Richard Mofe-Damijo: “What Filmmakers In Nigeria Do Is Pure Magic.”
“CELEBRATING 60 MIGHT MEAN NOTHING TO A LOT OF PEOPLE,” says Chairman of Anakle Films, Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD). “But not to me. Sixty is the number that has somehow managed to torment as much as it has excited me. I have lived a good part of my adult life, unsure about what 60 would bring— life or death. The looming uncertainty always made my heart sink deep into my stomach. The thing is both my parents did not live to be 60. This as you can imagine, became very unnerving and unsettling. However, my interesting dalliance with 60 has shifted my focus to more eternal principles and precepts.”
RMD – don’t forget, he’s as legitimately a writer as he’s an actor – wrote this in the preface to his pretty engaging book, “Portrait of a Warri Boy.”
Richard Mofe-Damijo, affectionately known as RMD. With his unparalleled talent and captivating screen presence, RMD has consistently enthralled audiences in his vast filmography.
The seasoned actor who effortlessly transitioned from the stage to the silver screen, showcasing his versatility as he portrays diverse and complex characters with charm and finesse is one of Nigeria’s most beloved actors and a cultural icon, leaving an indelible mark on the Nigerian film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood.
And, lo, the 60s has launched him into more of the good stuff. More fame at an international level, more fortune outside the limits of the Naira.
Today, we have the honor of discussing his latest star role in the trending movie, “Black Book,” which has taken the world by storm and garnered top viewership on the popular streaming platform, Netflix.
“Black Book” stands as an epitome of RMD’s ability to captivate audiences, offering a gripping narrative that explores the depths of human emotions and societal injustices.
Q: So how are you today?
RMD: I’m well.
And how’s your new image doing as the Sean Connery of Nigeria?
I don’t know about Sean Connery. I just know about Mofe-Damijo of Nigeria. Sean has done his stuff; I’m just doing mine.
Okay. I couldn’t help seeing the same white beard going for you guys.
We’re part of the grey gang.
So, did you enjoy this one; I mean “The Black Book”?
Oh yes, I did. Like I’ve told you, the day I cease to enjoy it, everything I do, every role I play, then I’ll give it up.
Compared to “Ólóíbírí,” would you say it’s more seminal: a more seminal performance? How will you compare both?
Well, both called for drastic changes in my physiology. I had to lose weight for both roles, so to speak. When I did “Ólóíbírí” I was much younger than now when I did Paul Edima. Paul Edima is a bit more brain work than the physicality of “Ólóíbírí.” In “Ólóíbírí” I was scrawling off story buildings and all of that. I was more strategic in “The Black Book..” The character is a lot more strategic in his thinking than the character in “Ólóíbírí.” But they both share a commonality and that is being revolutionaries. They are both change agents even though their beginnings have been corrupted.
These characters, do they remind you of your “Spark” days?
In a sense. I’ve always loved a bit of action. I’ve always held the belief that our technical strength was not in our action sequences and all that. However, technology has liberated space a lot more and our recording techniques have greatly improved. Now, we can do a lot more during recordings and fight sequences and choreography have also improved. So, we have a lot of help from everywhere and they make us look like magicians when we’re through with what we do.
Did you find you had to use doubles for a lot of roles that you would have done yourself? Apparently, you took a dive yourself.
Oh yes! I did over ninety-nine percent of my stunts. So, I’m one of those who feel that I can do my stunt.
Is that not risky?
Well, it has its risks but also it has its advantages. When you see it on screen, you prefer that you did it.
But an injury of the star will cause serious delay to the production.
I take very calculated risks. At every point in time during production, whatever needed to be done, we had it to a Tee. So, I wasn’t at risk of stopping production at any point.
I remember those days you used to take karate lessons. Do you still do that?
No. I stopped. I’ve done martial arts all my life, so it’s in there. When it’s called upon it comes out.
So, you had to call on that.
Of course, absolutely. One of the things that martial arts teaches is the fact that you have to learn control, even under extreme provocation. I’d hardly hit anybody unless my life depends on it.
What do you mean by that? In real life?
In real life. I mean, I hate to get into any kind of scuffle because I think I would do damage very easily, so I don’t fight. My life has to depend on it for me to hit somebody. So, I try to avoid it. I was trained to defend myself and defend the honor of those who I consider family. So, I don’t fight.
