Clarion Chukwura has been a household name for over three decades in the Nigerian film industry. The only female among four children of her parents, in this interview speaks about her acting career, among other issues.
How did you get into the movie industry and what was your parents’ reaction?
Well, I lost my father when I was 11 years and one week old; it was only my mother that I can say reacted when I started acting. But she was never against my acting. I actually began acting in the university community. My mother spoke with Bayo Oduleye (then a lecturer at the University of Ibadan.) She also spoke with Yomi Shohunde. My mother, being an educated woman, did not have problem when I began acting, though she thought I would study law. The fact that I became a star early did not let me have the problem my pals were having. I became a star at 15. When I got pregnant, there was a crack between me and my mother – which any mother would react to. At that time, I was 17, and an undergraduate. She felt it was her fault, having lost her husband, she had the responsibility to look after us so that she would not lose any of us.
I started acting (stage and television) in 1979, when I was 15 years, and I joined the Nigerian film industry in 1982 with Ola Balogun’s Money Power. But if you want to talk about home video, I joined the home video industry in 1994. I was the lead female character in the first attempt at home video production in Nigeria by Jimi Odumosu, Fiery Force (1986).
As a young girl who became a celebrity at 15, how did you cope?
For me it was all excitement. You know why it was an excitement? Fulfillment. What people call ‘challenge’ – having to work 15 hours a day and travel a lot, to me it was part of the experience that made it adventurous. The excitement was that I was working with the professionals. I was trained with professionals. I was learning a lot from them. There was a lot of laughter; we were a family, kind of.
Can you compare the industry of then with what obtains now?
I can’t. Today there are more people involved, but one thing is missing: people that can take the arts to the next level being involved. I will explain that. In my early days as an actress, every producer, every director was trained and wanted to work with like-minded people; the professionals who wanted to take their work to the next level. But today, you will see a person who was a production assistant now becoming a director; you have somebody who was a cameraman five years ago becoming a D.O.P without going through any kind of training or learning the skills or going through the rudiments of what he wants to do. Nollywood is evolving, but the greatest challenge facing it is lack of training and experience. People are in a hurry, and they do not want to recognize the need for common training; neither do they want to pass through the proper channel. And because they don’t want to do that, they don’t respect or recognize people that have done that. They find them intimidating; they want to be bosses.
Was acting your childhood dream?
Yes, acting has been my childhood dream. Since when I was five years old, I had been dreaming to be an actress. It actually started when I saw Michael Jackson performing on stage with the Jackson Five on television, and also saw Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra at the Casino Cinemas. I said to my father sitting next to me that night that I wanted to be like her.
When was your first stage attempt?
That was when I was in primary school. I played Mary Magdalene in my Primary 6 graduation play, which was about the birth of Jesus Christ. I was 10 years old then.
What about your first play professionally?
My first play semi-professionally was Prof. Bode Sowande’s Farewell to Babylon in 1979. It was a published play of his; it was done on the stage of University of Ibadan and I was 15 years old.
You’ve been a successful actress over the years; you’ve become a brand and a household name. Would you describe yourself fulfilled as an actress?
I’m still in the course of self-actualization as an actress.
In the course of your career as an actress for over 30 years, what are those things you can’t forget in a hurry?
The number one thing I can’t forget is having started out my career being trained and working alongside great professionals and teachers, whom from my childhood I had always looked up to – the likes of Dr. Bayo Oduneye, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Dr. Ola Balogun, Moses Olaiya, Jimi Solanke, Prof. Bode Sowande and some not too popular professionals who have also impacted my life. Also, those who are behind the camera like Wale Fanu, Tunde Kelani, Lola Fani-Kayode, Peter Igho. I won’t forget having worked with those people in the course of my training.
What was the greatest thing your acting career cost you?
The biggest sacrifice for me was not being able to do certain things that I would want to do, like going straight, down-to-earth, and doing what ordinary people do without anybody feeling that by doing those things, I would be disappointing people as a result of fame. Another one is having to work with people who are not professional at all. I have to contain my temper (because, as a professional, I just have to control my feelings), like having to work with people who never went through preliminary trainings like everyone else, but they still get their roles through some extraneous sentiments; and they come on set completely green without any rehearsal, and I have to endure arduous hours on set because they are being trained on set. Perhaps the greatest sacrifice is working when I’m ill, because I just have to work. I remember nine years ago, 2003, when I was shooting Egg of Life. It was raining everyday and the costume was the epic Igbo costume, and I still went to two other sets without any break. At the end of the first day, at my third set, I felt ill. It was discovered that I had pneumonia, yet I could not rest or take time off to undergo any proper treatment because the schedule for that stretch of time had actually been drawn up to favour me – so that I would work continuously for the next 10 days, so that I could move to another set while the production continued.
You have won many awards. Can you tell us some of them?
My first award was won in 1984 with Ola Balogun Money Power (which was shot by Dr. Ola Balogun in 1982). I won the Best Actress of the Year at the All Africa Film Festival that was held in Ougadagodou (Burkina Faso). It’s a continental film festival; it covers the films that were released between 1982 and 1984. I won the Best Actress in Africa.
I played Yemi there. My second award came in 1997, an afro-Hollywood award in London, with one scene I did in Glamour Girls Part 2. The third award was 2001 in THEMA, Best Supporting Actress (Yoruba). My fourth award was won the same year in Mexico when I won Best Actress and Gold for Nigeria at the Lebatino Film Festival in Mexico, which featured 53 countries. Nigeria was the only country from Africa. Hammed Yerima’s film, Yemoja, won the gold. I played ‘Yemoja’ and I won the Best Actress. Then my fifth award came 2003 in Africa cinema award. My sixth award was January 2004 when I won Reel Awards’ Best Actress.
Of your entire awards, which one do you cherish the most?
They are two. The first one is the one I won in 1984 at the African Film Award, because it was my first film. I was a green horn; nobody thought I could win it, but I won it beating all other films from other African countries, including South Africa and Senegal. That award made me an outstanding actress. The second (most cherished award) is the one I won in Mexico through my role as Yemoja, in a film entitled Yemoja. Winning gold for Nigeria and Africa as a whole made me proud.
What else do we not know about you?
I am the chairperson of Clarion Chukwurah Initiative West Africa. I also have a production outfit called JADE Productions.