Veteran Nollywood actor, Alex Usifo, shot into prominence playing the tough-talking and fire-spitting Talab Abass in Zeb Ejiro’s defunct soap, Ripples, in 1988.It was a character people loved to hate. The soap ran for five years uninterrupted on The Nigerian Television Authority before it was rested in 1993. Known for his villain roles, the actor who recently bagged a PhD at 63 shows no signs of slowing down just yet. He opened up on his unfinished business at the SS Peter and Paul Seminary in Ibadan with PREMIUM TIMES in this interview.
PT: Tell us about your foray into Nollywood?
Alex: Before I became an actor, I worked as an Operations Assistant at NTA Benin then known as Midwest Television. I sold insurance policies with Crusader Insurance in the early 1980s. My acting career kicked off in 1984 when I played a major role in the tele-movie ‘The Return of the Native’, produced by Ray Yusuf for NTA, Ilorin. After then, I played lead roles in ‘Natas’ and ‘Two People’ on LTV 8 produced by Baba Babs Fashina. I partook in NTA, weekly series ‘At Your Service’. I was also a part of NTA productions: ‘Echoes of Life’, and ‘Turning Wheel’. All of these took place between 1984 and 1987.
PT: You are best known for playing villain roles. Did this happen by chance?
Alex: I wouldn’t say my very first role was a tough one. The late uncle Jab Adu invited to star in his production, Turning Wheel. That particular role was Vendetta. So, I played the villain. That was the first bad role and it inspired me before I landed the role of Talab Abass in Ripples.
PT: Not much has been heard about you lately.
Alex: As you grow in your career, you have to be sure of any production or project you are involved in. Then of course I have also had to disagree with the fees I am being offered. At the end of the day the producer opts for someone who he can pay lesser.
PT: Have you starred in any projects lately?
Alex: I have starred in some projects like a a web series titled Dust to Dawn. I have also featured in quite a number of films that are yet to be released. What they (producers) do these days is that we the actors only know about the working titles. So by the time they are release the movie it’s a different title altogether. The producers believe that they have paid you and you have played your part so whatever they do with the movie is their business.
PT: Some of your colleagues have shot their own films. Have you thought along that line?
Alex: The thing is that I actually took a break to go back to school, I am surprised that a lot of people are not aware of this. Perhaps, it is because I am not crazy about publicity. Unfortunately, my profession doesn’t permit that but when it comes to my private life, I love to keep it private. I went to Babcock University where I studied for a PhD in Information Resources Management and I was there for five years. I graduated in 2016.
PT: Why did you decide to go study for a PhD?
Alex: Education is a necessity and knowledge is something you must keep seeking. So when people ask me why I studied for a PHD I just wonder why people ask that kind of questions. I studied English at Ambrose Ali University (1st Degree), and bagged a Masters in Social Work at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomosho. The whole idea is to make me a better human being and I didn’t study for a PhD to intimidate anybody.
PT: Did you take on any movie roles while in school?
Alex: Yes, I took some jobs but shied away from roles that would take a lot of my time and affect my studies. This is why I starred in few movies. I also had to assist some people in directing their films in the capacity of an assistant director.
PT: Will you ever lecture?
Alex: Yes, I have the tendency to teach except that I don’t want to be a full-time lecturer because it can’t pay me. I like to be a responsible lecturer because I don’t want to be a lecturer who will be shooting a film when I am supposed to be in class.
PT: What are your thoughts on the tax break, which the Federal Government recently granted the creative industry?
Alex: I don’t really like discussing what I don’t understand fully. It will affect my industry positively but again I have to have a sound knowledge of what it means else I will be talking off point.
PT: Having been in the industry for three decades, what is your assessment of Nollywood?
Alex: The same problem affecting Nigeria also affects the various guilds that exist in Nollywood especially the Actors Guild of Nigeria. I think as artists we must be non-partisan in the first place. When people vie for positions within Nollywood, they are not thinking about the association or guild, but thinking of themselves. There is also the issue of favouritism where certain roles are preserved for certain actors. For instance, I can be made to play the role of a gate man because it is an important character in a film. However, some producers will rather cast their personal assistants or drivers to play the role because they think it’s a trivial role. A good actor is expected to be versatile and not stereotyped.
PT: Have you played your best role yet as an actor?
Alex: I have not really played my best role yet. If I were to cast myself in a film, I will play different from the role of a villain, which I am known for. So, I think I would rather want to be a different person and maybe play a ‘normal’ human being who is not just wicked to people.
PT: What is your most memorable movie role?
Alex: I don’t think I have yet and like I said I have not really seen my best so it is difficult for me to think in this light. I love acting and sometimes money determines the sort of roles I play.
PT: You haven’t courted any controversy in your career. What is the secret?
Alex: I am a very careful person and frankly speaking I was actually in the catholic seminary because I wanted to be a priest-SS Peter and Paul Seminary in Bodija, in 1978. I want to believe that also has a role to play in my personality. So, I avoid unnecessary issues that will not smear my reputation.
PT: Why didn’t you follow through?
Alex: Along the line, I realised that being a Catholic priest would have caged me. I didn’t know that aspect because Catholic bishops are very powerful; a Catholic bishop can transfer a priest to any part of the country whether he likes it or not you like it or not. When I was in the major seminary I acted a lot in the church dramas and we were trained by the late Zulu Sofola . I wouldn’t have been as free as I am right now so I dropped out. I didn’t wait to be ordained.I read Philosophy and Logic, but for personal reasons I did not stay in the Theology world.
PT: Did parents support the idea of your becoming a priest?
Alex: When I went into the seminary, I had lost my mother. But when she was alive, she suspected that I longed to become a priest. So, she was always saying things that would discourage me. But, when she died I became somewhat free. My father didn’t like the idea either but he didn’t have a choice. In retrospect, I would have preferred working for God instead.
PT: So, if you weren’t an actor…
Alex: I like law but it’s just that I tend towards pleasing God. So maybe I would have continued as a priest.
PT: Does this unconsciously affect the sort of roles you play?
Alex: Well, it does especially when it comes to man, woman roles. When it comes down to my playing a love scene, there are some things I know that I won’t do. So, of course I can kiss if it is absolutely necessary to do so in a film, but I won’t want to kiss in a movie if I had my way. I will rather avoid such roles, I can peck or hug, I can do all that but when it comes down to serious romantic scenes, these are roles I can’t play. I won’t be comfortable playing such a role.