Zack Orji, in this interview with OLUSHOLA RICKETTS, speaks about his career, family and other related matters
What is responsible for the longevity of your career?
What has kept me in the industry for this long is my ability to focus on my craft. But as a Christian, I will also tell you that it is the grace of God. When people conceive a project, they think about those people they want to work with and I want to thank God for always making them remember me. I consider myself favoured because people always approach me to do different things for them, both in Nigeria and outside the country. I have two projects to shoot in Ghana this month. Apart from God’s favour, it also has to do with discipline and being humble. No matter how famous you are, every artiste can be replaced.
Do you see yourself quitting acting anytime soon?
It has come to mind, but actors have a weakness, and that is the addiction to our craft. Just tell an actor that there is something to do and the actor will jump at it irrespective of the person’s age. Whenever I think about retirement and I see that those who are older than me are still active, I then say probably there will be no retirement for me. I don’t really have any reason to retire, but it is possible that in some years from now, I may not be as active as I am now. When that time comes, I will move on to something else. In my family, there is abundance of creativity. My wife and son also sing. After studying in England, my son returned to Nigeria and said he wanted to do music. One of my daughters, a 15-year-old, is the lead singer in the church choir. When she was 13, she won an award at the MUSON Centre when she participated in a competition called Kids Got Talent.
What led you into making shoes?
When I graduated from the University of Nigeria, I tried to look for a job. I’ve always believed that no one should be idle at any point in time. Then, I would go to Balogun Market in Lagos, to check out designs. I would look at different designs and go somewhere else to sketch it. With that, I was able to design some shoes. I used to buy skins of snakes, alligators and crocodiles, and travelled with them to Enugu. I knew a man in Enugu who knew how to make shoes. All I needed to do was show him the designs I had sketched. So, making shoes was one of the things I did when I was looking for employment. I gave it up when I got to the shop one day and I discovered that the whole place had been burgled.
How have you stayed away from scandals?
I just live my life. You cannot entice me with drinks or women. You cannot entice me with a lot of things because I did them when I was younger. They are not new to me; I am not like some people who came into the industry before their eyes opened. I am not even a heavy drinker. You cannot entice me with any of those things that usually attract young people in showbiz. You cannot bring a woman to me and expect me to play along.
I also respect people a lot. If you invite me for a production, you will not see me outside my room until it is time for me to shoot. When I finish shooting, I return to my room. I don’t go looking for women in town.
How was your social life when you were younger?
If I had wanted to relocate abroad, I would have done that when I was 15. My mother said if I went abroad, she would not see me again. As far back as 1988, I had a visa to travel to the United Kingdom. But I wasn’t keen on travelling because I didn’t know what I would be doing there.
Were you born with a silver spoon?
My parents worked hard and I was not born with a silver spoon. I fetched firewood while growing up in Cameroon. Together with my mum and siblings, we would trek a distance of at least two kilometres. Also, my late mother sold drinks and other things at some point and we, the children, were helpful. The crates were made of hardwood and each crate contained 20 bottles. So, to lift a crate was not easy. Every week, my mother bought drinks and we would carry all the drinks on our heads.
I also sold oranges and some other things. I did that before going to school in the morning or after I must have returned from school in the afternoon. I went through a lot of things and we learnt the hard way. At that time, people wondered if we were our mother’s biological children because of the way she raised us. But it was when one grew up that one began to see the value of what she did to us.
You once said your father wanted you to study Medicine. Did he feel disappointed that you did not fulfil his wish?
He wasn’t pleased. I actually disqualified myself from studying Medicine. For my senior school leaving examination, I had registered for Chemistry, Physics and Biology. But I didn’t go to the examination hall the day we were supposed to have Physics. I purposely didn’t go for the examination; so, that automatically disqualified me from studying Medicine. Eventually, I studied English and French. My father later got to know that I didn’t go for the exam and he became furious. I never wanted to be a doctor; I felt it was just not my calling.
What attracted you to your wife?
Anyone who wants to get married must know the kind of woman he is looking for. When I was looking for a wife, one of the things I prayed to God for was to give me a woman like my mother. Sometimes, I am laid-back and I needed someone who could drive me. But of course, the person must be very beautiful and there must be an age difference of at least six years. I also wanted someone from my town. So, when I met my wife, I just knew. I met her when I went home for Christmas after my youth service. The moment I saw her, I got to know her age and I made up my mind to marry her.
Did she give you a tough time?
She didn’t give me a tough time. I didn’t pretend about my feelings for her and she didn’t pretend too. And since we are from the same town, everything just fell into place. We dated for three years before we eventually got married.
When did you have your breakthrough in acting?
It was the first movie I acted in, The Unforgiving Sin, in 1993. Some people started by playing minor roles, but from my first movie, I played a lead role. The whole story revolved around me. I became an actor after I had done many things, including clearing and forwarding, interpreting French, selling clothes and shoes. When the opportunity came, I took it because it was what I had always wanted to do. I started going to the cinema at the age of 14; I used to sneak out of the house.
Are you still a pastor?
I am a pastor, but I don’t work in the church. I got ordained five years ago. I had a ministration in Warri, Delta State, last October.
How do you ensure there is no clash between acting and working for God?
I reserve the rights to turn down any role that comes my way. But also you should remember that an actor is an interpreter of drama. If someone needs to play a role of a prostitute in a church drama, it doesn’t mean she is a prostitute. We live in a created world when we are interpreting our craft or performing. There is no role I cannot play unless I am not in the right frame of mind to do it. And I don’t see how it conflicts with being a man of God.
In 2002, I spent one month in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When I entered the church on a Sunday, the youth couldn’t believe that I was in their church. They lifted me, carried me from where I entered and dropped me at the altar. The pastor told me that they were using our movies to preach to their people. Another time, I was on the street when a woman started shouting Pastor Mike and knelt down for prayers. I told her I wasn’t a pastor. I told her it was just a movie, but she still insisted I bless her. If you watch a typical Nollywood film, good is good and bad is bad. So, acting for me is also a way of ministering to people. I don’t see any conflict in what I do, and by the way, I didn’t ask to be ordained. I was just sent a letter that God said I should be ordained.
Do you still plan to do more of music?
I will release something next year. I have songs that I have already recorded. The first time I did a demo was in 1987, 30 years ago. Since then, I did some musical soundtracks for movies and so on. But my career as an actor has kept me on my toes.
Should we expect a collaboration between you and your son?
Why not? I will discuss it with him. I have plans for him to do the introduction of one or two songs I wrote. As a producer, he also produced one of his mother’s songs that is trending. He always asks for my advice whenever he produces any song.