In 2020, Netflix reasserted its commitment to developing more original African content by signing a multi-title deal with Nigerian producer Mo Abudu of Ebonylife Studios. Two years later, we have the newly released Blood Sisters, the first Nigerian original TV series on the streaming platform.
The four-part series opens with an intense flashback scene that sets the tone for the rest of the series; two women digging a shallow grave by the side of the road, then rolling a decapitated body wrapped in bloody sheets. We quickly discover that these two women are the ‘blood sisters’ — best friends Sarah (Ini Dima Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime) who take matters into their hands on the former’s big wedding day.
A series of unfortunate events follow after Kemi accidentally kills the charming yet secretly abusive groom Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon) while trying to stop him from hurting the bride. Created by Temidayo Makanjuola initially as a 13-part idea, the limited series tackles domestic violence, abuse, addiction and toxic families.
Away from the Blood Sisters, the series focuses on the groom’s dysfunctional family headed by the worst movie mother in recent Nollywood history brilliantly played by Kate Henshaw. With the help of a fixer (Ramsey Nouah), they desperately try to mask their issues from the world. To the public, the Ademolas are the family to be with their thriving business, wealth and class.
Gabriel Afolayan plays Femi Ademola, the oldest child. He is envious of the family’s golden boy and wants to take over the family business with the support of his scheming and calculating wife. Genoveva Umeh is the youngest sibling and only daughter named Timeyin Ademola. She is easily the breakout star as she takes on the role of the troubled last child constantly trying to prove herself to a family who refuses to see her as anything but an addict.
Culture Custodian got to chat with these three at the Ebonylife Studios here in Lagos, Nigeria. In this exclusive interview, we discuss what drew them to the project and what it takes to play such nuanced characters.
Our conversation is documented below and has been slightly edited for clarity.
How did the role find you and what was your reaction to the script?
Deyemi: I have had the unique opportunity to have worked with Ebonylife a lot. I think Blood Sisters will be my 12th EbonyLife production. It’s a relationship that has been built for years. What I love about Ebonylife is that they don’t try to box you into one thing. I’ve had the opportunity to play different kinds of characters. So, when this role came up, I was given the option to read for it. I fell in love with the character. I think every human, especially us men are very flawed. To play another flawed man, to get into the mind of another man and figure out what his motivations are whilst not judging, but empathising and saying, ‘Look, everybody goes through stuff, and that causes them to act in a certain type of way.’ That journey was what made me fall in love with the character.
Gabriel: For me, it was Aunty Mo. She reached out and said I should come around. I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ I saw the script and fell for it. There was a lot in there. When you guys get to see it, you will see what I am talking about. It was the story that sold it. I love the idea of how this whole theme hasn’t been talked about a lot — sibling rivalry and wanted it to be the preacher for that. So, that was the attraction.
Genoveva: I was at EbonyLife Creative Academy where Kenneth Gyang saw my work. They were struggling to cast for Timeyin. He mentioned me to Mo. I came in for an audition two days later and got the job six days later. I can’t believe I’m doing it. It was an amazing, amazing, thrilling experience.
Speaking of your characters, how did you prepare for the role? Deyemi, you once ate raw pepper for a movie, what did you guys do this time?
Deyemi: For me, preparing for Kola was as physical as it was psychological, it was equally both. Getting into the mind of this character, I saw some things that I understood. We all get to different crossroads in our lives, and then we decide to either go left or right. I saw some crossroads that I got to; that Kola got to, and while I chose to go left, he chose to go right. So, I understood that it is a decision that you make at the end of the day. Physically, I was working out for a period. I work out normally, but then I went intense. I picked up boxing just to get the level of aggression on. I remember I was constantly in pain and that helped me get into that state of mind that I needed to be in.
Gabriel: Going through that was to go through all homes, trying to check what’s happening within the society. Society sets the standard and everybody wants to match up, even when you don’t have the capacity to or can’t even respect what you have. You’re looking at someone else as a template to live your life. It’s a crazy thing. He is a laidback guy, who just wants to do something simple and enjoy small money. Then there is an energy that says, ‘no, get more, you can be better.’ That’s my family now, our family becomes extended so that’s it for me.
Genoveva: I had to get into the mind of an addict. So, I did a lot of research and read a lot about how addictions come along. The reasons people stay addicted and this lifelong condition that somebody has to deal with for the course of their lives. What we see with Timeyin is that she lacks this family support so it was easy to play her from a place of love, because she is just somebody looking for love. And when she doesn’t get that from her family, where’s she gonna go? Narcotics. I love a challenge and the fact that I had to play on my impulses imagining how I would feel if somebody called me useless. That’s what I did with Timeyin. At the Academy, we were taught something called Alba Emoting where you’re no longer just feeding off of your past pain. You play based on what it is and what is happening. It helped a lot.
Blood Sisters has some tough scenes to watch and probably difficult to act as well. How did you get through those tough days on set?
Deyemi: There’s a scene I play with Ini where we see Kola just lose it. I remember when I was sure that we were done, I just went back into my room and I cried. It was tough. You’ve been trained your whole life not to have that level of aggression against a woman. I felt like my skin was crawling throughout that process. By the time I got into action, there was nothing, I was Kola. But when I came out of it, something had hit me.
Gabriel: E plenty o. It’s a job and you don’t expect to have fun all the way. What we do is represent a situation. To do that, you have to be in a headspace where you’re concentrating and doing all sorts and it doesn’t come cheap.
Genoveva: I think my hardest day was filming this scene in rehab. It’s a shower scene and she’s surrounded by a bunch of females. We shot that scene for four hours. It was daunting, physically because I had little to nothing on. Also, because of how toxic it was and I felt the energy of that space. I felt so alone like Timeyin would feel based on the fact that they just tossed her in there and her family has left her. It was a very hard day. My producers consoled me and made sure I was okay, which was nice. But it was a tough, tough shoot. I remember crying after a scene and I had to call Director B. I was like, ‘I can’t believe we just shot this scene.’ It was the club scene. I respect my body. I respect myself. I had to play Timeyin and she didn’t quite have that energy. I remember calling and saying, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe I did that.’ He was so helpful on the phone. I remember that moment. It was significant.
The series explores domestic abuse, violence, dysfunctional families and various socioeconomic groups within the Nigerian context. What do you want people to take from the project?
Deyemi: Essentially what we’re going to have is millions of people that will identify character instances that they relate to whether personally or they know people going through that. There’s nothing more powerful than storytelling that tells your story. I really respect these guys and I think one of the exciting things that I get to do as an actor is getting to work with some of the most talented people in the world. This Nigerian film industry has some of the most talented actors in the world.
Genoveva: It’s promising for the Nigerian industry and promising for the audience as well to learn from these characters.
Blood Sisters is currently streaming on Netflix.