Interview: The Arrival of Nonso Bassey

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Nonso Bassey is in a sequestered part of his Lagos apartment, wearing a branded La Femme Anjola T-shirt and turquoise fila (hat traditionally worn by the Yoruba people), which he fiddles with often. “You have not even complimented this my cap,” Bassey says to me as he once again toys with the cap. He is being playful. I compliment his looks. He gives a satisfying laugh before switching back to serious interview mode. I ask him if he realizes he will be in contention during the award season, but the question seems to catch him by surprise. He knows his performance in La Femme Anjola, Mildred Okwo’s Nigerian reinvention of classic Noir, is terrific, but he hasn’t given any serious thoughts to the award seasons. (Cut to a few months later and he’s in contention for Best Actor at the Africa Movie Academy Award, (AMAA).

“That [winning] would be nice,” he says, beaming at the thought of it. But he is staying grounded, he tells me he isn’t “overly moved by praise so he isn’t crushed by criticism,” explaining that his motivations go beyond recognition. “I am doing this because this is what I love to do,” he offers frankly. “I quit my job for this. I moved from Calabar to Lagos for this. So if I’m not getting the awards, I’m not going to stop doing this, but it is icing on the cake.”

In La Femme Anjola, Bassey plays Dejare Johnson, a stockbroker who’s seeking more out of life; he considers his sweet girlfriend boring and his job stable. Dejare wants a high, but he gets an overdose when he lands a side-gig playing sax at a bar. There, he meets Anjola, the band’s lead and the boss’s wife, a femme fatale played by Nollywood veteran Rita Dominic. Anjola has an effect on Dejare, and he soon starts playing more sex than sax. As he falls deeper for her, she opens up about her struggles with her abusive husband, then convinces him to help her escape the marriage.

We talk for over an hour one sunny afternoon about his career, La Femme Anjola and the dark places Dejare Johnson took him to.

Mildred Okwo likes to refer to you as a singer and actor, not a singer-turned-actor. Which one came first?

Professionally, I definitely started as a singer. I didn’t think I would act until my 40s. Even as a child, I knew that this was the stuff I wanted to do because I grew up watching Michael Jackson and Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments. These were the two people I looked up to growing up.  

When did acting become the main guy? 

I started acting in church drama groups and school groups—primary, secondary, and even university. I did a play in church in 2014; it was written by Shayo, who heads SUSS Productions that brought Inspector K. She put on this fantastic play; that’s when I knew I probably would start this thing a lot earlier than 40. I don’t know why that was my plan. Then in late 2016, I got a role in a TV film called Wurukum Roundabout; after that, I did Battleground, a TV novella, for two years. And then La Femme Anjola, which is like my first big role.

 How did La Femme Anjola happen?

The director found me on Africa Magic’s  Battleground and reached out to me. She had been looking for someone for this role; I think it had gone through a few other actors, but it just didn’t work out. Then she saw me, and I supposed that was it. She reached out to me— I love and respect her work immensely—so when she said, “work dey, are you interested?” Of course, I said yes!

 Why do you think she picked you?

I think I fit the description of what she was looking for. Also, I think she saw that I was ready to do the work because I am prepared to do the work. I love to challenge myself and put my whole life into what I do because it has meaning to me. I think that is what she saw, at least from a few of our conversations. If there’s anything else she saw, you probably have to ask her.

 Dejare Johnson was quite the character, how did you prepare for him?

When I read the script, it felt very intense, very ambitious—and the amount of work that I would have to do scared me. But then that fear is what excited me. So I jumped in headfirst! I think I joined two months before we started filming, and I spent every day on the phone with the director, just talking and discussing, because she does most of her directing before set. 

I was taking copious notes, reading the script back and front. I had to learn how to play the sax. And because my character is a stockbroker, I had to shadow a few stockbrokers. GTI, the company that had graciously funded the film, is a stockbroking and securities company, so they were gracious enough to let me come in a few days and watch them and ask a few questions to understand how a stockbroker thinks and behaves.

I’m sure you are a fan of old Nollywood because I’ve seen many of your Instagram posts and how you talk about the actors from back then. How much of Rita Dominic did you watch growing up?

What! You know people ask me, who do you want to work with? And I keep saying, all the OG Nolly babes. Susan Patrick, Regina Askia, Stella Damasus, Clarion Chukwuka, Rita Dominic, Genevieve Nnaji, Nkiru Sylvanus. I grew up adoring these people. Our next-door neighbour had this big screen TV and would open their door for all the kids in the streets to come, stand outside, and watch. I used to come out to watch Rita Dominic’s movies. I just love her. So, getting a chance to act alongside her is fascinating. Because wow, dreams really do come true. It just feels like, of everybody who grew up watching these people, wanting to know more about these people and wanting to meet them, I get to do this. It’s a blessing I do not take for granted.

But it must have been daunting because you get to play sensual scenes with her. What was it like to film those scenes?

