On ‘Oloture’, Changing Lives Through Storytelling and Forging Ahead Amid Challenges
Whenever you come across a talent that’s incredibly authentic and awe-inspiring, it’s impossible to look past them and the gifts they’ve been blessed to share with the world and Omowunmi Dada is definitely a name that falls into that category. Having long recognised the importance of her talents and her desire to change lives, Omowunmi has made it her life’s purpose to share real, compelling and life-changing stories through her work as an actor and producer. We caught up with her to talk about her role in the groundbreaking film, ‘Oloture’, the importance of shedding light on the harrowing reality of human trafficking and more.
This year has definitely been a challenging one for many of us due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the high levels of unrest we’ve been experiencing in the country and more. What are some of the things that have helped you to find your peace and keep your mental and physical health in the best shape possible?
I love to listen to music a lot, in fact I call myself a professional bathroom singer (laughs). So I listen to good music, I read books, I love to cook as well. I surround myself with family and friends, I also love to watch movies and I love to be entertained and [work on] getting better at my craft when I’m not on set. I also try to sleep and rest a lot, I go to the spa, I get pampered, I eat good food, healthy food. I workout and I like to take walks and I realised that when I do this, I get [the chance] to see and reflect on the beautiful things around me, nature and stuff like that. And as they say, health is wealth, so I definitely make a conscious effort to take care of my mental health and of course, my physical health through the kind of food I eat and all that.
As an actor in the Nollywood industry, you’ve played a number of impactful characters including Teniola in Diamonds in the Sky, Tonye in the short film, Mirabel and more recently, Linda in Oloture. Are you intentional with the kind of roles you choose to play?
The truth is that I’m very intentional about the characters that I play. I’m very intentional because for me, like I said, acting is not just a hobby. It’s about telling stories, changing narratives and impacting lives. It’s about wanting people to become better individuals through what they watch. The arts for me is not just for entertainment. Its [purpose] is to inform, educate as well as to reform society, people’s mentalities and people’s way of life and also to help people to become better individuals. And when we see ourselves in these characters and when we see our journeys being [portrayed through] these characters, we learn that we can actually find a way out of our [current realities]. So, yes, I’m very intentional with the characters that I play and I love to see people become better by watching my craft, by seeing my art. I am keyed towards telling stories, changing narratives, reforming society and educating people while entertaining them.
“The story of Oloture is the reality of a lot of people, a lot of young people out there who are seeking greener pastures, who have no idea how to seek these greener pastures, and [as a result], they end up going through the wrong routes.”
And staying on this topic, do you feel like there’s a sort of pressure for actors to accept any role that comes their way with the goal to be regarded as an established, well known actor in the early stages of one’s career and how do you avoid succumbing to this pressure if it does indeed exist?
The first question I ask people or the first question I asked myself, which I still ask a lot of young people is, “Why do you want to be here?” The moment you answer that question, it channels your path to a lot of things. “Do you want to be here because of the fame? Do you want to be here because you just want people to know you because you’re a talent? Do you want to be here because you think celebrities have money? Do you want to be here because you’re passionate about this craft and you know that you’re talented and you want to tell stories? Do you want to be here because you want to change a narrative or because you want to help people become better individuals with your craft?” The moment you answer that question, “why?”, it shapes your path. I always tell young people that nothing good comes easy but if you have a picture of where you’re going to, it makes sense. So, yeah that pressure exists because for one, you might be broke at some point in time and the kind of projects that you want [might] not come to you, or if you’re just starting out with going for auditions, you might just do whatever it is that comes your way. You might be pressured to do any kind of project as long filmmakers get to see your talent and see what stuff you’re made of. If no one knows you or knows how talented you are, you need to show filmmakers or producers or directors your talent but when you’re starting out, you should have an idea of what kind of filmmakers you want to work with. You have to be intentional from the beginning and whatever it is that you do, always give it your best because you never know who is watching.
Let’s talk about your latest project, Oloture. It’s about a journalist who goes undercover as a sex worker to expose the harrowing underworld of human trafficking and the realities of the numerous women who fall victim to these situations. Personally, why do you think this story, this film was such an important one that needed to be shared at this point in time?
There was no better time to tell the story of Oloture than right now. It is one story and one film that I am super excited about [being a part of]. The truth is that, in the world that we live in, people have died through human trafficking and illegal migration. The story of Oloture is the reality of a lot of people, a lot of young people out there who are seeking greener pastures, who have no idea how to seek these greener pastures, and [as a result], they end up going through the wrong routes. Someone says to them, “Once you do this, you’ll get a better life” and then, they do those things and it blows up in their faces and some of them lose their lives. [Right now], someone, somewhere is saving money to go to Europe the wrong way, not certain of whether they’re going to die or not. So this is the time to tell this story, this is the time to educate people, because [we need] to curb human trafficking, prostitution and so much more.
Playing the role of Linda and being a part of this film, did you feel a sense of responsibility or a duty to tell the stories of the women who experience such situations and conditions in real life?
Yes I did, because out there, there are many Lindas. There are many people like Linda out there that want to create a better life for themselves and for their family and they will do anything in order to create that better life, thereby going into prostitution, [ending up] being trafficked and risking their lives. So it was a point of duty to say that “You might think this journey will be easy and all, but it might not be easy, it won’t be easy”. It was a point of duty to tell Linda’s story and I know that a Linda will watch Oloture and change her mind about the decision she’s making and [move towards] making the right decisions. A Linda out there will watch [this film] and realise that she can do better with her life and understand that, as much as you want to create a better life for your family, you can do it the right way. So, yes, it was a point of duty for me because I want to change narratives, I want to tell stories, I want to help reform people’s [lives] and their mindsets.