But you had to fight in the movie.
In the movie yes. That’s make belief fight. I can manage that.
Your relationship with your son in that movie, I think perhaps is the most convincing performance. What’s your actual relationship with that young man?
I really don’t have a relationship with him. I know him as a young actor. He’s a brilliant young actor, and he has a promising career. I think that was my second time of actually being in a movie with him. The first time, our paths didn’t really cross. This was the first time that I was sharing a more intimate scene with him.
But those tears seemed real. Were you drawing on your real space?
Well, I was Paul Edima. If you lose your son, you’ll cry. If you loved your son the way that man loved his son and that was the only thing he lived for … really having tears is the least of my problems. As an actor, I always say, while some will call it method, what I do is I come from a place of truth. I do my characters to the truest form they can be. For Paul Edima, I had to become Paul Edima and I was him for a very long time. The process was very tedious, but I enjoyed being him. So, it became easy.
Yes, but you’re not famous for tears in Nollywood. You’re not exactly a Sylvanus Nkiru.
Every time that it has called for it, I would give it.
Would you say this is your best of tearful roles?
I’m trying to recall if I’ve had a lot of tearful roles. I’m just saying that if tears would work with the situations, I’ll bring tears. I’m just saying that it’s not a skill that I’ve thought that I should make a big deal because when you become a character and the character has to cry, that’s the least of your problems as an actor or that should be the least of your problems as an actor.
But actors tend to go into their real space to bring out realism in their roles.
That’s what I was trying to break down for you. I said to you that the method I use or what I do when I act is that I come from a place of my truth or the character’s place of truth. So, I’m saying that I shouldn’t even become something that is under-over because the character is already in motion. Therefore, I don’t have to go into my personal space to do it. Because when I teach, I tell my students that if you are the character at that point in time, whatever is demanded of the character will come out like second nature.
Accordingly, this role that you played, in your view, how realistic is it? In the Nigerian environment do we have those kinds of dudes old and able?
The guy was just in his sixties. If I use myself as an example, at sixty-two, there are things I can do. All I need do is just go back to the gym and be fit for that. There are seventy something year old men that are playing football in this country on a regular basis. I don’t think there’s anything Paul Edima did in that movie that a regular guy cannot do if you’re trained for it. You have to understand Paul Edima is a trained soldier, right? And he never really left. Everything he was doing was just a façade for who he really was. There’re people out there like that, there’re trained government agents still roaming the streets and that can still pull the stunts as he did.
How was playing a preacher for you?
That’s easy. I’ve been a Sunday school teacher for over seventeen years. Preaching is second nature to me. I’m a teacher by birth.
That was in ‘Household of God.’ Are you still there?
No. I’ve moved on to other churches. I minister anywhere I’m…
The rumor out there is that you want to turn full time minister, how true is it?
Rumor out there. Don’t deal in rumors. I’m already doing the work of God. I don’t have to be a pastor of a church to do the work I do for God.
But do you plan to actually set up a church of your own?
That’s what I’m saying. Why would I do that? There’re enough churches already in Nigeria. Why would I want to add to it? They’re not very many doing the work the way I do it, so I’d rather stick to my method.
Do you want to let us into this method?
I get invited to a lot of places to minister and that’s what I do. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t want to now build a church to do the same thing. There are churches all over that invite me for these things.
One of your fans told me that she’s not comfortable with you playing action heroes, that she’s a lot happier when you’re playing romance and in this one you didn’t even have as much as have a romance with that young girl. You were just as hard as stone, as she says.
If you listen to every fan then your range will be one dimensional. I think I got into this business to be as prolific as possible. And there’s time for everything. I’ve been a romantic hero for the most part of my career so venturing into other areas is just good as well.
Were you feeling the heat from being a type cast more or less?
I have never been a type cast. I mean look at what I’ve done with my career. I’ve always done the unusual. I’ve done comedy, I’ve done tragedy, I’ve done romance, now I’m doing action. I want to be able to do it all.
You actually started as a bad guy. As Segun Kadri.
So that’s the thing. Segun Kadri wasn’t a bad guy. He was just a sweet, bad guy. He was a lovable bad guy.
Sweet or sour, he was a bad guy. Right?
Well, he was not good or bad. He just had a disposition that looked bad. He needed that to be able to get what he wanted. He needed to get into a space that was already choked, and he needed to make an impression early on. I think he did that.
