Olu Jacobs is a reporter’s delight any day. Even when other top actors will shove away an interview, the gentleman and septuagenarian asked to be given a bit of time during the cocktail session in preparatory to the play, Fela and Kalakuta Queen. Away from his wife and partner, Joke Silver, the Oloibiri actor who featured in the late 80s classic movie, Ashanti, took time out to speak to SAMUEL ABULUDE about his early years of acting in London, how he wowed his wife, Joke Silva, in a chance meeting in the 90s.
You started, sir, with the stage play, which is beginning to gather steam again. What would you say was the reason for the decline in the first place?
At a point, we lacked good theatre stories. Now, people are making efforts, because the demand is there.
But the demand has always been there, sir?
Okay. The demand has always been there, and the stories weren’t there. Look at the crowd at Bolanle Austen-Peters’ Terra Kulture for the Fela and the Kalakuta Queens stage play. We are entering into a new phase. It might take time, but we are getting there.
Sir, what is the most fascinating aspect of your growing up?
The time we used to carry big boxes around as telephones. You would not be able to make or receive calls in some areas. Television, also. Television came to Nigeria in 1955 during the Western government headed by Obafemi Awolowo. It was fantastic that we could see and hear people immediately. And then the theatre performances. I was in Abeokuta and by 5am, we used to race all the way to Ake because there was a public viewing centre there – so you had to rush to get a position. Watching the likes of Julie Coker and Ted Mukoro perform live greatly affected me.They were magical. They dragged me into it until I settled and accepted that this is my life.
Realising your calling in Nigeria, why did you travel to England and how was your career prospects in a foreign land?
I went to England in 1964. Then, every black actor I knew was based in London and there were too many actors chasing too few jobs and outside London, there were no blacks. Then to get a role, you had to be a union member and to be a union member, you had to have a job. You would go to castings and they would say ‘sorry, your name is not on my list’. One of my friends who had gone to England before me was a member. He was going one day and I asked if I could go with him. We got there and I read to the director. He said go and meet the production manager. By the time a bigger agent took over, I was one of the top actors my former agent recommended. Then I told my agent that I wanted to start taking jobs outside London because there were no jobs in London.
And returning to Nigeria to play the lead role in one of Woke Soyinka’s plays, what happened?
I was invited to do a play at the National Theatre. I was to play the lead in Wole Soyinka’s play, A Trial of Brother Jero. We were having an introductory meeting to kickstart the play and the door opened. This young lady walked in and she said: “We are ready.” Immediately, I stood up and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Please meet the lady I want to marry”.
Was it was your instinct or a higher power at play when you made that first proposal to your wife?
I can’t tell. I saw her and it came out naturally. I am not an impulsive person. I would normally consider what I was going to say before I said it.
How did she react?
She eyed, giving me this ‘up and down’ woman look (eye gesture) for several times in defiance. And forty years down the line. It has been wonderful.
Do you see your marriage as an example of an ideal celebrity marriage considering that some actors and actresses, for instance, hardly have long lasting marriages?
Quite frankly, I don’t encourage it people to think like that, but you find that you cant help but hear it. There is a lot of divorce and separation going on in other professions like banking, oil and gas, medical and other disciplines. Virtually all professions face the same marriage crises as celebrities. The difference is that you don’t hear much of them.
What is the secret of your marriage?
The grace of God. Learning to be patient and above all learning to become friends with your lover. This is very important. When you are friends there are things that you wouldn’t throw at each other.
We learnt that you are a great cook?
I try. When I cook they eat.
How did you pick up the skills?
When we were growing up, the girls were doing all the work, usually, while the boys were out there playing. So, our parents decided to give us a task: Let the boys cook for the boys and the girls for the girls. That was how we all learnt to do it. In no time we were doing it even better.
What are the things people still don’t know about it?
(Pauses to think). I am a nice guy. But that goes without saying.
Are you ready for another one then (pauses). Olu Jacobs is nice. That is the second one [laughter].
As an actor, what period would you describe as your happiest?
Looking around and seeing that many, many people are coming to enjoy themselves in an area that we never thought possible brings me joy. In the past actors were looked down upon. Now, they are doing well. The cinema people are trying: this is the joy. When you see people happy to come to watch a stage play, some come to actually apologise for criticising the industry; people you don’t know, but know you. I would rather that one person praises my work and 99 other people on the other side criticise it, than to have 99 people praising your work and one person coming to say, “Sir, I don’t understand”. It ruins everything. It ruins everything.
You were in the movie, Oloibiri. In your opinion, what stood the movie out of recent cinema projects?
Good work. The lighting and the sound captured the mood. What more do you want from a movie that has RMD, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett and the young but talented actor, Ivie Okujaiye not to talk about the foreign actors? The story is scintillating. For those who have watched the movie, you will agree that your thinking would never be the same again. The movie is a reawakening, it ensures that we do not allow the same thing the happen again.
Is any of your kids taking after you?
Well, it might not be in the front of the camera, but behind the camera.
What would you say is the secret of your success in the movie industry?
The repetition of an act makes a performance almost automatic: the more you work at something the better you get at it. Repetition and maturity go hand in hand. You must have faith, believe in yourself. You honestly need to ask questions, ask questions. Don’t shy away from seeking knowledge because what you fear might seem something stupid. That is the only way you can learn.