“[Being] an actor is about playing the character and staying true to them, it’s about telling the story and telling it right.”
And I can imagine how mentally, emotionally and physically demanding it was to play such a role. What were the most challenging aspects about bringing that character to life for you?
Getting into Linda’s head and becoming the character was physically and mentally draining. There were times when I would get back to my hotel room after shooting and I would cry thinking to myself that, this is the reality of someone’s life. Playing Linda, I had to do a lot of research and I spoke with some prostitutes to [find out] what goes on in their heads and I realised that, in their minds, they’re justified by the things they do, some of them have literally given up on life. Linda was a good girl but life put her in a bad situation. She just wanted a better life for her family and she would do anything to make that happen, to see smiles on her sister’s and mother’s faces. Getting into Linda’s [mindset] was very, very demanding, I had to shed every bit of “Omowunmi”. I also had to learn to smoke, for example and I don’t smoke in real life so there were times when I would get to my hotel and throw up, I would feel sick because it wasn’t me, but I just had to keep going. So it was physically draining for me and also because of the places we shot at and the conditions we experienced but the good thing was that we had a great production team who managed everything well. I also had to learn to speak Bini which was very difficult to learn. But I loved the [whole] experience and I would take up the challenge over and over and over again because for me, what’s the essence of my art, what’s the essence of my gift, what’s the essence of my talent, if I can’t use it to tell a story and help someone to become a better person or make the right decisions? This is my calling, this is my purpose. As long as people’s lives are becoming better through the stories I tell and the characters I portray, I’m fulfilled and I’m happy.
Having worked on films like Oloture, Moremi in which you played a boxer and many more, it’s safe to say that you’re not one to shy away from taking on challenging roles. What gives you that inspiration and that strength, not just physically, but mentally to overcome any challenges you face and put all of yourself into every role you play?
What motivates me, what keeps me going? I would say it’s the story. I say to myself that I have to tell the story of a character’s life because it will motivate someone out there and help them to become a better individual. It will change the narrative for someone, it will help the world to see the beauty of Africa and appreciate our stories. So what motivates me is the character’s story and I don’t back down from challenges. For example, when we were shooting Moremi and [I had] to spar with a professional boxer, I cried because, for the first time in my life, I did not have the skill to defend myself. For the first time in my life, I was in a space where I knew absolutely nothing, I couldn’t defend myself, I was helpless. I cried, saying I wasn’t going to play the role anymore. And then right there, I said [to myself], “Omowunmi, has there ever been anything you’ve backed down from? Why should this be the first?” and I told myself that “I’m not going to back down, I won’t be a failure at this, I have never been a failure at anything and it’s not going to start with this”. So I wiped my tears and decided that I would tell the character’s story and give it whatever it took even if it stressed and hurt me. At the end of the day, as an actor, you’re not playing yourself. It’s about playing the character and staying true to them, it’s about telling the story and telling it right. You need to understand that when you’re acting and you’re telling a story, your body is no longer yours, your body is now for the character. Even when it hurts, even when you have to do something extra, something vigorous, even if you have to get into a different mental space, you just have to do it.
I know that film production is another field that you’re passionate about working in, alongside your career as an actor. Are you currently working on any projects as a producer or planning to do a lot more of it in the near future?
Yes, definitely. I partnered with a friend of mine, Judith Audu and Uyoyou Adia and we created a movie called The Sessions, which is coming out soon. I was an executive producer on the project, and the moment I read the script, the moment Judith sent me the script, I knew that this was a story that I wanted to be a part of, not just as an actor, but [in its entirety]. So that’s something that I’m doing and I’m also working on my own personal project.
“I believe that there is nothing like individual success if success is not collective. I’m only [truly] successful if everyone around me is successful.”
You also do some humanitarian work and you’re currently building your NGO, “The Omowunmi Dada Foundation”. Can you talk a bit more about that and what inspired you to start it?
What inspired me to start the foundation is my love for humanity and taking care of people. I don’t make noise about it but I do a lot of stuff like that. I cater to people, people’s needs, pay school fees and things like that so I decided to put a structure to it. The truth is that all fingers are not equal and sometimes people just don’t have the means to get a better life for themselves so The Omowunmi Dada Foundation [will serve] as a home for people who are going through certain situations, it’s a [means] to help people. Also, I’ve been an ambassador for children with cancer and similar conditions so I wanted to take up the cause and provide support for people with certain medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, and [conditions] that people are stigmatised for having. I want to let people know that cancer is not a death sentence or that epilepsy is a disorder that disrupts [regular activity] in the brain, it’s not a spiritual thing, people don’t have to be stigmatised for it. The fact that someone has HIV isn’t the end of the world, it doesn’t mean that they should be stigmatised. So we’re going to be supporting people with health issues and also catering to people’s needs and making conscious efforts to help people live better lives.
When the years have gone by and you look back on your career, what kind of impact do you want to say you made?
I want to be remembered as a talent who enlightened people, gave hope to people, motivated people to make the right decisions, someone who shared our African stories with the world and helped with reforming the narrative, the African narrative. Someone who impacted lives physically and [through] my craft and used the power of art, creativity, and the African culture to change the world. So every movie is a unique opportunity for me to raise social consciousness and fuel hope, truth and justice. I also believe that there is nothing like individual success if success is not collective. As a part of society, I’m only [truly] successful if everyone around me is successful. This is why I’m really, really keen on humanity. The success of Africa or another African’s story is also my success.
Images by Mofe Bamuyiwa