Niyi Johnson is one of the brilliant and versatile actors in the movie industry today. For the past 15 years, he has featured in so many soaps and English movies. He has been part of Tinsel also before he left to go and join the Yoruba movie industry, whilst still featuring in English movies because of his versatility.
Niyi is one of those who objects to being stereotyped a Yoruba actor which is limiting in scope. He believes he is not inferior to other actors, since he has proved himself worthy of his name. That Niyi is a damn good actor can be seen in how he is in hot demand right now, by many movie producers, both in the Yoruba and English speaking arms of Nollywood.
That is why he is always on set, back-to-back, moving from one location to another to meet up with the tight schedules of movie producers. To get him to grant this interview was tough, because of his busy schedule. Last Tuesday, Niyi had a drink with SEYE KEHINDE, the City People Magazine Publisher during which he spoke about his life and career. Below are excerpts from the interview.
For how long have you been acting?
Over 15 years. I started from church drama and I moved to TV dramas, Soap operas, Tinsel then I delved into Yoruba films. But now, I am fully more into movies. I do more of movies now. Soap is more of a terrestial thing. Only people who watch terrestial TV get to watch it, except now that some of them are beginning to have their TV Stations on cable. I believe I should spread my tantacles. Movies are more exportable. They send movies abroad. I still do both, but more of movies now, English and Yoruba films. I want people to see what I can do.
Like every good actor Niyi has a way of interpreting his roles well. You enter your character and you make it real. How did you develop this?
I am one of the few actors in the Yoruba sector that asks for my scripts. I don’t act without a script. It is very important to me. I need to read my scripts before going on set. I read the entire story. I then read my character. So, I know where the story is going and how to fit in. And I then put myself in my character.
Where were you born?
I was born in Lagos. I grew up in Lagos. I grew up in Oshodi, Iyana-Ipaja area. My primary school was in Oshodi and Ipaja areas. I schooled in Lagos. I attended Ibadan Poly at some point, I attended the satellite campus in Lagos, because, then, I had started doing soap operas. I didn’t want to leave outside Lagos. Then, I went to LASU for History and International Relations.
How did you then go into acting?
Basically it was in my secondary school. I used to do drama. I used to act in dramas. Also in church I used to act. When I left Secondary School and as I started seeing movies. I used to email Marketers then. I will go to the Cafe and send mails to them saying: I have talent, I want to act. Help me until I met a guy Mr. Ray Austin, Remi Star Blue that was where I was trained in acting proper. He trained me and from there I started going for auditions in Lagos. I did it for over a year. Its a proper film school. I was given a certificate. When we started they taught us all arms of acting, from Make Up, Costume, Production and Directing, Management.
Can you recollect the first soap you acted in?
That is Cynthia Okon, produced by Fuaad Bankole. After that I did Tinsel. Soap Opera was not as popular as this then, it was very few then. I was a minor cast on that soap but I felt happy that I was shown on TV.
What was your experience like in Tinsel?
It was great. After a few attempts we started getting lines. We acted as props. We just sat down and watched people talk and nod. At some point, they started giving us lines. But I felt I deserved more. I wanted more. They didn’t see me as one of the major actors so why should I stay on. I then made the move to do Yoruba movies. As at then I had done my 1st Yoruba film.
The title is Motaka Osi danu by Lekan Ayinde. He saw me at a soap opera location. My dad actually called, so I spoke Yoruba and he said so you can speak Yoruba? He didn’t know I was a Yoruba guy. I told him I am a royal guy. I am from Ondo State. He now told me I would becomng to work for him soon. I said No. I am not ooo. I was scared of Yoruba movies then. They said they used to die. He said you will do it and you will not die. That was when I did Agbere, in 2011. I was on set with Yomi Fash Lanso and Mosun Filani. From then till now I have been moving from set to set. I thank God for that. My breakthroughs started coming in Yoruba.
Let’s talk about 2018. How many movies have you acted in?
Haa! A lot. Over 30 to 40 movies that I have done this year. Week in, week out. I am always on location.
How do you cope with the stress of shooting back to back?
When I was getting into it, I knew the stress was……….I have done over 30 to 40 movies this year alone. Week in, week out I am always on location. And I am still doing more.
Do you still do English movies?
Yes, I do. I didn’t leave that. That’s where I started from.
How do you cope?
I am prepared for it. When I was getting into it I knew the pressure was going to be intense. So, I have the mentality already. But atimes it gets to one, like when you get on to the internet and you read some negative stuff and getting somewhere and people want more from you. They expect you to give them money because you an actor. Outside that, we are loving every moment. Its just that we need to make more money from it.
How do you take negative stories and comments?
I have learnt to live with it. I don’t let it bother me. I enjoy it all the same. I don’t try convincing people that I am this kind of person. I live my life as it is. I am someone who does not really do interviews. I run from it interviews. When I read the comments people make about me, I smile because you don’t even know me.
What do you in your leisure time?
