‘My hubby has been very supportive’
With over 100 prestigious awards in her kitty, Theodora Ibekwe-Oyebade is one of the movie heavy weights in the United Kingdom. She is the founder and first president of Actors Guild of Nollywood UK, founding member of Nollywood Producers Guild UK, and the first personality to be conferred with a royal title of Ada Ka Ibeya-Ezenwanyi UK Nollywood.
Aside from being a versatile actress, Ibekwe-Oyebade is a TV presenter and the Face of ZAFAA. She is also a beauty pageant organiser and brand ambassador for Chamy perfume. In this interview, she opens up on her career and other sundry issues bothering on the movies.
Tell us about yourself, family and educational background.
I was born in Benin, Edo State. I am the second child of my parents who hailed from Owerri, Imo State. I was fortunate to be one of the youngest in Auchi Polytechnic where I studied Education, later becoming a Teacher. I then studied Accounting at University of Lagos.
What was growing up like and at what point did you decide to relocate to the UK?
I had a wonderful upbringing in a strict but loving family environment. The search for adventure and a better life inspired me to make the move to the UK.
How did you venture into acting? What are the movies you’ve starred in and which film gave you the desired break into the entertainment world?
I was already a television presenter and had a kind of following, as a result, I was asked to stand in for an absent MC at an event, which was attended by a budding film producer. He was rather impressed with me and asked if I’d like to be the female lead in his new movie, Heavy Mama in London. While filming, I joined a television series and honed my acting skills. Since then I have appeared in numerous films including Amina starring Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde and Van Vicker; Shattered Hearts (2012); Ikpaya (2012); The Broken Bride (2012); Labo – Life is a Journey (2012); Heartless Career (2012); Shameful Deceit (2013), produced by my humble self; Battered (2013); Purity of Heart (2013); At Home Abroad (TV drama series 2014); 18 Carat Mama (2014); Mum, Dad, Meet Sam (2015); Murderer-in-Law (2015); Jacuzzi (2015); and Silent Journey (post production 2017).
Was there any role that slipped out of your hands that you really desired to play?
Not really. Here in UK Nollywood, a producer would call me to ask if I’d be interested in appearing in their film, playing a certain character. Sometimes the production goes ahead, sometimes it gets postponed; I cannot recall when last I had to audition for a role. I’m usually one of the judges. I’m not averse to auditioning though.
What role would you really love to play in a film?
No specific role as such, however, I would like to play a strong character with a great message; perhaps a woman from Nigeria’s past history.
Many people prefer to stay within their comfort zone. Was there any risk you took which eventually paid off?
The biggest risk I have taken is producing my first film, Shameful Deceit. It’s not easy taking the step to produce a film, some people may think it’s just about having the funds but as a producer, you have to be a people’s person and be able to bring the right cast and crew together. It was a daunting prospect producing the film but the reward was the huge turnout at the London premiere, and it has had some success around the world.
What challenges did you face while climbing the ladder of success and how did you overcome them?
There are always challenges but I cannot say that I took much notice so I cannot really name them. However, finance is a challenge that cannot be ignored, and remains so in terms of producing good films. Other challenges have been easily overcome by my determinedness and personality. Other challenges are human nature, that is jealousy and character defamation, which causes apathy by unintelligent people willing to lap up everything they hear and act on it to my detriment. I do not respond to these. God is judge.
You’re an actress, why did you decide to become a producer. Any plans to go into directing as well?
I was a part of the crew on Amina and my duties were wide ranging. Afterwards, I felt that I was ready to be a producer. However, the real inspiration was one of my young cousins, who challenged me to produce a film since I seemed to be so good at many things. He arranged for some scripts to be sent to me and I chose one, Shameful Deceit. I am not sure about directing yet, I think I should shadow other directors and go on a few courses. However, it is something I would love to do in the future.
How does it feel being a celebrity? Any disadvantage of having that status?
Celebrity? Hmmm… It feels great sometimes. I get invited to so many events as a special guest; I get to be a judge at quite a few beauty pageants and so on. I am also ambassador to a few charities and products. However, there is a downside. You attract friends who initially love you for your celebrity status, then start copying you, trying to be like you, and in the process start hating on you because they don’t have the same charisma. Eventually, they start making up stories about you and tell everyone they know in order to influence more weak minds against you. Some even tell you to your face that they will destroy your career due to some inaccurate perception that they have developed about you. In all of this, I have to remain strong and resolute and trust in God. If I was weak, I would have quit a long time ago. Oh, and frauds get perpetrated in my name. One fraudster in Nigeria set about obtaining audition fees of N50,000 for the sequel to Shameful Deceit!
What’s the weirdest and most memorable thing a fan has done to you?
