You know that Old Hollywood quality that people often speak of in the past tense when referring to the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn and the likes? The confident glide, the million-watt smile, the
unmistakable laugh? Well, there’s a certain Nollywood star who still possesses all that and more. Her name? Joke Silva. With a career spanning 36 years, beginning with her role as Roli in the series Second Chance; an adaptation of the classic English comedy, Mind Your Language, Joke has had the world of entertainment – theatre, TV and film – transfixed and in love with every character she has portrayed, and she is showing no signs of slowing down! Hear Word, the award-winning play written and directed by theatre powerhouse, Ifeoma Fafunwa, was the first, and as yet only, Nigerian play to be performed at the American Repertory Theatre; she has also continued her work in film and television.
Yet, the veteran thespian, even with the glide of self-assuredness and self-worth, oozes an astonishing
level of humility that many others can only feign. Walking into the space on the day of our shoot, Joke Silva
was the vision of grace- warm and generous with everyone on set in equal measure; she was amped up and
ready to go. There was no telling how the photos would look or how the ideas that we had so ambitiously put together may be translated, but once the hair and make-up was done and the first outfit was on, ever-the- performer, Joke Silva embodied the role of Nollywood Icon ready for her close-up! What a dream of a day it was to shoot with her and watch her come alive in so many unique and exciting looks and poses. (Keep your eye out for the smoothest shaku shaku your eyes did see).
In our interview, and amid her signature guttural laughter and deep reflections, Joke speaks very candidly
about her almost four-decades-long acting career. With over half of her life spent as a performer, the
anecdotes, lessons and experiences are rich and almost limitless. It has not been an easy sail for this
thespian but through the highs and the lows she has maintained relevance in an industry that has become
more intensely competitive.
In this interview, Joke opens up on rejection, body shaming, ageing and what she wished she knew as
young actor….ISOKEN BELO-OSAGIE
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING- IFEOMA ODOGWU
PHOTOGRAPHED BY- FELIX CROWN
WARDROBE- GREY,FRANKIE&CO,EMMAN ZAZAR,JOKETADE
SHOES- POLO AVENUE
MAKE-UP- MARY JANE OHOBU FOR ZARON
HAIR- ROYCE SAMUEL (CEEZYSTYLING)
HAIR EXTENSION- EXPRESSION
FASHION ASSISTANT- TOSIN ABIODUN
You’ve said before that “theatre is not dying”; but I think theatre has suffered a major set back.
Theatre actually went nowhere. In the sense that theatre has always been in Nigeria, it just went into hiatus. There was a disruption because of technology, and the home video era made it possible for more people to tell different kinds of stories. It was also much cheaper with celluloid, which was the medium then.
What a journey you’ve had. 36 years in this Nollywood industry!
People just assume that we are all a product of Nollywood rather than properly differentiating it. There’s theatre, television and film. Nollywood for me is Nigerian cinema, which is an aspect of African film and world cinema. Nollywood and television are different, likewise Nollywood and theatre. TV actors are mainly [on the] small screen and while some of them translate to the big screen, others do not. That does not make them a product of Nollywood either. People tend to categorise theatre and television under Nollywood simply because it just happens to be the biggest of all the brands, and it is acceptable in ‘‘Nigerian English.’’
But you are someone who has traversed the entire gamut of TV, theatre, film and radio. Tell us what some of the high points and low points have been as an actor?
I’ve had several high points but I think one of them would have to be when I jointly produced a show called Digging for Gold, which I wrote and Nigerianised from Oscar Wilde’s An ideal Husband and co-produced with my husband [award-winning actor, Olu Jacobs]. I directed and played the lead role. It was so successful. We had people coming back to watch it five to eight times, but it was a lot of hard work. We raised the money and we paid back investors from that
same production. Though it was such a hard slug, I think it was the first time we ran a show commercially without sponsorship. We only had our investors, tickets and advertisements and we also ran the show for a whole month at the theatre.
Since then you’ve produced and self-funded a number of plays, most recently Heartbeat. I am surprised that it wasn’t listed as your highest point, but then maybe we are looking at it retrospectively. How would you rate that production? Heartbeat, when we finally got it right, was a brilliant idea and highly exceptional. We got it right when we did the second run and I think it was [specifically] the last two performances of the second run at Terra Kulture.
It was such an intense musical, the scripting was good; the lighting, the dancing and the acting… But what do you think attributed to the poor attendance?
The attendance was poor and I take total responsibility for that. I am a useless person at marketing; I am always so focused on getting the product right so I can get exactly this kind of feedback you’re giving me; that it was awesome. That’s where my talent lies and not in marketing. I honestly did not realise that the time had gone, so much so that by the time we started marketing, we had lost so many days. I am still in debt from Heartbeat Part 1. The second part is sorted but you know as a creative you don’t get discouraged by any event. Content like Heartbeat can go very far, which was one of the reasons why we created it, but one thing I have learnt from that show, and the nature of theatre, is that you must have all your funding upfront because once you start production, marketing, commercials and every other thing follows suit. It was a very expensive lesson but I’m happy with it because this was a project I had seen ten years before now and I knew it just needed to be given life.
You’ve been in the industry for over three decades and you’ve certainly paid your dues. Now there are a lot of young people with big dreams and high hopes of being successful in a short period of time and that exposes them to a variety of things they’re not quite prepared for: Being offered roles in exchange for sex. Did you ever face that?
