Ever since Peter Stephen Edochie, better known for his unforgettable role as Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, embraced acting full time, his routine has been locations, locations, locations. The veteran actor has been either held up in Aba, Abia State shooting Last Kingdom or at Ilogbo, on the outskirts of Lagos, working on the set of Never Ever or even at any of the other numerous locations scattered round the country doing what he knows best – acting.
Ebubedike and Okonkwo, as most people prefer to call him, is no doubt one of Nigeria’s busiest actors. His very tight schedule notwithstanding, the eloquent actor who commands one of the highest fees still stole out time to discuss with AZUH ARINZE. The exclusive interview which was conducted inside his hotel room at Winnis Guest House in Surulere, Lagos is quintessential Pete: assertive, oratorical, frank and vauntful (if you don’t mind). Let’s get cracking…
As one of those who have really paid their dues, may we know what your views are on the industry?
For now, the industry is attracting a lot of disciples. Not necessarily because it is being built strictly as an industry, but because so many of those who stumbled into it have convinced themselves that it guarantees them at least their three square meals. What am I saying? That most of the people who are flocking into it today are not really actors. For a lack of a better word to use, they are actors of convenience. Having said that, I want to add that from all indications, the industry is becoming more competitive and also that there is an enviable in-depth growth.
Sorry, could you please expatiate on what you mean by actors of convenience?
Well, they are actors who are just there without any focus, vision. Actors who are just around because the industry is booming and want to see what they can benefit from it and nothing more.
How do you see acting generally?
Acting as the name suggests is acting, trying to be seriously what you are not and to be it convincingly, you must endeavour not to advertise that you are not what you are doing. You know you are acting, but your viewers must not know. If they know, then you are not acting.
So, what is required for one to make it or succeed in acting?
You have to first of all read a lot. You also have to be at home with language so that you can have a very dependable vocabulary bank to fall back on. That will equally help you to understand and interpret each word very well. Then, you have to be a very mischievous person to succeed as an actor. If you are not mischievous, you can never make a good actor.
Why the mischievous clause?
Because only a mischievous child starts out by parodying and in the process, he is doing unsolicited acting. And when you now tell him to consciously do that again and he does it properly, then he could be said to be acting. If you are not mischievous, you cannot observe. It is only if you observe that you can be said to be exhibiting the traits of a good actor. A lot of people see, a lot of people look, but very few observe. It is like saying I just saw Azuh Arinze pass by and if you are asked what was he putting on, you say you don’t know. For you to be a good actor, you have to know what he was putting on. You must be very observant to be mischievous. Now, the industry is such that it gets better as it gets older because what we play are experiences recorded by people. In other words, as you grow older, you probably experience some of the things you live on later…
Sorry to cut in. Are there roles that you can never imagine yourself playing?
Yes, of course. You see, most young men in the industry, when they are asked to play fathers, it is not always very easy for them and because of that you find them quarrelling with their scripts. But when you get older people to do that, it just flows from their bloodstream. I will still come to your question. For now, I will say the industry is growing. A lot of people are coming in, but then, what I will like or want to see is for us to attract the attention of corporate bodies, industrial concerns, banks, so that they can now sponsor films and make life more meaningful for the actors. I want actors also to enjoy royalties. I have made very successful films, extremely successful films and the marketers are happier for it because they normally pay us off and then go back to reap the fruits of our labour. If I were overseas for example, and with the number of successful films that I have made, I can take a long break before accepting any other assignment. But you see, here, we don’t have royalties; because of that, once you finish one job, you begin another because your survival depends on just that. So, we can only say that the industry has grown just vertically.
Now, to your question. I can’t play roles where I will be going to get married, where I will be falling in and out of love. No! I leave such roles for the youngsters like Bob-Manuel Udokwu and co. I have passed that.
Okay, do we then assume that your face is all over the place because you don’t get royalties for your works?
Beautiful! Now, let me ask you too this question. If you are a professional footballer and you score goals in every match, do you get sidelined? (General laughter). I think the example answers that question. If I were a professional footballer, I will probably still be kicking because that’s my job. I am today a professional actor and well at the risk of sounding immodest, perhaps a very competent one too. The marketers who sponsor these films are not into charity business. Each time they ask this question, I feel funny, I feel intrigued. The reason is that for every film that I appear in, there are twenty others in the market. I am giving you a statistical data which I’m very sure of. It just so happens that the ones I appear in do better. Yes, I’m very, very proud to say that my films are selling highest in the market. You can go to the market and find out yourself. Chain Reaction, Exiles, Evil Men, Igodo. They are the highest selling films in the market today. And if I say I’m a lucky actor, I will be denying the talent that is given to me by God. It is not luck. I move into a production and I’m giving it an interpretation that very few people can give. I do my productions with full commitments. And to tell you the truth, I have been notified that I still have too many other films to shoot before the end of the year, epics. At the risk of sounding immodest once again, I am a very, very good actor. If the white man whose language we use can say that, then I can’t be denied the credit by my own black brothers.
