Ibrahim Yekini, the Nigerian actor who is popularly known as Itele d Icon, has opened up about his life.
The actor tells MOBOLA SADIQ about his days as a boxer, how he struggled to make a name in the movie industry and other issues.
What piqued your interest in acting?
In 1997, I met a man called Folorunsho Adejobi, and told him that I would like to join his acting academy. I stayed with him for three years and graduated in 2000. I went on to produce my first movie in 2004. Acting has been a blessing to me. I discovered that acting was my path and I am passionate about it.
What are some of the things you enjoy as an actor?
Being an actor has some interesting advantages. Firstly, it gives one an identity. People trust me with contracts because I am a known face in the industry. Acting has opened many doors for me. However, everything with advantages also have disadvantages. My profession has made me very cautious of where I go and how I comport myself. It is so bad that when a motorist hits my car, I cannot argue because passers-by may recognise me.
You were a boxer before you became an actor. Why did you leave that profession?
Yes, I was a skilled boxer before I joined the movie industry. I started boxing through someone who was like an elder brother to me. He liked me a lot and I often went to the gymnasium with him. At that time, all I wanted was to be a professional boxer. I once fought at Rowe Park in Lagos Island—a hub for boxers in those days. I fought at different tournaments because I wanted to be popular. I was a ring fighter though, not a street fighter. Unfortunately, I discovered that some people were engaged in internal politics and that spurred my decision to be an actor. When I started my acting career, I was still fighting but I stopped after a particularly embarrassing incident with a fan. My godfather advised me to stop and concentrate on acting. I had never lost a fight during my fighting days. I would have been a professional boxer if not that I was not earning enough money.
Tell us about your background.
I really do not like to talk about my family. I was born in Bariga, Lagos State. I am a father and a husband. I attended both primary and secondary schools in Kano State. I still want to get a university degree. It is never too late.
Do you think not having a university education robbed you of some opportunities?
Honestly, I don’t think not having a university degree robbed me of anything. I think the most important result of education is communication and I can communicate well. However, I am not justifying not having a university degree. That is why I want to get one as soon as possible. If I don’t tell people that I did not go to a tertiary institution, they would not know. But, I don’t like to tell lies. I will not claim what I don’t have because I want to package myself as a popular actor. When graduates or intellectuals praise me, I marvel because of my level of education. Secretly, I also wish that I was as educated as they are. Thankfully, I attended a film school that refined and sharpened my skills. I attended lectures like any regular student and I also own a film school called Icon School of Performing Arts. I must stress that it is important for an aspiring actor to attend a film school or academy. My school has churned out about 30 graduates. I taught them what I had learnt over the years.
Have you ever felt underprivileged because you didn’t come from a wealthy background?
I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I have never thought of myself as being underprivileged. I have never been bothered about not being from a wealthy family. The success one makes out of life is not determined by one’s background. My life is a proof of that; even though I am still a work in progress. I am a product of grace because if I was born into a wealthy family and I was not knowledgeable, the money would be a waste. I also don’t have a godfather in the industry.
Some actors rise through godfathers and other connections for fear of randy filmmakers and directors. What’s your take on that?
Firstly, I would like to say that some actors became victims because they tried to cut corners. The major problem is that up-and-coming actors are not patient enough to go through the process and follow rules. So, they fall victim of randy directors. If one goes through a good film school, one would have established a level of familiarity with industry players. I have painstakingly kept a clean record as a filmmaker and actor, so I do not support these acts. One’s victory would be sweeter if one does not cut corners. Some do not have any formal training but they would lobby for movie roles. In that case, why won’t they fall victim to such unscrupulous elements. There are some avoidable troubles if one does not jump the queue. Patience eventually pays off.
What are some of the things that have helped your career?
I have won several awards by the grace of God and one key thing that has helped my growth is hard work and loyalty. I have been loyal to everyone I have worked with, especially veterans in the industry. I personally generate designs for my movie posters because I want my work to be unique. I also do not believe in joining a caucus to gain attention in the movie industry. If one is in a caucus and one is not loyal, one still won’t be successful. Loyalty does not mean one has to be a praise singer. It simply means that one works with love and humility, and don’t backstab one’s colleagues.