Leisure? Most of the time I am working. Most of my time I spend on location. If I am not at home, I am working. I hardly create time for leisure.
How do you cope with women?
I cope with them. Where I need to be firm. I am firm. If you put too much pressure on. I will tell you I have a woman at home. She does not joke with her man and I don’t joke with her either.
What sort of a guy is Niyi?
Niyi is a very regular guy. I am a regular guy. I play a lot. I am about the most playful Yoruba actor. I play a lot. Just take me as a young guy, a regular guy and we would get along. I respect people and I expect you to respect me. Respect is recipocal. I am just a good-to-go guy. From my dressing you can tell. I am a guy that is out there to give hope to the hopeless. I once sold bread. When you come to me and tell me your beginning is rough, I will tell you right away that I went through a similar path. If I can be here, you can be here.
How do you separate your public life from your private life? Do you even have a private life?
Of course, I do. Whatever I want you to see is what I put out there. If I want you to know something about me I put it on line. If I don’t put it out there you don’t get to know. What I want people to see now at this stage of my life is my work. What is private should be left private. Let me just build my career. Let me leave the noise apart. I am always very silent about my private life because that is distraction. Let me also build my private life privately and see what will come out of it. When it comes to my fans, I am silent about that issue. I want my fans to talk about my movies. Criticise my movies. Talk about my movies.
Which particular Yoruba movie brought you out? Which is the defining movie?
I won’t say one. I will say 2. I will say Ojiji mi and Oritoke. In Oritoke, I played the role of an imbecile it was quite a unique character, that I don’t think people have seen me act. That movie got me attention. Even up till now some kids still call me Jimoh, when they see me. Oritoke brought out that part of me. It made people see that I can do it, that I can play any role.
So also Ojiji mi. It made people to notice my person. After then, several movies like Ejika, and Co.
What has kept you going and focused despite all the distractions?
Because a lot of people are looking up to me as a role model. I can’t afford to let them down. Where I grew up, I still have my friends there. Now, I have automatically become their mentor either directly or indirectly I cannot afford to let them down. I grew up in Ikotun area of Lagos. I grew up in an area where we don’t know what wealth is. You just have to go to school.
You end up drink a lot of garri or buy bread. You have to hawk Coconut. Out of that circle, I have been able to came out and people say wow Niyi has succeeded so I need to give people around me Hope, that if I can be here, they can be here too. I have so many younger ones who call me Uncle Niyi I can’t allow them feel Uncle Niyi is not doing well. That alone is a big challenge for me. Fans expect a lot more from me. My major motivation is people around me. I want to give hope to people around me. I still go back to my area to see my people. I go to them to mingle with them, with the kids even.
Can actor balance out their careers and private life?
They can balance it if they want to. Yes our life is out but it depends on you, on what you want to put out there. There are so many things happening to actors out there that people don’t know. Except you want people to know. Some want people to know. They want the attention, the publicity. Intentionally and willingly, we leak out stuff about us, for relevance purpose. So, you can balance it. It can be done.
When you are not on set acting, how do you unwind?
I play games. I am always at home, I watch movies. I have games I play. I have Ayo Olopon, Ludo. I have every game in my house. I have games on my phone and on my laptop. I play Snake & Ladder. At night, I read. I love to read. I go on the internet to read more, about even my roles like if I am given roles. I want to check out on terms. Basically, I relax at home. I am not a party goer. I don’t know how to dance. I am a homely person.
How do you see the industry. How do you see the challenges?
The challenges are getting more than the successes. We have a lot of internal probems. Nowadays we have this unhealthy rivalry. We are supposed to work as a team, as a body. We are not bonding like before. Everybody wants to make a statement. We have location challenges. We can’t film at the airport. There are restrictions. We cannot film at the national stadium. These are places we need to do movies. It will take you about 6 months to get permission. You can’t show aircraft. You can’t sit inside the plane.
We have challenges with Funding. There is problem with funding, funding, funding. Everybody knows the movie industry is generating money for Nigeria. Our movies say a lot of things about Nigeria. When people abroad see our movies they will say wow, so Nigeria has changed like this. But we don’t get the support we need from government. Its not too bad if Actors now have Actors village. Let them subsidise it for us. We need a Film Village. We can build our own set and make our own films. Area Boys are disturbing us. There are instances where they struggle with the camera with us. Some of our crew have been injured before. They’ve stabbed Yome Fash-Lanso before. The challenges are enormous.
How do you see the dichotomy in the movie industry? They call some people Yoruba Actors and some others English actors. How do you react when people call you Yoruba actor?
I am not a Yoruba actor. I am a Nollywood actor. I was never a Yoruba actor. I have never been a Yoruba actor. I have been a Nollywood actor. I do English films. I do soap operas. I do feature films. I do a Yoruba films also. So, why tag me a Yoruba Actor? You see me in English films. I can mention 10 of my movies that have gone to the cinemas so why call me a Yoruba actor. I am a Nollywood actor. An African actor as a matter of facts.