United States of America-based actor, filmmaker and lecturer, Bayo Olufemi, is well known for his character in the United States of America sitcom, ‘Bob Hearts Abishola’. He tells OGHENOVO EGODO-MICHAEL about his experiences of him in the TV and movie industry at home and in the Diaspora
que is your favorite aspect of theater and performing arts?
They are all different because they offer different challenges and experiences. I love directing more than acting but whether I’m acting or directing, the part of my brain that works, works differently in accordance to what I’m doing. It is very hard to pick favorites but if somebody puts a gun to my head and asks me to pick one, I would probably pick directing.
As a creative person who has to be on the constant look out for ideas, how do you deal with creative block?
First, whenever I am working on something, I hardly ever have creative block. Though, I might have a little challenge trying to figure something out, and that is because when I get on a project as an actor or director, preparation is key for me. I always love to do that. I mostly work on projects that resonate with me and speak to my existence as someone who was born and bred in Nigeria, but then went to Hollywood (United States of America). Passion is one of the things that drive me. When I am passionate about something, it keeps my creative juice flowing all the time. There might be a phase when I’m in a rehearsal and I’m trying to figure out what the blockings are and how to get an actor to give me what I’m looking for. (In those cases), I fall back on my skills and try different methods.
(But), when I write, it is a little more challenging because writing is a bit more difficult. It entails one laying the foundation to anything one wants to do and there are different ways to solve that problem. I go back to the core of the story I want to tell. I think of the story, the problem, the format, the characters, what they want, what they need, and the obstacles in their part. Those things help me to overcome those issues.
You have broad experiences in different aspects of theater arts and production. Did you try these different parts one at a time or you took them all up at once?
I attended the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, where I studied Performing Arts. I also did a lot of plays at the National Arts Theater in Iganmu, Lagos, and the University of Lagos auditorium. However, I always knew that I wanted to get into film because I really loved watching movies while growing up. I even did a couple of Nollywood films. One of the stars I worked with was Liz Benson. I also had the opportunity to work with Richard Mofe-Damijo on a play titled Obaseki.
However, I was always looking to get into film and when the opportunity came in 1998 to travel to Canada, I jumped at it and went to film school because there is a massive difference between training to work on stage and training to be a filmmaker. I had the opportunity to work on a lot of Nollywood films as a production assistant and assistant director. I believe nothing can teach one better than being on set and doing these things. The more I did that, the more I realized it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
How does it feel working with top actors in Nigeria and the US?
I am living my dream. This was the dream I had many years ago, even before I ever thought about traveling out of the country. These experiences have been more than positive and rewarding for me. Not many people get to do what they love and be successful at it. I am blessed that God has allowed me to be able to live my dream. In all of these, I’m just getting started. But, for this little boy who grew up in Ilesa (Osun State) to be able to work in Hollywood at the highest level both as an actor and director, that is a fulfillment of a dream.
It is often said that writers are readers. To this effect, how often do you read?
I don’t think a day passes that I don’t read. I am currently an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, USA. I teach film directing there in the school of cinematic art. I also teach acting in the department of dramatic arts. By virtue of me being an intellect and academician, I have to read. A lot of people don’t know that about me. They think I am just an actor and director. I have been teaching for over 15 years. I used to lecture when I was in Toronto too at different film schools. After concluding film school in Toronto, I went to USC and did a master’s program then. After graduating from the master’s programme, I started teaching part-time. I became (a) full-time (lecturer) when the School of Dramatic Arts and Cinematic Arts gave me an appointment as an assistant professor of practice.
As an actor in the US, have you ever witnessed racial discrimination in the course of doing your job?
Let’s just say I have had experiences and I’ll leave it at that. The US has been so good to me, regardless of all the prejudice. There are some individuals I have come across that have been absolutely obnoxious but I do not take those things to heart because I know how far I traveled to arrive in the US. I just see them as ignorant people.
Of all your productions, which is your favourite?
Every project I work on is my favorite as of the time I am working on it. So, for now, I’ll say Bob Heart Abishola, the sitcom I am currently on, (is my favourite) because it has provided me a lot of experiences that I have not had before. It gave me the opportunity to direct, to be a cultural consultant to the show and also be a series regular as an actor. I am having a really good time working on the show right now.
