With an acting career that has spanned four decades, he is still waxing stronger having made comic roles as easy as ABC. John Okafor, popularly known as Mr Ibu, arguably the funniest character on the movie scene speaks with DUSTAN AGHEDO about his early days and other sundry issues like his meeting Jackie Chan and proposed movie with Eddie Murphy
Recalling the movie you starred in, “Mr Ibu,” did you keep this movie title as your stage name or it’s actually your real name?
It is my grandfather’s name. He was the greatest comedian I had ever seen in my life. It is just Ibu but because Andy Chukwu was writing a story about me, he started adding the Mr to it. He was using Ibu initially but later added the title to it, saying the title would be Mr John Ibu. I had to struggle to remove the John.
Having been in the Nigerian motion picture industry for so long, can you recall when you were first on set?
The journey started December 3, 1978 and that was on a Sunday. There was this soap opera in Benin, Edo state, I used to go to the shooting location and watch them shoot and transmit live. I just came as one of the extras one day because sometimes there could be shortage of manpower. That was how I came in, got an opportunity and after that day I have never looked back, slacked nor lost interest.
From that year until now, what do you think has changed in the industry?
For one, piracy came in and crept into the very fabric of the movie industry. A lot of other things came in too and shrank the growth and speedy rise of the industry. Homosexuality came in, lesbianism came in and a whole lot of people in the industry became members of these devilish acts to bring the spirit down. I came out and told them that this kind of spirit kills the spirit of the movie industry because all it does is to come close to somebody that actually devotes time for the industry, to make the industry grow through their respective offices and companies, making these persons they come close to start second-guessing what they are offering. I said to them, if you are indulging in this kind of devilish group, it won’t work and because of that some slacked. Nollywood is my main constituency, so when things are happening on my watch that speaks contrary to what the industry is trying to portray then somebody has to speak up. But we still have a lot of people that take the industry very seriously, delving into the business and projecting a better name for the industry.
I believe there are bodies that can penalise perpetrators of these “devilish acts”?”
Yes, we have the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN) body that governs the affairs of the movie industry in Nigeria and for a start, I must commend the National President, Emeka Rollas. He has been doing a lot because for a very long time, good administration eluded us until he came in. He has been so wonderful in his administration. But he is only one man, he can’t do it alone but I also must tell you from the very careful selection of the National Task Force body, I know that we are going to succeed in making sure that we curb this thing.
Talking about piracy, is it still a problem in the movie industry?
Seriously, it is. I suggested to the Senate during an interview when I attended the birthday party of the Senate President. I told them, the government should stop giving actors guild money. I would say it again, the government should stop giving actors guild money. Give us a location where we are going to build our home, where we can call “Nollywood City,” then the rest we will look for sponsors because now it would mean that when we make the approach, these sponsors would know that the government is already with us in whatever we are going to do. And again, since we have NAFDAC that are in charge of food and drugs in Nigeria, we have EFCC against corruption, then let’s have anti-piracy board for the entertainment industry, including the music and film industries. Those people will take care of us. And we would be very happy because anybody who is a writer will write more when the film is being sold, when actors act more, when directors direct more and when marketers market more. But, if this virus called piracy is going to continually plague the sector then that means we are labouring for nothing. Piracy is still in existence but if only the government can just help us and setup an anti-piracy board in Nigeria, I would be the happiest person.
Do you do any other thing aside being in the motion pictures?
I am a football agent. I market players outside the country and I do this with FIFA licensed agents. I collaborate with them in marketing players, talents within the country and local clubs, transferring them to clubs outside the country. It has been very lucrative. I also have a football club, Ibu United. For the moment we are not playing but I have a professional coach that handles the team and what I often do is when I groom players from there I send to local. I don’t send them outside immediately. When the coach says a particular player is good, I watch the tapes, send the person for trials maybe in the Nigerian National League and then we take it up from there.
There have been lots of talk of sexual harassment and financial exploitation in the industry as it concerns upcoming actors, what is your take on this?
The problem I have with this young generation especially the females is that they are now the ones harassing males. Most often, they are the ones that even go ahead to buy phones for producers to involve them in their production; it is not done. They should go for auditions and if they pass, they can get roles easily, that is how we are doing it. Some of them don’t even know left from right, they don’t know what to act; they buy portion by giving phones, giving their body and money to a producer who is actually a glutton and will not say no to anything you send to him. So that is one of the problems, it is actually girls that are harassing boys now sexually. Some will even fight themselves before the producer will call them and ask what they have come to do.
Reports have it that you’ve had to come out of two or three failed marriages. Can you please confirm this?
I married twice, it didn’t work out and I married again. And I thank God for this last bus-stop, her name is Stella Maris Okafor, she’s the best woman and wife I have ever set my eyes on in the whole of Nigeria.
