Keep working hard. No matter what part you get, no matter what role you play, whatever you find doing, do it well. There are no small roles, but there are small actors…
By Seyi Lasisi
The first time the audience meets Kazeem (Olarotimi Fakunle), in Gangs of Lagos, he is pining for Alaye Bam Bam’s (Ayo Lijadu) admiration. Unfortunately, for Kazeem, Alaye Bam Bam is frugal with his admiration of the young and ambitious Kazeem. Alaye is more inclined towards Nino (Tayo Faniran). Nino’s interest in being a political thug will gradually dissipate while that of Kazeem gathers momentum. This zest for more will continually define Kazeem’s actions as he grows older. Although the young Kazeem is courteous with paying his dues to the underworld leaders, they are thrifty in their appreciation of his deeds.
However, if the underworld leaders in Gangs of Lagos took years to finally accept Kazeem into their cycle, Nollywood audiences have been, from inception, open about their admiration of Kazeem Eleniyan. From his Twitter account to his Instagram handle, the actor has been receiving accolades for his performance as Eleniyan. Surprisingly, Fakunle’s role as the villain in the story could have inspired hatred from Nollywood audience, but his acting, like that of Chidi Mokeme in Shanty Town, has made both actors admirable. Olarotimi Fakunle played the role with admirable ease, and audiences are appreciating his effort in bringing Kazeem to life.
In this exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Olarotimi Fakunle spoke about himself, the journey to getting cast for the role, and the epiphany he had while playing the character of Kazeem Eleniyan.
In Gangs of Lagos, you play “Kazeem the Eleniyan, owner of men.” It is not uncommon for actors to become closely associated with a fictional role they portray, and Kazeem has become a name attached to you. Who is Olarotimi Fakunle?
My name is Olarotimi Fakunle. I’m an actor and a Theater Director. I produce, I consult, I’m an acting coach, and also a farmer. Kazeem Eleniyan is a name that is not going to go away for a long time. Kazeem is one character that I enjoyed playing so, so much.
Viewers of Gangs of Lagos have been generous in their description of who Kazeem is to them. As Olarotimi Fakunle, how would you describe Kazeem?
A lot of people have their perception of who Kazeem is based on the film. They didn’t bother to know his back story. The best way I’ll describe Kazeem, as Olarotimi Fakunle, is that he is someone who wants to succeed and become a household name at all costs. Having gotten ridiculed and insulted by people who have used him to perpetuate certain kinds of evil, Kazeem wants to achieve something tangible. Kazeem is a die-hard person who just wants to succeed, and do well. He will protect his own at all costs. He is also very loyal.
Before Gangs of Lagos, you had featured in other films and TV shows like Ajochie, Paper Boat, and Last Days. You also have a long-established relationship with theatre. How has acting on stage impacted your acting for film and vice versa?
Theatre and film are two different means of communication. Theatre is larger than life, so we say that every movement and gesture should be exaggerated. For film, the language is more subtle and everything is more controlled. Now in transiting from theatre into film, the actor has to undergo certain training. If you bring your theatre experience into film, it will be said that you’re overacting. For me, how this transition, between film and theatre, has influenced my career is that I’ve learnt to maintain balance. When I’m doing theatre and film, I am always conscious about my acting.
When I go back to theatre acting, I have to remind myself that I am back in the theatre. I have to keep controlled those projections, exaggerations, and all of that. I consider theatre an important part of an actor’s life, and I think that every actor, at some point, should practice theatre acting. In the words of Terrance Mann, someone whom I respect a lot, “Theatre will make you good, film will make you famous, television will make you rich.” As an actor, you must find some time to do theatre because that is what will make you good at the end of the day. Theatre is all around, and it is difficult. When you conquer the stage, you can conquer film and TV acting.
How did you land the role of Kazeem, and what was your response when you discovered you got the part?
I was in the hospital when I got a call from my manager, Demi Banwo. Banwo asked if I would be willing to attend a close reading with Jade Osiberu. I didn’t know who Osiberu was, but I consented since the request was coming from Banwo. I went there. My reading was appreciated and Osiberu promised to call. After the reading, I told Banwo that I thought I’d left a good impression on Osiberu, so that even if I didn’t get to work with her on this project, I’d on another project. A couple of days after that, I got a call saying that I got the role, and I was to resume stunt rehearsals. That’s how the journey of becoming Kazeem started. From then, I resumed stunt rehearsal, learning from the streets. I went to the abattoir to learn how the butchers behaved and spoke. It was quite an experience.
