July 13, 2020

Film Rats Club

Let's Talk Movies

Uche Chika Elumelu on respecting the Director’s Ultimate Eye.

The great Marlon Brando once said, an actor is at most poet and at least an entertainer. Regardless of where the pendulum swings, at different points in a career, as projects come and go, the actor’s mind remains a rich well of experiences. The Filmrats club strove for this when we latched onto the opportunity to interview the delectable Uche Chika Elumelu.

Do enjoy the transcript of the discussion here:

Folashade:  How are you doing today?

Uche Chika: I’m quite well, thank you. Good afternoon, folks.

Folashade: How’s the quarantine and social distancing period been for you?

Uche Chika: Restful! Gosh, it’s been really restful. Of course, my heart goes out to those who are more directly affected and pray for things to get back to normal as soon as possible

Folashade: Amen, we are all affected in one way or another. Right, so let’s get to it, who is Uche Chika Elumelu?

Uche Chika: Oooooh. You missed the chance to say, “Can we meet you, ma?”

Folashade: Honestly, I was avoiding using that exact line.

(They both share a laugh as our guest continues)

Uche Chika: Uche Chika Elumelu is an intense being, performer of immense skill and family-oriented to the core.

Folashade: Hmmm, okay, let me ask this one question that bugs a lot of Rats even if they don’t admit it. Are you in anyway related to Tony Elumelu?

Uche Chika: He’s related to me.

Folashade: *snaps fingers* Knew it!

(Again they share that infectious virtual laugh)

Uche Chika: Well, here’s the official statement – Uche Chika Elumelu is a performer of immense skill. Watching Africa Magic’s buzz-worthy telenovela, UNBROKEN, one would agree that her portrayal of the character “Kosi” is a delight. This comes barely a year after fans of the network fell in love with “Onyeje”; a character Elumelu plays on Africa Magic epic series, AJOCHE. Box office hit, SUGAR RUSH, and favorite web series, SGIT Season 6, are two of the major projects that shaped 2019 for the actor. During her time in Queen’s College, she was an active member and eventual President of the Drama Club. She graduated from the Department of Geography, University of Ibadan, with First Class Honours.

Forging alliances with colleagues at the Department of Theatre Arts of the aforementioned institution, she continued to hone her creative skills by featuring in a wide range of student projects. Elumelu has worked with critically-acclaimed directors such as Felix Okolo, Kenneth Uphopho, Femi Elufowoju Jr. & Najite Dede. Her notable stage credits include Heartbeat the Musical, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Legends the Musical. In addition to theatre practice, the 28 year-old is also a fitness buff; a skill she has found extremely useful in her craft.

Folashade: Alright, I gather you have a degree in Geography and you graduated with honours, so how did we get here? Performing, I mean.

Uche Chika: Interesting question. Geography was my favourite subject back at Queen’s College. But I wanted to study Theatre Arts. My family was skeptical so they asked me to choose another course. Geography was the next best thing. However, we struck a deal. I keep my grades up, they let me do theatre on the side. That was how I honed my skills. So you could say that my love for theatre drove me to excel in school.

Folashade: Wow. There’s actually nothing like having your family’s support. The invincibility it portends is priceless. Okay, can you recall that ‘exact moment’ that you decided you wanted to be a PERFORMER?

Uche Chika: That’s right. Family is everything and more. Frankly, I don’t remember having an “aha moment” in particular but I always loved being in church plays as a child. It made me feel like I could express my truest self in performance. I still feel that way.

Folashade: You juggle screen and stage performances commendably well but which do you find yourself most comfortable in and which do you find most challenging?

Uche Chika: Well, I’m a stage girl. I only ventured into screen because, let’s face it, it pays better. Way better. There’s something magical about live theatre that keeps you grounded.  Screen, on the other hand, is challenging because CONTINUITY is a beech! But I’m learning to embrace both in equal measures. Balance is key in life.

Folashade: Continuity is indeed a headache, especially when you have to repeat exact words and actions which, in my own point of view, tampers authenticity. So far, what’s the most challenging character you’ve had to play?

Uche Chika: I will go with Queen Amina of Zazzau from Legends the Musical. I don’t think I’d ever pushed that hard in my career to deliver. So, the tricky thing was, someone else (a friend) played the character in the maiden edition. I felt I had to bring a fresh energy to it so I decided to learn the accent, bits of the language and dance like a warrior. Every bike man was my tutor. I would start before everyone else and go home last, just so I could do her justice. My existing fitness culture was a plus too. Thankfully, I got a lot of good reviews. But the hardest part was staying away from comparisons with my friend’s performance. As an actor, comparison outside the confines of you & the character will destroy you.

Folashade: So how do you become a character? What’s your process?

