Deyemi Okanlawon rocks two worlds. He’s an actor and creative entrepreneur. He also occupies the position of Head, Distribution at Silverbird Distribution Ltd.
In this chat, the UNILAG graduate of Chemical Engineering opens up on his life odyssey, among other interesting issues.
Tell us about growing up?
I grew up around Ikeja, Lagos. My mother owns Bakers’ World located on Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos. We lived on Owodunni Street on Allen Avenue and also Community Road, Ikeja, Lagos. We were five kids. I am number two. What’s interesting was that even though we were many, I feel I grew up alone because I was always immersed in books while my siblings were jumping around playing. I guess that was where my art of telling stories originated. I devoured anything on paper; I was a voracious reader (laughter). I loved Enid Blyton; I read Famous Five, Secret Seven and authors like Sidney Sheldon, Nick Carter, and James Hardly Chase.
At what point did you discover you had a passion for acting?
I was five years old. I found out it was easier for me to do those things that most of my mates found challenging. Whenever we had Christmas plays at school, it was so easy for me. People were like ‘wow!’ Consequently, I was at every Christmas party year-after-year. At some point, all the parents in school knew me; acting has been in me since forever.
How exactly did you come into professional acting?
I studied Chemical Engineering at University of Lagos. I graduated and was employed as a sales manager right after school, and that was how I veered away from Chemical Engineering. However, while in the university, I was into drama and I continued after graduation, in church. In 2010, one of my clients mentioned an audition, I went there and got two roles; a small part in a feature film titled, ZR7 and a lead in a short film titled, A Grain of Wheat. And that was how I cane into film.
In 2012, I was at the New York Film Academy training in Lagos. It was there that the foundation of my acting career was laid. By 2013, I was Head of Marketing for a company called, OLX. I was doing very well in my career but my acting had also taken off. I had done a few short films including a web series that got me really popular, and requests for roles started popping up, and so I decided to take a year off. The idea was to act and return to work so I could make money, because then, I did not think there was money in acting. Now, one year has turned into seven years and here we are today (laughter).
When you stepped out of your comfort zone, what were your fears?
If I find myself in a situation where I have fears, I move in the direction of the fear. I was raised to react like that. Acting was a loss of income but because I was raised to be prudent, I tried to save while I had a regular job. So, I came into acting with a plan B, and that helped me a lot in choosing scripts, because that sense of desperation wasn’t there.
Could you tell us about your role in 2 Weeks in Lagos?
I played a character called Joshua, one of a group of friends. Calling Joshua the destabilising factor among the group of friends wouldn’t be off point. He is calm, voluble and wiser than his years. Funny enough, when I read the script, I really identified with the character. I have done lots of movies where I played the bad guy or a ‘player’ and all of that but playing Joshua was different. I really identify with this character.
What was it like starring alongside Joke Silva in the movie?
It was interesting. For years, if anybody asked who my Nollywood crush was, I would say it’s Joke Silva, and I am absolutely in love with her. I like her and what she has done with her career; I just can’t have enough of her person. She is a mother to all of us. Working with her was so much fun. I have a very fond relationship with her.
What is your take on movie distribution in Nigeria as a player in that field?
The Nigerian film industry is experiencing very exciting times right now. A look at the box office will reveal that Nollywood is growing year-on-year. We still have challenges like quality and commercial viability of content. The other issue is exhibition. We don’t have enough cinemas; and what that does is that some of these movies don’t get to spend enough time in the cinemas so investors can recoup their investments. We need more cinemas. Most Nigerian films are shot on shoestring budgets. And advertising is so expensive. One of the solutions we are exploring at Silverbird is that, we don’t do a one-size-fits-all marketing approach. We don’t come and say ‘hey! Go and do this and that’. We actually sit down with the producer and say this is your target audience, the audience that will most likely be interested in your film; this is where and how we can most likely find them. That way, we find ways to be cost effective for maximum results.
A minister once said Nollywood is responsible for lots of the vices in our society. What is your take on that?
I agree with him. Why do you think America is the greatest and most powerful country in the world? They have an intimidating military arsenal, and we see all of this in the movies because they project their greatness in their movies. Americans believed it and now the whole world believes it. Why we are wearing T-shirts and jeans is because we saw it in their movies. That is the power of audiovisuals. If you project an image consistently, it becomes imprinted in the minds of people. Do you know how many films we saw having a black American president before Obama came along? It was not coincidence. I think we need to be more careful and deliberate about the kind of stories we put out there. Beyond feel-good-movies, there has to be a higher purpose.
Are you still wondering why American youths are scrambling to join the Marines? Back home, when we try to make such movies, some people would move to stop us. They won’t even give us access to some of these things. While I agree with his statement, I also take it back to him and I hope he hears this. How has he used his office to leverage Nollywood to tell the kind of stories that he wants Nigerians to consume, because he is in a position of power. That is the question I take back to him. It is one thing to point fingers; it is another to take responsibility. He had all the opportunities to make a statement.
You’re young and handsome dude. Are you married?
I don’t know if I am handsome, but I have been How did you meet your wife?
We met in the Engineering Department at UNILAG. She was two years my junior. We did not talk in school, but we bumped into each other after school and got intimate. One day, I asked her out and we have been together ever since.
How did you pop the question?
I took her out to dinner and got a band to serenade her. I joined them in the song and then I got down on one knee and proposed to her (laughter).
How are you handling your female fans?
If you are successful in any field in life, you are going to attract a lot of women. Ask Dangote. When Dangote answers that question, I will answer mine (laughter).
What are your dreams?
Wow! So many. On a personal level, I want to leave a legacy that will inspire young people to believe that you can succeed no matter where you are coming from, as long as you believe in yourself. The only way I can do that is to succeed and show the world the results. Number two, I want to build an environment that empowers people so that even though, I did not have rich parents who could throw money into my dreams, I want to be able to empower young people in a way that they have better opportunities.
It starts with my children of course, and I think that education is crucial. And then, I really want to see a Nollywood that is working and global; I am talking about a truly global industry. See what Bollywood has done, and now Korean movies. I think Nollywood has its brightest opportunity to become the world leader in movie making. I think we have the most authentic stories in the world.
We don’t need to retell any stories. Our stories have not been told on a global scale, and the world is beckoning. This is our chance; the world is looking up to Africa.