Charles Awurum, the veteran Nigerian actor, speaks to EMMANUEL OJO about his growing up and acting career
How would you describe your childhood experience?
My childhood experience was a good one. I had parents that really took care of me. When we were young, my father was one of the top men in society at that time. He was with the Nigerian Ports Authority. He was part of the officers that checked goods that come in and go out of the country. We lived an averagely good life at that time. We went to school. I wouldn’t say that we were part of the high class then, but we were part of the high middle-class. Until my father died, we were really taken care of.
At what age did your father die?
My father died when I was 25 years old.
Did it result to financial difficulty for you as a young adult?
Yes. At the time my father died, I was still a student. I had to pause for a while and work a bit before I could go back to school. I went to University of Calabar. I read Theatre Arts. It wasn’t easy when my father died because everything fell on us and we were all students at that time except for my elder brother who was on the national youth service at that time. One of my brothers then was studying medicine in the University of Ife then (now Obafemi Awolowo University). He wasn’t done with school because it takes a while in medical school. He would have to spend about seven years in medical school to finish. I would say again that it wasn’t easy but we battled it all for a while before we could get settled individually.
How many children did your dad have?
My father had seven children. We were supposed to be 10. The first three died, we didn’t meet them. It was the seven we knew. Unfortunately, due to the demise of my other siblings, I became the first.
Growing up, were you closer to one of your parents than the other?
No. They individually had their unique roles they played and they were both loved. My father was a very hard-working man. Only that you know, for what mothers are, you tend to tilt a little bit towards them because she is a woman. It was only when my dad died that I knew what he went through. So, it’s like that. I wouldn’t say that I love my mom more than my dad; I love them both.
Was Theatre Art your childhood dream?
Yes. Theatre Art was my dream from childhood. When I was young, I watched lots of drama on the television. I watched Village Headmaster, I watched FESTAC 1977 performances, Langbodo and so on. I dreamt of becoming an actor. At a point back then I wrote to the Nigerian Television Authority that I wanted to be part of Village Headmaster. It was my happiest day when I got a letter with NTA’s letterhead, inviting me to join but unfortunately, I was quite young and my dad did not believe in that at that time. He believed that one has to go to school. His principle was that you just must go to school. That was how I couldn’t join at that time but I started acting with the drama group in church then, Catholic Church in FESTAC. I was also part of the dramatic society then in my school, Anglican School, Apapa.
As someone born and raised in Lagos, did you fancy the idea of being called a Lagos boy?
I am a Lagos boy. We were actually one of the first people to move to FESTAC and it was like a western world then.
What was Lagos like at the time compared to now?
Lagos has not really changed as a whole. The rush and hasty kind of life has always been there. You’d always see people rushing for the buses. And it wasn’t something about about FESTAC alone. When I was in school then, we woke up as early as 4am in order to get to Surulere where my school was. Not much has changed but for some structural changes in the city from efforts of some of the recent governors – most roads have been worked on and good structures put in place, here and there. Generally speaking, however, Lagos hasn’t changed so much. Lagos has always been Lagos; there have always been gridlock on the roads and that’s Lagos life – Eko for Show. No doubt, it’s a good place where you have different kinds of people from different corners, coming together, living together and doing things together.
Lagosians get so used to Lagos such that they wouldn’t like to leave Lagos except when very important issues take them out. Lagos is a place where you get anything you want.
I grew up wanting to be an actor; I’ve always been passionate about it, though, I was also a painter at some point. But you know in Nigeria, after painting, people will price your work in way that discourages you. A piece of work that took about two to three days to execute, someone would just come and say, “Oh! This piece is beautiful, I want it,” but on hearing the price they are willing to offer, you will just be disappointed.
Who taught you how to paint?
Nobody taught me painting and I remember my art teacher in secondary school asking me the same question. But nobody taught me; I just learnt it on my own and I made A grade my painting all through my secondary days.
Would you have been a painter, if you hadn’t taken to acting?
Maybe I would have been a painter because I was very good at painting and drawing at that time.
As a painter then, what was the highest amount of money you sold a piece of work?
I think the highest amount was N10,000 or so.
As far back as when?
As far back as 1982. It seems to be good money then, right? But you don’t know what a painter goes through just to produce one piece. And the job has to be so good to get such a reward. There was a Pope that came to Nigeria around that time; I can’t remember which of them now. I made money then from a painting of him that I did.
What challenges do you and other actors face in the movie industry?
The first one is money – money to produce movies. That’s why most producers produce nonsense because they don’t have money to produce good movies. Because of that factor, they tend to offer something terrible to the actors and most of us who have come this far wouldn’t want to take just anything to come on set. It’s either you pay well and we act for you or you don’t pay and we stay away. Most people are no longer ready to produce good films. They just want to produce anything in order to be called film makers. They just get any script, any story, go on set, use whatever amount they have because people are so hungry and desperately want to be famous. Some people even pay to act. They are not given food on location, no accommodation; they are not taken care of at all. That has destroyed the Nollywood of our dream. That’s not what we thought we would have been at this time but we thank God that there are still some good film makers who still produce good movies and but they are very few. I would rather stay at home than go to act any movie that will go into the market and make a mess.
Is money the only issue? What about inadequate technical know-how?