I cannot say that there has been any specific memorable or weird thing, however, one ‘fan’ created a Facebook account and filled it with mine and my husband’s photos; anyone looking at the Timeline would think it belonged to me. Most fans buy me gifts, attend my birthday bashes in droves; generally, they are a delight.
Is the Nigerian entertainment industry in the UK as vibrant and financially rewarding as the one back home?
A simple no. Nollywood in Nigeria is much more established and the participants are full-time. In the UK, we have very little financial backing and therefore most of our films are low budget. There is no real distribution, which means that we only premiere our movies and gauge success by the number of guests that turn out. Even where we get limited distribution, the reward is very little. However, outside bodies are taking notice of us and we look forward to collaborations.
You are the pioneer of the UK Nollywood Producers Guild as well as the founder and president of Actors Guild UK Nollywood. What motivated you to set up the guilds and the challenges faced in establishing same?
I am proud to be a founding member of the UK Nollywood Producers Guild and founder and first president of Actors Guild of UK Nollywood. I cannot say that the challenge has been getting either guild off the ground, as there is so much expectation from members, but very little funds to achieve anything right now. It was indeed a challenge to set up AGUKN. I had thought about it a few years ago but was discouraged by some people that considered it a big risk; other guilds had been formed and there had been disagreements that led them to disband. I had to be patient. When I was made a queen and conferred with the title Ezenwanyi UK Nollywood, it just felt right to set up the guild. I was chosen by the initial members to be president though.
How has the response been from your colleagues especially the men?
It’s been a mixed grill kind of, because two very close allies whom I brought into the limelight have become my enemies, publicly declaring war on me and threatening to wreck my progress because of imagined wrongs and jealousy. Others have even apparently ‘dethroned’ me. However, I have received support from many quarters, most of my peers have accepted my being Ezenwanyi UK Nollywood; I’d say most of my male colleagues have been supportive.
Would you say Nollywood UK producers have better quality productions, more opportunities and ease to get into the mainstream than their colleagues in Nigeria?
We do have good quality productions but less established practitioners and no real track record. UK Nollywood films are not yet widely seen unlike Nigerian films that are seen all over the world. Our actors are not all professional yet, as there really isn’t the finance to pay a good wage for them to become full-time actors. Mainstream seems a pipe dream right now for us in the UK, even though, we do have opportunities here and there to be a part of it.
How accessible are funds for producing films in the UK?
Essentially, most producers have to save up their hard earned salaries to make their movies. Only a few have backers, although, they are not willing to risk significant amounts. We need funds to develop our scripts, pre-production, principal photography, post production and marketing. For this reason, distribution is rather difficult to access.
Is there a connection between the UK guilds and the ones in Nigeria?
Yes, UK guilds are Africa-oriented not just for Nigerians. At some point, there will be affiliations.
What can be done to strengthen the relationship between Nollywood UK and the Nollywood back home?
More collaborations; already actors, producers and directors are crisscrossing between Nigeria and the UK. Loads of our movies have Nigeria-based stars and vice versa.
We gather you have a beauty pageant and an international TV show. What inspired setting up these in the UK and any plans to replicate same in Nigeria?
No plans to replicate them in Nigeria, as the movie business has occupied my time. My passion for beauty inspired me in setting up these in the UK, and I love to showcase talent and build people up.
You’re the first personality in the UK to be conferred with a royal title of Ada Ka Ibeya-Ezenwanyi UK Nollywood, how did you come about this?
I was approached by a king who said he was impressed by the way I have been promoting and supporting Nollywood, and that he had the authority and backing of the people to make me a queen. After the ceremony, which was held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, I promised to continue promoting the industry, this inspired me to set up the Actors Guild of UK Nollywood.
Has the title made your life somewhat different?
Yeah, it has changed the way people relate to me, mostly negative; there is no economic value, rather there has been increased enmity and open ridicule.
You’re the Face of ZAFAA from 2013 till date; brand ambassador for Chamy perfume; TV presenter and promoter. You’re also into PR; so many things going for you. How do you keep all these together so that they don’t affect your marital life?
Hmmm… I would say I am rather fortunate to have a husband who supports me in everything I do. In fact, his support for me and the UK Nollywood industry was recognised by the king, who conferred a chieftaincy title of Ezeugo Ndigbo Nollywood on him. My hubby is well respected individual in UK Nollywood, as he has a wealth of experience gained from many years as an accountant to mainstream stars.
What’s your advice to aspiring actors and producers?
Do not run too fast, be prepared to learn every aspect of the business; never ever be a diva or rude to anyone on set, you never know who will give you a leg up. Humility will take you to places; remember there is room for everyone to succeed, so do not betray your peers or try to bring them down.