Nigeria's fast growing movie industry - Nollywood is not only recognized within the shores of Africa but recognized around the globe. Victor Decker, a Nollywood actor shares his experiences in the industry. In this interview conducted by Ben Adoga, Decker bares his mind on the industry that has taken the world by storm.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I actually don’t like pinning myself to any particular tribe, I prefer being a Nigerian. My father was a civil servant so I had the advantage of growing up in so many places. I was born in Minna, Niger State, I schooled in Minna, Zaria, Sokoto and Gombe, depending on where transfer took my father. My secondary education was in Government Secondary School, Gombe. I finished my diploma education in 1977 , after which I went to work with NBC in Maiduguri and later joined the Kano State Sports Council where I retired. While still in service I started showing my passion for drama and was taking time out to act. I started with the Magaji Family, Tales By Moon Light, Magane Janice, in the North and several others. When I got to Lagos I started with the Ochellos, Osmosis, long tailor and later went to the National Theatre when Bayo Oduneye was artistic director. Then we did Things Fall Apart , Passport of Mallam Iliya, The King Must Dance Naked and several others before we started the Home videos with Nneka, the Pretty Serpent. After this we did Fear of the Unknown, Bitter Encounter, Love Vendetta, Blaze of Glory Last Valentine and so on. The home video industry was thriving in the South East and it was like they were using more of their kith and kin, regardless of their abilities though there were some producers who knew what it took to produce a good video. I am a restless soul in the sense that I like doing a lot of things; when I was in Kano I was a founding member of NIPR, that was when Alex Akinyele was our national President. When I left Lagos I came to Abuja and went into business, but my passion for the film industry was still there. So I still relate with them, and planning soon to shot about three films...
Nollywood! What was your experience like entering the industry?
I was already on the network with the Magaji Family and my colleagues easily linked me up so I got involved .
You are a graduate of Political Science. How did you get into acting? Did you have a formal training?
No, it’s just natural talent. It’s a natural gift; I didn’t do Theatre Arts, if that’s what you are trying to ask. Acting like any other natural endowment comes in different forms from God. There are some artists who draw and paint very well without being trained in any particular school fine art. Some singers do not need to go for any special voice training but they sing well. I happen to fall into this class; I am a natural actor.
When did you hit the lime light and what brought you fame in the industry?
I will rather look at it this way. There has been no single production, with all modesty, that I took part in that I did not distinguish myself and had compliments from my producers, directors and co actors. But when you talk of hitting the lime light this depends on the popularity of the particular film. If we go that way, I will say Check Mate because Check Mate was like an enigma; its fame or popularity or acceptance or viewership went beyond Nigeria. In fact when it was being aired in London by a private station, it conflicted with church service time and some news papers wrote ragingly about it because some people refused to go to church till after they had finished watching it. It was so captivating that some people would not want to miss any aspect. Here in Nigeria, some wives burned their soup on fire when Check Mate was on, nannies neglected the kids they are suppose to watch over, It was entertaining, it was emotional, it was educative, it was a complete soap.
Tell us about your experiences in Check Mate. Back stage experiences, challenges and others.
I will give the credit to Amaka Igwe the executive producer. She is the author and producer. She was also one of those natural talents that we have; she read Library Sciences and veered into the film industry and made waves. Amaka had a style; she will not give you a complete script. She will only give you relevant portions of your dialogue. The different segments had their locations and they all ran side by side, you went for recording only when needed and it was so designed and well spaced out that we were relaxed; we were not under pressure. There is this frustration that sets in if you have an actor that has a lackadaisical attitude to his work or not taking his lines or lateness to rehearsal a shooting and other unforeseen circumstances that will make the cast not complete, but the way she segmented the production and spaced it, every actor worked towards that day. We internalized our roles, got the script properly and divorced our individuality and took on that new roles,
Let us discuss Things Fall Apart which you acted in. The book as written by Prof. Chinua Achebe is so detailed that people wandered if the stage would ever capture it because the power of imagination that has been so represented in Things Fall Apart, but to peoples consternation it was. How did you people do it?
Things Fall Apart was well adapted. Reading Things Fall Apart you will think that some of these things cannot be captured in real life because while reading you could see the inner thought of somebody. A good script writer can capture everything and that was what happened. There are some emotional music that followed some scenes, some songs portrayed thoughts and it is largely left to the actor to interpret his role.
How were you able to interpret your role in Things Fall Apart?
