How we became part of Gangs of Lagos – Tobi Bakre, Olarotimi Fakunle

Tobi Bakre and Olarotimi Fakunle play two of the lead characters–Obalola and Kazeem respectively– in the newly released and critically acclaimed movie, Gangs of Lagos. They tell TOFARATI IGE about their experience making the film and other issues

Gangs of Lagos, project of many firsts for me –Tobi Bakre
Tobi Bakre, aka Obalola, recounts his experience on the set of the movie

What got you interested in the script of ‘Gangs of Lagos’?

It was a project of many firsts for me. It was my first time playing a lead character. It also had the best cast lineup possible. I was getting to work with people I respected and admired. It was such a beautiful story, and we had a genius directing the project. Everything about the project was screaming ‘Just do It’.

In what ways did your role in the movie stretch you artistically?

I had to embody the character, and stay there day in day out. I had never played a similar role or lived a similar life. Everything had to stay true to the character’s background and story. Playing Obalola for weeks had me in and out of different emotions and realities. The line got really blurry somewhere in between.

What were the challenges you faced while shooting the movie?

This project was very physically and emotionally taxing. The physical bits were much easier than the emotional part. I got to experience the real life of this character throughout the project. It was an Isale Eko (Lagos Island) story being shot in Isale Eko, Lagos State. I could see some of the stories being told play out right in front of me. I felt like a real part of the whole community and system. It was quite an experience.

Does your personality share any similarities with your character, Obalola?

Yes— the love and loyalty to friends and family, spirit of a go-getter, street sense, and hard worker, among others. Me and Oba share a good number of things in common.

The movie is directed by Jadesola Osiberu and Kemi Akindoju. What was your experience working with the duo?

They are now my film mummies. I felt what it was like to trust a director and producer first hand. They knew exactly what they wanted and went for it, but in the same breath, they were also open to creative bursts from the actors. They really manned the ship. Everybody in front and behind the camera was 100 per cent committed. And, it was not just about the pay. We all enjoyed what we were creating. We built an infrastructure of strictly positive input for the project.

Your role of a gangster/criminal in the movie is similar to the one you played in ‘Brotherhood’. Would you say that’s your niche?

As an actor, I have been and will still be made to play many other roles. Since Brotherhood, I have also been in distinct projects. I will never shy away from any opportunity to jump, fly, or do some exciting stuff in front of the camera.

In what ways did your time on ‘Big Brother Naija’ build you up as an actor?

I did not get to do any serious acting in the BBN house. We only had to do tasks that sometimes involved playing roles. That is totally different from the real craft of acting where one has to be in front of the camera and totally ‘forget’ it’s there, even while looking at it. I started my learning curve on the Multichoice TV series, ‘Hustle’ in 2018.

A lot of people doubted your ability when you first got into the movie industry. What do you have to say to such people now?

It is okay for them to have doubts. I doubted myself too at some point; but not anymore. I keep learning and do my best to get better with every project. You can see the progression with every project I am on. I am glad I have come this far, but I am barely just getting started.

What do you recall as your most memorable moment as an actor?

My most memorable times so far were the days when I watched Brotherhood in cinemas across Nigeria with the audience totally submerged in the movie and experiencing many emotional roller coasters. Every cinema outing had the audiences reacting the same way in the same instances. It was such a beauty to see.

What turns you off in a story and can make you reject a script?

I enjoy trying to see every story angle. When in doubt, I try to speak to the story writer or director to understand the creative direction of the story or character, and also throw in my inputs. It is a whole creative process. Having a turn off point can possibly limit creativity. I always keep an open mind.

What changes will you like to see in the movie industry?

I will like to see more collaboration; bigger and daring projects that can stand out and compete on a global scale. We have the stories. We just need to push over and beyond.

Nigerian movies are not as big globally as Nigerian music. What do you think needs to be done for that to happen?

It is a journey. With the big players showing more interest in Nigeria, one can tell that the demand for Nigerian content is growing. It is only a matter of time. The world will catch up (to Nigerian movies).

What do you do before shooting to put yourself in the right frame of mind?

I listen to music. I also talk to the crew members and other actors. That gets the ball rolling, for me, at a nice pace for the day.

What are the most important qualities an actor needs to succeed?

I believe one needs to stay true to one’s craft. Do the work, stay consistent, and sell yourself with the platform you have. I believe everyone will have their day in the sun.

At this stage, do you feel fulfilled as an actor?

I believe I am on a good path. I also believe that the journey is the destination itself. I am here for the ride; wherever it goes. There is no one particular destination to feel fulfilled. Every day, I get the opportunity to do what I love. It feels fulfilling.

What kind of role would you love to play but have not had the opportunity yet?

I definitely want to be on a Marvel/DC project. I believe in the universe to do its thing. A superhero from Nigeria is definitely not a bad idea.