There are speculations that you would be working with American comedian and actor, Eddie Murphy, on a project. Can you please confirm this?
Yes, I have been talking to him. The amount of money he called is what might not make us produce the movie, although we are getting sponsors who are happy that they would want him to be part of the movie and somebody is actually on the move for us to have him, hopefully very soon. There is also Koffi Olumide in the line too.
Outside that, what new project should your audience be looking forward to?
I have a job in my hands presently; it is a very tasking work which I pray to God to please give me more inspiration to be able to give natural interpretation to the story because it is not a common one. The movie is on xenophobia, the problem that happened between South Africans and some Nigerians, and of course the whole Africa. So I had to go to South Africa to investigate and find out the real cause of that story, which I have gotten and as a result was sent to other nations like Gaborone Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Liberia and The Gambia. I also went to Sierra Leone and Ghana for the same story. I was able to gather all the important information and details needed for the story and it has been written; we are just waiting for the funds to come so that we can go ahead to the different locations for the shooting. And to add to that when you have a big project that involves travelling around, you have to take it very seriously because if you are doing other things that are not in line with such project, it is a distraction. I have other films in mind I want to shoot and they are big ones too but because I am not the one sponsoring them, I have to ensure that any body putting money in there will not regret the fact that I’m involved. So I give a head start because my name is bigger than any amount of money any body can give to me. Therefore, I try to protect my name first before embarking on simultaneous projects.
Are there notable actors both home and abroad that you admire their work and contribution to the film industry?
Actors at home here know how much I admire their work; there are a whole host of them. I don’t want to mention one name and leave out another. But talking about outside, I also have a whole lot of them too but one notable person I love is Jackie Chan. I was involved with him in a movie that was shot in different states in Germany several years ago titled, “The Champion Sportsman.” He was supposed to be part of that movie but he spent three days without calls or information of whether he was coming and because of the respect the owner of the work had for me, I started playing the lead which Jackie Chan was supposed to play. When he eventually came, he congratulated me, stayed with me for a while and we started to talk. He began to share his opinions on what he felt about African actors. That sometimes we are not punctual, we are not realistic and sometimes we don’t actually interpret roles to their best. So I had to put everything together to ensure that I interpreted this role very well. In turn, Jackie became in charge of stunt for us. I remember one stunt scenario where a springer was brought and he told me I would have to jump on the springer that the springer would help me leap to another compound, so I asked who and what would be there to receive me because little did I know that foams have been placed in those places. While attempting to make the jump with speed my mind was telling me “Ibu don’t try it, Ibu don’t jump” but because I wanted to convince him that a black man can always do this, I jumped on the springer and the springer took me to another compound where I slightly missed the foam. I hurt my legs in the process and while I was there shouting, these white people were clapping until Sandra Achums got their attention that I was actually injured. Ambulance was called and in three minutes the vehicle arrived the location. I don’t know the magic those paramedics did, when I got to the hospital before I was taken to a ward, my leg got better. After a while I was taken back to the location and upon my arrival Jackie Chan asked me if I was ready to jump again; I remember my words to him correctly, I said to him “I dey craze? Even in my insane mind, I won’t try it again.” So we managed and manoeuvred that scene with what I did before. But I must say Jackie really has had an influence.
Considering you did find the stunt action challenging, although you passed the test, how do actors deal with challenges of interpreting exacting roles?
By the special grace of God, I am a legend in the industry. Now, the only time an actor can find roles challenging is when they cannot interpret the character given to them, especially when they don’t have any substitute for the attitude they’re meant to use when doing a particular play. If you cannot find it, then that’s where doom begins. That is why you see a lot of young ones come for auditions and for those that don’t get picked, some of them just quit. You are not supposed to quit or get discouraged. Not getting picked or landing major characters is even enough reason to work on yourself better and be a “mad man” on the street if you have to, for the same cause of proving to yourself that you can be anything. It takes training and learning. All of us you know in the industry today, both big and small, still learn everyday.
Your audience will like to know your kind of music? And do you have a favourite artiste?
I listen to Flavour a lot, “he is my boy” and I pray for him all the time. This is not so surprising considering he has featured me in his music videos, notably because I am a very good dancer. I also love good Christian music.
I believe you’ve seen skit videos on social media where a whole lot of them have a portion of your movie action in them, how do you feel about that?
“I don’t know dem o.” They pick the films and pick exactly the place where an interpretation is given that will match whatever they are trying to say, I find it amazing really when I see it. Since I happen to be part of what can make them rich or make them happy, then I don’t have a problem with it, they can go ahead with it, “nsogbu adighi,” “ba damuwa.”
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