I just got into character and did what was required of me. For example when Mazi Okonkwo erred and Eze Ani visited him. Remember I played Eze Ani, the medicine man, the only man feared by Okonkwo who was arrogant, proud and strong. Okonkwo was the symbol of the village, but Eze Ani is the only man who makes him trembles because he is not an ordinary man; he is the voice of the gods and did not live among mortals but in the evil forest. He sees what mortals do not see and communes with the gods and has power so when Mazi Okonkwo beat’s up his wife on the sacred week of spiritual emphasis when there was suppose to be tranquility. The priest, Eze Ani confronted him for defying the gods and he tried to make excuses and I (the priest) told him “quiet” and he went quiet, the audience in the National Theatre command performance where dignitaries like ambassadors, ministers and others were in attendance. They saw the macho which Okonkwo was tremble, they found that comic so they applauded and were laughing, I didn’t know when I used that anger and turned on the audience and told them “I say quiet” and they all instinctively responded and went quiet only for them to realize what they did and started laughing all over again. This is to make you understand the interpretation an actor can give his role. Some actors, looking at them you simply understand that they are reciting what they have crammed, while some actors will infect the audience when they are acting especially if it is an emotional thing. The way the actor goes about it can infect the audience so much that they become part of the emotions and actions. That is the beauty of acting; being able to divorce your individuality from the role you are playing.
I want to know some moments of conflict between yourself and your stage life. You have always acted medicine man or juju man as we Nigerians call it. Have some of these roles come in conflict with what you belief, knowing that you are a Christian?
A good actor can play any role. With all modesty, the important thing is to understand the script, absorb the story line and then internalize the role. After playing a role and the curtains fall or the director says its wrap, in spite of that; for some seconds, at times minutes, you are still not yourself; you are trying to return back. It happens to me. In some productions, after the whole thing I need time to return from the Alhaji which I was to return to Victor Decker. A Decker actor goes through that process.
What about your persistent role of a juju man, have your Christian brothers had any cause to doubt your faith? Have you had any instance on stage when Christianity conflicted with your role?
I am a born again Christian, I know what my Bible teaches me and I have played medicine man severally, but in Fear of the Unknown I had to run into conflict with Christianity, but it’s a simple thing, if I can pretend to be a medical doctor or a lawyer and play the roles well, so also medicine man, I am only acting and I do not forget that I am acting. In the Blaze of Glory I had a serious spiritual encounter with a pastor. There I was the priest of Amadioha, power fought power. I played my role so well that my magical powers were knocking down the pastor, but when he remembered the powers he had in the Almighty he rose to the occasion; using the power of the word, he went into character and my magical power was defeated. In that same show, I was to exclaim, I was priest of Amadioha, but my exclamation went out of character when I shouted “Jesus “ and we all laughed. From my foundation I am a Christian so it was natural that my instinctive exclamation was Jesus before I remembered I was acting.
Work, they say, is not play while doing all these productions did you see yourself working without enjoying it or you were simply enjoying your self while still achieving what you achieved?
I believe I was doing both. I saw myself working and enjoying myself. It wasn’t an issue of working and not enjoying it, or enjoying myself and not working. It all boils down to passion for what you do.
Nigerian actors show a lot of flamboyance on stage. People personalize the roles with their lives. You have acted the rich Alhaji before, how are you living outside the stage and movies. Are you really financially comfortable?
No, I wouldn’t say that I am comfortable. In Nollywood, it is the marketers and sponsors that make all the money, followed by the producers who take some percentage from the sponsors. Actors are on fees. There was a boom at a period when we had actors who were paid up to a million naira, it didn’t last. This was when the actors got wiser as their fame started going beyond the shores of Nigeria and the films were being sold in hard currency. Some of the actors started holding some of the producers to ransom and demanded better pay. A good example was recently when I was with Nkem Owoh and a producer called him to take a role and he said he was fully booked and demanded that he puts forward his production. If a producer is desperate to use such an actor they will be forced to negotiate better pay.
In spite of the popularity of the home video some Nigerians still don’t watch it because of lack of philosophical and technical depth. Why have we not had scripts that can satisfy all these?
We will get there. It is not true that scripts are shallow, some are quite good, but we will get there. I remember an incident when I became indiscipline and cut in telling the crew to cut. This is the prerogative of the director, but I had to do that when the lines were being delivered wrongly and the director didn’t seem to be ready to do anything about it. If I tell you how we shot films in the early times, you will not believe it. We used one camera to shoot a whole film. We take different shots on the location; close up, long shots, from the top and sides then the editor takes care of the remaining. An Oscar winning director from South Africa wanted to see how we did those films that were beating waves he visited a location and saw how shooting was done and he simply concluded that Nigerians were magicians. I am telling you this story because it started like that and today things are better. We will get there.