I don’t know whether she believes it or not, or if she’s going to agree with me, but I feel like she knows the effect she has on people at this stage in her life. Because people react to you a certain way for a long time, so you get to understand. What she does is, she finds a way to put you at ease—at least, for me, she was cool. She accepted me from the jump, and that made it easy to work with her. Of course, I was nervous, but we had a lot of time to rehearse, so by the time we were on sets, I wasn’t necessarily scared of being in a scene with Rita because we’ve done all of that in rehearsals. And the director understands this, so she works hard to make sure it is not a problem by the time we’re ready to go because we’re supposed to have chemistry, and that cannot happen if I’m scared or have cold feet. I’m very thankful that they both worked hard to put me at ease.

 What was it like working with Mildred Okwo?

She is, I believe, every actor’s dream. She is an actor’s director. She possesses such an imagination; her mind is one that I can get lost in. Her mind is fascinating. She has empathy and understanding and an eye. And I feel these qualities make her a fantastic storyteller, a fantastic director. I talked with some of the actors in the film, who can’t even believe what came out of them when they watch their performance on screen. She has a way of bringing out a performance from you. It’s amazing! Sometimes I get goosebumps talking about it. She is one of the greats.

The story, to me, is a rollercoaster because you went from being charming and sweet to a very dark place. And Okwo has talked about how draining some scenes were for you, like the one where you were wearing a white top with Ankara, where you slept somewhere along the road, and a prostitute came around. And in an interview, you said there are some scenes where, after shooting, you go home and hear voices in your head. What was going through your mind during this period?

I don’t know if they still do it, but when I was growing up in church, the pastor would call everybody out and pray for them when you act a dramatic piece so that no bad thing they acted will affect their lives, especially if you play a prostitute or a demon. They will pray for you that those things will not have a bearing on your life. I remember one service, my dad, who is a pastor, lined us all and prayed for us after we had acted, and that memory came back rushing to me. Because after I shot that scene or those scenes, I got home at 2 AM that day, and as soon as I unlocked the door, my knees just gave way. It was like I lost control of my body. I tried to stand up, but my legs were doing like this [gestures shaky legs]. I could not walk. It was like a film trick, like what’s going on here? There was light, but my house felt so dark. It felt so haunting, and I crawled to bed. I didn’t even take off my clothes. I just crawled to bed.

You couldn’t walk?

I could not walk. I tried to sleep it off, but I was hearing voices coming from the wall. It was so weird. I could not sleep. The next morning, I called the director, and I feel like it made her happy when I told her about it. Because she said, “now this thing is entering you—now you’re really acting, now you see that you’re putting in the work.” Then I got to empathize with and understand a lot of Hollywood actors who have fame and fortune, but they’re so unhappy. Some of them kill themselves, and you don’t understand why. These people have everything, why do they still make these decisions? And I just imagine that they go into such dark places, and maybe they don’t know how to deal with it. Now, I have a lot more respect for actors and filmmakers and the work that we do, it is spiritual.

Have you been able to shake the character off?

Yes, I’ve been able to do that. I love the beach—going to the beach calms me. It makes me feel small, in a good way. It’s very therapeutic for me just to go dig my feet into the sand. And I love to go to the beach when no one is there. I go on a weekday when everybody is at work. After we’re done filming, Mildred paid for some of us to go away. We were there for a couple of days—not thinking of life or anything, and having time to talk it out and shake the character off. you start having withdrawal symptoms. Because you can get depressed, and I got depressed after. My life was kind of wonky because it was quite an intense role. You have to let go of it because the character will try to stay, and Dejare was trying to stay because I started having thoughts that were his, not mine. I guess that happens if you immerse yourself completely, but he’s gone.

It was fun to watch the performance, but knowing that you were transported to a dark place to give me this joy is kind of scary. Is this something you want to do again? Would you consider seeing a therapist?

It’s definitely something I want to do again. I enjoyed doing it, and even more, I want to go behind the camera because I want to tell stories—bring them to life, direct them and produce them. But actors need safe spaces to shed and share their feelings because being an artist is an incredibly emotional burden. Therapy is not given the attention and priority that it deserves because it’s expensive. First of all, not a lot of people can afford it. Our parents didn’t know so much about it, so it’s not something that was passed to us. We had to learn about it ourselves. It’s a culture that is slowly picking up. We need to find ways for people and actors to share our feelings, be truthful, and shed characters. Also, we deal with a lot of rejection. We face rejection all the time, and the amount of rejection that artists face is toxic. We need to have safe spaces and platforms to shed all that emotional baggage because not many people know how to deal with it.

You talked about creating and directing your film, and I think you’re currently working on a short.

You have done your research. I’m more interested in shorts. Even back in school, when I thought I was going to be a novelist, I never quite had the patience to finish a novel. I feel like, in this day and age, where a lot is competing for people’s attention, if you squeeze it down to short, impactful, grabbing-people’s-attention kind of content, that’s an exciting place to go. But for now, I’m promoting a film, and I’m going to face my music before I go to that. I’m just trying to maximize my time, so I’m not doing too much, and I can do each as well as possible. 

What’s next for Nonso Bassey?

I’m focused on promoting La Femme Anjola. I’m proud of the work that I did so I’m out there, under the sun, in the rain, telling people to watch it. I’m also part of an exciting project. I’m playing somebody completely different, and it is an interesting group of young people.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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