My boyfriend can go on and complain, but.......–Actress Funke Akindele
My youngest sister is at University of Lagos said some of her friends went to a party, and a girl organized some other girls for the party. They saw a text message on her phone: 'the girls are on their way. Forward the million naira into my account and don't leave any trace…' Can you imagine Chinyere wanted to sell me?' She said."
As Funke Akindele relates this story, told to her by her sister, people who pass by her as she walks through the parking lot and into the restaurant hail her in greeting, quoting lines from her latest hit movie and asking when the sequel will be out. She smiles and waves in return before getting back to her story.
It is a story that could be a scene from her hit movie, Jenifa, a Yoruba film subtitled in English that tells the story of the comic character, Sulia, a local champion in her hometown, who finds that she has to change her name and step up her game in order to fit in with the "big girls" on campus.
In fact, the story is the inspiration behind the movie that would grow to become one of the biggest hits of the year 2008, starting out small and gaining momentum as word of mouth spread.
"I started thinking about how I could tell this story, and how I could talk to the wannabes on campus." Funke was all too aware that she was approaching a theme that many before her had explored in several films, and so was challenged to find a way to make hers different.
"I had to create the character of Sulia. She will make them laugh but they will learn a lesson."
Funke is all about lessons. From her first big acting role as a teenager in the NGO-sponsored television series I Need to know, to the ever-growing list of Yoruba language films she has written and produced herself in recent years, she has tried constantly to do more than just entertain.
"I don't want to just be a producer. I want to produce a movie and see people rush to buy it. I want to touch people's lives, to have them sit down and think deeply," she said.
It was something she had tried to do with most of her work, but for some reason, Jenifa was different.
The phenomenon that is Jenifa struck in late 2008. While some people complained that the bulk of the humour in the subtitled Yoruba film was lost in translation, others became unwavering fans, spouting phrases from the movie by any means available – phone, Internet or in person – and eagerly awaiting the sequel, which followed a few months later.
In the midst of an old story, people were fascinated by the character of the irrepressible Sulia. Sporting ill-fitting knee-high boots with pajamas tucked into them, and flaunting an old-fashioned oversized cell phone, she walked down a campus street and into the hearts of movie-watching Nigeria, prompting laughter on and off screen.
Funke took her research for the role seriously. "I actually traveled as far as Ilorin, watching all those girls eating in bukas as they insult people in their dialect."
But even with that, she did not strike gold immediately. "I called my writers and we sat down to start to do the story…and they gave the story to me after it had been written." Funke did not think this first draft had the level of humour she was looking for, so she sat down and wrote it herself from scratch.
Clearly, she got something right because, as she walks, the catchphrases of 'Sulia ken', 'Ayetoro ken' follow in her wake, proving that she has that thing many actors strive for – a recognizable face.
Funke's entry into the world of entertainment was challenging, and filled with audition after audition where, for some reason, she was considered 'just not right' for the role. Born to a gynaecologist mother and a school principal father, Funke recognized her interest in acting early on, but her father wanted her to be a lawyer.
"All along my mum has been very supportive – anything you want to do, you must tell her straight out and she will support you." It was her mother who drove her to most of the auditions she attended when she was starting out her career.
This was when Funke was about 19. She had an OND in mass communications from Ogun State Polytechnic, and was back in Lagos, working. Her boss, noticing her interest in acting, gave her time off to go for auditions.
"I told my mum I had heard that actors and actresses assemble in Surulere at Winis Guest House. I would ask her to drive me down there and we would check out audition dates. On the date, she would wake up as early as 5:30 to go to the auditions. And we went for so many."
For a long time, she did not even get 'waka pass' roles – silent, 'blink and you miss it' parts – but her mother remained positive. Finally, she got a small role that included a line. "It was an Opa Williams movie called Naked Wire." After that, offers dried up once again, until a woman approached her at the end of yet another disappointing audition. "She said she saw that I had it and told me about another audition at Swift Studios." Funke attended the audition. "I didn't leave the audition venue until 11pm because I was short listed. And that was how I got my first major role in I Need to Know.
The television series was a United Nation-sponsored project that explored sexual education and activity among teenagers. Turning 20 at this time, Funke found herself challenged by the lead role of Bisi, which she played.
"The most challenging thing was learning to talk like teenager. It was so disturbing. I went back home and sat down, crying." Her youngest sister, finding her like this, gave her an important tip.
"She told me you just do this, gesture with your hands …and that was how I learnt to talk like a teenager – watching Amma. We did the pilot first. It took about two weeks and then, after some months, we were called upon to start the series."
She worked on the project for four years. "It wasn't easy. It was my first major role; I was just overacting. My director, Lloyd Weaver, had to tell me, 'Funke, you're doing well, but you need to just relax' I learnt a lot on that set."
By this time, Funke was a law student at Unilag, fulfilling her father's wishes. With the show's premiere approaching, she distributed T-shirts to other girls in her residential hall and got a friend to announce to the entire hall the time the show would be airing.
After watching the show, people were complimentary. "The most exciting times were when we were just starting a new quarter – arriving on location; you feel this excitement in the air. The difficult times are when you have to put five pages of lines into your head. And my character was always talking."
