In this sizzling interview with the screen goddess, Nollywood actress, scriptwriter and Producer, Miss. Mary Okonta, talks to Daily Trust on why sexual harassment persists in the entertainment industry and why it can’t be stopped. She also shares her experience producing her debut movie: “The Heist.” Excerpt:
What inspired you to join the movie industry?
Well, it’s different things actually. Because when I was growing up and schooling, I didn’t think I was gonna do this. I didn’t think I was going to be in the entertainment industry. I wanted to do something very professional, you know, just how our parents want us to be doctors and lawyers and all that. But I feel like the different aspects of life you can catch, just being yourself while doing this job, makes it exciting. You could be a doctor today, you could be a pharmacist tomorrow, you could be different things but at the same time not losing sight of yourself. So I feel like that inspires a lot of beautiful things in life and not seeing life just one sided. So I asked myself: “Why would I like to be just one person?” That can be boring. So, I had to explore various aspects of myself.
What movies have you written or featured in?
I have written a lot of movies, actually. But the thing is, with the kind of words that I write and the kind of scenes that I create, most Nigerian producers don’t want to ever make it because it’s too expensive. You know, the industry builds on people that they already know. So for an upcoming producer, an actor like me, it’s very hard for them to trust my work.
So, then I decided that I will probably make my own movie, which I did last year. It’s called ‘The Heist.’ It’s on African Magic and Konga TV now, it’s now showing on them. So yeah, I’ve written a lot of scripts that I feel like I would be able to take on by myself using my production company.
What’s your movie, “The Heist” about?
The Heist is about a couple who has marital issues that they are trying to work out. In fact, they didn’t want to work it out but circumstances and situation make them work it out. It has a very few casts because the idea is to maintain the storyline, which is this couple and not going too far.
It’s about a couple trying to bring back that fire in their relationship, why they got married but it didn’t go in a conventional way like them talking to each other and trying to sort out that issue. It had to be robbers who came to rub them that made them see that, ‘okay, my gosh, you actually could just bring back the fire while you love your husband or why you love your wife?’
But in the story, I made it very easy because I wanted the wife to be the one that would bring back the husband to the fold. So, that’s the twist of it.
First, we wanted to make it as a cinema movie but the cost was just too much and I don’t want such financial burden on me yet. If I had gone further with it, I would have broken down by now. So, I decided to take it one step at a time.
Before producing the Heist, have you featured in or produced any movie?
Oh God, I have been going to auditions since I was 17. Trust me, I am not in 18 this year. So, I have been going to audition. I just feel like there’s some people in this world that auditions do not favor and I am part of them. Oh yeah, it is the truth! Trust me, if you’d gone for auditions before, or for more than two years, I don’t know but it’s the “don’t give up” spirit in me. I think that there are some people who are blessed or who are fortunate to just get the first audition. And the next thing you see is that they are on screen. But for me, it doesn’t work that way. It’s people that know me in real life that would be like “Mary, you should be an actor.” But if I go to auditions, I get to the final stage but somebody else got the role, maybe because of nepotism or what, I can’t really say.
So, I decided that if they are not going to give me a seat at the table, I will go and get that seat and put it by the side of the table. You know, life waits for no one. Trust me, like I said, I’m not waiting, meaning I have waited and waited; I’m not going to come to this life and let my impact not be felt. So, if they don’t let you in through the door, you break the door and then help them repair it later.
How much does it cost producing “The Heist”?
If there’s anything like, it took everything in me; you can imagine a first timer wanting to make something very special and that person gives it his entire all; I don’t think I’ve been broke like that in my entire life because I spent my all, time, energy and resources and a year later, I’m still feeling it.
Truly, I am still feeling it because, again, I’m not known yet in the industry so people don’t take my word for it. You have to see and understand that it takes a lot of people to trust you. The Adesuas and the Omoni Obolis, they have paid their dues. Once upon a time they were not recognized but now, they are. So, I understand the process and the pain I have to go through. So for the amount that was spent, if not for my family and friends….hmmmm… I cannot even tell you the amount because it’s a lot of money.
Do you find any difficulty approaching the actors you featured in the movie?
As long as you have your money, they’re fine. Getting the cast for me was very easy. It was the simplest part. It was the easiest part as long as you are willing to pay. Even on set, they were very nice to me. Obviously, they knew that I’m a novice in the game, especially on set with big movie stars like Mary Lazarus, Wole Ojo etc.
Naturally, I would be behind the scenes being interned or maybe continuity or intern for makeup or being intern for somebody. But I had a little bit of experience in production. But face to face with them, I was a little bit nervous but they were very good to me, very patient and motivating. So, approaching them was the easiest part, getting the money to pay them was the hardest part.
What’s your take on sexual harassment or molestation most people had complained about in the Nollywood industry?
But that’s the reason probably why they don’t ever pick me at auditions; because the truth is that when you come to auditions, you scale through the first to the final stage, and then you hear “okay, you’re gonna meet me at my hotel room.”
Gosh, I started production at age 16. I had just finished secondary school. So I told my mom, “I think I want to do this full time,” and she was very supportive, even my dad too. So, my family was behind my back. So, when you now tell me to meet you in your hotel room, is that where we’re acting the movie?
So, a lot of times, I have definitely been approached that way or given that click off like “If you don’t do this. You can’t get that.” So, eventually I don’t get the job. But I could never ridicule my integrity for something that I know that it will still come back to haunt me in the future.
So, now that I’m a producer, I don’t tolerate that. Because the truth is that if I’ve been through that fire, I would never want a young girl to suffer such. Besides, I don’t know if female producers do it to male actors and again, I’m not a guy. But no female producer or actress has ever come to tell me such thing. So, I would never want any young actress or actor to ever face that because it’s emotionally belittling really; because it means that they only want you to be there because of your body. So, it’s sad.
So, how do you think we can curb sexual harassment in the industry?
I don’t think we can curb it because the truth is that there will always be bad apples in the entire pack. Even, if it’s not movies, we hear what happens at school between lecturers and students. I went to school too but I’m thankful that I didn’t get to experience that. But that doesn’t mean the girl next door, did not.
So, if we are going to curb it, it has to start with us thinking and telling ourselves, “Would you want someone to do that to your child? Would you want someone to do that to your daughter? Would you want someone to do to your sister? Would you want someone to do that to your wife?”
Because, it’s not even about the young actors and actresses anymore? It is because there are roles for older people. And the next thing you know is that a young guy who is a producer may wants to sleep with the old woman who is like his mother’s age. So, it all just boils down to your conscience.
For instance, the director that I worked with, he’s the most decent person I’ve ever met. So, I’m just thankful that everything has its time and you get to meet people that will help you get your life out.
How soon should we expect your second and other movies?
I’ve finished writing the script last year. I’m at a spot in my life when I feel like if I don’t write something, I’m going to go crazy. So, I’ve written the script, but I need to see how high the Heist would play out. So far, the response on The Heist has been great, being my debut movie; this is making me very happy right now.
So after this has gone on for like three to four months, because it just came out on Konga TV like two weeks ago, so it’s still very new and very fresh, and most people are waiting for it to be shown also on African Magic on DSTV and GOTV. So, I will wait and let that play out. Hopefully, another one is coming out this year.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to juggle between Nollywood and Hollywood. I don’t feel like I have to be here (in Nigeria) all the time. If Priyanka Chopra can do that as a Bollywood and Hollywood actress, I think I can too.