Uche Chika: I know there is a textbook way. But I won’t bore you with that. Truth is, approaching a character depends on your antecedents and natural proclivities. Let me break it down: Actors, over time, have a repertoire, a toolbox of sorts. You pick elements from this box to build this character and procure more if need be.

In the case of a fictional character, I find more freedom because there’s no reference to an actual life. I can decide to give her a lisp, a limp or a funny laugh, so far it’s in line with the writer’s objective. With biopics the direction is to stick to books and other existing materials like tapes, diaries et al.

I like to think of myself as malleable. I know I have strengths as an actor but I take my time to listen to the director and unlearn as much as possible. Some strengths aren’t needed for certain characters. So with the process, speed isn’t the goal, take your time to shed the onion layers and pick up the right ones. Commune with your director, he’s the ultimate eye.

Folashade: I see the honours student shining through as I read these words. Interesting work.

Uche Chika: Merci beaucoup.

Folashade: Having talent/skill and getting jobs to help you put out that talent to the world are two very different things, how do you balance the commercial and the skill aspect of being an actor? Simply put, how do you get jobs?

Uche Chika: As in, that last line na the koko. I don’t think I have truly mastered this balance, but I can say I get by, God be praised. Truth is, I have seen that here, talent needs to meet opportunities and I’m not talking about auditions. Word of mouth referrals are the new auditions here.

Folashade: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. But are you tied to an agency? If yes, how’s that like?

Uche Chika: I got on Ajoche through a school mate friend of mine. It was a small role that didn’t originally have prospects. I played it so well that they kept her on the show and gave her a significant death, albeit reluctantly. I had people, including James Omokwe come up to me to say, “We wish we didn’t have to kill Onyeje off but the story had to move on.” My dying scene was a cry fest. What am I trying to say? When you get a chance, outdo yourself. Wow them! It was from this I got on Unbroken, Sugar Rush, and SGIT.

In addition to artistic prowess, don’t forget to not be a jerk on set. Treat crew members with respect. They’re the new kingmakers.

Folasade: You’re right. Now, we’ve heard countless times that acting is reacting, what do you do when your co-star isn’t giving it and it’s starting to reflect on your own performance?

Uche Chika: Interesting point. I have this “FirstAid Box” approach I use. When I see that someone is drawing like okro, I put my imagination in overdrive. This is why Meisner’s technique (Imagination) will help you go far. You may not have experienced enough in this life to recall, but the mind is a minefield of infinite experiences. I can conjure up a lover, dentist or bartender if what or who I’m working with is not up to par. Will it be different from the real deal? Hell yeah. But it will at least help you scale through. Ideally, scenes like that should be rescheduled and better rehearsed but in this country, we know that is out of the question. Sometimes, actors haven’t had time to bond. The issues are endless but we need to cope.

Folashade: Speaking of improvisations, some directors/producers frown at those, but we both know how beneficial they can be. How do you pass this message across to them in this case?

Uche Chika: The niccur called Improv! Saving lives since forever. Truth is, the director’s ego needs to be massaged. In cases like this, I give them what they want fused with some of my personal magic. For instance, when we shot that FCMB advert with Wishbones in 2018, the SA directors wanted us to stick to the book. As in, down to punctuation sef. I did that but at some point, I felt the need to add a “Yes” to the mix. Guess what? It made the final cut. You just have to be diplomatic.

Folashade: Noted. Now, what are your honest to God thoughts about Nollywood today? Also, if you were given the opportunity to tell an indigenous story, which one would you go for and what role would you play?

Uche Chika: Honest to God: Nollywood has the capacity for at least 5 points of 10, but we’re currently operating at 2 points. Why? That’s a long story.  

Anyway, to the other question, I’d love to do a proper story on the Fattening Room culture of the Efik & Ibibio people. Gain weight for the role of a young girl in her prime, and some womanly curves.

Folashade: That would actually be interesting to see, because there are so many stories about us we could tell, but we somehow only prefer the exaggerated stories of luxury and splendour.

Uche Chika: As Taiwo Egunjobi would say, Lekki stories.

Folashade: Has being a Geography major helped you in anyway and, have you ever been at a disadvantage for not being a theatre major?

Uche Chika: Funny you should ask this because we talked about it recently. I still feel somewhat inferior to those who studied theatre but it’s only in my head. In my heart, I’m limitless.

(An over-enthusiastic Rat jumps in, unable to contain his excitement)

DAVID: Uche was like my role model then in Geography!

Folashade: Thank you David. So there will definitely be moments of doubt in your journey, how do you shake it off?

Uche Chika: Boy, are there doubts! Loads of them. Apart from praying for strength, Chris Isibor never ceases to reassure me. That man is a treasure. Also, opening up to my family and colleagues in the industry I can call friends, helps me remember why I began the journey.

Folashade: We all need those people in our lives. Who are your model performers – Foreign and indigenous?

