Uche Chika Elumelu: the Process of an Actress

My first experience with Uche’s craft was in the written word. She’d worked on a lengthy profile of a fellow actor and I remember feeling, as I read, that I was touring the mind of a clear thinker. I can only imagine the quality of conversations that take place in her head as she becomes different people across varied platforms. It’s clear Uche is not simply looking to earn her pay and move on to the next set.  Every character she adorns is an interrogation with humanity. 

Uche’s rise isn’t a “grass to grace” story. It’s the inevitability of an excellent mind given to the pursuit of more. Be it on stage, screen, or the closed circuit of a WhatsApp group, Uche’s genius, elocution, and wit shine through.

Filmkaku had a chat with her about her craft and more. The conversation has been edited for publication purposes.

Filmkaku: What inspired you to be an actor?

Uche: My answer to that is always changing. At first, I just thought it was something I was naturally talented at and felt, oh I’m good at it and if I could make money off it, why not? At some point in my life, it became – I can do something with this, I can inspire people, I can entertain, I can heal and bless people with it. Again, at some point it became, okay, this is my calling, I have found out that this is something, above all other things, that I do most effortlessly. But overall, I think the awareness of the talent in the first place was my first inspiration — the origin of the other ever-changing inspirations.

FK: So it’s not because you saw a film or admired a performance you saw on screen or stage? 

Uche: That’s the funny thing. I’ve always known that I liked acting even when I was a child. My mother always said I had an audience. Every time a visitor came in, there was something for Uche to do and they would applaud me saying, “Ah this girl, you people should watch her oh, she’s going to become a star”. So I can’t tag one particular moment that inspired me to become an actor. However, the confidence to become a professional – like the sureness that this is what I want to do with my life– came before I got into the New York Film Academy (NYFA). The pastor of my church had us write an exam and was going to choose the best 10 –12 for sponsorship for a one-month program the NYFA had over the summer of 2011. Seeing my score and realizing that, out of over 200 plus people, I made the final cut was that moment of lucidity. 

FK: What kind of acting training have you had?

Uche: As I earlier mentioned, the NYFA. I also have a diploma in Acting for Film in their acting program with the motto, ‘Learning by Doing’. It was an interactive experience that opened me up to a better level of fellowship with my character. Up until then, it had just been church drama, short plays at school, and a little bit of work with the community children’s theater.  

When I entered the university, I never did any course related to acting in particular. But from my second year till I finished, I was active in the department of theatre arts as a form of extracurricular activity. The repeated outings on stage have molded me into the actor that I am today. Stage acting was a lot more frequent than the screen at the time. But it didn’t matter the platform or medium. I wasn’t graded for my work so I was allowed to express myself.

Uche on stage.

FK: You have done theatre, television, film and appeared in commercials. Would you say the experience working across these platforms have helped you as an actor or a performer?

Uche: I’m sure I am not the only actor that thought, while growing up, that acting for stage, TV, and film is different. But that’s false. They all require the same level of commitment and technique. On stage, you are right in front of your audience, even if there’s an imaginary fourth wall. In film, it’s a cinematic experience while TV has a specialized set of rules that makes it more regimented. Yes, the rules differ but what I’d done very early in my career was to correct that phobia in my mind that they are different things and it has helped me navigate across them very fluidly. So when I go to work in film and I see people struggling, trying not to project as much, trying not to use their hands and body as much, I’m always grateful for the fact that I’m able to switch more easily. 

I learned from a colleague at Theatre Arts that there is something at the core of performance. That I’m better off keying into it and knowing that everywhere I go, I am actively in a conversation with my imaginary second person. Whether or not I am projecting my voice to reach five thousand people or 50 people in the room, or I am just with the mic plugged into my dress, it is the same level of commitment. When I keyed into that, it helped me work effectively, even in commercials. All I need to do is understand that I am malleable — I am nothing but an instrument in the hands of the director. 

FK: Since we are still talking about performance, I would like to ask how you prepare for a role. What methods do you use? Is there a particular tool? Lots of people use schools and approaches to acting but how do you personally prepare for the role you are assigned when you get the script?

Uche: I like this question because it’s getting focused on the textbook creativity pattern. People try to say there is one way, but I think there is no one way to do anything. With me, I like to vary my methods with the work that I have in front of me. There are certain roles that I know I need to go slightly with method acting and there are other roles that I don’t need to live in the actual circumstances of what’s required to deliver. Again, there are some roles that you will need lots of help with and not rely solely on your imagination. For these roles, if you overdo it on your own, via your methods, you become a problem for the director as you will be too molded in your technique and incapable of being a useful instrument for him or her.

