Dylan Jones, Editor of GQ, describes Harland Miller as “un-self-consciously cool”. That is also an apt description of Nigerian actor and producer, Omoni Oboli. Disarmingly unassuming, Omoni Oboli is an exception rather than the rule in an industry where a whiff of success leaves many with egos as big as the World Wide Web. Ever since she played a lead role in the award -winning film, The Figurine, her stock continues to rise. She recently premiered her new movie, ‘Being Mrs Elliot’ – a story of a successfully married woman torn between two worlds after a life-changing event. Oboli is also successfully married with three children and in this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro Interview, she talks about Nigeria’s biggest problem and how she would solve it if she were president, why the new movie was premiered at Aso Rock, the Nigerian Presidential villa, and her admiration for Tyler Perry. As usual, this is another exclusive interview with a subject like you have never read anywhere else.
Enjoy and stay safe!
SUI: What’s the inspiration behind ‘Being Mrs Elliot’?
Omoni Oboli: When I was going to do Being Mrs Elliot, I thought about a story that would make people happy because I wanted people to go to the cinema and forget about everything that is going on in their lives and just have a good time, have a good laugh, watch a movie that would just relax them, and that they would come out of the cinema being in a better place – that was my inspiration.
SUI: What were the challenges you faced putting the movie together?
Omoni Oboli: My initial challenge was getting funding for the movie. Writing the script to actual shooting took almost four years because it was a nightmare trying to get funding, and also because I wanted to do a good story. I wanted something that is very detailed, it won’t be business as usual, of course that kind of thing costs money as they say, ‘soup wey sweet, na better money kill am’. So, I needed to have some good funding for it and I wasn’t getting it. But then, sponsors came along the way and with the help of my sponsors I was able to put the movie together.
SUI: You premiered the movie in the Nigerian Presidential Villa, what informed that decision?
Omoni Oboli: As a child growing up, when you did something you were really proud of, the first person you wanted to show it to was your father or your mother. When I did the movie, I was really proud of it and I wanted to show it to someone in authority, someone who will ‘bless’ the movie. So, I wondered, who is like a father that I can show this movie to? And I said to myself, why not the president, he is like our father, you know he is the father of the nation. That was the thought process behind showing the movie at the Presidential Villa.
SUI: The ‘presidential’ premiere must have open doors for you?
Omoni Oboli: Yes, it has opened a number of doors. I have met a number of bigwigs who are partnering with me on different levels.
SUI: Back here (in Nigeria) people don’t like talking about the budget for their movies, but how much did ‘Being Mrs Elliot’ cost you?
Omoni Oboli: You started with saying ‘back here we don’t like talking about the budget’, so let’s just leave it as ‘back here’ (laughs).
SUI: Let’s break the norm, how much did it cost you?
Omoni Oboli: Let’s just say I can’t say categorically how much the movie cost me.
SUI: I read somewhere where you mentioned N20 million?
Omoni Oboli: I never mentioned N20 million; it’s definitely more than N20 million. But then, I also got a lot of favours, which I cannot or have not quantified, and in proper budgeting for a movie, you have to quantify all your favours because at the end of the day, if you just give out the figures that you spent on physical cash then you don’t have a proper budget and that would mislead another film maker. So, they are going to think, oh if she spent X amount, then I can spend X amount and get the same quality of movie, not knowing that you probably got a lot of favours along the way. For example, we shot in Asaba (Delta State), Ekiti and Lagos; it would have cost us a lot of money to shoot in Asaba, but we got a lot of favours shooting there because my dad lives in Asaba. So, feeding in Asaba was actually free. The whole cast and crew, as huge as we were, my father fed us the whole time we were in Asaba and transportation was absolutely free, and the locations were far away. So, I really can’t quantify the favours that I got – it runs into million – just favours, not to talk of the actual cash that was spent on the movie. So, it really is a big budget by our standard.
SUI: What’s a big budget movie by your standard?
Omoni Oboli: By our standard in Nollywood, anything over 20, 25, 30 or 40 million naira is a big budget movie.
SUI: Can we categorically say that ‘Being Mrs Elliot’ cost over N40 million?
