Funke Akindele-Bello is an award-winning Nollywood actress, producer and now director of Ebonylife Film’s ‘Your Excellency’. She became publicly known in 1998 for her role in the popular TV series ‘I Need To Know,’ which ran till 2002.
In 2008, she got her big breakthrough with the creation of her award-winning character, ‘Jenifa’- an uneducated, but an ambitious young woman who refused limitations due to her inaccurate use of the English Language. The movie evolved into a weekly series that has graced TV screens for eight years, keeping fans glued with its blend of comedy and morality.
This consistency is what has brought Funke Akindele-Bello to her first directorial debut. Speaking to Vanguard Allure, Funke opens up on the challenges that came with directing ‘Your Excellency’, what fans should expect while watching the movie, creating ‘Jenifa’, and being a strong woman in the Nigerian Entertainment Industry.
Let’s talk about the movie, ‘Your Excellency’ and the roles you played …
I’m so excited about this movie, it’s my directorial debut, and I played the lead, Kemi Ajadi, who is the wife of an aspiring presidential candidate. It’s a big one for me. I must say, and I can’t wait for my fans to see it. Although I’ve directed TV series, TV shows, reality shows, this is my first feature film. Speaking about the movie, ‘Your Excellency’ is a great movie that’s about a witty, funny, easygoing presidential candidate, Ajadi and his wife, and how he’s trying to become the president of Nigeria. As his wife would say “it’s every four-four years madness”. Is he going to be the president this time around? We don’t know, and I don’t want to spill more than that (Laughs).
What came to your mind the first time you received the script?
It wowed me! Aunty Mo Abudu is a genius, created the story, and Yinka Ogun treated it. When I read the script, I thought “she’s thinking out of the box!” The fact that she infused comedy into a politics-inspired storyline is commendable. I fell in love with the story immediately. Also, she gave me the chance to tweak one or two things, and now we have a great movie, ‘Your Excellency’, that’ll be premiering later today.
So at the beginning of this year, did you think that you’ll be directing a movie?
Oh yes! It was supposed to be my feature film, but Aunty Mo’ beat me to it (Laughs), and I had to do hers first because mine was supposed to be at the end of the year. So mine is coming up next year, hopefully, and it’s something people will love.
How challenging was it for you acting and directing at the same time?
It was challenging for me, because being the lead, and directing at the same time is a tedious task, but don’t forget, your passion will make you do everything you can do. It’ll drive you, and even when you get tired, if you think of the love you have for what you’re doing, it’ll keep you going. Another challenge was the fact that I am a perfectionist; I’m very detailed and anything I’m doing; I want to give it my best. But while on set, I didn’t think of the challenges, I just thought of the end product, which everybody will watch at the premiere, and in cinemas from December 13th. So, today was all I had in my mind while working. And I was hands-on, you know since I wanted the best! If the Props master is not placing the prop well, I will stand up and do it myself.
How would you say this character you played in ‘Your Excellency’ is similar to who you are?
In terms of similarities of both characters, we’re both supportive. For me, I am a go-getter, and I’ll support my husband in everything he’s doing. A lot of times he’ll tell me about something he wants us to work on, and I’ll be like ‘I don’t know about it, but I support you’, and Kemi Ajadi in the film is like that. Her husband is always contesting as a presidential candidate every four years, and she’s still supporting him. So we are both supportive.
What part was the most difficult for you to direct?
That’ll be the Inauguration Day scene. It was difficult because we were working with a lot of extras; you have to position everyone, and then you have to take the wide shot and then the medium. It was a lot! Then you have to think on your feet and be creative – you don’t want it to feel like a TV show, you don’t want it to be ordinary. So working with the crowd was a lot for me, but altogether it was fun.
How easy was it for you to deal with all the celebrity characters you worked with on this project?
I worked with a lot of A-list actors in this film, and the truth is, they’re beautiful people. They were punctual, and they listened to what they were told to do. It is work, and they knew they had to be professional with it. If you’re not ready to work, you take your leave, and we replace you, but that wasn’t the case because everyone did their part well.
So now, let’s talk about you as a woman doing all that you do in the Nigerian entertainment industry. How easy is that?
Nothing good comes easy; you have to work hard to get to where you want to be. For me, I don’t think it’s a gender thing, I think of ‘what do you want to do’, and go for it. If you aim to be the best, you must work hard for it. I don’t see it as a female or male thing. I work hard, and I get results. But then, I think I’m blessed, and I work hard, and I make arrangements for everything as a mom and as a wife and a career woman. I plan for everything, with the grace of God, it works out right, but importantly, I try my best to balance everything.