Imagine having a role that needs a lot of improvisation– it can’t be developed singularly.  Take sitcoms where everything changes with stylizing and all. Performances are heavily dependent on a lot of other factors outside the actor. I did something interesting in ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ where I played Segi. It was stylized in a way that all of us had multiple roles in the play. My original role was Segi but I also played a car’s tyre, a tree, a prostitute, the companion of the fake prophet. How does one prepare for those kinds of roles with just one method?

I remember preparing for Queen Amina and I knew that the approach of being fluid wouldn’t help because I was trying to step into a character that had lived and walked the face of this earth. I had to work within preset demands. I knew I had to get physically strong. I had to learn Hausa and get the inflections and mannerisms. The role demanded a lot from me but I was ready. There was also a time when I played a rural mother whose child was abused in a yet-to-be-released project. I had to go local and add weight to fill out my frame and have that archetypal round figure of mothers. For a character like Otana where I played a demon, I had to learn ‘strange powers’ to stay in costume and prosthesis for a long time. Every role differs but the most important thing about preparation is to answer this– do you believe your imaginary circumstances enough to go the extra mile to show these characters? Once you can answer in the affirmative, there is nothing you cannot do.

FK: I think it also has to do with your understanding of a project and the conversations you have with the director that will influence the kind of approach to take.

Uche. Of course, everything comes from that discussion. I always wait for the production meeting to be done before I realize what I’m going to do.

FK:  How do you cope with performance nerves?

Uche: Hahaha. I hope I don’t get misunderstood when I say I don’t feel nerves. 

FK: It’s possible not to have it. 

Uche: I think it is the ‘curse of every young performer’. Any person who has learned to conform to an audience from as early as six/seven tends to have conquered nervousness from that early stage. I was head of the drama group during my teens years, so I was already quite mature. I had already worked with persons like Felix Okolo who handed me the responsibility of running the club and it was very tough on me as a sixteen-year-old. I remember we were doing this role with Amena Udoka where I was like the production manager and I think these bits of exposure trained me to lose anything we could classify as nervousness. 

FK: There must be specific projects that you have done that, maybe, troubled you a little bit more than others.

Uche: Okay, I see what you mean now. That would be Queen Amina. There was this pervading feeling that someone has done this already. Can this new girl top it or at least be on par with the previous performance? It was very tricky. I am friends with the actor who was previously assigned the role and so there was huge pressure. I had to shape up and enter into character in 3 weeks because I was joining the cast for the rehearsal.

FK: How did you cope with it? Did you do anything specific? 

Uche: At that point, the whole “being malleable” came in handy. It wasn’t just my approach to get into the character of Queen Amina that mattered, but what I used to harness enough synergy and support from all the actors on stage. 

FK: Fantastic. How do you get off character when a job is done?  Have you ever had issues letting go? We have heard of actors who struggle to leave those spaces. Have you had that and how did you deal with it? 

Uche: I think I struggled most with Kosi, the character I played on Unbroken – an African Magic original show. The problem was that I played that character for like 7-8 months, every week, and at some point, it became a daily task. Going off that project, I realized that in my conversations, people would randomly mention, “that’s a Kosi thing to say”. Thankfully, it wasn’t a dark character. Kosi was very loyal, friendly, lively, and she helped me become more expressive. During my university days, I was more reserved, more into my books and the way I approached theatre was academic. After I did that role in 2018/19, I realized something shifted inside me, and I think she is the major reason why I’m now more extroverted. Sometimes I miss her, sometimes I see slight flashes of her in my conversation but it is definitely under control now than it was the first 3 months after I played her. As regards what I do to leave character, I think that reading and exposing yourself to unrelated materials helps. When I got off the set, I made a personal decision not to watch the show for a while to help me get out of character.

FK: Is this process also how you have handled your mental health as an artist? Or is there a different process? 

Uche: When I was trying to get out of the character of Kosi, I had to consciously stop watching the show as earnestly as I initially was. Before this, every other night while I was on set I was watching the show. I had to limit this to once a week and sometimes I would skip entire episodes just so I could keep it out of my face. I also made sure I filtered tweets or comments that spoke negatively about my work. Life is essentially spiritual and these things can take up space in our circle. That’s why people who confess that they have haters will always have haters and negative energy following them because their haters’ names are always in their mouths. I regularly disengage, block, or mute unsavoury comments so I can focus on more positive energies. Sometimes, I re-read positive comments about my work to reinforce myself, watch my favourite shows, and, of course, prayer when it gets really bad. I was brought up religiously and it remains my safety net. 