Omoni Oboli: We’ll be close if we said that.
SUI: Do you see a Nigerian-produced movie winning the Oscars very soon?
Omoni Oboli: There’s nothing stopping us from winning the Oscars, it depends on the mindset of producers and directors when they are doing their movies. There are certain things you have to put in place if you are gunning for the Oscars, when I did Being Mrs Elliot, I wasn’t gunning for the Oscars in any way, I just wanted to do a movie that Nigerians would watch and would be happy about. If we do have our mindset on winning the Oscars, I think we will.
SUI: You married quite young, at 21. It’s been 13 years and still counting, how have you been able to manage a healthy marriage, raising three wonderful kids and also being an actress?
Omoni Oboli: One of the phrases I use a lot is, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do”, so I know that I’ve got to be a wife, I’ve got to be a mum and I’ve got to be an actor, producer and director. I try to make sure that all the aspects of my life have the attention that they require. So, when it’s time to just be with the kids and spend time with them and be a mummy, I don’t hesitate to do that, I just give them all the attention they deserve; it’s not just about spending time, it’s about spending quality time. So, my boys and I take time out to bake together, we play, have fun, watch movies, but when it’s time for production or time to act, I give that total attention as well and they are fine because they know that when I’m around, I’m around, because they know that I’m going to give them all the attention they deserve. It’s always a very difficult balance but one has to try to achieve it. Luckily, God has given women the ability to multitask, so I think it makes it easier.
SUI: Has there been a time you’ve been overwhelmed by being a mum, wife and an actress?
Omoni Oboli: I would be lying if I said there has never been a time.
SUI: What did you do during those moments?
Omoni Oboli: What you do is try and relax, first of all, because you can get all worked up about the fact that, ‘oh, I’m not giving the kids enough attention; I’m not giving my family enough attention; I’m working a little too hard’. So, one needs to realise that this intense work that one’s doing right now is for a season; and when this season has passed, then I can now go back to giving them the attention that they deserve. Thus, there is no point worrying myself sick about it right now, I just need to relax, focus on what I’m doing right now, and then move on from it when it’s done because you know getting so worked up about it doesn’t make it easier.
SUI: Your kids are also involved in acting. Was that a deliberate guidance on your part or was it something they wanted to do?
Omoni Oboli: The first one says he wants to be an actor, and he is doing a good job of it. He’s featured in a couple of movies, he has won a couple of child acting awards, and he’s actually a good actor. The other two, I don’t think that’s what they want to do, but they happen to be handy when I was shooting, so I put them in the movie.
SUI: If you had to choose between acting and directing, which would you choose?
Omoni Oboli: It would probably be acting because acting is my first love, I can do it at the drop of a hat; but in directing you have to prepare for it. Every time you have to direct a movie, you have to absolutely prepare. I’m not saying you don’t have to prepare for acting a role, but it’s such a part of me that it is almost easy to act at the drop of a hat, I cannot direct at the drop of a hat, I have to prepare for it.
SUI: I know you admire Tyler Perry a great deal, why is that so?
Omoni Oboli: Like me, Tyler Perry wears multiple hats in production – he is a scriptwriter, an actor, a producer, a director, and he plays multiple roles. I think he is just phenomenal because people don’t know how it’s very difficult to produce, direct and act at the same time; it almost drives you crazy.
SUI: Women are beginning to play quite significant roles in N, but we’ve not had a female president yet. Do you think having a female president will augur well for Nigeria, or do you think women make better leaders?
Omoni Oboli: I don’t want to say better or worse, I just want to say women make great leaders. Like I said earlier, they can multitask, so they are able to do a number of things at the same time. What would totally overwhelm a man might not overwhelm a woman, not because women are better than men but because women were created that way. Obviously, God knew we were going to be taking care of the home, as well as working and doing other things, so He had to put that skill and knowledge of multitasking in us. That’s why I think women would actually make great leaders because they would be able to juggle different things at the same time. Also, women are more compassionate by nature, women think with their hearts a lot of time, because they are more compassionate, they would be able to actually feel what the people’s needs are and try to meet them. So, yes, I do think that women would make great leaders.
