Story, story? Once upon a time?
Around the time our cover star was making his movie debut, every great Nigerian story told by elders to excited and attentive children started with that introduction. So in a bid to honour tradition, I am starting this cover story the same way because Mike Ezuruonye’s life and story is definitely going to blow your minds, and may probably go down as one of the greatest Nollywood stories ever told.
We arrived at our cover star’s house to a warm reception and I was actually shocked when Mike greeted us like we had known each other for years. It led me to believe that he wasn’t an egotistical person (trust me; I have dealt with enough celebrities to know that ego is one very serious issue in the entertainment industry).
[Mike goes up to prepare for the interview while the Vibe.ng crew were relaxing in his simple but elegant living room, watching football on a TV that was as big as the bonnet of a monster truck. Soon, footsteps were heard and Mike emerged wearing a wine-coloured jacket with a hat to match, and a pair of black jean trousers. His black ring and nerdy glasses gave him the aura of a nerdy fashion mogul who knew the right dress combination to go with the right occasion. Nothing beats a humble celebrity with an amazing fashion sense, no?]
So we sat down for the interview, “Phones on silent, Camera rolling, Clear throat”.
Passion and patience were what thrived in Old Nollywood, that’s why I prefer that era
When it comes to Nollywood, however, Mike not only proves why he is one of the actors at the forefront of the industry but also confirms the notion that the movie industry is in desperate need of someone with his intellectual prowess at the helm. Ever since his “graceful” debut (I use the word graceful and not lucky because he was very opportune to get into the industry even when he didn’t really ask for it), Mike has gone on to be something more than an actor. He is a producer, director, a script-writer, and many more things, which is something not many actors can claim to have achieved.
How did you get into acting?
During my formative years, I grew up with the likes of Jeta Amata and I did a lot of stage plays even for NTA. After that, my love for the art started and we (Jeta Amata and I) did a lot of training with Ruke Amata. While working in the cooperate industry, I went to Dubai and on my way back, I met my stagecoach (Ruke Amata) buying fuel somewhere and he told me he’d been looking for me because of Nollywood; he wanted me to be in the industry and work there. I initially told him I wasn’t interested but he persisted. I eventually gave in and we made a movie.
Shortly after that, I met Andy Amenechi and he was surprised at my talent as he thought I had been acting since. I was on set for about a week and after we finished shooting, I went to get soda somewhere, while there, I was mimicking one of my uncles. Unknown to me, Aquilah Njamah saw me, loved my impressions and said he also wanted me in his movie. Funny thing is, while the first movie was getting edited, I got a call from Emem Isong who said she wanted another lead male actor in her movie to work alongside RMD, Genevieve Nnaji, and Stephanie Okereke and that is how I came into Nollywood.
Peer pressure is making people live unrealistic lifestyles and I had to use my own medium to educate the ignorance out there today.
How has the journey been so far?
It’s been good. In any task, I like to see what makes it tick and I took time out to learn the movie business also. It’s been nice and not too nice at the same time because we are in a country where we should have more but we don’t have the structure and infrastructure for the movie industry to prevail. The merits far outweigh the demerits though. We thank God for everything so far but it could be better.
As someone who has survived the ‘switch’ from Old to New Nollywood, which era do you prefer and why?
First of all, I hate the term New and Old Nollywood because people are trying to use it to cause a divide. Nollywood is Nollywood, so any actor or actress using that term is just being a hypocrite.
However, I prefer the Old one! People think that I have been there since but I actually just came in. The likes of Desmond Elliot, Yul Edochie, Mercy Johnson, and Charles Okocha are my seniors in Nollywood. I have so much respect for them because they showed me the way.
“Passion and patience were what thrived in Old Nollywood, that’s why I prefer that era”. The old era was filled with people who were passionate about the craft and not the razzmattaz that comes with it like we are seeing now. Our stories and the way we lived were told the right way in Old Nollywood and that was what made the world take note of our industry, unlike movies in this era trying to emulate the western culture. The number of people who are passionate about the craft in this era is low, and it shows because the top movies like The Wedding Party, Kunle Afolayan’s movies and others all have lead actors and actresses from the Old Nollywood era. I’m happy with New Nollywood growing but I love old movies because of the passion.
You have a new movie out in cinemas called Lagos Real Fake Life, what inspired you to make the movie?
Lagos Real Fake Life is born out of the reduction in the value system of our society. We grew up when there were houses and GRAs without fences, and over time it grew to become the high fences with electric wires that we have now, all because of societal pressure. TV, radio, and social media have been able to feed young minds negatively by being in an era where no one wants to know how you made your money, all that matters is that you have it and they will respect you. Peer pressure is making people live unrealistic lifestyles and I had to use my own medium to educate the ignorance out there today. That’s what inspired Lagos Real Fake Life and I used the comedy genre to pass the message across. [Read our review of Lagos Real Fake Life]
As a producer, director, actor, and script-writer, what are the challenges you face in the Nollywood industry?
We honestly do not have the right structure. Yes, it’s growing but we haven’t gotten it right yet. The issue of royalties isn’t met, producers are lazy because they aren’t looking for other avenues to expand the clientele of Nollywood, content buyers are ripping people off, and distribution is a big issue also. Many people don’t realize that Hollywood movies are more pirated than Nollywood movies but because they have many cinemas over there, the movie makers are still good. We need structures and more cinemas in Nigeria. We are growing, I admit, but I want to wake up one morning and see that we have over 200 cinemas in this country. Imagine a quarter of the total population of Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and other African countries, spending about $2 to watch your movie, aren’t you going to smile to the bank? That’s why I always try to distribute my content to other African countries also.