So, what has been sustaining you?
Oh! The fact that I see myself as a source of inspiration to other actors, just like they too see me. My mates in Hollywood are still going strong. Sylvester Stallone is my mate. We were born the same year. Again, I want to say that if it has pleased God to endow me with such talent, I’m not gonna stifle it, because like I said earlier, if you are part of a football team that scores always, of course, you will always find yourself in the first team. You must be starting the match. It’s simple (Voice raised).
And your family. How have they been coping. Don’t you think that you are denying them that joy of being around them always?
I don’t think so. They are not children in the strict sense of the word. They are adults. They are men, grown-ups. All they require from me is money to keep them on. Thank God, I’ve not been found wanting in doing that.
Could you please tell us more about your family?
Yes. I’m happily married. I’ve been married for over 40 years now. I have five boys and one girl.
Okay, what about yourself?
Em… I’m Chief Pete Stephen Edochie. I’m a 6-feet plus and a bulky personality. I enjoy staying with people, chatting. I don’t like pains, I don’t like blood, I don’t like politics and politicians, whether in uniform or out of uniform. I hate liars. I say my Rosary every morning. I like listening to classical music or watching television. When I’m not doing that, I’m reading novels. I’m from Nteje, Oyi L.G.A of Anambra State. I was born on March 7, 1947 in Zaria. I attended St. John’s College, Zaria and in 1966, I did a 2-year programme in Journalism via correspondence. I have worked with the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, British Broadcasting Corporation. I was appointed the Director of FM Station, Anambra in 1987, later, Director of Programmes in the State Radio/Television. I held that position until I retired.
You just said something about hating politicians. What could be responsible for that?
Maybe because I see them as liars. I just don’t like them one bit.
Let’s talk about your childhood. What was it like growing up in Zaria?
My childhood was mischievous. I was born and bred in Zaria. I enjoyed masquerading as a kid, playing football on the streets of Zaria. I enjoyed wearing catapults on my neck and going into bushes to kill birds, going to the stream to swim, catch fish, etc. I also remember stealing mangoes from the European quarters then and being chased off by dogs. My childhood was generally, very, very exciting. And again, I hated Mathematics as a kid. I’ve always been good in languages.
A lot of producers have been complaining about your refusal to do away with your trademark beards. If I may ask, is there anything special or sacred about it?
Well, for me, it is an identity. And in the entire industry, maybe there are just few of us who will want to be distinguished by our beards. Myself, Zachee Orji, Sony MCDon and Emeka Ani. I think that’s about all. It is sacred to me as a matter of fact. It equally gives me a unique identity that I like and enjoy. I don’t like looking too young. Looking too young does not help me. I have also noticed that each time I tamper with my beards, I look younger than my age. And I don’t enjoy that. Few days ago, I gave myself a small treat and when I looked at the mirror, I was almost looking like my first son, Leo (Laughs). I just like the beards.
Sorry, for how long have you been wearing it?
It’s up to 40 years. Yeah! Because I started looking this way at 22. The beards, you know, stand me out.
The other thing producers complain about is that you don’t like doing away with your Igbo chieftaincy attires. Is that true?
Firstly, I wear those attires at times because of the scripts. Secondly, I’m a titled man, a traditionalist. So, what I always try to portray is essentially our culture. In fact, whenever you are doing a production that has to do with an Igbo setting, I fit into it so very well because I’m there with my walking stick, red cap, etc. I do that because I want them, when they take our films abroad, foreigners can watch and say that this man is from this part of the world or country. And I’m very proud about it. The white man does his films wearing suits. So, why won’t I do mine wearing native attire? Besides, I’ve never seen a white man wear our native dress with a red cap, so why will I want to wear his? It doesn’t happen. I take immense delight in doing it, being checked in my traditional wears, with a cap, walking stick and all that because it means my identity is complete. And don’t forget, I hold the title of Ononenyi (the contented one) in my place. I have a lot of French suits, but right now the emphasis is on culture. The scripts decide what I wear. We did Last Kingdom, and emphasis was on culture. We did Never Ever and it was a combination of the traditional and the contemporary. I always dress according to the script.
Is it true also that you don’t know how to knot a tie?
Yes, it’s true. I’ve never tried it in my life.
Don’t you think that your love for our native attires could be responsible for that?
No, I don’t think so.
Then, what’s responsible?
I don’t know.
You have appeared in myriad productions. Can you single out your best and worst roles?
I can’t really tell you because I don’t like watching my films. I don’t take delight in watching my efforts and that’s why when I get into a luxury bus and they put on my films, I feel out of sort.
