A Fine Gentle Man: O.C Ukeje

Okechukwu Chukwudi Ukeje, better known as O. C Ukeje, is Nigerian actor, model and musician who came into prominence after winning the Amstel Malta Box Office (AMBO) reality show for acting in 2006. He began his career while he was still in his first year at the University of Lagos, Akoka, where he studied Marine Science. He went on to pursue both music and acting, focusing mainly on acting in stage plays for the first four years of his career before winning the reality TV show.

His first screen appearance was in a lead role in White Waters (2008) starring Joke Silva and Rita Dominic, and directed by Izu Ojukwu. For his performance, he won an Africa Movie Academy Award for the Best Upcoming Actor (2008) and a City People’s Award for Best New Act (2010). O.C is a two-time recipient of an Africa Movie Viewers’ Choice Award (2013 and 2015) and a Nigerian Entertainment Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role (2013). Others he has received so far include a Golden Icons Academy Movie Award, a Nigerian Movie Awards, a Best of Nollywood Award and a Future Awards Africa Prize (Entertainment Category).

He has starred in many Nollywood films such as Black November (2012) by Jeta Amata with cast members like Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Sarah Wayne-Callies, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Vivica Fox and Akon. He also featured in the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) directed by Biyi Bandele, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton as lead cast. Ukeje also appeared in the British Film Institute-sponsored award-winning film, Gone Too Far (2014), directed by Destiny Ekaragha. He recently played lead role in the South African multiple award-winning film Ayanda (2015) by renowned director Sarah Blecher. The film was screened at the Cannes Film market and the London International Film Festival, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and opened the Durban International Film Festival. O.C also starred in the Ford Foundationsponsored Remember Me (2016), a movie produced by Uru Eke and directed by Izu Ojukwu.

You studied Marine Engineering at the University of Lagos, how did your interest in acting come about?

I actually studied Marine Science, not Engineering. Whilst I was studying, I worked with an organization on campus called The Rock Foundation Mission. We were involved in a number of things that we contained on campus. At some point, they thought to do a play, which I was forced to audition for. I got the lead role and executed the play to rave reviews that surprised me because I was just doing it out of compulsion. It would later lead to being invited to join a bigger organization, Rhythm of the Blackman, where I honed my craft better and learnt a great deal about acting. That spiked my interest and by my third year at school, I was certain I wanted to keep acting.

How easy was permeating into Nollywood and how receptive was the industry when you first appeared?

It was no easy feat getting in. It’s still a difficult journey on a different level. I had done a reality TV show, which I aced but it didn’t give me automatic access. It is a business and for one built, on the star power of recurring and bankable actors, It made no viable sense to hire someone off a TV show so I spent quite some time trying to prove myself. I followed producers and directors on social media, sent them messages, went to auditions despite winning a TV show, and attended industry events I got invitations to…I did it all to get in. I did have some help too.

You started off on theatre stages, how different was the transition to screenplays?

I had a crash course on the differences between stage and screen but the difference between theory and practice can’t be explained alone. It was nice to see that the camera/audience can come to you as seen on screen, as opposed to theatre where you go to the audience. It was one of the welcome differences for me. However, it wasn’t an easy transition, especially being subtle with your choices on screen but a bit more deliberate with theatre. I managed to do it though.

How would you describe your evolution in the industry, and what are the challenges for young actors and actresses today?

I think that it has been arithmetic for the most part, and then geometric for the last couple of years. I think I have paced myself well. I have been through an interesting learning curve, doing stage for the first 5 years before getting shots at the screen. I have also spent all my film experience learning more than seeking position or attention. So I believe I have been very steady in my growth.

I also believe that above the need to be hired as young actors and actresses, one of the challenges is the desperate focus on being popular or getting attention, as opposed to the focus on being disciplined professionals, especially with the craft. I think that is a present day challenge.

There are other issues such as stereotyping and the general absence of varying genres, as well as remuneration. What do you wish was different in Nollywood?

It would be nicer to have stronger distribution channels available to the large population we have in Nigeria. That would change many things, including what genre of films can be explored and what payment structure is possible. I also think that it would be nicer if Nollywood had more structure for every level of practitioner in the business. And I think that if the government also helped us with legislation that favours the creative industry, Nollywood would be much further along.

Last year, you interpreted a role from Songeziwe Mahlangu’s book at the Etisalat Prize for Literature award ceremony where he emerged winner. How was that experience for you?

I liked the fact that Ifeoma Fafunwa thought I’d be able to do the job and hired me for it. I liked the challenge of trying a different accent. We both agreed that the material was hard text and trying to compress Songeziwe’s thoughts into one monologue was a difficult task. We managed to distill its essence, thanks to Ifeoma and her team. We had about a week to tweak and perfect it. It was quite a pursuit but I think that I did my best and it seemed well received.

You won the 2006 Amstel Malta Box Office Reality TV Show for actors. Some critics don’t consider Nigerian reality TV shows effective at making stars out of their winners. How much of a boost was that win to your career? 
In retrospect, I think that every opportunity to get into circulation is a blessing. When you’re a beneficiary of a reality TV show, it matters more to you at the time that the producers do more for you to make you a star. And there is some plausibility to it. However, it is still an opportunity to seize that is dependent on the beneficiary to utilize. Nigeria is a difficult place and it is so much better if show producers extend their intentions past the mere winning of the show. However, winning the show was a major boost to my career.

Gone Too Far showed a comedic side to your acting. How different was that role for you?

I think comedy is difficult. I think that you’re either naturally gifted for it or have the discipline of doing justice to comedy. It was very different for me because I had to make sure I wasn’t caricature about my choices, which the director, Destiny Ekaragha didn’t want. It could not come off as forced humour and that takes discipline. I was well guided by the script and direction. I also had to be even more deliberate about my acting choices. But I’m glad I tried it at least.

What have you been working on recently, and what’s next for O.C Ukeje?

Well, I’m a working actor so I’m primarily occupied with scripts and new work. There are new films hitting the cinemas this year. I’m also working on how to expand my international circles and possible collaborations. I have personal interests and I’m equally trying to develop in terms of businesses and productions. So, yeah, fingers crossed.

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