This is an edited transcript of the interview with Genevieve Nnaji, one of Nollywood’s authentic superstars, anchored by Pedro Pinto of the Cable News Network. CNN’s Pedro Pinto caught up with Nnaji before her movie premiere in London to discuss fame and her passion for Nigeria.
CNN PP: When you travel and you go to premieres, do you see yourself representing your country, representing your continent?
G. Nnaji: Yes, definitely. It’s my duty. In my appearance, my clothes; see there’s a touch of African print on what I’m wearing. So, I tend to wear Nigerian designers as well. I feel it’s a responsibility.
CNN PP: Do you see yourself as an ambassador for your country?
G. Nnaji: As long as you a celebrity and you are in the public eye, you are an ambassador because you are the person they see. They can’t see the whole continent, they can’t see the whole country so what you show people is basically an idea of what you represent back home.
CNN PP: How would you describe Nigeria to people who have never been there?
G. Nnaji: (Sigh) Nigeria is a unique and peculiar country. And as a people, we are too.
CNN PP: Why Peculiar?
G. Nnaji: That’s because every aspect of human nature is in every Nigerian. The good the bad the ugly, it’s just like another New York. Nigeria is fun, to be honest. But we are not the worst people, all we have people talking about when it comes to Nigeria is crime and fraud and that’s just a very very minute number of people. Nigerians as a whole are very confident people, I believe we’re confident, I believe we’re very resourceful and we are very hospitable when it comes to visitors in the country.
CNN PP: When you look at your country, what are some of the things you love about it, what are some of the things that you would like to change?
G. Nnaji: I like that as Nigerians as we are; we have some sort of neighbourly love that we don’t understand. We have a way of coming to the rescue of complete strangers, we do have that bond and I think it has to do with our background and how we are raised and how Nigerians in a whole have been made to be moral.
It’s like you have a moral duty to your society, to yourself, to your family so it’s like everybody’s business is everybody’s business (laughs). It’s a bad thing sometimes, but it does have its good sides. You know, so that is something that we are. We probably don’t know as a people and if we don’t know we should know it now, it’s a good thing.
What I don’t like about Nigeria…man, I never diss my own country, man. You know, whatever negativity is in a country is in every other country; it’s in every other part of the world. So, the thing is everyone needs to be treated as individuals and not a collective nation. You don’t judge one person or judge one person by another person’s faults. So, I just take every Nigerian the way I see them. I would never live anywhere else to be honest, no.
CNN PP: Really?
G. Nnaji: No, I grew up in Lagos; I was born, bred there. I don’t see myself leaving that town anytime soon. I can work anywhere else, but in terms of living, I’m used to Lagos, I’m sorry.
CNN PP: You grew up around Lagos and grew up in a big family. The fact that you were one of eight brothers and sisters, how much did that contribute to your competitive and confident nature now?
G. Nnaji: Competition amongst us? Not that much but we are a close-knit family. We learnt to depend on ourselves for advice, for a shoulder to lean when you needed one. We didn’t have to go out because we were enough for us. So, I think that’s part of the reason I am somewhat of a private person and an introvert. I’m a middle child, I have three younger brothers and the last is a girl; for me, that made me a stubborn person I must confess as I bullied my younger ones. So, I am stubborn but only in my principles and things, I believe. I stand for what I believe in and it doesn’t matter how many people I offend or who don’t agree. You know, when I believe in something, I go all the way.
CNN PP: Let’s focus a little bit on your childhood and your first experience in front of the camera. The first time you were in front of a camera, you were eight years old. What made you want and what gave you the opportunity to star in a soap opera?
G. Nnaji: As a child, I was signed on to a modeling agency and there was a soap opera ‘Ripples’ going on at that time and the story got to a point where they needed kid actors. It was easier to go to the agency and say look, ‘we need children’. So I was picked up along with two other kids. That was my only experience, I did a few commercials as well but I enjoyed it, I think, it was fun. I felt alive in front of the camera somehow because I was a shy kid, believe it or not. But then, it was an opportunity for me to come out of my shell to express myself in a different way, in a way I wish I could as a normal person.
