Zack Orji landed his first movie role without an audition. The movie is titled ”Unforgiven Sin”. 27 years after, Orji is still relevant in the industry and at the top of his game. To him, acting found him. Today, he is not only an actor but also a producer extraordinaire and a Fantastic director. He has taken his craft to several nations around the world. Orji completed his Primary and Secondary education in Cameroun and finished his tertiary education at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN).
In this chat with Nollywood Post, Zack Orji talks about how he was discovered, childhood, home front, his other passions and many more.
How did this whole acting journey start?
Well, the first movie I starred in was about 27 years ago and, I just believe that it was ordained by God himself because of the way it happened. I did not audition for it. The producers just looked at me and listened to my speech; and, they decided that I was the kind of person they needed for the lead role. The title of the movie is ‘The Unforgiven Sin’. It dealt with the OSU cast system.
The movie got me a nomination for best actor in the first movie awards that was done in Nigeria. I don’t know how to put it. I felt elated when I got that nomination. And, What can I say? Thereafter I became sought after by people, by producers and that’s how it started.
Looking back to when you started 27 years ago and now, would you say you were born to act?
[Laughs] Born to act…I haven’t heard that before. Yes. In a manner of speaking, you could say that I was born to act because I love it. I have a passion for it. And that’s what I’ve been doing cognitively and consistently in the last 27 years. Even though during that period, I have also become a producer, a director, an acting coach. But, at the end of the day, acting is still the thing that I always go back to.
Okay. Just imagine if you were not discovered the day you were discovered. What else would you havee loved to do?
I might have become a singer or recording musician.
Wow! You sing too?
I do sing. I actually have some songs that I’ve recorded. You’ll get to hear then someday when I return to Lagos. I’m actually working on the musical video for one of them.
Who are you outside acting?
I’m just an ordinary Nigerian like you. I’m an actor, a filmmaker, a husband, a father of three children. I love my son and my two daughters very much. What, what can I say? I’m a very domesticated man in my house. Nowhere is off-limits for me. I enter the kitchen I enter everywhere. Sometimes I wash the toilet. It doesn’t matter to me it’s my house. The way you make your bed so shall you lie on it. So you can see me anytime boiling water in the kitchen or sometimes when I finish eating I like carrying my plates to the kitchen and washing them immediately. We have not had any house helps for more than 10 years. My children learn things on their own.
More on how to raise children
It’s not what you say but what you do. There’s a certain duality in everybody. People say one thing and do another thing. So, and most of the times what stays with your children is what they see is not so much what you tell them. I look back at my own childhood.
It’s most of the things my parents did that kept me going, you know, prayerful being very disciplined and doing things that impacted me. Those things have stayed with me all these years, you know? So, um, that’s, that’s, that’s what I can see, um, what to do really matters. It’s not just what to say. It is good to say the right things, tell people the things but at the end of the day do you do these things yourself? That’s what really counts.
Discipline…. Tell us a little more about that.
The Bible says spare rod and spoil the child. I received serious beating even from home. So I mean, if I was disciplined in school it didn’t matter because the discipline started right from home. My mother would use the cane on me If she needed to my father would do likewise. So discipline is key. Discipline raises a child in the way the child should go. However, there’s a difference between discipline and harshness. Being harsh is not good. When you discipline a child that the child himself or herself knows that it is for their own good. The Bible says we discipline, those that we love, we chastise the people we love because we don’t want them to go astray to discipline is very key.
Part of our growing up was learning to do things on my own. I mean, I grew up going to fetch firewood. I grew up carrying things on my head. We grew up without any house help. I grew up selling things on the streets. So when people look at you now; what you have become they think you had it easy all your life. Part of my growing up was in Cameroon and my parents disciplined us right. We lived in a place called Buea, which is the capital of the Southwest province. And in that place, we lived at the foot of Mount Cameroon.
We used to climb up to a certain extent to go fetch firewood and my mother would go with us. So that’s how she brought us up. We learned hard work right from when we were very young. We Learnt that hard work pays. Hard work also has a way of disciplining you.
You’re fluent in french! Does that have anything to do with growing up in Cameroon?
I was born in Libreville, Gabon. And part of my growing up was in Francophone in West Africa where my father worked with John Holt. So he was moving from one place to another. So I went to French schools. The first film in French which I starred in was shot in Benin Republic, in 2005, directed by Tunde Kelani, titled ‘’Pourquoi Moi?’’, meaning “why Me?’’. My last work in French, “Légitime Défense’’, was in Conakry, which I directed.
What was it like staying outside Nigeria as a child?
It helped my orientation. Living with people of other nationalities, living in another country, you know, Learning, the ways of other people, mingling with them, going to school with their children. Also having my parents drilling it into our heads that you are Nigerians. My father always made sure he told us where we came from and in the midst of all that, we stayed focused all the time.
So did it help?
This helped us to stay focused and of course, educationally my father never joked with education. We had a really gave us a good orientation educationally. My senior sister told me that when any child was born the first thing my father would do would be to put a pen in his or her hand. My middle name is Amah, which means ‘let my heritage not be lost’. That’s the name of my father gave me.
You talked about producing and directing movies. When did you produce your first movie?
The first movie I produced was in 1996. That’s about 24 years ago. It was a production called ‘Love in Vendetta’ starring myself, Kate Henshaw, Ngozi Orji (my wife) and the late Justus Esiri. I did another production called Return To Kazondia which was shot in 1997 in Jos and released 1998. I marketed it both in Nigeria and in Ghana. In 1999, I started travelling to Ghana to be in productions. And we did quite a number of movies in Ghana that year. Myself, Pete Edochie, Liz Benson, Ngozi Orji, some of the people have passed away now. Late Kwame Owusu Ansah first Ghanian actor who did a crossover to Nigeria. He started coming to Nigeria to act. Back in 1999, we did some movies together.
