more than hundred banks to about 25 strong banks. So the economy came to a booming point, a breathing point, and people where happy until we had to get to this present disaster.
We have so much money like we now found out from EFCC investigations, with that kind of money, either you create employment or you extend the structure of entertainment a bit for youths, whether girl or boy. They should catch up on all these to make this country the beautiful and sweet country it was designed by God to be.
You have actually gone through the gamut of the early days of your career. Now let’s go a bit personal. There is this young man people always say is your son. I have watched him, in-fact two days ago, I also saw him. He is very much like you, speaks like you; everything like you. Do you have a son who is also in Nollywood?
I don’t have. I am from Enugu City. I think he is from either Imo or Abia. But what he has done, people said it took him more than a year to study my characteristics, my utterances, my laughs, even the way I dance, walk, and the way I do it in the toilet (…laughs).
So his emergence is telling one thing: that what I have been doing is wonderful. He couldn’t have copied a bad actor. An actor of no principles. Inasmuch as one would say that if it were in the west, you take him to court for many things, including plagiarism, but here in Africa, it is a different ball game. When people raised the issue and wanted to know why I left him, I said I didn’t bring him there in the first place; let’s just say that God brought him there and he is making a living very well now from what he is doing. But it is established that there must be an original and there must be cardboard copies.
What is the young man’s name?
It is Elvis, I think. Chibuike. His first name is Elvis.
You have carved a niche for yourself in the entertainment industry by talking nonsense, in quotes. I am talking about the way keep repeating certain words and it has become your brand. So how did you come about that?
There was a time scripts were lacking comic relief. The gamut of entertainment, you know, must include education, information and then entertainment. And almost all the scripts I was given lacked comic relief. So I began to think; this business I know very well, why leave it in the hands of nonentities. So each script they now brought to me, I will read it in between the lines and understand, try to add comic relief through bye lines, catch fun, clichés, and all that. I started it and it worked to the extent that any producer who brings his script and I don’t add it will feel bad. He will tell me politely that it was the reason why I was called. This is the reason I coined all the unspeakable English and it made my movies stand out.
And I found out that in the initial movies that I made, the viewers started looking for that, so that any movie I do for them that doesn’t have that is a nonstarter and may not make it commercially. It has now become a culture, a tradition; that each time Chief Chiwetalu Chukwuwetalu appears, something must come out. Even the viewers have told me that each time they see my movie, they sit down like people that are expecting something and open their ears to hear it and once they hear it, they can then go their different ways. So who am I to stop them from what they are enjoying.
A lot of your colleagues have fallen. People like that man from Delta State that died, Justice Esiri, and Sam Loco Efe. Often times we hear that they were not able to take care of themselves. So is Nollywood making any plans to ensure that people like that when they run into problem, financially or otherwise, they can get some kind of relief?
As a body, they are not organized to do it, and as a body it cannot be considered a priority or an agenda. Why? Many of them are fighting even to survive and it’s when you survive that you think about the other person. The only body that can do it and effectively too, is the government. If they have not even been able to fight for piracy for us, why not come up with insurance package for us, since these people are creating a wonderful image for the country. Let’s go to them through insurance, even contributing some allowance. There are times when you finish your shot, because you haven’t arrived, the producer will not care to give you allowance to go home. A times when the location bus drops people, even midnight, you are on your own. It’s that bad and when you raise your voice, they ask you if you don’t want to play the role. They begin to torture you one way or the other, but if you are established, it is a different thing all together. Even the so-called welfare department is another thing, some breakfast can come up even up to 3-4pm or so. You are there at your own mercy, in fact.
So these loopholes, leakages, weak points, grey areas, government should by now be able to come in.
They should even be able to by now build for us film villages, like in the epic thing where we need mud and thatch houses. They can come in there, erect some for us, even if it is for a fee. We can pay. People have demolished mud houses and built mansions. So before you can set up a thorough set for such a thing you have to travel miles and miles; in fact go into other states. And then, there is th danger of when you finish in the night, how to come out secure becomes a problem.
Sam Loco was once waylaid one night in Udi, while passing through ‘’Four Corner’’. The story was that the Fulani idiots - I call them idiots because they are not good for this country. They laid ambush, attacked them, took all their valuables and even harmed some people. They used whatever to block the road. Some girls even ran into the bush and sustained injuries. So there are so many things the government can do for us, to make the country a good place to carry on with one’s career.
Inasmuch as Nollywood has been praised to high heavens, some people still believe that there are some grey areas that need to be ironed out; like the too much stereotypy and lack of attention to detail. For example, you see someone that wants to answer a call, and immediately he brings his phone, he starts saying ‘hello! Hello’. You know naturally, you need to look natural; give enough time to allow the receiver to pick. In foreign movies, you don’t see such lapses, and for example, even when you see people acting as priests and even seminarians walking on the road, anybody they see, they make the sign of the cross. And these things still make it seem as if there is not enough research to know how these things are done.
