You were rumored to have died last year; how did that make you feel?
It did not make me feel anything.
So you did not feel bad that people wanted you dead?
If you know me and my character make-up, I don’t bother very much about what people say about me; I have my life to live. From my philosophical persuasion, I am a Fabian, and I believe that the end must justify the means. That does not mean that you must give everything to get something, but if you make up your mind, make sure you are not obsessed with getting to step on the toes of people. It’s a question of conviction and resistance. So, I wasn’t bothered.
People have said you withdrew from movies because you were kidnapped years back…
I did not. I decided to pursue an undying vision, an assignment I was given by the church, and I gave priority treatment to that. I still act but that’s when I have the time. I am in Lagos today, and by the time a role comes, I will be in Aba. I did six movie productions last year.
Let me take you back to the year you were kidnapped. Do you still think about it?
No, though once in a while you recall an experience that is haunting; but what can we do when we are in a country with little or no security?
So you did not have nightmares after the experience?
No, I did not. I am a very strong-minded man and if something explodes here, nothing will happen if it doesn’t touch me. Though I am hypertensive, I don’t scare easily.
Recently, Pastor Chris Okotie said all Catholics would go to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus, and that the Pope is an anti-Christ. As a Catholic, what do you have to say about that?
He is entitled to his opinion. He has a right to say whatever he likes and he is using that right. Constitutionally, he is entitled to it. Stupidity is what we all have in common as human beings, but some people insist that improving it is their entitlement. So, you expect Pete Edochie and other Catholics to be angry? No, I won’t.
I knew Chris some years back; he was fond of me when he was still in school. When I was still a broadcaster, a Hausa man presented him with a car and he came and showed it to me. He is someone I have always liked and he is entitled to his views.
When people condemn T. B. Joshua and say he is using devilish powers, I tell them, ‘Go and use devilish powers and do what he is doing too.’ I don’t believe in running people down because you can’t reach their gifts and depriving others of their hard-earned credit.
What do you think about the political situation of the country?
Look at people crossing from one party to the other. It just shows that our democracy has no meaning. The people you owe your obligation to are those who elected you, who make up your constituency. Before you make any decision or defect, consult them. It is rather unfortunate. Before we gravitate to 2015, by the time they want to pick a presidential candidate, that is where the problem will come from. Let’s watch.
You were elected on a particular political platform, and you switch over, hoping to maintain… Can I ever be a politician? God forbid! Will any of my children become politicians? Let God forbid it now that I am still alive.
What if one of them comes up and says he wants to become a politician?
Except he is not my child.
Will you disown him?
I will discourage him. I remember an occasion that a politician was on the television and I was sitting with another politician, and the one on TV was screaming, ‘If I get the people who stole this money, I will not only sack them; I will prosecute them,’ and the politician by my side said ‘Nonsense!
He took the money; I was there.’
The proverbs you use in your movies, are they scripted or from your repertoire?
(Laughs) They come from me.
When you use those proverbs, how do the directors react?
I am asking you the question: how would they feel,? you are a daughter, if I use a proverb to correct you? You are not going to question the propriety of that proverb, because if it were not, I wouldn’t use it.
Pete Edochie always acts the role of a rich man or an Igwe? How rich are you in reality?
Well, I eat three times a day, when I feel like. I trained all my kids and take care of them without borrowing from the bank. People always ask why I am always given such roles and I ask them in return, can you cast me as a driver? No. Can you cast me as a gateman? No.
But I heard there are instances you rejected such roles?
It is not that. Let me assume that you are given the role of a very big woman, then Pete Edochie is made your driver; I come and open the car for you and I can even physically throw you up and eat you up. If you are looking for a rich man, look for a tall and huge man, with a congenital and aristocratic disposition; then you got me – not someone who trainshimself to try to look big. When I sit down as an Igwe, I radiate authority. I am not saying it to flatter myself, but I know what I represent.
There was a time I was cast in the role of a poor man, and I was trying to mend nets at the river side, and people looked at my legs and saw that my legs were so smooth and big. I have a physique that makes it difficult to play me down. If all the actors audition for a big role, I will be chosen, because nature has denied me some roles. But I enjoy the roles I am given.
Is it true that you correct some scripts?
Yes. Some scripts are written very badly and I am compelled to take them along. I don’t allow them to drag me down or remain there. Some of my colleagues know how those scripts are written.
Isn’t it because you are always hardened and act like a wicked man?
If on a movie set you are my daughter, and I am meant to love you as my daughter, I can’t start saying ‘Hey baby, you know I love you.’ It’s silly.
It’s unAfrican. It’s not our culture. You must love your child – even if it’s a love child. But you don’t have to drive the point home. It makes no sense.
I watch some young actors and actresses and when they get angry, they kick something and throw things. That is not our culture. I smoked for 21 years before I quit, and each time I got tensed up, I looked for a cigarette, and psychologically I was puffing away the anger; but there is no other thing it does for you physically but to destroy your lungs.
We allow the foreign movies we watch to influence us – particularly the younger ones, who want to talk like Americans and say things like ‘Oh shit!’, ‘F..k!’ The African Americans who employ these words use them in protest against the suppression of the White man. They use those words to annoy the White people. Nigerians don’t need those things because we are not under any international suppression – except from ourselves. We cannot express our anger in four-letter words. Someone brought me a script and it was filled with ‘shit’, ‘f..k’, and I told him I don’t do such movies, I am sorry. People learn from me. What will they say if I dump my proverbs for such gutter language?
So you did not take that role?
No. I think I have rejected more scripts than anybody in the industry. I am a lover of linguistic decency. I am not into movies because if I don’t do it, I will not survive; I enjoy doing it. So, you will not coerce me into doing things I know do not make sense.