Does anybody still call you Segun Kadri?
Always. There are a lot of people who call me Segun Kadri. Among all the characters I’ve played in my life, the one that has stuck most, that people still call me is Segun Kadri and Pastor Ken. I find that a lot of my East African friends call me Pastor Ken. A lot of them saw that movie and for the longest time they’ve been calling me that name, Pastor Ken.
Apparently you like Pastor Ken.
Oh, I mean it’s a character from “The Price.” When I hear that I smile. That was over twenty years ago. And for people to still remember that is something.
There are two movies that you shot, which people don’t know too much about. I don’t know whether you want to speak about “Out of Bounds.” What happened to that movie? There was “Critical Assignment” as well.
“Out of Bounds” is very popular. It’s a Nigerian classic. It’s among the most celebrated Nigerian classics. People know about it. In fact, as I speak to you, there’s a reboot; some other people have taken the right for it. I will appear in it at some point. So, they’re going to do a reboot of “Out of Bounds.” You know there’s a reboot of old Nigerian films and it’s one of them collected for that reboot.
When you say you’ll appear at some point, what do you mean? You weren’t looking like this when you did “Out of Bounds.”
I’ll be in the film. I’ll be in the reboot, but I won’t be the headliner.
So that’s a project that we’re expecting soon or…?
Yeah. Next year. The producers are already working. They’re trying to conclude on the script. I’ve seen the first draft of the script.
Does the same thing go for “Critical Assignment” because that is a movie I never got to see.
“Critical Assignment” was made in South Africa, and it was not aired on local TV. I saw it on Channel 4 in London, and a few people have seen it in aircraft and all that. It was not circulated here, locally.
What’s the next stage of your career? Do you intend to go deeper into production?
I am already deep in productions.
What do you mean?
I have a film in post-production right now. It’s “Radio Voice.” We finished about two months ago. I’ve projects that I’m already doing. Some of them will come out next year. I have like a slate of fourteen films in the next five years that I’m going to produce. Many studios have done a merger with Anakle Films. I’m now the chairman of Anakle Films. There’s a lot more that I’m going to be doing from behind the scenes.
So, it’s a transition to virtually full time as a production person, directing.
I’ve never been interested in directing, but at one point I think I’ll do one or two.
There’s a question I’ve been flying around. I want to fly it with you. We have a bunch of great plays in Nigeria and very little attempt to put them on film. Do you have any such ambition?
Put them on where?
On film. In the cinema. Like Biyi Bamdele did with ‘Èléshìn Òbá’ for instance and in those days somebody did it for “Kongi’s Harvest.” We have great plays that nobody has bothered to make into great pictures. Why is that?
Funding and access to funds is a major setback. I know that there are people who are making attempts to do a lot more, tell a lot more Nigerian story. If you wait a bit more, you will find that in the next two years the kinds of stories you’re going to be seeing will be a lot more Nigerian story. Nollywood started by telling the most accessible stories that were possible to just retell. I think we’ve done that successfully and what “The Black Book” has done has broken the ceiling. The last ceiling of films, we’ve been global number, Top 10 in the last three weeks since release. It’s unprecedented. It’s being called the biggest African title ever in terms of numbers. We’ve done over seventeen million views. It’s just incredible. What that has done is to call upon all producers to do more work and have an eye for the global market.
Some people will say that this is not a diss, but some people will say it’s virtually your name, your image that drove that market rather than the story itself.
I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the review that we’ve been getting. I don’t know where those reviews came from. But the reviews that we’ve been getting applaud the sound design as well as the art direction, which is probably one of the most amazing art directions we’ve had in cinema history in Africa. Other elements of the movie that are acclaimed are the directorial work, not to mention the camera work of the photography and the grading of that movie.
If it were just me alone, I don’t think we’d have gotten up to half of where we are. I’ve been in other films before so how come other films that I’ve been in didn’t get this kind of attention? It’s an ensemble. It’s the coming together and the lining up of all the elements of good film production that has gotten us to where we are today.