Seeing the audience’s positive reception of Kazeem’s character, has that emotional response changed? How do you feel about the attention your performance is getting?
The response is quite overwhelming. Not only for me but for everyone who put in work in making Gangs of Lagos. Kazeem is that character that you’ll love to hate and hate to love, and for me, the response has been overwhelming. The way people talk about him is so crazy. What I tell everybody who I cross paths with, particularly the students in my tutelage, is that in whatever you do, you must give it your best, your all. And if you work hard on anything in life, it would always be obvious. Sometimes you may work so hard and the response may not be your desire, but it doesn’t mean you have not worked hard enough. Keep working hard. No matter what part you get, no matter what role you play, whatever you find doing, do it well. There are no small roles, only small actors.
What did you enjoy the most about playing Kazeem?
What I enjoyed the most about playing Kazeem was being able to be a different person from myself. Every role I play, both on stage and in films, is different, but I enjoyed playing Kazeem because of the dimensions of his character. You don’t know when he’s going to snap at you. You don’t know what is in his mind when he’s talking to you. He is just unpredictable. It is Kazeem’s unpredictability that I love most about him.
There is a trending video that showed you learning the art of butchering from professional butchers. Why was it crucial to become that familiar with people who embody different facets of the character you played in Gangs of Lagos?
As I said, in everything one does, one has to do it well and put their heart into it. I had to sit with the butchers, listen to them, and sometimes I ate and drank with them. I did this so I could learn who Kazeem was. Learning from real-life people is very important because I feel that is the only way you can be able to portray and do justice to the character you’re playing.
What was the pre-shooting and shooting period like? What were the behind-the-scenes things you did to be able to perfectly play Kazeem?
The pre-shooting and the shooting process of Gangs of Lagos were very hectic and stressful. Several scenes are dialogue–driven. What this means, for an actor, is that you have to pay attention to your dialogue because it’s an essential part of filmmaking, particularly for a film like Gangs of Lagos. When I’m not working and I’m on set waiting for my scene, I often sit down to look at my lines over and over again. I do this to find new meaning.
It would be difficult for viewers to accept that you are not “Eleniyan” in reality. Do you have any personal experiences that connect you to the character you portrayed in Gangs of Lagos?
I’m Eleniyan, owner of men, in the sense that I have students I train and mentor. As Olarotimi Fakunle, you can hardly see me walking alone, either on the streets or when I am going out. I always have people who I take along with me. So, yes, in some way I think that is the only similarity I have with Kazeem. And unlike Kazeem, I’ll protect them with my life and I won’t let anything happen to them. I will not sell them out the way Kazeem did.
In Nollywood and other industries, when an actor performs exceptionally well in a particular role, typecasting becomes the pattern for his future roles. How do you feel about this concept? Do you worry about falling into a mold?
Yes, there’s the danger of being typecast in the industry. And there’s nothing to hide about this possibility of being typecast. But am I afraid of it? No. I think I’m versatile enough as an actor to know that I can be different in all the roles I play. Can there be similar roles to Kazeem? The answer is yes! But will it be Kazeem when I play it? The answer will be no! The same way I gave my all for Kazeem is the same way I’ll give my all for whatever role that comes my way.
As an actor and an acting coach, what is your opinion on the quality of acting in Nollywood currently. What can actors do to improve?
The improvement in the industry also applies to Nollywood actors. They are becoming daring. Actors are doing quite a lot, and they’re working hard to ensure they bring quality acting not just to the audience in Nollywood but also to the international stage. Look at someone like Tobi Bakre for instance; he’s a hard worker, the hardest I’ve seen. Toyin Osinaike, Tori Seju, Abiodun Kassim, and Najite Dede are other examples.
We have quite a number of them. The only thing I can say is that we must keep growing. We must keep working. We must never think that we’ve “arrived” as actors. The process of an actor is a never-ending one. An actor must keep training till he stops acting or dies. My advice is to keep training, keep working hard, and do not rest on laurels, do not rest on past glory, because you’re only as good as your last show.
What epiphany about life, friendship, and Nigerian politics did you have playing Kazeem?
What I’ve learnt about friendship and life is that there’s no permanent enemy, only permanent interests. Our paths will keep crossing as human beings. We just have to learn to keep moving on. Everybody has the right to support whomever they want to support, irrespective of their affinity. You cannot enforce your will on anyone. There’s freedom of expression. There’s also freedom of life which everyone has. That’s what I learned in playing Kazeem in Gangs of Lagos.
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.