Uche as Arubi on AMRiona

FK: I still have a couple of questions to go through but it feels that we are rounding up nicely. So let’s say if you get the chance to handpick a role you haven’t had the chance to play just yet, what would that be?

Uche: I would like to play a lady in uniform. You know, a law enforcement officer. I have always wanted to play that. There was a producer that reached out to me with something close to ‘The Ghost and the House of Truth’. It was about a police officer in paranormal circumstances trying to uncover the truth.

FK: You would definitely enjoy that whole process. I guess it comes from your background of seeing crime movies and imagining yourself in that space. 

Uche: Exactly, especially some paranoia and paranormal activities. Horror and action fused into one. I liked it on my first read. The producer doesn’t have the money to make it on a scale that he would want to so he is just keeping it in the cooler which I really advise as a good thing to do. Developing a superhero idea with African mythology will be fun too. I think that’s about it. I have been blessed with a unique body of work that has exposed me to a lot of things. In all humility, I could say I have gone round.

FK: What would be doing if you were not an actor?

Uche: I would probably be a newscaster.

FK: You wouldn’t be in Geography? That you studied in school? Even though you were a first-class student? 

Uche: There’s a pressure that comes with being a first-class graduate or any high-flier, especially when you’re from the University of Ibadan. People just feel that you have to be a lecturer. I have a lecturer that’s still on my case. He sees me on TV but insists that’s not what he wants for me. Even my parents thought this way too. Because there is an issue with being a high-flier, you end up having your future unconsciously mapped out for you by parents and senior folk, even when they insist they don’t want to control your life. And I understand, you know. Nigeria is not an easy place to live. I have had to fight for a lot of things that I enjoy now. 

FK: What’s your advice to young people who wish to enter this industry as actors? 

Uche: I think the first thing would be to tell them not to chase fame at any level at all. One of my lecturers at the NYFA said to us many years ago that it’s even better to chase money in the field than to chase fame or award or try to make yourself into something people see as an idol. Because that’s where you start to develop an addiction to external approval. That’s when you start to do things that are out of character just because you want to trend. 

My advice for them is to face the craft. What is acting? What are the rudiments of acting? What do I need to do to be a working actor before I become a known actor? Being good at what you do may take time but very soon, people will know the difference between you and the flashy pretenders. No disrespect to them but that’s what it is. If you are willing to be patient enough to focus on that craft, you will do wonders. And don’t listen to what people say– the praises and the blames. Don’t let them get to your heart. When someone praises you, let it stop at your head because tomorrow when the same person says you are not good enough, it toys with or shifts something in your core. The only thing that should have a place in your heart is what you tell yourself. That you are good, that you have a journey, that you are enjoying the journey, and that you have a destination that far exceeds your current situation. I think only your voice should have a place in your heart. Of course, if you are a religious person, the Holy spirit and verses of the bible should have places in your heart too. 

FK: This is all good, but I still think someone might know all these and still not identify a pathway into the industry. 

Uche: I feel that technology has made it very easy with social media, especially Instagram. Now people all over the world can see how talented you are. If you are in this category and you have a smartphone, invest your time in putting out content. There are no wrong answers. Almost anything that comes into your mind could be an inspiration; even a bottle of coke could inspire a script. Put that idea out there, tag the people you can because Instagram is the LinkedIn for creative professionals. Asides from going for auditions, try to watch some of these round table discussions actors have or live sessions directors have with the audience more often and you will get some insight into how the industry works. Get into those rooms and you will get to hear people give stories, drop gems on how to get into the spaces you crave.

You could join Twitter spaces and clubhouse conversations. You never know who could recognize your artistry and invite you over for a closed reading or ask you to send your videos. Read on the techniques of acting. Brush up your skills. If you can, try to attend physical meetings sometimes, even if it’s once in 3 months. Some people are waiting to connect with new talent. Especially film festivals. African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) finished last November and there were a lot of people who got gigs from there. The thing about acting is that when you do one, no matter how small it is, do it well. By the third attempt, you will start growing in following, and at some point, you realize that you are being referred from one job to another without even going for the auditions. But you need to make sure that your first job counts. Put in everything that you have to at least make a lasting impression. 

FK: Thank you very much, it’s being a good one with you. 

Uche: Thank you too for the interview. 



1 Comment

  1. I love you Uche. Thank you filmkaku for this interview, it’s an eye opener

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