Considering you were an actor and a director in ‘Your Excellency’, which would you say you prefer? In front or behind the camera?
I can’t pick because I usually do both, and I enjoy both.
What are some of the things you’ve learnt as Funke Akindele, and as Jenifa?
Well, Jenifa is a character created by Funke Akindele, so wherever Funke wants Jenifa to go is where she will go. For Funke Akindele as a person, I learn every day. We all learn every day, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in life, it is to be diplomatic. I don’t know how to be subtle, I’m blunt, but along the line gradually I’m becoming better, and now I know how to keep my emotions in check. I slip once in a while, and that’s because I’m human.
As for Jenifa, she is herself. She is witty; I think Jenifa and Funke both share little similarities in the sense that Jenifa is a goal-getter. There’s nothing you can tell Jenifa she can’t do; she will look for it and do it, and Funke would also do same, this is why I respect Mo Abudu, a lot. Aunty Mo doesn’t take “No” for an answer. She will get it done, no matter what it takes.
So let’s talk about your Jenifa’s Language App, ‘Jenifa Spells’, tell us more?
‘Jenifa’s Spells’ is an app designed by my husband, and it started when Jenifa was spelling something, and my husband said: “Funke why don’t you have a game?” And that was how we started, and the game is presently out on the Apple Store and Google Play Store. The game is enjoyable; it helps you learn a lot of words and how to spell them correctly. I didn’t know some words exist, but playing the game has definitely opened my mind, and it’ll also help Jenifa spell better.
So how would you say you have managed to stay relevant over the years, considering you have people who started with you, and they’re not as consistent?
First of all, I must say it’s the Grace of God. When you have the Grace of God, if you are hard-working, the blessing will follow you. If you are determined, the mercy will follow you; if you’re focused, the grace will follow you. Yes, I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs, but the result is what I think of, in anything I do.
So what would you say has been the most tasking role you’ve ever played?
Hmmm, I think playing Jenifa is very difficult because I didn’t know how to speak the unique brand of Yoruba she often speaks. The truth is, I didn’t even want to play Jenifa at; first, that’s a secret nobody knows. I called for an audition in 2008 at Ikorodu, and nobody got it right. I searched up until the week of production before I got frustrated and picked up the script myself. With Jenifa, I believe I have created a monster, a monster I’ll be putting to rest very soon because she needs to go on a break.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment as an actor?
I believe my greatest achievement is being able to impact the lives of young people, and helping them to nurture their talent, by giving them an opportunity. I have my production outfit, and with every series from Scene One production, I try to empower as many people as possible. That’s a great accomplishment for me.
As a creative person, sometimes, you get stuck. What do you do and how do you handle that?
I’ve experienced it, but this year has been mad! Because, after the arrival of my babies, I went back to work immediately. What I do when I feel stuck is I dump the work, take a walk, and go for a swim. I also enjoy watching excellent TV series like ‘Greenleaf.’ After the short break, my inspiration can happen the next day, in the shower. I can start thinking about what to do with characters, and what their next moves should be before you know it, I’m bursting with fresh new ideas.
What do you want people to take home from ‘Your Excellency’ when they watch it?
Well, I don’t want to spill the beans, because it’s a huge one, and if I mention it, they’ll know. But I’ll say that viewers should go in there to have fun and to laugh. I know it is entertaining, and you will learn a few lessons, and yes, you will go back to watch it again, and again.
How would you describe your style?
My style is simple, classy and comfortable. I’m very particular about the brands I wear. I don’t need to wear big brands. It is not by force to wear Gucci; you can wear H&M or Zara, and look good. I also believe in patronizing Nigerian designers.
What are those three things one will always find in your purse?
That’ll be my power bank, chewing gum and hair lotion.
What is your passion?
I’m passionate about impacting people’s lives positively. According to my mom “It’s not the amount of wealth you’ve acquired, but how many lives have you touched? How many stories have you changed positively?
What’s your final word to the younger generation?
There’s time for everything, so, do not rush. Just take life easy. Don’t let people pressure you into doing something you do not believe. I’ve tried to push a lot of things, but when I met my husband, he changed things for me, in the sense that when I’m rushing to get things done, he’ll be like “Calm down, calm down; things will fall in place”, and indeed things have been falling in place. So, calm down!