It was sad for her when the show ended. "I missed everybody on that set. It was like one big family – living, sleeping and waking up together." She also missed the steady pay cheque.
"We were very well paid. I still see fans who ask, 'what happened to I Need to Know; why did you have to end it?' That is one production I would always love to work on again." During the show, she had tried to find the time to do other things but, with school still on the cards, there was no time.
She got her law degree, but by now her father was becoming reconciled to the idea of his daughter as an actress and she did not go on to law school. "The day I went to his school and the students wouldn't go back to class because they wanted to see me, was the day he accepted it."
One could draw parallels between Funke's career and the progress of her popular character, Sulia. Having enjoyed success in one area – television – Funke found after graduation that Nollywood was not as eager to welcome her as she would have hoped or expected.
"I don't know why. Some people say it's tribalism, but I don't want to believe that because Omotola, Olu Jacobs and Bimbo Akintola are Yoruba. Some people said they have to take you to bed before they give you a role, but nobody harassed me so I don't believe that either, I believe it just wasn't my time."
She got a few roles – Egg of Life, Break Up, and Final Whistle, but nothing major and nothing with which she was satisfied. Then she met Ayo Adesanya, an actress who had gained popularity on the then weekly soap, Palace, and was working regularly in Yoruba films.
Ayo invited Funke to work on a project called Ebu Ika. The director liked her work and called her for more jobs, encouraging her to focus more on Yoruba films.
Another actress, Iyabo Ojo, encouraged her to go looking for roles if she wanted to get work, and would take Funke round with her. Soon, she had a caucus with which she worked regularly. "In the Yoruba movie industry, there are different caucuses. I am in Odunfaa."
But still, Funke was not satisfied. Her roles usually involved only three or four scenes within the entire movie. "After a major role like I Need to Know, I now had to come down. But I appreciated it because it gave me humility."
That did not stop her from making big plans. "I've always wanted to be a movie producer. My first movie, Ojoketala, I wrote when I was in OND 2 in 1996." In 2004, she dusted off this old script and decided to produce it.
"I amended some things, and I raised the money through my mum. She saw it was time for me to start playing lead roles. So that was it, I launched myself onto the market."
She found that people did not take her seriously at first. "I am very, very authoritative, so if I'm telling someone, 'Why don't you just get something done?' They will be saying, 'why is she talking to me like that; she's a woman …,' but then they got used to me and they got to know, 'Funke knows what she wants.'
The challenges of producing paid off and, when she was 27, marketers took up the movie. "So I was saying, 'Funke, this is your calling, you have to take it seriously."
With her second film, she got an executive producer, Olasco films. "Olasco is also my marketer. So he drops the money and I produce."
She produced Etanu, Egun and Ekuro before she did Jenifa. For the film, she referenced many things she had seen or heard herself while she was a student at Unilag.
"The university environment, for me, was wonderful. I was determined to pass through school and not the other way around. I did not experience all the scenarios in the movie, however. Aristoism is a cankerworm that has eaten deep into our campuses, and if it is not taken seriously, the future of Nigerian girls and ladies could be jeopardized. The Nigerian economy is tough, I agree, but with self-discipline, contentment and self-reliance as survival strategies, it can be curbed – if not eradicated."
It is a moral code that has served her well, for the most part, although there are some circumstances she cannot avoid. Piracy is a big problem. Jenifa was pirated on a big scale, and that's why part two was delayed. I saw it on some of those 10-in-1 DVDs. We arrested some of the guilty parties, and we are trying to work on distribution. If your film is readily available to even the last bread seller, the pirates cannot make money. With the sales of that movie, I ought to be in big money now, but we thank God for what we have."
In between her own productions, she acts in other movies, and with plans for the future that include a movie about traditional dance, a TV series based on the Jenifa character, and the hope of taking some directing courses, there is little time for a social life.
"I'm single, but not necessarily searching. I think my work has caused it. I'm in a relationship now but he keeps complaining, 'You're too busy; are you the only actress?' But one thing I know is that anything that is worth doing at all is worth doing well. I didn't just stroll into it. I've started it and I have to continue. And the dream I have for my movies in this industry is so big. Of 100 per cent, I have only achieved 30 per cent. So why stop?"
She points out that her problem is not with marriage, but with being asked to sacrifice her career. "I'm interested in a man who will love me and love my job, because without my job, he wouldn't see me. My boyfriend now, he was my fan, but he's been saying, 'The day you get married you have to stop this acting.' I told him, 'Sorry, the day you try to stop me, I will divorce you. If my parents could support me, why not you?"
The 31-year-old actress, whose work has sometimes kept her so busy that she could go as long as two months without seeing her boyfriend, does acknowledge that, after marriage, she would adjust her schedule to a certain extent.
"I will reduce it because I have to give time to my home and my man, and if I start directing, acting will step back." All in all, she sees good things for the year ahead.
"I know 2009 will be a good year for my career and marriage prospects. But I don't want to get married just because other people are getting married. I want to get married at my own time … because I'm happy with my partner. Because it's a lifetime thing. I'm taking my time."
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