I mean we were number one in South Korea for over a week and, in the third week, we’re still Top 10 in South Korea. We were number one in Vietnam, number one in Brazil, Romania; we got to number three in the US; we got to number three in Canada, and we got to number three in UK or is it number two? We’re still Top 10 globally. It’s not about RMD’s face. Absolutely not. It’s a beautiful and well-toned film that goes round the story of Nigeria in over forty years: from End Sars to coups and to drugs, and everything. It’s like a lightning bolt. Good things don’t come every time.
The figures are really high. It’s quite a successful piece actually. It’s seminal in its own right. But you can’t help fans with giving their own views. Those are just fans that say that if somebody else had played in it, it would not get such an …
That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s myopic. I mean, they don’t know me in South Korea; so, you have to understand that the people, where this thing has made the most impact, is where they don’t know me. They don’t know me in Brazil; they don’t know me in Vietnam; they don’t know me in China; they don’t know me in Hong Kong. We were number one in Hong Kong. You have to understand what we have done here. It is too real to be true. Who knows me in America? We were number one two days or three days after release.
It’s a Nigerian film, it’s a Nollywood film. We were in South Africa, we were in Kenya, they don’t have to know me. Because those kinds of fans are looking at Nigeria alone. No! We have, it’s like what has happened to afrobeats. You go to Burna Boy concert, there are more non-Nigerians in a Burna Boy concert. What people don’t realize is that we’re not dealing with just local films anymore. We’re on a platform where every cinema making culture comes to stake their lot and we have been staking ours and, for once, they have had to deal with us differently.
What they used to say was that ‘let’s just give them the African territory and a few European countries and North America.’ We’re on global release now. We’ve beaten all their big titles. With one-million-dollar project, we’re beating 10, 20-million-dollar productions. We made one million dollars look like 10 million dollars. That’s what it is. It’s good cinematography. We did everything possible. If you’re privy to the behind the scenes work that went into this, then you’ll begin to appreciate what has happened.
It took thirteen months to get this done. This film marinated over a two, three-year period. All through that COVID, we were in it, battling breakdowns and everything, travelling to Kaduna by train. And coming back. And two or three weeks later, there’s that Kaduna train raid and all that. We went through all kinds of things to get this film made. My weapon handling was trained by a serving marine. I did wrestle for a while, I did box for a while, I did all kinds of training. People don’t see all of that. We put the work in and we’re so glad that it paid off.
Two items before I let you run along. In those days it used to be that movies needed to be over-dubbed because of differences in accent, they needed sub-titling. How did you break through in South Korea and these other countries?
Technology has made all those things easy. I don’t know the technical word for it but if you’re watching me in South Korea, I’d be speaking Korean. It’s just technology. Those watching in India that loved it, I’d be speaking whatever Indian language that’s in the territory that they’re watching. Most of the Spanish films you see on Netflix that they’re speaking English, they’re all dubs. It’s just that these days; it’s almost to perfection.
The last one is budget. Why are Nigerian movies still under-budgeted compared to India and compared to the US? When will there be that equilibrium?
Because you people don’t put money in movies. People don’t invest in movies.
What do you mean you people? Are you referring to me?
Yes, you Nigerians, you don’t put money in movies. You want us to bring our grandfathers’ legs to get monies. There are no structures that are good enough. What we have in Nigeria are interventions by the government. What you need to do is to have institutionalized film funds that are not dependent on government in power. No government in power can remove it because it is all there. It is institutionalized. That’s what we need. Not have a BOI give some funds over a period of three years or four years. And Central Bank have a creative fund, those are all like little or no ripple in the pool. For funding in this project, for instance, it was family and friends. Thank God for the new kids in film tech and tech in Nigeria who saw it fit to invest in this project. And thank God this worked out and they’re ready for the next one and the next and the one after.
We need to fix budget in order to move ahead.
Absolutely. What we’re doing here is performing bypass surgery with forks and knives. We’re all magicians here. What filmmakers in Nigeria do is pure magic.
Perhaps that’s why they call it Africa Magic.
If we get one percent, I’m not even joking, of let’s say the production cost of a “Mission Impossible,” what do you think I’ll do with it? Just one percent. What do you think will happen? If every time a big Nigerian producer wants to do a film and he gets one percent of the budget for “Equalizer” or for “Mission Impossible,” what do you think would happen?
They forget that what we’re competing with is like one hundred years of advancement and zero years of advancement. What we do is take their pickings and just create stuff and they’re like how did these people do it? It’s magic. That’s why it’s called movie magic.