Going by your social media posts, you are quite fond of your wife and child. In what ways do they help your career and spur you on to greatness?

A lot of what I do is for them— to provide for the family and make them happy. They mean the world to me. Having them support and also show love for my work feels very comforting, and that encourages me to do more and dream bigger.

When you’re not working, how do you unwind?

I love to spend time with family, drink with friends, and watch movies. I enjoy a wide array of things. When I’m not working out, I can be caught doing anything at all.

These days, many people work out, primarily to show off their bodies, and not necessarily because of their health. In your case, what motivates you to keep fit?

I have always loved to look my best. That is how the journey started for me. As I got older, the purpose for that (keeping fit) changed. Now, I want to look my best and feel my best at all times. Working out helps me live a balanced life. It helps with my thoughts, sleep, mindset and so much more than just looking good.

Shooting Gangs of Lagos, experience of a lifetime — Fakunle

Olarotimi Fakunle, who portrayed the character, Kazeem, reflects on the highlights of the time he spent shooting the movie

For you, what makes the ‘Gangs of Lagos’ unique?

The movie is very unique in the way it blends new and old talents together; as well as how the director was able to work with everybody seamlessly. The director was able to create a synergy; not just between the actors, but between the crew and the cast as well. Everything was so synergised that it became a well-oiled machine, which just kept on going. No matter how long a scene was taking, no actor ever complained. Sometimes, actors would even help the crew out sometimes, and vice-versa.

Those are the things that made it unique for me.

How would you sum up the experience of working on the movie?

Working on the movie was an experience of a lifetime. It was great having the opportunity to work with amazing human beings. That is not an experience money can buy, and it is one that will live with me for the rest of my life.

Crime thrillers involve a lot of stunts. How was your experience in that regard?

The stunts were quite taxing. The director was so particular that we had at least six weeks of stunt rehearsals, and another six weeks of stunt training. Director Tough was the stunt director and he is a hard guy. He drilled us and prepared us for the journey ahead. It was not an easy feat to achieve but with the guidance of the director and with the great help of the stunt director, everything worked out well.

Of all the people you acted with in the movie, who did you have the most chemistry with?

I had an amazing time working with all the actors, including Tayo Faniran, Bimbo Ademoye and Adesua Etomi-Wellington. But, the person I bonded with the most was Tobi Bakre. We were mostly playing together, and our stunt rehearsals were always together. He kept pushing me, and I kept on pushing him. Indeed, I had the most chemistry with Tobi.

What were the upsides and downsides of working on the movie?

The upside was that it was a big shift for me career-wise. It is the biggest thing I have done on film or TV. I have done a couple of works but this one will go down in history, because apart from pushing me in terms of strength and level of dedication, it made me meet a lot of good people in this line of work. Working with Jade Osiberu is one thing I will forever be grateful for.

Who are your role models and mentors in the industry?

That is a tough one. I remember that when I was growing up, I used to watch TV series such as Cock Crow at Dawn, and Things Fall Apart. I used to say I wanted to be like RMD, Sodiq Daba and Pete Edochie. It is good to actually see that I did not give up on that dream; they kept pushing and inspiring me. Outside the shores of this country, Marlon Brando was one person I respected so much, and I have always followed his work. I also admire Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Those are people whose works I try to use as an example in terms of career growth and development.

What don’t you like about the Nigerian movie industry?

Basically, there are likes and dislikes in life generally, and the Nigerian film industry is one that is still growing. I won’t say that there is anything I don’t like because all the sets I have worked on have been amazing. However little the productions have been, they have always been fair in terms of how they treated actors.

But, one thing I really do not like is that we have to wait for actors, particularly when they are given call time to show up on set. In some cases, the director and every other person would be there, and they all would be waiting for just one person. That causes downtime and drags the production backwards.

What are the highlights of your career?

The highlights of my career are hard to state. But, being a thespian, one of the highlights of my career was performing at the Shakespeare Globe in 2012 and in 2013 and 2014; and performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Winning the Spirit of the Fringe Awards in 2014 was another highlight.

Some of the jobs I consider as career highlights are not always about the money. Sometimes, it is also about the level of work I put into them. In that regard, Gangs of Lagos, and Paper Boat are some of the greatest projects I’ve worked on. There are a couple of other great projects I have been involved in that I cannot remember at the moment.

What has been your most embarrassing moment on set?

That is a tough nut to crack. There are times one would have about four pages of dialogue and one would have rehearsed them. But, when one gets on set and one has to deliver them, one would just fluff. In theatre training, we call it the ‘proliferation of fluffing’, when the words don’t come out straight. Those are the few embarrassing moments I have had. I cannot really remember having any other embarrassing moments on set.

When you get a script, what are the first things you look out for?

When I get a script, the first thing I look out for is what setting the script is based on. Then I find out the character I’m playing, then start to research. One has to actually study to become that character and look for the things that make that character unique and different from other characters in the story.