Because I see that as a way of puncturing my mistakes. But that is not to say that I don’t know that people take delight in watching me. Of course I do. There are people who even insist that any film that Pete Edochie is in, they must watch it. It was the same when I was doing Music For The Masters a classical musical programme on radio. People bought tapes and were dubbing every episode of it. I think I’ve had that luck from birth. Whatever I do for public consumption gets appreciated a lot because I usually give it the master’s touch. Even when I did Things Fall Apart, I was celebrated beyond our shores. And the name Ebubedike has stuck ever since. Some people even call me Ebubedike Ndigbo now. Several people who started answering that name before me, somehow, they seem fake now.
Let’s talk about Things Fall Apart and your role as Okonkwo in it. What was it really like then?
Great! I keep saying this – the BBC came here to interview me because of that. I was also highly commended by Chinua Achebe. The BBC interview was the biggest honour in my professional career and I dare say that I don’t think that in my life time any other person can attract that kind of attention. For BBC to dispatch a team to Nigeria to look for an actor, it’s not easy.
So far, what are your regrets?
My life has been a total joy to me and for that I don’t think I have any regret for anything I do. I see whatever happens to me as part of God’s programme for me. Besides, my philosophy of life does not encourage regrets. Some people prefer to learn the hard way, but I think my own experiences teach me better. I don’t deceive people, I don’t lie and I’ve never been swindled by anybody before. I’m not a greedy person. I take things in my stride. I advertised a product in 1982 with one (Benz) and my kids said to me why is it that it is only on TV that you drive this car, why can’t we have it here? Thank God the car is now here; 16 years later. I’ve bought it!
What about your saddest and happiest days?
(Thinks for minutes) Azuh, these your questions are getting more difficult. My happiest could be the day I had my first son, Leo. Saddest could be when I lost one of my sons, Carl. I named him after one boxer (Sighs).
Sorry. What killed him?
I think the maid fell him without telling anybody. He was not sick before we left home (Eulogies him). So, when we came back and met him sick, we took him to the hospital. He later died. And that was the first time I will see a medical doctor cry. He wept for the boy. He was very big and handsome. Carl! (He laments).
Your journey into the make-believe world. When and how did it actually begin?
Oh! A long time. I think it started in 1962 when I was in Class 3 at St. John’s College, Zaria. I first did Merchant of Venice. And from there, I went ahead to do a lot of other Shakespear’s work like Julius Caesar, Macbeth, etc. Sometimes I still remember them and quote a few lines from them. When I joined broadcasting in 1967, I did a lot more on TV. I did so many classics like Anyone, Sons & Daughters, etc. I was part of NIFEST Productions a couple of times. Resurrection, Reincarnation, etc., until Things Fall Apart came and somehow gave me a big break.
If I may ask again, what stands you out from the crowd?
A lot of people may not know this, but I believe in giving the master’s touch. The kind of work I put into my productions are enormous. I read a script, I face the mirror and I make a lot of interpretations. And until I satisfy myself that this aspect of my facial contour is okay, I don’t leave. I try not to be conventional in my interpretations. For example, where there is need for this, I do just that and perhaps, that’s what stands me out. I interpret my roles from the perspectives I see life. And I believe that that’s what must have been sustaining me. As someone who puts a smile on the face of humanity and someone who tries his little best to make the industry better.
Which food do you enjoy eating most?
I eat fruits a lot.
Do you entertain fears about anything in this life?
Yes. I don’t like flying. Nothing scares me like heights. You will also be surprised that at this age, I’m still afraid of chameleons. I ran away from them as a child. And I still do. I don’t like blood. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t use razor blades. I detest violence. Oh God! I’m not fond of people who carry guns for a living. I don’t, at all. I detest them, I abhor them. I don’t even like to see them at all. I believe that violence is a very savage substitute for intelligence.
What’s Ebubedike’s day usually like?
I wake up maybe around 5a.m, say my Rosary. I say the 15 decades everyday. I’ve never missed it. I bought this Rosary (Shows it to me) from the monastery in Ohum. I start my day with it. It’s over 20 years old. There is a small stone tied here (Shows it to me) which I kiss everyday. The stone is from the grave of Father Tansi (Remember him? The Catholic priest whose canonization led to the second visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria). I carry this Rosary everywhere I go.
How have you been coping with stardom?
I don’t really know because managing it has been one of the biggest problems I have for now.
Stardom makes me uncomfortable. I’m a very shy person. I find it difficult walking on the streets. The attention that I get has turned to affliction for me and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that. Sincerely speaking, Things Fall Apart paved the way for all this. Even in the church. Wherever I go, I get starred at. And all these things make it difficult for me to live my life the way I would have wanted. Being a star, for me, is a problem, but for others it might not. The expectations from the society is very much. So, managing stardom could be said to be the biggest problem that I have right now.
What message do you have for your fans?
Tell them I say they give me joy to keep keeping on. They should write and tell us about our efforts. They should also keep patronizing the films that I feature in.