He started out as a businessman and fortuitously got into acting. But today, Emeka Ani has distinguished himself as one of Nollywood's stars. He spoke to Justice Ilevbare about his career and the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN)
How did you get into acting?
It all happened when we came back to Onitsha and started life afresh. I was still doing my motor spare parts business until I met a group of men who was shooting a soap opera called Under the Sun. So the director, Solomon Anyanwu, met me in my shop and asked if I could play a particular role and that I looked like a chief because of my beard and all of that. I said okay. So he gave me the guide. At that time there was no guide but he told me what to say and I took up the challenge and I played the role.
When was that?
That was in 1989. That was how I started. So when I saw myself on screen when the soap was aired, everyone was surprised and started asking if I was an actor. I was happy that people were watching me and everywhere I went, people started seeing me differently. It was wonderful. So after that, I continued locally in Onitsha, Anambra State, from 1990-92. Then Living in Bondage hit the market and everyone was like "Emeka what are you doing in Onitsha, when others are busy making money in Lagos?" So in 1994, I decided to come down to Lagos. I met Sydney Diala who played one of the roles in Living in Bondage. So I had a discussion with him and he said if I had accommodation there was no problem because according to him, I have good prospects, diction and what it takes to act. So the next day we went to his house. Then I later located my friend whom I did business with a long time ago. I explained to him the reason why I'm in Lagos, he invited me to his place and I started living with him. So Sydney later took me to auditioning and rehearsals, where I later picked a role in Taboo and another one Obiora. Before getting another role in a chart buster titled, Battle of Musanga. That was the first chart buster I starred in.
So which movie would you say gave you solid footing in Nollywood?
It is Battle of Musanga.
Which was your first movie?
The first movie I starred in, apart from the soap opera I told you, is Betrayal.
What character did you play in the Battle of Musanga?
I played the role of a chief priest
You seem to be acting much of a chief priest roles, how do you feel acting such roles?
The truth of the matter is that I like roles that are challenging and the role of a chief priest is always a challenging one. It either involves war, killings or saving lives. Anything you do to save or kill a life is challenging. So I love roles that are challenging and whenever I have roles like that, I make sure I put in my best. That is why it looks like I like playing such roles.
Why does such roles seem to come to you always?
I don't know. I'm sure after many people have watched such movies they send messages to producers and directors that I am good in acting such roles. So when next there is another opportunity to cast someone for a role like that, people always come to me because to them, I act such roles very well. People will continue bringing the roles and you donít expect me to reject it because I am a versatile actor. I can play any role very well. I don't think there is any role given to me that I have not played well.
Don't you think that is overplayed?
As long as African tales still exist, there is no way you can tell African story without talking of voodoo and things like shrines, witchcraft. But even in such roles you still find out that God still prevails over any other thing. As a Christian I believe in the power of God.
Do such roles conflict with your faith?
It doesn't conflict with my faith in anyway. I just try to tell people the story and reflect in people's lives that at the end, this is how it is going to be, if you are playing well and if not, you will also receive the repercussions. But the whole thing depends on the person watching the films and his intension. If you are watching a film with the hope of picking out the bad message that is what you will get at the end. So, it depends on what you want in a movie. But I like said, every movie has it own message to the people.
Are there usually feelings of guilt after a particularly bad role?
After acting such roles, I kneel down to thank God for giving me the courage and inspiration to act such roles very well then cover myself with the blood of Jesus. So that those forces I'm fighting will not turn around to start fighting me because I know I'm fighting a battle and that I have to defeat. Satan is powerful and when you are fighting with Satan you have to be strong. But if you stand on God's promises and ask for his powers, the devil cannot stand you. So people might think the roles we play affects us sometimes positively or negatively. But to me it does not because I have played evil roles that people see me, and start running away. I keep telling them that it is just movie.
Somebody once said, "I can't talk to this man, he is evil and I don't want to see him," because of the way I killed and strangled someone in a movie. I was filled with joy because if after watching the film and people don't feel that way, it means I have failed. But when I see such people I'm really happy because it shows that I did what I did very well and I did a perfect job.
How would you assess your growth in Nollywood?
I thank God. Itís been fantastic so far because I know every crop you plant must definitely grow. So I am growing gradually.
There is no relationship between what you read and your present career?
It's nature. When one is born, he is destined for a particular thing. Maybe one thing and the other hasn't led you to it but one day it must surely come. Some actors are born but some are made. So I can say I'm a born actor because I didn't study anything relating to theatre in school.
What sort of benefits has acting brought you?
