John Okafor, aka Mr Ibu, is a popular actor who is loved by many. His comical roles give many reasons to smile. He speaks with TOFARATI IGE
What are some of the most memorable experiences you can recall from your childhood?
Things were hard for me as a child. My parents were not rich, and we lived from hand to mouth. I remember that we used to eat only once a day, but we did not let it affect our educational pursuits. All these are still fresh in my memory. But today, the story is different.
While going through hard times, what were your dreams and hopes for the future?
I was actually determined to develop myself generally and hone the skills I had. I eventually studied Mass Communication. Even though I’m not practising that actively, I believe I’m still communicating with my job as an actor. Before then, I tried my hands on different jobs. I was once a butcher, hairdresser and many other things.
What schools did you attend?
For my elementary education, I attended Community Central School, Ezeogu-Amure in Enugu. For my post-elementary education, I went to Sapele Technical College, Sapele, in Delta State. Then I proceeded to the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, where I studied Mass Communication. However, I am still not satisfied with my educational attainment because one can never know it all; you have to keep learning. If former President Olusegun Obasanjo could go to the National Open University after his tenure, then, that should tell you that education is a never-ending process. I still have plans to return to school.
What stirred your interest in acting?
I was interested in watching soap operas and that was what inspired me. In 1978, I played cameo roles in a TV series, even though my face was not shown; but it was a big achievement for me then. Immediately after that, I decided to devote more time to acting. I started acting officially on December 3, 1978, in Benin.
What were some of the initial challenges you faced?
I wasn’t interested in money; I just wanted to act. I wanted to build my face into the minds of people; so, I usually accepted any role that came my way. As soon as you become recognised, then you have begun to make your mark as an actor.
What was the title of the first movie you appeared in?
The first movie I acted in was titled Rolling Stone and it was shot in Onitsha, Anambra State. It was produced by Solomon Eze of blessed memory, and directed by the late Kenneth Egbunor.
What movie do you regard as your breakthrough?
Every movie I have acted in contributed to my breakthrough. But some notable movies are Agony, which I produced and played the role of an imbecile in, Mr. Ibu, Vuga and Uncle Wayward. I am happy with where I am now.
Can you mention some of the movies you have produced?
I have produced a lot of movies including Naomi, Inheritance, Fingers, Assignment, among many others.
What are some of the challenges that producers have to grapple with?
I would advise any producer never to go on set without having cash at hand. Never take actors and other crew members to a location without having the money to take care of them. That production could hang, and if that happens, that is the end of the job.
You often act comical roles, why don’t you take on serious characters?
That is the result of stereotyping in the industry. As for me, I am ready to do anything. But when one producer casts me in a comical role, and the movie sells more than expectation, then others would also come and request for me to play that same kind of role.
But why can’t you produce a movie where you will play a ‘serious’ role? Okafor
That cannot work. If you’re producing a movie, you are not supposed to play any serious role, as that would affect the pace and quality of production. In some of the movies I produced, I didn’t play any role in them, and in some, I appeared in a maximum of three scenes.
Mr. Ibu is one of your biggest movies that actually gave you your nickname. Did you have any inkling that the movie would become that big?
Firstly, Ibu has been my name from childhood. Andy Chukwu wrote the movie and only added ‘Mr’ to my name. For any script I accept, I give it a natural interpretation and put in my own unique attitude to embellish it. Before accepting any movie, I must be convinced in my mind that it would be a blockbuster, and I always put in my best.
What are some of the misconceptions people have about you?
Sometimes, when we’re having script readings and I make suggestions due to lapses I observe, people often think I’m just joking, or that I’m trying to ridicule their scripts.
What determines the type of script you accept?
Majorly, it’s the plot and the language used. I have to be satisfied that they really interpret the story well. I also consider the character I’m playing and I ask questions if I don’t understand anything because if you don’t understand the role you’re supposed to play, then there’s no need being part of that project. I must believe in a script before I can accept it.
Do people really take you seriously off screen?
The people that are close to me and those who work with me know when I’m serious. I’m also a disciplinarian. It’s only my fans that may not know when I’m angry. Whenever I get angry, I like to register it lightly with the people concerned, and within a short time, I let it go.
What are the things that get you angry?
I hate people who are fake, and I don’t let them come close to me. I don’t like pretence and I cannot work with pretenders. If you are natural and original in whatever you do, then I’m with you.
What are some of the funny experiences you have had with fans?
It is funny but serious. As an actor, I know that my fans love me so much. I have often walked into crowds of people hailing me while some people were busy giving me knocks on my head. In such instances, I have to run away from them.
Where are some of the memorable places that your acting career has taken you to?
I’ve been to a lot of continents like Australia, America, Europe, and other parts of Africa. I’m always travelling, and I have met fans in a lot of places across the world, even in places where I least expected.
What do you enjoy most about being an actor?
Fame is so sweet; it’s like power. You will always meet people who love you and those who hate you. However, a higher percentage of people love me.
What’s the most memorable thing a fan has done to you?
That happened in Italy. A female fan ran to me on stage, held me and started crying. In Abuja, a policeman told me that after meeting me, he could then die in peace. According to the officer, he had always prayed that God should make him to meet me. I told him I appreciated his love, and that he would not die; at least, not now. I am always meek and when I hear such things, I know that they are coming from my real fans.
What has fame cost you?
Fame has not cost me anything. Rather, it has done a lot for me. I appreciate everything about acting.
What’s the major challenge besetting Nollywood?
Piracy and the nonchalant attitude of the Federal Government. In other nations, governments focus on the entertainment industry and dedicate a ministry to it.
Some actors have ways through which they groom up-and-coming actors. Do you do anything like that?
I don’t have an academy but I have trained so many.
What do you think are the most important qualities one needs to be a successful actor?
Discipline is the key. If you are educated and disciplined, you will go places. It makes you learn and have a calm mind.
How do you relate with your female fans?
We have a cordial relationship. For those that want something extra, the something extra would come. My wife was an artiste and she understands the entertainment industry.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt in life?
I have been exposed to the elite, professionals in all aspects of life. I keep learning.
If you weren’t an actor, what other profession would you have chosen?
You’re looking for trouble now. Anyway, I would have been a boxer. I used to be a boxer. I was doing well until I went for a championship in Delta State. The boy I fought with was an idiot; he gave me a beating I would never forget. That boy changed my face and made me hate anything that had to do with gloves. After the fight, I looked in the mirror and I could not even recognise myself. I could see with only one eye for sometime due to the punches he dealt me. That was the incident that made me quit boxing.
What was your wife’s initial reaction when you wooed her?
Before I met my wife, she already knew about me, though I don’t know how. However, she took me seriously from the outset. She has been a God-sent to me.
What were the qualities that attracted you to her?
I was one of the judges when she contested at a beauty pageant, BGN. She also won the Face of Imo State competition in 2004. She is really a beautiful woman but unfortunately, I’m not handsome, though I don’t mind.
How do you unwind?
I love music and football. I used to be a football coach. I coached the national team of the Actors Guild of Nigeria for four years. I also love gospel music. Flavour is one of my favourite artistes. I do a bit of music comedy too; I have two albums in the market as we speak and I am ready to do more. I only drink water; I don’t even take soft drinks. I get high by being with my people.
How do you like to dress?
I like to wear designer outfits and I shop anywhere in the world. I pay a lot of attention to my appearance.