SUI: Did you have any fear of being accepted back after a 10-year break from acting and what were the difficulties you encountered coming back to the movie industry?
Omoni Oboli: I didn’t have any fears when I was coming back, but when I got in, I realised I should have those fears because nobody remembers you from 10 years before. When I got back I was the new girl, whether I liked it or not, and nobody wanted the new girl; everybody had their position and they wanted it to stay that way. So, it was a struggle trying to get back in and I would go to some of the people I knew in the industry, but a lot of them weren’t as relevant as before or they just weren’t doing it anymore. I met Emem Isong, I met Lancelot (Imasuen) who I’ve known before and we got to do one or two movies together, and then I did Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine and it was like, ‘Boom! ‘Who is this girl, where has she been?’ And then, I did Anchor Baby and that was it, the rest is history.
SUI: We’ve had complaints of harassment in several forms and indecent proposals in the movie industry, have you ever been harassed?
Omoni Oboli: No, I’ve never really had that because obviously when I came back to the industry, I came married with three kids. I don’t see why anyone would think a married woman with three kids would make a great whatever… I do think it’s there and I’ve heard one or two people talk about it, it’s not peculiar to Nollywood, it’s in every industry – doctors sleep with nurses every day, teachers sleep with themselves, bankers sleep with their customers or their MDs – so, it’s in every industry. It’s not peculiar to Nollywood. Unfortunately, because we are in the limelight, people get to hear everything that happens to us, both the ones that really happened and the ones that didn’t really happen. Well, it just never happened to me, but I guess it is there.
SUI: Sometimes you hear celebrities complain about the burden of fame, do you ever have that kind of burden?
Omoni Oboli: I always say; the whole fame comes with its good and its bad sides. Unfortunately, you can’t take the good and leave the bad. Like I said, you are in the limelight, everything that you do or even the ones that you don’t do happen to go public.
SUI: Have you had a bad side?
Omoni Oboli: Everyone has had a bad side.
SUI: What particular example comes to mind?
Omoni Oboli: Everyone has had a bad side, every once in a while; one story would come out about you that you don’t like, that is not entirely positive, and people have all sorts of comments or things to say about it. I think it happens to every one of us.
SUI: How do you react when that happens?
Omoni Oboli: My reaction is that, the people who matter to me know who I am and what I can do; the people who believe everything they read don’t matter to me.
SUI: You love acting, and you’re now a director, and most people don’t know that you are also a writer; which comes first for you?
Omoni Oboli: (laughs) Wow, I would still say acting, but then the writer comes first because everything starts with a story. If I’m producing a movie, the writing comes first because it starts with a story; if it’s not a great story, then it doesn’t end up being a great movie.
SUI: What has been your most challenging role so far and which is your favourite movie from all the movies you’ve featured in?
Omoni Oboli: Every single one of the movies that I’ve been part of has been challenging for me.
SUI: Are you trying to be politically correct…?
Omoni Oboli: No, because I see each of them as a new project, and I want to give each project 110 per cent of myself, I say, I’m going to give everything I have and more to this project. So, that challenge is always there, I never go into any movie thinking, ‘business as usual, let’s go and act’, no, I don’t. I try to make sure that I look at the character very well, no matter how short the notice that I have for the movie, I look at the character and determine what the characteristics of the character are, what can the character do, what can the character not do, how they react to certain things? I try to become the character. So, that in itself is always very challenging. But then, there have been movies that have actually not been just challenging in acting, but also physically challenging. ‘Figurine’, for instance, was very physically challenging, ‘Anchor Baby’ was very emotionally challenging, it was one of the few times where I have become a character and it was actually difficult for me to get out of it. Yes, I’ve had a number of challenging roles.
SUI: Was there a time in your career that you felt like giving up and how did you surmount that particular obstacle?
Omoni Oboli: I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like giving up, I don’t know if giving up ever really came to mind, but I’ve felt discouraged and disappointed, and I’ve gone over that with just falling back on the passion that drives me on the job, which pretty much happens to everybody. You get to a point where you are just tired, but then you think about the fact that this is what you really love, this is why you wake up in the morning and you can do this for free sometimes. So, I think about the passion and I just dust myself up and move on.
