New York-based Nollywood actor, Chet Anekwe, stole the hearts of Nigerian movie lovers playing the role of Ike in the flick, Unwanted Guest. Prior to that, he had starred alongside Jimmy Jean Louise in the Hollywood flick Mo’Nique, among other productions, both foreign and local. Born in Nigeria but raised in New York, the actor, screenwriter and movie director is among the star-studded cast of the yet-to-be-shot flick, Heaven’s Hell. He speaks to OVWE MEDEME on a blend of interesting topics including his battle with racism, life as an immigrant, movies and various other issues.
THE movie Unwanted Guest put you in public glare. How popular would you say it made you?
Interestingly, someone once asked me if I was popular and I said no. I think we ought to concentrate on the work like Unwanted Guest. Some movies are like that. It doesn’t matter if you are popular, if you are going to a premiere or you are wearing Armani, your work should be good. If they see you in a movie, they should know that it ought to be good. Slowly we are doing that kind of work.
Unwanted Guest was good. If you think about it, I think I was the most known face there and it was in the Nigerian theatre because it was good. That is what we have to get. Someone like Ramsey is a very close friend of mine. In fact, I’ve gotten several jobs by him recommending me. But it is not always the face that should sell something. You should sell something because it is good, because you know it is coming from Nigeria so the quality has to be good and that is what this is.
Do you prefer being introduced as the Nigerian actor based in New York or as the one who is right here?
Basically, I think it is true. It is not like it is a lie. It is not like I’m based in Gambia and I’m claiming to be in New York. No, I don’t mind at all. Let me put it like this, to me, it is about the work. If 30 years from now, people see Unwanted Guest or Heaven’s Hell, they should still feel that the movie is good. They shouldn’t remember whether I was popular at the time or not or where I was based.
It is always about making sure that whatever you do stands the test of time. That is what is more important to me. The moment I go on set and the director says ‘action’, I have to ensure that work between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is excellent and that the audience will like it. That is what is most important to me.
How busy have you been since you shot Unwanted Guest?
Actually I haven’t been too busy because I have been a little more careful in picking films. The industry back home is far more mature. There is a small Nollywood/USA community, if I can call it that, coming up, but it is not as mature and they are still making the same mistakes people have made before, not casting correctly. So I try to hold back and try to take only projects that I know are good. I did a film that is actually out now with Mercy Johnson. It is titled Baby Awful. We did that in the US. I have had a lot more offers but I have been taking more time to pick the right ones.
How many works have you done that are yet to hit the public space?
I have done about five to six films right now. I have another one that I did with Emem Isong’s outfit, the Royal Art Academy, directed by Lancelot Imasuen. They are so professional; they are so great to work with. I worked alongside Chioma Akpotha. That should be coming out soon. Baby awful came out recently. It is a very funny film. Mercy Johnson is brilliant. I have a couple of other things in the works and I’m trying to see how it goes, but hopefully, I will come back here more.
Beyond doing Nollywood films, what are you doing in the US?
The interesting thing is that because I have been doing more work on the Nollywood side, I have done less work on Hollywood side. That is actually kind of normal. There are some other actors like Hakeem Kae Kazeem, Jimmy Jean Louise who are now doing more Nigerian films. I don’t think we are appreciated as much in Hollywood. We are typecast. We are all going for the same roles because they are so small in Hollywood, whereas, here, Jimmy and I would be opposite each other. We can be cast in the same film so I think we are looking to do more films here because this industry is the third largest film in the world.
Before Unwanted Guest, what was it like?
It was actually interesting. I was doing a lot of New York City theatre; I was doing some TV shows. In Hollywood, I did a couple of movies. I had done a Nollywood movie with Genevieve Nnaji that did not get wide release. It was titled 30 Days. We did that in 2005. It was directed by Mildred Okwho who did The Meeting. That was her first film. She cast me from New York. She was in LA at the time and that was the first film I flew back to Nigeria to do a film. It didn’t get a wide release but it was a very fine movie. I had also done a TV series with Amaka Igwe which featured Bimbo Akintola but I didn’t come back as often as I should. It was Unwanted Guest that put me in the eyes of the public.
In terms of projection, what are you looking at for Heaven’s Hell?
Again, to me, it is more about the work. I want to make sure I will do the work perfectly. And if I do my job properly and the other casts do the same, it will get a beautiful credit, and then whatever comes will come. I only worry about today and everything else falls into place.
How did you end up in New York?
Actually, I was born here but I grew up there. Overall, I have spent about 25 years in the United States. It just happens that I wound up being there and the opportunities came but home is always home.
How much of your Nigerianesse is still in you?
A lot; although people have accused me that my Nigerianesse is poor. I get accused a lot but it is there.
How much of it reflects in your style of dressing?
It never leaves you. It is interesting but I think it is the attitude that changes a little bit. As a culture, we have gotten a little more hip. When I was growing up we thought that, at a certain age, you should be putting on Agbada, you don’t wear canvass and stuff like that. Now as a society, we have gotten a little more hip. In the United States, it has always been like that, so I think I was like that already. I guess I kind of veered towards that a little. But as a society, we have also moved towards that direction. Even back when I was a little younger, I kind of leaned towards that.
How true is the notion that the western society turns against successful immigrants?
I think it is the same for every immigrant. Everybody who leaves their country to someone else’s country is not going there to fool around. They go there for a reason, so their work ethics is different. In fact, for the person that has done everything to get out of their country, whether it is Pakistan, India or wherever, when you get to your host country, you work hard. Even Indians who come to Nigeria work very hard to get something better.
I think that is what happens to Africans who go abroad. They need to take care of the family so they work harder than the people there. The thing is not to lose the fact that you are still from somewhere else. Once you lose that fact, then you can get into a situation where you are completely lost and then you don’t get appreciated and then all the things you think you had, you don’t have. They don’t forget that you are really not from here.
Have you ever been a victim of racism?
Absolutely. I grew up in New England. I am not too sure, but historically, it is one of the more racist towns in the US. When I went to elementary school, myself and my brother were the only two black kids in the whole school. For the first and second grades, I fought physically almost every day. I would have to fight as many as five boys at a time and trust my naija mumsie, if I lost, she would beat me.
For two years, I fought almost every day and I only lost once. You need to see the kind of beating my mum gave me. She said it doesn’t matter if they are 20; true story. In my third grade, there was a white teacher who was appalled at the level of racism in the school. She put an end to it and actually, some of those kids who were mean to me turned out to be my friends many years later.
Where exactly is Chet from?
I am from Anambra but I grew up in Lagos.
Can you find your way home?
I can find my way. I can get on Ekene Dili Chukwu and get there. I have done it before. In the States, you are from where you grew up; you are not from where your parents are from. You are from your hood. I was talking to my friends and I told them that if that were the case, I am from Surulere. I grew up in Surulere most of my life.
Are you married?
I am not married but I have a fiancée
How soon do you hope to tie the knot?
Probably later this year
What was the attraction?
She is fine
Is she Nigerian?
No, she’s not. She is from the United States.