Some of your colleagues have praised your directing skills. What do you do differently?
Being a good filmmaker is not a function of how educated one is. Movies are about mirroring life. If one did not attend a tertiary institution but one is knowledgeable about life, one would make a fine movie producer and director. I have passed through the school of life, so I know what I am doing. Secondly, I am surrounded by learned people and that has fine-tuned my skills. I was trained by Don Richard and he is good at what he does. I train myself by attending courses online too. I am also naturally gifted, and directing comes easily for me.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you started your career?
The first movie I produced was successful but it came with a price. During the production, a very expensive piece of equipment got damaged and I could not afford it. I cried to God for help the night of the incident and I asked Him if I would succeed in the movie industry. I had to work as a bricklayer for three months to get money to replace the equipment. It was a very tough one for me because it was my first project. It was certainly a big challenge for me.
Did you face any form of rejection when you joined Nollywood?
After the release of my first movie, I can safely say that about 40 per cent of the audience liked my work and accepted me. But interestingly, the movie industry did not accept me and that almost got me distracted and discouraged. Nobody called me for jobs. I produced over five movies before I was offered my first movie role. However, I refused to give up. I just kept pushing out my work. As a matter of fact, my nickname ‘Itele’ was the title of the first movie I produced. I started out as a movie producer and I was also acting in my films.
How did you get the capital to produce many films at the beginning of your career?
I had saved up some money before I joined the movie industry. After graduating from the film academy, I was ‘hustling’ and saving as much money as I could. Also, I made some money from my first movie production that boosted my finances.
Some actors have complained about poor remuneration. Does that affect you too?
When I started acting in other people’s movies, the money I was paid was ‘very’ poor. I’m emphasising the adverb, ‘very’ because it was that bad. But, I accepted it because I wanted to be known. I believe most actors started earning small before they became successful.
Does being an actor make life easier for you?
Yes, being an actor has made my life easier, interesting and adventurous.
How would you rate the quality of Yoruba films?
I am an actor, not a Yoruba actor. I have featured in both Yoruba and English movies. As for the quality of movies in Nollywood, I believe we are doing well, compared to when I started. The quality of our movies is becoming more impressive by the day. I also wish that more people would invest in Nollywood. The industry is growing at a fast rate and investors would further boost the industry. We are now making movies for cinemas, both home and abroad, and for other platforms such as Netflix.
At what point do you think you would be fulfilled in your career?
I think I would attain fulfilment when I am featured in a Hollywood movie. I look forward to the day that I would act with English actor, Idris Elba ( who is my inspiration) or Bollywood actor and producer, Shah Khan. I would also be fulfilled when I have mentees that break records, locally and internationally.
What do you do when you’re not acting?
Acting is the only thing that I do for a living. I am a director, producer, actor and scriptwriter. All these consume time. I am also an ambassador for some reputable brands. Acting pays my bills and gives me a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Everything I have today was got from the proceeds of my movies, and the roles I was paid for. I have worked hard. If not for the situation of this country, I should have acquired at least 10 houses in (the highbrow area of) Lekki, Lagos State. I have produced more than 30 movies.
Do you think some people still undermine your capabilities?
I believe a lot of people appreciate my creativity and skills. I also think it is normal to have critics who do not appreciate my work. However, that only drives me to give my best. I don’t want everyone to praise me. If everybody is applauding one, it means they are not telling one the truth. I want reviews that would challenge me to do better than my last project.
Who inspires you in Nollywood?
I am inspired by veteran actor, Antar Laniyan. He is my mentor.
What are your hobbies?
I like to spend time with my family when I don’t have any movie engagement. I like to watch football matches. I would describe myself as a football fanatic.
What football club do you support?
I am a die-hard Chelsea fan. Whenever my team loses, I am always cranky. My wife does not like to talk to me when my team has lost a match.
What movie roles would you reject?
I cannot act gay roles, or kiss a man. It gives me the chills.
How does your wife react to stories of you being romantically linked with other people?
When God gives one a wife, one would not have any problem. My wife knows that I don’t lie, so she believes I would be truthful to her when the chips are down.
How do you handle female fans?
God has been helping me in that regard. My female fans are my real fans. They are the salt of the earth, like the Bible says. I handle their affection with wisdom.