SUI: If you weren’t acting you said you would have been a surgeon, why?
Omoni Oboli: I just love medicine, I love medical drama, but of course that’s just on TV, but honestly, I don’t cringe at the sight of blood, I feel like I would have loved to stitch people up and…
SUI: Cut people open?
Omoni Oboli: (laughs) No, let’s concentrate on stitching them up, stitch people up and make them feel better. Yes, I would have loved to be a surgeon. I’ve actually been part of a surgery for a woman that was giving birth through caesarean operation. I thought it was a lot of fun, they cut her open, she was really chubby, just all the layers of fat they had to cut through to actually get to the baby and then they took the baby out. It was a really big baby, she was so huge, she was just sitting there, not even trying to come out, and they had to kind of smack the baby around a little bit because she wouldn’t cry, she was just tired and almost distressed. Then, stitching the woman up took some time, because they had to stitch through different layers of fat, and I said to the doctor, ‘why don’t you just take out all these fat?’ He replied, “well she didn’t sign up for that, she didn’t ask us to get the fat, maybe her husband likes the fat like that (laughs)”.
SUI: A lot of young women look up to you as a role model. What’s your advice to them if they want to succeed?
Omoni Oboli: My advice to anyone who wants to succeed in any profession is, first of all, you have to be sure that’s what you really want to do because the only way you can really be happy is if you really want it, I mean you can be successful doing what you don’t really want to do but are you happy? If you have all the success in the world and you don’t have happiness, then what are you? You are nothing. So, the first thing to determine is – is this thing going to make me happy? Is this what I really want to do? When you actually answer these questions, then you’ve got to go at it with everything you’ve got, you have to give it a 110 per cent of yourself. You have to study, even the bible says “study to make yourself approved”, you have to study, even in acting. The fact that I didn’t go to a film school to study acting doesn’t mean I didn’t study, I didn’t get a formal education but I educated myself; I would read about acting, I would check my expressions in the mirror, acting out scenarios with myself and all that is what you put in your craft. So, you have to study to make yourself better, you have to think, what can I bring to the table that no one else has, what is that thing that is going to make me standout, that is going to make me the go-to-person in this field, or in this industry? So, you have to put all that together and then trust in God.
SUI: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Omoni Oboli: I think in the next five years I would be extremely successful as a director, of course I would be more successful as an actor, and I would be a lot older too.
SUI: Are you going to concentrate now more on producing or directing?
Omoni Oboli: I’m going to be doing both of them side by side.
SUI: Besides writing, acting and directing, what are your other areas of interest?
Omoni Oboli: I love business. What I do is business in a sense, it’s empowering people as well. During production, you are responsible for so many people, the crew, the cast, you have to take care of a number of people for a certain period of time, so you encourage people, and you are making sure some people get food on their table for that period of time and that just gives me so much joy. I’m trying to work towards making this a proper production company where we always have something going on, so there would be people who can actually depend on me 12 months in a year. So, it’s not just about when we are shooting, what if we don’t have a shoot for three months? What if they don’t get any other job with any other production companies? I would love to have a production company where the people who are working with me for 12 months in a year need to be taken care of, they are part of this company and they get paid their salaries regardless, so for us to achieve that, all hands have to be on deck to make sure that we get everything in place.
SUI: What is Nigeria’s biggest problem and how would you solve it if you were president?
Omoni Oboli: I think our biggest problem is the Boko Haram insurgency, people always want to feel secured and when there is a threat to security, a lot of other aspects of everyday life are threatened because if I don’t feel like I’m safe, I don’t give my best in my job or at home. I’m not at my optimum because I don’t feel safe. So, I feel like that this is a really big problem that just crept in from nowhere and if I could solve it, I would just wipe them off. I mean it doesn’t make sense, a handful of Nigerians cannot hold over 160 million people to ransom, they are not even up to one per cent of the population and they want to hold us to ransom, I think it’s unacceptable, they just need to wipe them off, that’s the only way.
SUI: Would you appoint more women to your cabinet if you were president?
Omoni Oboli: I definitely will.