As a theater arts practitioner who has worked in both Nigeria and the US. What improvement would you like to see in Nollywood?
First, I give kudos to the practitioners in Nollywood and what they have been able to achieve. I have seen the quality of production improve tremendously over the years. I think people are becoming more knowledgeable. However, there is still a lot to be improved on. The more knowledgeable and skillful our practitioners become, the better the quality of films we are going to see that can compete with other movies in the world. I want to emphasize the need for skill and knowledge acquisition. The more knowledgeable we are, the better quality films we are going to make.
Being born and bred in Ilesa, Nigeria, how have your cultural experiences helped you grow?
Without the upbringing I had in Ilesa, I do not think I would have gone this far. By this, I do not necessarily mean those experiences were pleasant at all. Going to school, the teachers beat one up every day; even senior students beat one as well. It was unpleasant. However, it made me tough and taught me perseverance and also to keep on fighting, regardless of all the obstacles on my path. That was the solid foundation I had. There were a lot of rejections on the way but values instilled in me while growing up, such as hard work, diligence and being passionate about anything that I do, have really helped me; more specifically, my Nigerian accent. When I first got to Canada, before moving to the US, it was very difficult for people to understand me because my accent was very thick. But over the years, it improved. Even though I still speak with an accent, people understand me clearly. If my students do not understand me in the classroom, there would be a problem. Now, I am a cultural consultant on Bob Hearts Abishola, simply because I am the only one who really grew up here of all the cast members. I was in my late twenties when I left (Nigeria). So, today I am translating scripts from Yoruba to English, and my experiences growing up here help with that.
Having acted in both movies and TV series, which do you find more taxing and which do you enjoy more?
I thoroughly enjoy the TV show I am on right now. It has lasted for several years, so I have had time to get acquainted with it.
As a performer, how do you deal with anxiety?
I barely get anxious now though that used to happen at the beginning of my career. However, with the experience I have had, nothing shakes me anymore. This confidence comes from a place of not only having a lot of experience in the industry, but I also understand that the easiest way to cope with anxiety is to be well prepared. When one knows that one is as prepared as possible, one’s confidence will be sky high, and one will be ready to deal with any eventualities.
What motivates you and helps you to stay focused?
My passion and my vision drive me. Those are the things that motivate me and help me to stay focused, because I am very specific about what I want to accomplish in my personal and professional lives. When challenges come my way, I just think about the dreams, visions and aspirations I have. This is what fuels me and keeps me motivated.
Do you have plans to relocate to Nigeria now or anytime in the future?
That would be a categorical no. It is not because I do not want to be here but I need to stay connected with the pores of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, which is the entertainment capital of the world. Thus, the more I know about what is going on, the more I am in a better position to serve the industry here and the country at large.
Which Nollywood actor or filmmaker would you like to work with?
All of them, as long as they are very talented and professional.
You have been widely acknowledged for your role in Bob Hearts Abishola. In what way did that project stretch you creatively?
It was the first time I was going to be on a sitcom. Prior to that show, I have always had an attraction to intense drama, and for sitcom, it is different in terms of the skills required. It really taught me a lot and helped me understand that genre of TV shows.
What is your platform, African Theater Artists Society, about?
I am the founder and director of the African Theater Artists Society, Los Angeles. We basically bring the African theater to the audience in Los Angeles. I am going to be directing a play called, wedlock of the gods, in September. I will be doing this with the School of Dramatic Acts because I am on the literary committee that selected all the plays the students are going to be performing in. ATARS is the same thing as Africa theater ensemble, but right now, I am the founder and artistic director and we are doing the same thing in Los Angeles that I did in Toronto.
What do you do in your fun time?
It depends on what mood I am in. I go to cinemas a lot to watch movies, not only because I have to be aware of what’s going on in the cinema world, but also because I enjoy watching movies. I attend basketball and football games as well. I also go to the theater a lot because that is what I do and I love it. I love going to the beach too.
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