I thank you for that aspect you raised now. So the issue of scratching issues on the surface was bound to come. This industry took people unawares, even us. We were taken unawares we didn’t expect the kind of boom it hit. So people who knew nothing found themselves carrying the burden of technicality, stereotype, boring situations, but thank God today, professionals are coming in, even though at a slow rate. They were supposed to be there even long ago but the issue of funding became a stumbling block. The funding was with business men who came from the spare parts business and electronics. These were the pioneer financiers; they are still there today, but the people we expected are now are coming in gradually. If they can lay hands on huge funds, this rubbish would not be there.
I shot five days ago at the University of Nigeria Nsukka with up and coming actors, actresses, producers and directors. I saw a serious step, a serious improvement. If you saw the script written, you would know and believe that things are going to happen in terms of quality. You know, straight to the point, concise, where there should be detail, you will see detail in avalanche. It’s unfortunate that we took off with people who didn’t know nothing but they had money. But that low standard is now giving way, so watch us for the next one year or two.
I use this medium to advise people, to be patient that better things are coming, our actions, technicality, quality, good costumes, appropriate costumes, you would have seen a director who dressed well, someone who was to play madness. Can you imagine that? Someone is to play madness, maybe a woman, a star, and she will say, ‘’I don’t want my bra to be seen, I don’t want my buttocks to be seen and all that. You fell in for that, you succumb for that, it’s not that way. Someone who should play madness should look like a mad man or mad woman. You have to depict it, not you wearing lace material. So that time has come now.
Ok, what’s your family life like?
By the grace of God, I have five wonderful children; three boys, two girls. I married from Mbaise. Nkechi, my wife, I met her in Lagos. I lived in Idumota, very close to palace of Oba of Lagos. It was there that I met my wife, you know, a very fine woman. But I met her doing her OND in Lagos State University; Business and Secretarial Studies. So I finished training her in HND and she went to Kano to do her Youth Service. Three boys and two girls. The two girls are twin sisters. All of them are in secondary school, doing very well. The first daughter doesn’t go beyond first position and the second daughter doesn’t go below second position. The boys are doing very well. They are giving me joy every day. Whatever they ask I give them.
But years ago, there was this interview I granted, when I was a bachelor, promising them at the time to get the right life partner. Unfortunately they still aired that interview even of recent. So when people say, ‘’he is not married, we saw it in an interview,’’ I say these people saying this are they Igbo people? They say yes. Igbo people cannot allow their brother get to 30 and allow him to remain single. So you know the truth when you hear it. I a wonderful house which I built in the year 2000. God was so merciful.
How did Sam Loco’s death touch you?
You know for the first three days I didn’t believe it, but something now told me it was possible. He was a wonderful father, mentor, everything positive. There was a time we were together in Lagos. We now said, ‘’Uncle, in this your smoking and drinking, why don’t you eat to form a kind of dilution? He refused, until one day he accepted and said go and buy me Egusi and Garri. He swallowed the first ball, we clapped, swallowed the second and third and there was elation, you know. Then he now manage to eat half way and got tired. The thing is, there was this habit he was into which was capable anytime to kill your appetite for food. There was this job we went to do in Umuahia, 7 seven years earlier. He collapsed, got admission. In the rigours of what he was going through, even his head started to turn, going through semi-circle. What we heard that time was that he lost hope so much that he wrote a will, called his production manager, called Chidi Aroma, to take it his family in case. We heard that the doctor in charge said, no, if you can leave this habit and then call on God, make a promise or pledge to God, something can still happen. They said he made the promise, survived. And I recall that after that period, he now went with ordinary sprite. Each time he carried sprite, he would say, ‘’I agree to what the doctor said, I don’t go into alcohol again, no smoking. We saw sprite each time in his hand. But after two years, the habit came back in forceful form, to the extent that all the alcohol like Alomo Bitters, Red Label and all that, were now the menu. Even when he was on set, who were you as the director to tell him not to carry this and that. He was on set, he would carry Alomo.
So when I heard about his death, I didn’t believe. Later I now recalled these things that happened earlier. I said it was possible; that people like him just go like that. When they go to bed to sleep, it becomes their final sleep, forever sleep. It pained us so much, and till today, that vacuum created has not been filled and can never be filled. You will recall his antics, his style of acting, that habit, that style of acting, you can’t find it elsewhere. You know, just like Shakespeare said, this life is a stage, you come and play your role.
Finally, are you a Rich man?
How do you define richness? I need it so that I will be able to know how to answer you. Because in terms of films, popularity, doors, difficult doors opening, what is that door that I can enter today? Even in Capital Hills, White House, America, if I come there, security people will tell the president, ‘’Please, someone is coming. How much more Nigeria?
Look at the story I told you about Goodluck Jonathan and the foreign president who were asking about Chiwetalu. Those things have to do with good name. Good name is even better than Gold.
Now rich in terms of physical cash, I am, without being immodest, the most contended in Nollywood. In the sense that every job I do every day must give me something. And not every Nollywood actor can work every day. I know some of them who even complain to me. ‘’Di anyi, these jobs that you are doing, tell them about us.’’ You know? So in terms of that, my family never lacks. I have so much to eat that I give people around. The type of wife I married now fell into my pattern of life, giving must be a must. Give with joy, don’t give with remorse or murmur because in the first place it was given to you by God.