Uche Chika: Dem plenty o. I usually go with performances, instead. But for the sake of your question, I’ll say Tosan Ugbeye, Meryl Streep and Rita Dominic.

Folashade: Legends! Meryl Streep leaves me in awe

Uche Chika: Aunty Tosan is a speech/clarity boss! Meryl because MERYL and Rita because evolution is more important than mere fame.

Folashade: LoL Aunty Tosan. Preach! What advice would you give your younger self and actors just starting out?

Uche Chika: Reach! Don’t be afraid to fail. Take risks while you’re starting out because that luxury thins out as you progress.

Folashade: Word! Any new projects you’re working on? Not to spoil anything but will you be able to give us small gist about the role you’re playing?

Uche Chika: Truth is, “Aunty Rona” won’t let us know the status of future work just yet.

Folashade: Okay, we’ll be on standby for the gist. Finally, in all your years of working as an actor, then and now, what lesson have you learnt, jus one that is still relevant till today?

Uche Chika: It’s simple. Never rehearse with a mirror.

(and again David, our over-enthusiastic Rat jumps in)

DAVID: Helen Mirren! Yo!

Uche Chika: If it doesn’t come from within, it’s a waste of time. What you feel automatically shows on your face; except you have RBF of course. A mirror keeps you from being too conscious about your face and that negates actual human reaction.

Folashade: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for a wonderful time. I’ll let others bombard you with questions that they have.

Rats raise their tails and we take a few questions:

Isaac: Draft zero is a podcast I follow. It’s run by upcoming Hollywood screenwriters figuring out the craft themselves. On one of the episodes, they had an actress over as the guest and the entire session focused on the writer-actor relationship. I will base my questions on this session:

– What do you, an actor, like to see in scripts? The “attention choke-holder” if you like.

– Your approaches to breaking down plot and character in scripts? What informs the liberty to make adjustments to character? What liberties do you find yourself exercising most times.  

– Also, there’s the very familiar divide between lines looking/reading good on paper and the subsequent struggle to roll off the tongue well. What if rehearsals are not possible? What can the writer do to help the actor? Any specific approaches to dialogue that the writer must be mindful of?  

– Finally, do you mind revealing, concisely, how you approach the character the moment you got your hands on the Sugar Rush script? Or maybe not Sugar Rush. Could be any screen project.  Just want to have an idea of your work flow. Thanks.

Uche Chika: I love to see suspense in a script. I hate it when your path is illuminated all at once. Even the Bible suggests that it gets brighter and brighter until perfection.

About breaking down plot & character, my methods for TV/film & stage vary significantly. With TV, the character sort of grows on you over months of work. I particularly prefer it because suspense is retained. Scripts are released in bits so the actor never preempts himself. I try not to read too much ahead. With stage/film, you have the entire plot in your lap from Day One. If one is not careful, drudgery sets in. You must keep it fresh.

Generally, I like to work closely with my director. You might read a script on your own and assume you know the character but the director is the all ultimate eye. I also like to build characters out by looking in my repertoire, watching similar characters in bodies of work etc. But always in liaison with the director.

Listen to the rest of her response here.

‘Chukwu Martin: Have you ever signed up to an acting agency? If yes, whats the experience like, if you don’t mind sharing.

Uche Chika: Oh, I was indeed signed to one. It only took my probation period to know it wasn’t for me, unfortunately. I find that most of them don’t really want to get down and dirty to get you jobs. You want me to start dressing trendy, put out more content to grow IG followers with which money? It’s tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. Make me some money! That doesn’t mean I won’t develop craft, you don’t need money for that, but you need money for visibility, which sadly, is more important than talent here. Money to make key events and meet the right people. And even when you find a way to do all these, they often latch on to your success and demand their cut. It’s mostly unfair.

‘Chukwu Martin: Ever worked with more than one agency? If yes, do they all operate the same way? Or perhaps you might have more idea about acting agencies

Uche Chika: Very few agencies do it the right way but they can’t take everyone. So for now, I’m solo.

Josh: How do you draw the distinction between acting for Theatre and acting for Screen? Is there an overlap or are they two exclusive skills?

Uche Chika: I like to think they’re the same, just different vessels & technique. Contrary to what people say about stage being hard, screen isn’t a walk in the park either! So, if we must distinguish, it should be in terms of degree of intensity not level of difficulty. For instance, being subtly angry can be harder than overt anger (what most actors choose to do). So, there are overlaps and exclusivities, true. But one must see oneself as first an actor, not stage actor or screen actor. On stage, you turn it up a notch. On screen, you mute it so we can see through your soul. Same truthfulness, same level of dedication. Same drug, different dosages.

Folashade: Thank you very much Uche, this was really insightful. I really can’t wait to see you dominate thr space soom.

Uche Chika: Thank you, thank you, I enjoyed this too.  I can wait to do this again.