Fortunately, I can say that I have never had to sleep with anybody to get a role.
Did anyone ever proposition you?
Yes of course, but it was never to get a role. It was like they were just interested in me as a person. It was more of a, “Let’s wrap up production” thing. It was just insane and didn’t make sense especially as I was also very young [when I started]. Sadly, those advances were by people who were elders. You earlier raised a question about young upcoming actors wanting to hit it big in just a few years and the lamentations if that doesn’t happen. There was something I read in John Gielgud’s biography that, “It takes 14 years to get recognised as an actor after drama school.” Some people get lucky but they are in the 1%. In other words, it takes quite a while to get recognition. What is important is consistency. I also think that when someone offers you a role but insists on sleeping with you, it’s your choice how you respond. But it is quite risky going that route because there’s no guarantee that you will get the role.
Sometimes the desperation for roles gets to a point that it is the person who needs the role that is offering sex. If you do accept to offer sex for roles, please don’t turn around and say you were used.
It’s also a need to keep up with the Jones’ isn’t it? Presenting a lifestyle on social media that far exceeds their real life budget…
Don’t be deceived by what goes on on social media. Obviously there is something else such actors are doing, perhaps other businesses to shore up their income.
The reality is that on the earning capacity of an actor in Nigeria, you cannot have that sort of lifestyle in this economy. Yes part of our industry is to have glamour but also the other part is to have reality.
Talking about the obsession with youth in the definition of modern beauty, the extent with which people are trying to fit in, people going under the knife, body shaming… What are your thoughts on cosmetic enhancement?
Any kind of obsession is a no no! But one thing I know for sure is that I will still go under the knife to get the body I want. (Laughs). I will not touch my face and my legs but the rest; my hips, my stomach and every other thing goes.
Your self-assuredness never suggested that you would consider cosmetic surgery. What sparked the consideration?
Well because there are just some clothes I would love to wear that I cannot wear. I think that’s the reason for me because I cannot do all the “body shapers” stuff I see other women do. For me its punishment.
When is the time limit for this so that we can watch out?
You will definitely know when money is in my hand! (Laughs)
Now let’s come back to the issue of body shaming. I remember [actress] Ireti Doyle posted an experience about losing a role to someone lighter. Have you ever had that sort of body shaming on the grounds of size, colour or height?
Of course I have lost a lot of roles, not because of my colour or body but because of my face. People find it a strange face to work with. It is not your conventional fine face and in the early years I didn’t know how to handle the face and as a result of that people found it easier to use me as a character actor. I was bothered because I was being cast for “Mama” roles. At that age I was meant to be diverse in my role but I was already boxed in.
How do you deal with fans’ expectations especially when you bear the burden of being a role model?
Firstly I didn’t ask to be anybody’s role model. (Laughs). I say it all the time especially when I hear people say things like, “I can’t do this, what will my fans say” I get alarmed. I am not living my life for my fans because they are not living their lives for me. When I get destroyed living my life for them, they are the same people who will accuse me. You cannot please everyone. My life is mine to live the way I want and that way I will be able to take responsibility for my actions as long as nobody is threatened or hurt by said actions. There was a time my son was in an accident and the same week someone in my fellowship died, now at that point someone walks up to me for a selfie, and I politely declined. People tend to forget we are human beings and we have our own moments too, we have feelings. There are times we equally pass through the hurdles in life. So people need to understand it is not always sunny for actors.
What would you say is the lowest moment you have had as a woman, mother, wife and actor?
I had a lot but I don’t think any of it can be compared to the death of my first daughter. That for me is still my lowest moment. If she was alive she would have been 32 years now, she was born in 1986. Sometimes I see [people in]her age group and I remember. There is no day that passes by without me remembering. But the way God has been so gracious is that the pain is no more. The Lord has done it in such a way that there is so much laughter that has totally diminished the pain.
Let us talk about relationships. People believe that divorce rates are higher than before. Do you believe that?
First of all, I don’t think divorces are going on more than they used to. It could be that we are more aware of them because of social media. What I think really happens with celebrities is that they marry the celebrity and not the actual person and then getting into the marriage and finding out that the person they married is totally different from the celebrity they knew, the crack sets in. When you marry an image and not the actual person you are setting off with fundamental issues.
But you and uncle Olu are still “marriage goals” for many out there.
Ahhh, we thank God.
Looking back, people say there should be no room for regrets, but what are some of the things that you have done that you wish you could do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
With the benefit of hindsight, what comes to mind is that I probably would have been more involved with production in the early years than I was. It was not because I didn’t want to though, but because I was unofficially blacklisted because I dared to stand by my principles. Mine was never official though but it was done all the same and the black list lasted 3 to 4 years. I got no work and jobs stopped coming. I went into teaching and created my work. I live by my principles. I didn’t think it was right to be disrespected on a set. I mean my husband was on that set too for crying out loud! It was a total disrespect for him and myself as well and I wasn’t having that. The funny thing is the Producer involved at that time is nowhere to be found in the industry today. I take it back to the issue we had earlier. I will not castigate or judge anybody who had sex for a role but if you hold on, stay principled and trust God that one day, you
will pull through; trust me yours will surely come.