FRANCIS Odega is the sensation of the moment, and about the most popular face on television and social media. He has been in the Nigerian movie scene for over two decades but suddenly became the most talked about actor after short scenes from Welcome to South, a movie he featured in three years ago now circulated on the internet.
Popular lines from the movie like Gerarahere and WollupNigga, are being said by everyone. The slogans even bagged him an Etisalat deal.
In a chat with ENCOMIUM Weekly, the actor told us how the journey started, how the slogans were coined, and how he bagged the Etisalat deal.
How and when did the journey into acting began?
It began decades ago. When I was younger, I would always hangout with my peers, and I noticed that anything I said made them laugh. So, I deliberately started making jest of people and things around us and they were always laughing. At a point, if I coughed, they would still laugh. My friends suggested that I take comedy up because a lot of people were making money off it. So, I took up master of ceremonies for weddings and events and anytime I handled the microphone, I would be fulfilled because people must laugh. I decided to take it a step further to acting. My first audition, I wasn’t chosen. I started my acting career while I was in secondary school in Enugu. I lived very close to a television house called ABS Channel 50, Anambra Broadcasting Station then. It is now ESBN Channel 50. We lived on the station road, every day after school I found my way to the studio to watch them rehearse popular plays.
Gradually, they started giving me short roles to act, what we call waka pass. I was like that till I moved down to Lagos and started going for auditions. I went for a particular audition for a TV series, Beyond the realm, produced and directed by Ozor Amadi. A friend of mine came to the house and practically dragged me to the audition. I was tired of going for auditions and not getting picked. I grudgingly went because it was about two minutes away from my house. When we got to the venue, there were over a thousand people there. I wasn’t so optimistic on seeing the crowd. When the result came out, my name was first on the list, my friend who encouraged me to go wasn’t picked.
I started from there. I came to Lagos in 1990 and kept going for auditions. It was at PEC Repertory Theatre, that I met a lot of friends like Zitto Eze, Jude Orhorha and others. The programme was Checkmate, produced by the late Amaka Igwe, directed by Bolaji Dawodu. I was alone because I was new in Lagos and didn’t know anybody. Others were in groups discussing, Amaka Igwe walked in and recognized me immediately because we worked together in Enugu, at the television station. She came to me and said, ‘Francis, what are you doing here?’ I said I came for audition and I asked if she came for the audition too. I didn’t know it was her movie. She held me by my hand and led me to sit on the table with the panel of judges. After that, I was employed to work for Checkmate. We camped at Ikorodu. I worked with her for one year and left because I still wanted to look for greener pastures.
I went for more auditions and acted in my first movie, A Living Ghost in 1993. It was an Igbo movie. I graduated from going to auditions to being called to take up roles. Back then, there was no money. I have done a movie for N800. The highest then was N3,000 or N2,500. So, being paid N800 wasn’t so bad. It continued that way. That’s how I found myself acting. It wasn’t rosy. There were times when one would be home for one or two months with no script coming through, or you go for auditions and they select people by face instead of by performance or merit. Things have changed in Nollywood now. They now give scripts based on merit because producers want to sell their movies.
How has the experience been?
I have already told you all about my experience. Right now, a whole lot have changed. I can be in the comfort of my home and I get called for a movie. Before I venture into a movie, I see the script first. I need to know who is producing, directing and those involved. If I do not know who is involved in a movie, I might not be part of the project.
Clips from the movie, Welcome to South, has made you more popular because of your slogan, Gerarahere. How did you come about the word?
That movie was actually done three years ago. Starring me, Imeh Bishop, Dede Oneday. The story is about three friends going outside the country with the help of a common friend. When they came back, they began to speak with an accent to oppress the others. The line, Gerarahere was not in the script. The script is a guide. The script writer does not know your limitations and a good actor should be able to spice a script up as long as he doesn’t deviate from the storyline. It was South Africa we went to, and we got back speaking Americana English. What the script says is, ‘Hold on my brother, just hold on,’ but I changed it to ‘Wollup nigga wollup.’ I looked at the script and decided to give it my best. I didn’t know it was going to go viral this way. I didn’t post on Instagram and I don’t know who did. I hadn’t even joined Instagram till people started calling that I was trending on Instagram. 50 Cent even posted a video of me. I had to download and join Instagram. I thank God for His mercies. I still believe God’s Hand was involved. When God remembers one, he does wonders and God blesses who He chooses to bless. Nobody forces God to bless him or her.
Would you say the movie has changed your life career wise?
Definitely, man don blow, levels don change. It has changed everything about me. It has given me popularity and influence. More people watch me now. Everybody wants to attend to me. There are things I do before that I cannot do now, levels don change. So, you got to change with levels.
Can you tell us how you got the Etisalat deal?
I would say it was a divine intervention. I believe God’s Hand is involved. I have been praying to God for an endorsement. To answer your question, I think the deal came from the Gerarahere concept because when they called me, I never believed it was actually from them. They explained everything to me, showed me their contract forms. I looked at it, and took it to my lawyer. He looked at it and signed it. They now invited me to their events. They weaved the concept of Etisalat advert around the slogan, Gerarahere.
Talking about you being master of ceremonies.
I do corporate events. I attend my colleagues’ shows, Jlords, Koffi’s show, AY’s show and most times I handle the mic for them.
What can you say of the movie industry now compared to when you started?
Of course, when you talk about 20 years ago it is different. It is getting better, we are progressing. So far, Nollywood is second in the world. We used to be the third. Definitely, there is a tremendous improvement. We are not there yet but we are getting there. It is a gradual process and I am sure we must get there. But so far we are a force to reckon with when it comes to movies, comedy entertainment generally.
What are your plans for 2016?
I want to take the Etisalat brand and my own brand to a higher level. I signed a contract with Etisalat for one year and it is going to expire by July 2016. If it expires and they want me back, I will go there because so far, they have been treating me well. I do not want to let the cat out of the bag but when it comes out, you will be the first to know. I am working on something big that will take the internet by storm in 2016.
Is there anybody in the entertainment industry that you look forward to working with?
I can work with anybody. I do not wish to work with anybody but if the work requires me to work with someone, I will work.
Can you tell us about your family?
I am married to Eunice Chibuzor Odega. We have two children, Jewel and Success. The first is 16 and the other is 11.
Looking at 2015 in perspective, can you say it has been a great year?
The endorsement with Etisalat made my 2015 and apart from that I travelled a lot for shows and I did a movie in the US. 2015 has been so awesome that is why I say God’s Hand is involved.
Can you tell us how much the deal cost?
They did well and I must say I don’t regret signing the contract.