I didn’t say money is the only issue; I said it is one of the factors that have destroyed the industry. Most people come into the industry, feeling that once in, everything will fall in place. They don’t take their time to learn the technical part of the job, especially production. They want to be this; they want to be that, even though they cannot act. Some come and pay for the production and do other things just to have their way and get the fame they want. People are there for different reasons, anyways – some to make fame, some money, not minding the quality of production they do. Some are there for women and some women are there to make name in order to go into other things and have their way in the world and make what they want out of it. Some are there for prostitution and others for reasons best known to them. When you are in an industry for the sake of that industry, you make it happen, but when you are there for the sake of other things, you wouldn’t. When you come into the industry, you are there for film sake, to make a name and achieve a goal in that industry, not to go and look for women or do other things that are not important to the production process.
There are some who come into the industry without even having talents and they don’t want to learn either. They are just there to say that they are into film production and they are messing up the industry. Some even buy the roles they want to play, show off with big cars, give gifts to producers in order to have an edge. You will see an actor who cannot deliver a scene in a movie playing a lead role and they make things difficult for everyone involved in that production. They can go on for days trying to shoot just a scene and the producers wouldn’t still want to change that cast because the person has been benevolent to them. Some even sell roles nowadays. These are the things you watch that will make you not to want to be part of every production that comes. This is what is happening there and for lack of money, they also use cameras that are not up-to-date, resulting in works of low quality. But there are still good movies and until we remove those quarks, Nigeria’s movie industry will still be seen as an industry that doesn’t know what it is doing.
The Nigerian movie industry is populated mostly by people who didn’t study Theatre Art. Does being a Theatre Art graduate give you an edge or how exactly do you feel that many people are doing just fine what you had to spend about four years learning in the university?
It does not matter if you study Theatre Art or not. There are a lot of people who studied Theatre Art but don’t know how to act. It is a talent and a determination to work and that’s what matters most. There are many of my classmates back then in the University of Calabar who do not know how to act or make movie production.
How long have you been in the industry and in which movie did you feature first?
I have been in the industry since 1994. My first movie was “Obiora,” in which I played the lead role and it did well in the market. The very first movie I featured in didn’t see the light of day. It was shot in Owerri then. After shooting, the executive producer used VHS camera at that time and after shooting, she didn’t bring it out on time, pneumatic took over, thereafter, the present-day camera. So, there’s no way you can push such movies into the market.
Besides good pay, what else do you consider before accepting a role?
When I see who the director is and know most of the characters taking part in the production and upon reading the script, if I find a very good story line, then, I will go with it.
Is there any role you wouldn’t play no matter the amount offered?
Yes, there are roles I cannot play no matter the amount. You cannot ask me to act in a pornographic movie. There is no way that can work. It is not possible.
These days, unlike in the past, actors and actresses are riding flashy cars and showing off mansions in highbrow areas. Does this make you feel that you came too early considering the amount of work you have put into the industry?
It does not. Anybody can be anywhere at any time. As long as I know that what I am doing, I am enjoying it and getting enough of what I want, I’m okay. I’m not greedy. What God says will happen, will happen. I don’t look into what others have or posses for me to start. I have done my best and I believe that my best is good enough for me.
What advice do you give up-and-coming actors?
My advice to them is to make sure that their ambition does not ruin their future because most of them are just out to be seen. They say, “I want to be an actor, I want to have fame, I want to be this and that,” without fully knowing the direction they are heading. They should sit down and think. In the industry, there are many areas that can be explored. You might not be good at acting but you want to act and that will make you do whatever you think it takes just to be in front of the camera. That’s what has destroyed many young people. If you come into the industry and you discover that you can’t do the acting that brought you in, you can explore other aspects in the industry. We have DOPs, make-up artists, directors, continuity men and so on. Think of the other things you can do. With these other things, you can still make it in life and can still be known.
The problem is that people just want to act, and for that reason, they are ready to do anything and that’s why the industry is what it is now. If you check the industry, it is not the way it used to be. I don’t act regularly and it’s not because I don’t get called. I get calls almost on a daily basis for productions. I do the ones that I am comfortable with and leave the others. I recently shot a short skit with an artist. There are so many things that happen in the industry. For artists like us, we don’t suffer. We have made a name that will sustain us. We might not be that big as it were but we can never get hungry. We have things coming from different directions. So, that’s why for us to act, it has to be something good.
Are you encouraging any of your children to toe your career path?
Anybody who wants to can do anything. My father also did not tell me what to do. Anyone who wants to toe my path can go ahead and if they have interest in other things, they can also go ahead with it. My children, even at this age, make their own movies in their little way. They shoot with their phones and bring to me to see; I just look at it and encourage them to go ahead with it. But they have to go to school just like my father would say that anything you want to do, don’t let it affect your education.
How many children do you have and how old are they?
I have three boys. The first is 14 and the last is 10.
How did you meet your wife and when did you start a family?
I met my wife in my village and started a family 17 years ago. April 17 is our marriage anniversary.
Do you have retirement plans and when will it be?
There’s no retirement in acting.
Is there any legacy you are striving to leave in the industry?
I always want to do things that people will remember me for.
There is Oscars award for American actors. Do you think there should be a similar award for Nigerian actors?
There are awards for Nigerian actors too but I know that greater awards will come that will match that of America. We pray that one day, we will be part of that Oscars.