Can you recall some of the embarrassment and humiliation you experienced as an up-and-coming actor?

There have been quite a lot them, because growing up, this was not what my parents wanted me to do. I remember that I had to trek long distances to the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos state, way back when I started training as an actor, and as a dancer learning choreography. I also had to take some money from my parents just to be able to make it to rehearsals. I had to beg for money before I could go for auditions. There was a particular incident in 2004 or 2005, when I went for an audition in Surulere, Lagos. I went all the way from Ojo (another part of the state) and I met a couple of people that I knew, who were my seniors back then in the Lagos State University. When they finished, I just greeted them. I did not have money but I was so ashamed, that I did not know how to ask for money. However, Tina Mba (a veteran actress) was in the car while I was going back. The car just reversed and she gave me five hundred naira. I cannot forget that incident, because that money not only served me as transport fare, I was able to buy something to eat on my way back home.

You are also a theatre director and acting coach. Tell us about that aspect of your career

I always say that ‘theatre is life’. It always comes first for me, and directing for theatre has been a part of me. From going to a theatre school and majoring in directing, it is something I had been learning since 1997, when I was still a teenager taking tutelage under Victor Thompson, Steve James, Mufu Onifadeyi, Soayi Busen, Hillary Williams, and the late Victor Eze at the theatre.

Eventually, it comes to one naturally when one has spent so many years, particularly when one is now into acting and one knows that one has developed over the years in terms of understanding, script analysis, character analysis and interpretation of what the playwright wants to pass across.

As regards being an acting coach, I believe it takes an actor to help an actor. I believe so much that an actor should be willing to give anything it takes to play a part. For that, I give my time to help actors understand characters, in terms of script and also how to interpret, as well as to help them internalise, so that their characters can stand out.

Which do you prefer between acting on stage and before the camera? And, what are your reasons?

Both stage and film acting are prerequisites for any actor who wants to grow. Having a preference would depend on the choice of the individual actor. For me, theatre is more enriching, because it is life. The kind of experiences and audience interactions that one gets on stage, one cannot get that in film or screen acting. I prefer both, but I do more theatre than film, though I’m starting to do more films. I am trying to balance them though. As Terrence Mann (an American actor and singer) said, “Theatre will make you good, film will make you famous, television will make you rich”. So, in the course of one’s career, one must do theatre, because the training one gets will flow through from theatre into screen, and will ultimately make one an exceptional actor.

What kind of stories do you think Nollywood needs to tell more to attract global attention and commendation?

We need to tell real, authentic, indigenous African stories, but we also need to be creative about them, because Nigeria and Africa are blessed. We have real stories that the world is waiting and clamouring for. We need to tell our own authentic stories, but tell them in a way that can appeal to the international audience.

Many have complained that Nigerian actors are not well paid. What is your reaction to that?

I am of the opinion that you cannot fully pay an artist their worth. Can the treatment be better? The answer is yes. I know that we always try to use Hollywood as a yardstick, but we also need to look at their system and how long it takes them to make films. In Hollywood, an actor may not have to shoot more than one or two films in a year. That’s because it could take months to get into shape for a particular role, so it would be difficult for one to take up another job. In that case, the pay has to be worth it. Things are very different here, but we are growing. Nobody can compare the treatment of actors now in terms of payment to what obtained about 10 years ago. I believe it is a gradual process.

Some have criticised Nollywood movies for lacking depth. What’s your take on that?

There are always days of little beginnings. Depth or not, there is a story that has been told. It might not have been well told, but there has been a great shift in terms of development in story telling in Nollywood. There are many great works from Nollywood on the international scene right now, and that is a positive development. In the beginning, we might have made mistakes, but now, there is great development. I think that is what we should be looking out for.

What are the personal qualities that have helped you as an actor?

As an actor, one of the qualities that have helped me is discipline, because talent is never enough. It is not just about how talented one is; it is also about how disciplined one is. For some people, it might have panned out differently, but for me, it has been about discipline, coupled with years of training and hard work. The learning process for an actor is a never ending one, because they have to train all the time.

Also, one has to have the ability to respect the people in charge, being punctual, and being able to control oneself at any time.

If you could change one thing about Nollywood, what would that be?

The changes I would have effected are the things already happening in terms of how we tell our stories, and how we are developing as an industry. Another thing that I would love to see change is in terms of actors getting royalties for some of the works we do.

Aside from acting, what are your other interests?

Aside from acting, I am a farmer and agriculturalist. I am into animal farming and other forms of agriculture. I also sell shoes and belts; together with running a full-scale production company.

How do you unwind?

It is easy because I have kids. I also have 13 dogs, and I spend time with them as much as possible, when I’m not working. I play with my dogs, hang out with my friends, play video games, and go out on the street a lot. I like to go to strange places and just sit around strange people. I go to places such as markets and newspaper stands just to listen to people talk about things happening around them.

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