I respect my good friend, Olu Jacobs, because his diction is impeccable. I haven’t also been seeing Bimbo Manuel. That man is a good actor. I have not seen him for long and I am not happy about it. Also, Keppy Ekpeyong also speaks well. I complimented him once and he went home and brought his daughter to greet me. He could not believe it. I told him people think I am the ultimate, but I told him that was untrue. ‘You people are doing very well and making me proud.’
Do you think Nollywood is on the right track?
Nollywood is incredible and is recording giant strides. Today, most of our actors, particularly the women like Stephanie Okereke, Omotola, Genevieve, Stella Demasus, Uche Jombo are involved in trans-Atlantic collaborative productions with our counterparts. They are making us proud. At one time or the other, they all played my daughters, and when I look at them, I feel some sense of satisfaction. I feel very happy. These girls are pushing our name and they are making the country proud. The men are doing their utmost, but I think in terms of international engagements, the women are doing much more than the men. Sometimes, the productions we do these days get too lengthy and boring. There is one that has been on my TV for over six hours and is still on.
Are you afraid of death? Do you think about death?
Yes, I think about death. Why shouldn’t I? I think about death not because it is inevitable but because I would like to be prepared to meet my maker when the time comes. That’s why I am afraid of death. There is nobody alive who likes dying. Even if a man is 100 years, loses his sight, becomes a vegetable and inconveniences others, he still wouldn’t like to go. So, yes, as a normal human being, I think of death. Merely thinking of death encourages me to avoid excesses.
What are those excesses?
As a young man, I drank a lot. I could drink any bottle under the table. It was because of peer group pressure. We enjoyed diverting ourselves alcoholically. We were not given to subduing the womenfolk as a mark of accomplishment; we always got together to drink and smoke cigarettes. As we got older, I felt there is a need to cut down on all these excesses. I gave up smoking though I smoked for 21 years. I gave it up when I discovered it wasn’t serving any purpose.
You said you smoked for 21 years to ward off anger, now that you have stopped smoking, how do you ward off anger?
I don’t get angry easily anymore; I used my Fabian philosophy to stop that.
Would you describe yourself as a fulfilled man?
Yes. What else am I going to ask from God? I have a brilliant wife and brilliant children. So, yes, I am (fulfilled).
You have lost a few of your colleagues – your good friend, Justus Esiri particularly. What are those memories that you will never forget about him?
Oh, very good question! We always challenged each other whenever we were on set. The camera would come to you to take your lines and some people stumbled over their lines. Some people just smoothly presented theirs. And whenever Esiri presented his lines, he would look at me and say ‘Emenike, one take.’ So I started calling him ‘One take Esiri’. I went for his burial and took photographs with his family. There was one thing he (Esiri) enjoyed most, which was quarrelling and making up. I would quarrel with him during a movie production and take him in my car to eat Isi Ewu (goat head) and then we would get back into the car and continue the quarrel till we got back on set. I did Things Fall Apart with Esiri, and his death was a huge shock to me, because I did not even know that he was ill.
But you said you were close. Were you not communicating?
You see, there is one thing about actors: they hardly communicate as regularly as they ought to. For instance, I am in Lagos, there are so many people who would love to know where I am. Maybe a few days after, they would get to hear that I came to Lagos. Even if he was ill, I don’t think he was ill for too long before he died. And I hadn’t been on set with him before he died. I lost a good friend in him.
You are synonymous with playing the role of a tough man. Does this come into play in real life? Are you a tough father?
My kids would tell you that I am a very strict father. I don’t believe in doting on children. This is why all my sons graduated without creating problems for me. I promised each of them that when they graduate, I would buy them a car.
And did you fulfill that promise to each of your six sons?
Yes, I did. There are things you must do to encourage children and then create circumstances that would lead them away from areas of temptation. If a man is driving his own car, he drives at his pace; but there is something with peer group influence. If your friend brings out his father’s car and you get into it, there is a tendency to pursue excessively, trying to see who will outdo the other. Then you create problems, and I said instead of these children going out and getting into vehicles belonging to their friend’s fathers, you graduate with your own.
What are the things you remember about childhood?
I was very mischievous. (Bows his head for some seconds) We always sneaked into the European quarters to steal mangoes and carrots. We were pursued by the White people. We would even jump into the river to escape, but they would wait for us till we came out. I did very funny things. If you are not mischievous, you can’t be a good actor.
What are your hobbies?
I listen to classical music and watch television. I did boxing for sometime and I watch sports because I was in charge of sports for a long time. I read a lot, especially when I listen to my classical music in the background. If I am not reading materials within the country, I am going from one television station to the other.
In your years on earth, what would you say you have learnt from life?
Life has taught me to be useful to fellow human beings. It has taught me that we all belong to one family and that God is the head of the family, so we should at all times consider the feelings of other people. The first time you meet somebody, try to understand … because we are like fingers of one hand; the moment you cut off one finger, the whole hand feels the pain. Life has taught me to get along with people. You can hardly find me quarrelling with people. We can have intellectual disagreement but not market-women quarrels.
You have a phobia for flying? What was the experience behind it?
Yes I do (have a phobia for flying). I went to Egypt in 1975, we flew out from Kano and we flew for hours until we got to the Sahara desert, and it was sand all through. Someone who was sitting next to me said “Eh, so if something happens to this plane and it crashes, nobody will know where we are.” From that moment, I developed that phobia. I am also claustrophobic. If you put me inside this house now, I won’t be able to stay. I was stuck in a lift once and it was a very harrowing experience. Also, if I stand on the ground and look at a very tall building, my head would begin to swing. I don’t like heights at all.
You once said the women are the stronger sex. Have you ever been tempted by a woman?
Why not? Am I not a human being? I say to myself: you have a wife who honours you, Pete; why must you go out to mess yourself up?