CNN PP: You have been referred to as the African Julia Roberts. When you hear that, what do you feel?
G. Nnaji: Thanks to Oprah. It’s very very flattering. Not just because I was compared to her but because of who compared me to her. So, it’s an honour, to be honest but I think it’s probably the vein we have on the forehead, I think that’s what we have in common… (Laughs)
CNN PP: When the camera rolls, are you thinking ‘People are expecting me to deliver’, ‘I have to topple my game’?
G. Nnaji: You have to be at the top of your game no matter what. Even though that’s not what I wake up in the morning thinking, but I just know I have to be the best that I can be. I have to challenge myself, I have to impress myself, I’m my biggest critic, to be honest so if I’m not happy about a job I believe usually that most people wouldn’t be. I just have to be happy with what I do and I have to impress myself. And I just believe that people will believe, my followers, my fans, whatever I choose to do will agree. You can’t please everybody but you can do what you do. I’ve had the followership you know over the years and it’s the reason they’ve followed me. So, I must be doing something right, I’ll just keep doing it.
CNN PP: Earlier you told me that you must be careful what you wish for…If I was going to ask you now for what you wish for your future. Where do you see yourself?
G. Nnaji: Seeing myself is a completely different story, where I want to see myself is another story. I want to be further challenged in my career. I don’t think I have reached my peak necessarily so I hope for other opportunities, greater opportunities to express myself mostly because there is still something inside of me I just feel I haven’t let out and then it’s really trying to come out, trying to burst loose. So I’m hoping for that opportunity, it can be anywhere, Nollywood, I just want that story, that story that challenges me.
CNN PP: There’s always been Hollywood, then there was Bollywood, now there’s Nollywood in Nigeria. Tell us about it, what makes Nollywood special, how would you describe it?
G. Nnaji: There’s only one description for me when Nollywood is concerned. An industry that started with stories for the people, by the people will tell true-life stories if we had any, but mostly in a small scale form drama. So our movies are very drama related, orientated.
So, having to have an industry come out of something that we started that small was overwhelming and unexpected and basically what we have been doing so far like I said the last time is playing catch up and readjust wherever we have made a mistake, wherever we overlooked. We could have done things differently had we known we were going to blow up, be this big, and be compared to Hollywood and Bollywood. So, Nollywood came from out of the blue, just people enjoying, making movies and acting movies.
CNN PP: So why do you think this happened in Nigeria because it could have occurred in any other African country?
G. Nnaji: But it didn’t, we did it.
CNN PP: What do you think makes Nigeria special in that way, do you think it was the characteristics of the people, an economic boom as well?
G. Nnaji: Nah, I think it was just a bunch of creative people that we had back in the day. You know we had the likes of Amaka Igwe, Tade Ogidan, people who were very passionate about theatre. Theatre has been in Nigeria for a very long time, I mean we used to have cinemas to be honest but all that died down. But the creative part of it didn’t, necessarily. And there are people who have the talent and gift who want to do movies, so luckily those people didn’t die with the cinemas. They’ve been there doing their thing very quietly in the background until they tried it on video, VHS then, and it was a big hit. It was actually in different languages, it started with an Igbo movie. There were quite a number of them and they were pretty successful. So, it’s amazing that people actually have been looking for some way to entertain themselves outside sports and the news…no offense.
CNN PP: What advice would you give to an aspiring African actor or actress who is taking his or her first steps in the industry?
G. Nnaji: Always know what you want. It’s very important you know what you want, it’s very important you are true to yourself and what you stand for. Don’t come in because you admire the lifestyle of celebrities because trust me it’s not all golden as you see it. So, you have to be there for the right reasons in my own opinion because that’s the only time you enjoy what you do, that’s the only time you feel you’re not working. Do what you love doing and you’ll never work a day in your life, they say that. So you had better be there for the right reasons, any other reason, you’ll probably suffer the consequence and it probably won’t last.
