How My Acting Journey Began – Actor, Deyemi Okanlawon Tells His Story

Nollywood actor, Deyemi Okanlawon, has starred in some top Nollywood blockbusters in the last two years and has stunned fans with his acting prowess.

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In this interview with Weekend magazine, he discusses his journey in the industry and the growth of the Nigerian entertainment industry.

Weekend Magazine: Do you think that Nollywood today has been upgraded due to the fact that streaming services have come into Nigeria?

Deyemi: There is a bit of background to this conversation but the assumption we have made is that the quality of Nigerian films has improved, and we all agree. The Nigerian film industry, while not being the oldest, has been around for quite a while ever since the days of Herbert Ogunde and the likes. They used to shoot on celluloid. We’ve always known that Nigerians have a knack for storytelling, and they have created really good films.

There was a time in the history of filmmaking where we got way more commercial as with most things in Nigeria. We took off all the frills and thrills and just created what the consumers wanted. And as at that time, the consumers were not particular about a lot of other things other than to enjoy the stories and acting but times have changed. The Nigerian audience, their pilot has changed in terms of the kind of film and the quality of films they are looking for and we saw a slow but steady evolution of Nigerian film making to international standards. This started to happen even before the entrance of any of the streaming platforms.

However, one of the major things we need to understand along the film value chain is distribution and without distribution. I would say that the Nigerian film making has been locked out of the international film distribution channel for a very long time and has democratised distribution. So, it’s not held by few powerful studios in Hollywood who have an agenda of their own, and there is little or nothing you can do about it. It has been democratised by these new streaming platforms and made it accessible to all. Obviously, that also means that at the end of the day, when filmmakers invest more money into their films, they can hope for better returns on their investment. You don’t want to spend 100 million in a film and you are locked into a distribution channel that can only pay you maybe 20 million, you end up with a loss. Now, having these new platforms here has significantly opened Nigerian filmmaking to the world but beyond that we are also able to generate more revenues from these new distribution channels. I agree there has been an improvement but I would not say that it’s only happening because of these streaming platforms. There was a move towards greater quality films way before these guys started, it has just been accelerated.

WM: We recently, learnt from a report that you never really wanted to be an actor. What has the journey been like for you?

Deyemi: I will insist that I am still up and coming. The reason why is that, if you put me side by side with Denzel Washington, I still have a long way to go. My very first memory of acting was when I was five years old. I played every kind of role during those Christmas plays and I really enjoyed them. I enjoyed reading story books too. I have always had this storytelling performance thing right from childhood. My mother was a good baker and my father, an aircraft engineer. I would pick up not just story books but also his engineering books and that’s how I got interested in sciences. I studied chemical engineering at the University of Lagos and was also selling cake and bread from my mum’s bakery. One day in university, I bumped into this group of young performers who were doing faith-based drama production and joined them. That reignited my love for drama. I was about nine years old when I did my first TV commercial about family planning, Sola Sobowale was my mom and even that experience I remember vividly while the other kids struggled with their performance, for me, it was a breeze.  So fast forward, I continued doing drama after graduation, with a much bigger church and what I didn’t realise was that I was being trained. I became the head of the youth drama group at that time and doing all these things. I also had a 9-5 job I was attending to. Sometime in 2010, a random conversation with a business contact of mine asked what I was studying, and I told him, he asked what I would like to do, and I told him acting. He said he had some friends in Texas and are back in Nigeria to shoot a film and if I am interested, he could let me audition. I went to the audition, and I got two film roles in my first ever audition. That’s how it started; someone saw the trailer for the feature film that I did then Tolu Ajayi of lucid productions. He called after seeing the trailer and said we should have a conversation about his own film ‘blink’. Blink is on YouTube for anyone who wants to watch it. It became my call card to the industry. Every night, before going to bed, I would tweet at every Nollywood name that I knew, and I would drop the link to the movie. Somehow, the movie got on Nairaland and it just went viral and from that point, a lot of filmmakers saw my work. Following that I got a call from Lala Akindoju who was working with Jade Osiberu on this movie called Gidi up, they invited me for an audition, and I got the part and this was before these streaming platforms. People saw Gidi up and were drawn to Nigerian filmmaking again because it just set a new standard. One of those nights coming back from the audition, I got waylaid by armed robbers and I got shot. I survived the accident, but I wasn’t discouraged.

WM: You also have a journey in the corporate world, tell us about that

Deyemi: After I finished school and started searching for what to do. My mum asked me to join in her bakery business which I did because I’d already gotten a taste of money on campus and was already skewed towards entrepreneurship. I worked with her for two years, resigned and left home. I started my business in sparkling solution and ran that business for a year and a half. Then I joined a financial analyst and investor relations firm called Proshare and became head of marketing. Then I left after a while to start sales target consulting for small businesses. I joined a company which eventually got bought over by OLX and I became the marketing manager for OLX in Nigeria. It wasn’t until sometime in 2013 that I resigned.

WM: Why did you decide to take a break in 2019?

Deyemi: I was discouraged and wanted to give up. Mainly, because I was in a lot of films, and I wasn’t finding fulfilment in a lot of these films. I dusted my resume and went back to work. I joined Silverbird film distribution as the head of marketing and after which I was asked to take up the position of head of account for Nollywood titles. Then COVID-19 happened and the CEO relocated, then I became the acting CEO. At some point, I started getting calls from Kemi Adetiba and the likes. When we were released from lockdown, I got back to filming and now I’m really happy that I’m doing work that I find fulfilling and that the industry has grown to a point where the quality of production is something, we can all be proud of as Nigerian actors and producers. And also, the financial reward for our crafts has also improved.

WM: Do you think these streaming platforms helped elevate your career? Also, when you talk about the lucrative nature of being on these platforms, can you share that with us?

Deyemi:  I am well aware that films are now being produced in Nigeria for millions of dollars. For blood sisters, I am aware lots of money was spent and everyone was paid very well. Please understand that the people I’m talking about are in no way mediocre in the craft, I’m talking about the best of the best. When you see the films, you know why they are getting paid huge amounts of money for the films. It’s an interesting time.

WM: You’ve been talking about distribution for a while now, do you think the piracy challenge Nollywood has faced over time seems better now?

Deyemi: One of the things we need to do is not give voice to these platforms, so I would never mention the name of a pirate website. Secondly, piracy is here to stay so the real issue to look into is how to circumvent the effect. With the online platforms now, there are new sources of income for filmmakers and a lot of people stopped going to the DVD makers and focused on these other channels. Technology killed that whole DVD piracy market. Instead of trying to focus on piracy, I think the solution might be massively monetising your content such that the piracy takes is insignificant to your earnings.

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