My directorial debut was in 2000. That was 20 years ago. The first movie I directed was titled WEB. I produced and directed it. I was also one of the executive producers. Starring myself, Ramsey Noah, Ngozi Orji. Kalsoume Sinare, one of the top actors in Ghana was also in the movie. 90% of it was shot in Ghana That movie won best collaborative film in the Ghana awards of 2001.
Where else have you make movies apart from Nigeria and Ghana?
My work has taken me everywhere. I have worked in Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Cameroon, Conakry, Gabon, South Africa, and the United States. I did a film in Hollywood in 2006. My last project in South Africa was two years ago. Actually, I started acting in South Africa 17 years ago. 2003 was the first time I travelled to South Africa to do a movie with an all-white crew. It was awesome. Back in 2006, I did a project in Uganda, which I directed called ‘Roses in the Rain’, starring actors from Nigeria, Uganda, some other African countries. My work has also taken me to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, UK and Canada.
You look and sound calm, despite all the fame and achievement. How do you pull that off?
I am a very simple man and, What can I say? Popularity is good. Fame is good, If it doesn’t make you arrogant or make you think that it is by your strength. I don’t believe that anything we achieve is by our strength. I am a very spiritual person. The Bible says it’s not by might nor by power. Whatever you achieve it is by the grace of God. He empowers you and opens doors for you. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and humble yourself also in the side of others so that you can be elevated.
Whatever you have achieved, there are people who have achieved a hundred times more than that. So what makes you think you are better than the next person? Why should it get to your head in the first place? Because there is no achievement that is done on your own. There must be others who have taken part in your achievement. God just opens doors for people, raises people who are there for you. He raises people who assist you along the way. So when all of that is done, you should be humbled by it because the God of all creation is the same God of creativity.
You have gone this far in movie production. There’s a lot to ask about the way forward in Nollywood? Take a look at Hollywood. Can we get to where these people are? If we can, what is holding us back?
What do you mean by can we get to where these people are?
Look at their movies. You can see that there are huge budgets in play.
Budget is relative. Okay? And then huge budgets do not make the movie. Money is good. It can help you to get the kind of equipment you want, hire the right staff or actors/talents you want for your movie. It can get you the things that you need for your movie, but it doesn’t make a movie. The first thing that makes a good movie is a good script. If you get your script right then you have gotten 60% right already.
The main thing is now assembling a team that will help you to realize it. Movie production is not a one-man thing, It’s a collaborative effort. I just finished a movie in Lagos, not up to a week ago. Most of my locations were in Ikoyi, Lekki and Ajah. The movie was produced and directed by my humble self. It is called, Heal Thyself, starring myself, Bimbo Manuel, Larry Koldsweat, Opeyemi Oke, Rachel Oniga, Benjamin Touitou, Nancy Isime, Sola Kosoko, Bukola Awoyemi, Omotola Oluwaseun, Toriola Olawunmi. My two Directors of Photography:- Ngozi Nkebakwu and Okey Oku, the young and the old, also including actors from the Yoruba sector.
We shot with the same standard they shoot with in Hollywood.
We shot on RED. If you know, about cameras. Red is one of the best standards right now, which is the same standard as they shoot in Hollywood. We shot with two RED cameras. About 60% of productions done in Hollywood are direct to DVD productions. And I tell you about 90% of black films like Tyler Perry films, they are not, they are not celluloid. They are video and are well shot. They are shot with cameras like Cameras used in Hollywood; Canon EOS C700, Arri Alexa, Red.
The issue is that budgets are different in the sense that we are operating in a world economy where $1 is worth over 400 Naira at the moment. We are operating under such constraints where our currency is belittled in comparison to other international currencies. But if you place them on a pan, say, okay, production standards, we maintain the same production standards. We make good movies in Nigeria now. That I can tell you with all certainty. We make movies that can compete internationally.
Okay. Since the advent of COVID-19, what has been happening in the industry?
The industry has been very busy. You won’t believe it. Even at the peak of the pandemic, people were producing movies in Asaba, Enugu. I’m not kidding. People have been shooting movies consistently. They’ve been working. I’ve been working.
So, what is the next level for Nollywood?
The next level? Hmm. Streaming seems to be the way to go now. At the end of the day, it is good to shoot a good film. Once you shoot a good film, you open it up to various opportunities. Now when you shoot a good film, what do you do with it? You have to market it. What are the marketing outlets that are available? Well, the one that seems to have caught the attention of everybody now is streaming. Like they do on Netflix, Amazon, IrokoTV, and other streaming platforms. People can watch a movie from any part of the world. And then for every of your movie that is streamed you get something in return.
It’s going to help a lot because at the end of the day, when you shoot a movie and you make a good return on investment, it helps you. I mean, it encourages you to go back to production.
For the next generation of actors, what do you think they should be ready with?
They should be ready to work hard. They should learn their craft very well. If you want to be an actor, you must be very good in your craft. Like the people that I worked with on ‘Heal Thyself’. When I was doing the casting for the movie, I started looking for movies they have done to see how good they are and see if they fitted in. So it is very necessary for you to know your craft. Build your wisdom around your craft, and you will go far. Never get to a point where you think you know it all. Every project is a new experience and every opportunity for a new project is an opportunity to learn more and to get better.
Follow Zack Orji @RealZackOrji