Acting has brought me fame. Before I became an actor I go to places and nothing happens but I go to the same places and the kind of cheers I get is wonderful. Since God made me a celebrity, I now walk into places I never expected to walk into. Like some people have been dreaming when are they going to see Aso Rock in Abuja but the day I went there, I parked my car in front of the gate and the policemen on duty shook and hugged me. I was able to see Mr. President without any hitch. I get this kind of treatment each time I go there. So that is what acting has brought to me. It is marvelous and I thank God for being an actor.
How many movies have you starred in?
Not less than 100 films between 1995 and 2006. The last one is Serpent in the Paradise, which was released just two weeks back. And others like Battle of Musanga, Highway to the Grave, one of the greatest roles I have acted where people found it hard to believe that it was just mere acting. They thought it was a real native doctor. Wasted Years is another chart buster and a lot of others.
What was your growing up like?
I hail from Amafor community in Ugbawka clan in Ukanu East Local Government Area, in Enugu State. I grew up in the village and when I was three, my parents took me to Enugu city where I started my primary education in 1966 and when the war broke out we left Enugu for my hometown. So during the three years of the war we were in the village. When I was 11, I came back to the city where I concluded my primary school and went to Awkunawnaw Boy's secondary school. I spent three years there then went to Aba Boys Trade Centre, now Abia state, a technical school. From there I got a job with a company called Nigeria Construction and Furniture Company. After working for some time, I decided to go into business. I went into motor spare parts business in Maiduguri. During this time I thought it wise that while doing business I should further my studies too. So I enrolled into a pivotal course in the University of Maiduguri. That was where I met Governor Orji Uzo Kalu. He read political science while I read Business Administration. So, in 1984-85. I decided to marry and from there life changed from boys' life to men's life. In 1987, I decided to drive down to the East because of the crises in the North. Then my wife was worried and I remembered she asked me what we were doing in a crisis torn area and that we should move to the east. I listened to her advice and we decided to move back to Onitsha. I have five kids - three girls and two boys. I'm 49 years old.
How would you describe yourself?
I'm a quiet person. I'm a Christian; I love my fellow human beings. I love God so much because without God I don't think I will be what I am today. Whatever I do I put God first. I play a lot and I don't play with my prayers; it's very important. I'm a sports man, every morning I jog from my house to stadium to keep fit. This helps me a lot.
What turns you off?
I don't like people who gossip. Hatred turns me off because God says we should love one another. So if you hate, it means you are going contrary to the word of God.
What movie are you working on at the moment?
I'm supposed to be on location now I just left this afternoon (last Tuesday). I am on set with Patience Ozokwor alongside Francis Duru and Emeka Iniocha. The movie is directed by Ernest Obi.
How do you see yourself in the nearest future?
I thank God for making me who I am today. I don't know about tomorrow but my dream is that by the special grace of God I will keep on increasing my talent. I hope to start producing and directing my own films soon.
On set, what kind of person are you?
When I'm on set, this is not the way I talk. I try to determine the character in the script. I try to act according to the roles I'm playing.
What is your assessment of Nollywood?
I'm happy being a part of what is happening in the industry today. We are trying to build the industry and by the special grace of God we are putting our heads together to make sure we donít fall. Build your house on a rock and it will not fall but if you build on a heap of sand when the breeze comes, it will carry it off. My advice to our leaders both present and the ones to come tomorrow, they should make sure that Nollywood is not neglected.
There has been so much criticism about the Actors' Guild. How do you react to that?
We are disappointed in the present AGN (Actors Guild of Nigeria). For not less than nine months they have not been able to hold a meeting. We have no confidence in AGN and that is responsible for the failure we are experiencing today. I must be sincere to the whole world that our present president, who is on impeachment bench today, has not done us well. When he came in as a president, instead of carrying everybody along, he started selecting and segregating everybody and behaving as if he is doing his own business. Everybody was happy when Larry Williams was the president, and so it is for many other presidents. They impeached Zack Orji because of one small reason. They said some people were banned and that he didn't come out to fight the marketers. But the young man was trying to put things together. He called meetings and tried to advice them before he was removed. Leadership is not all about fight, it is about carrying people along.
What is the way out?
The only way out is the total dissolution of these exco members because they are not performing. If they are performing, the offices should have been opened. Meetings should be held. You can imagine that there is none for nine months and the offices have been locked for the past one year. Many people are not happy with the way things are going. A new election should be conducted. That is my position.
You've received a couple of awards; how did you feel receiving them?
I thank God that a lot of people have been rewarding me with awards. I have received about 15 awards. I think it's just God and nothing else. I feel so happy because people are seeing my little contributions to the growth of the industry. For people to appreciate me like this means that God has been watching me. God is the only one that has seen me to where I am today and he is the only source of my inspiration
Filmography: Endless Lies, Darkest Night, Secret Game, Critical Decision, He Lives In Me, Indecent Girl, Last Wedding, My American Nurse, The Carcass, Agony In the Family, The Stolen Bible, Battle Line