CNN PP: You have come to London for a premiere. Mirror Boy is the name of the film, what do we need to know about this movie?
G. Nnaji: It’s actually just a children’s adventure. It’s a story told in an African way, I get to play the mother of the lead character ‘Tijan’. Lots of suspense.
CNN PP: How do you feel about going to premieres, is it fun for you?
G. Nnaji: I’m a woman, I love to play dress up (Laughs). It is fun, I think most especially because I love to see people’s reactions to what it is we’ve done, we’ve come up with. And it’s an opportunity to meet my fans and have them meet me and just interact one-on-one.
CNN PP: I’ve been at red carpets before, I know how manic it can get. How does it make you feel when people scream your name constantly?
G. Nnaji: You know you never get completely used to it. Like the last time I was here for the other premiere, it was pretty overwhelming. I just thought, ‘It’s my life’, all these people actually loving and appreciating me for who I am and it’s very humbling to be honest. I must say I’m blessed really.
CNN PP: But how do you stay grounded when everyday, people want to talk to you, everyday people say they love you and they love your work. How do you stay true to yourself?
G. Nnaji: I’m usually myself as long as I’m not in front of the camera. I’m not that much of an extrovert, I stay in a lot, I surround myself with real people; my family, my friends, people who know me for me outside my work and I try not lose myself. I do things that I enjoy doing as a normal person, a normal girl.
CNN PP: Can you be normal when everyone is watching what you are doing?
G. Nnaji: Like right now, there’s a camera in front of me and I doubt I’m normal (laughs). I try to be normal. The truth is people don’t want to see the normal you. They say they want to see that but they don’t want to see me goofing around. That would definitely change their perception of me. But I try, I’m real as they come anyway.
CNN PP: When did you realize this could be your future, this could be your career?
G. Nnaji: I don’t think I ever realized that. For a long time, I kept thinking ‘ok, this is just temporary; definitely I’m going back to school to read Law or English or something I wanted to do’, so I never fully accepted acting as my profession, I don’t think I saw myself there. But somehow, I was dragged and sunk in deeper and deeper. Ok, so here we are; I’m an actor!
CNN PP: Is it because in Africa and in Nigeria from what I’ve read and correct me if I’m wrong; people did not have the best opinion and review about actors and actresses?
G. Nnaji: In the beginning, of course, they didn’t. In terms of work ethics, everybody thinks you have to do the professional job; you have to be a doctor, you have to be a professional in what you do, you have to be a lawyer, you have to do one of those ‘dignifying’ jobs. So being in front of a camera, whether you were a model, whatever gave you that exposure even if you were a broadcaster, they just thought either you are a dropout, you know, or a no-good to yourself, your society, your family and this is the best you can do.
They just felt it was too much exposure and for you to be in that position there has to be something wrong with you, you’re not normal and that’s the truth because back then, parents would never allow their kids to go into acting or modeling or what have you. I know my parents didn’t necessarily agree with my choice, they learned too at the end. Yea, it took a while for people to accept acting as a profession.
CNN PP: When did you notice the shift, when did people start respecting you for your work?
G. Nnaji: I think when I just respected myself. I think I needed to respect myself, I needed to prove to people that I can be a normal person and be an actor, I don’t have to be the loose one, because I’m an actress then you brand me like every other actress out there or something. I basically just stay true to myself. I did my work and I went back into my shell, I went back into the normal life I was used to and back to my home and tried to live a normal life and I would definitely avoid coming out in public except I really needed to still try to hold on to my private life. So, that also gave people the chance to see me for my work and not for anything else.
CNN PP: Do you ever get the feeling that when you wake up in the morning one day that you wish you weren’t famous?
G. Nnaji: Oh yeah, I don’t even need to wake up. Just sitting down sometimes, I’m like (sighs), … but I can’t complain.