We really need to join forces with other African filmmakers, and that is why I am pioneering a movement with other filmmakers across the continent to make this possible.
What came to my mind was how one man can have his hands in so many things in Nollywood, can also be thinking and working towards helping the movie industry on a continental level, while also having time for his family and other businesses that he has a hand in. I asked what his secret was and he told me it was a mixture of his multitasking and the grace of God.
“I have the gift of multitasking. I don’t like to be dormant, I always try to know everything about everything and I also help people every day, because I made a pact with God to do so and he has been helping me to see it through. “
Having been in the industry for so long, is it true it is hard to make it in Nollywood?
Oh yes, it is true! I have seen people go for auditions upon auditions and I shake my head. It is good to audition, but are you auditioning because you want a cast or it’s because you want to show off? I usually tell them that if you have good roles for people then give new people the opportunity to showcase themselves. That is what I have been doing in all my movies, I give opportunities to new people and that isn’t something that happens anymore. What happened to me (the way I entered the industry) may never happen to anyone again.
Why don’t you audition right? I have seen an Okada mechanic challenge me artistically. It was just sad that I hadn’t started producing movies then. But whenever I am going to shoot my movie in the East, I will make sure I look for him and he will act in my movie.
Why would you be at the top and not help others? Producers should give opportunities to new people.
A lot of females are rumoured to be offering sex for movie roles, have you ever experienced it as a producer?
Nope! They haven’t done it to me. I don’t care if you say I’m trying to protect my industry (even if I am supposed to), but they haven’t done that to me. When I am working, I am a different person. I don’t care if you are my friend or not, if you aren’t good, I won’t put you in that movie.
If you are one of the people offering sex for movie roles, just know that you will fizzle away, because it is the people that decide an entertainer’s career. If you don’t have talent, once people get tired of watching your face, the producer loses money and goes broke. Anyone offering sex for movie roles will have a short-lived career.
Laughter erupted in his living room when he followed the reply with “I hope I intelligently answered your question?” He had a way of making the interview as warm and relaxed as possible. His mind is definitely an ocean of knowledge, goodwill, and ideas that when brought to life, we will see the real change that we have been praying for.
Yes, Nollywood it’s growing but we haven’t gotten it right yet. There is still no structure
Switching back to his career, Mike Ezuruonye has acted in well over 50 movies (including a couple of Yoruba movies), and has directed, produced and written a couple of them as well, so I was really itching to know his 5 personal favourite movies of all time that he has acted in so far. And his list was really amazing because for me (who had watched him from his debut), I wouldn’t have been able to give an answer even if there was a gun to my head because he has acted in so many great movies over the years.
- Critical Decision
- Live to Remember
- The King and I
- The Duplex
- Beyond Reason.
If you were asked to retire from Nollywood for 700 million dollars, will you take it?
Ah, why you dey tempt God na? I will take it o, but I will still be working from the shadows because being in Nollywood makes me happy. That 700 million will still come back into the industry one way or the other. Money is good and I will take it o, but I will still continue doing what I am doing from the shadows. I’m sorry (not sorry).
Name 5 people you have never worked in a movie with and would really love to.
Hmmm, there are three people that I would love to work with, in fact, every time we meet, we always ask ourselves why we haven’t done a movie together before – Funke Akindele, Nkem Owoh, and Majid Michael. From the new actors, Bisola is a talent and there is more in her that should be showcased, and Lala Akindoju, because she is really artistically strong.
What advice do you have for upcoming acts?
Do you have a passion for the arts? Do you have the drive? Do you work hard and are you actually doing something? Is the mirror your best friend? Are you impersonating people every day? Are you working on something and developing yourself? You have the internet and you hold the world in your hands with a smartphone but are you using it wisely? Check out the many Instagram influencers today, look at where they are. Why don’t you work on something and pitch your own tent? If Nollywood doesn’t accept you, is that going to be the end for you? Why don’t you pick up your phone and do something with it? Everyone is watching so are you working on something? Work hard and trust that your talent and the right person will find you.
As the interview came to a close, Mike Ezuruonye implored state governments to put plans in place and make as many cinemas as possible in their states. There are a lot of stories, local heroes, and ancestral stories that are unique to each state and it would be really awesome if it is indigenes from the state that get to tell those stories. He also made mention of how wrong it would be for a Kogi man to come and tell an Edo Story and vice versa because the Kogi man wouldn’t tell the story the way an Edo person would. The reason Bollywood is thriving right now is that the Indian government invested in cinemas and the movie industry. They are telling so many stories (the original and indigenous way) that people from all over the world are now crying for Bollywood movies. That is a good way to help the Nollywood industry grow. He also made note of some plans he has to help move the industry forward, plans that we will see coming to light from next year so we should watch out for them all.
At the end of the interview, I was awestruck at just how much of Mike Ezuruonye no one knows; his level of intelligence, artistry, and business mindedness. Truth be told, if we had more Mikes in the industry, there is no shred of doubt in my mind that not only will Nollywood be the biggest movie industry in the world, but everyone involved in the industry will be able to fly in the sky.
I will end this amazing story the same way every old Nollywood movie ended:
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.