The actress opens up on how she built her acting career, how she defines success and her new life in the UK.
The premise of the film Last Call, which will hit cinemas this week, is ridiculous by Nollywood standards.
For starters, a huge percentage of the film takes place in one scene, a very dim-lit radio station. A popular radio presenter, Hauwa, is doing her show when a caller accuses her of being a leader of an online mob that has led to a suicide on live radio. And things spiral out of control.
“The first thing that attracted me was this notion of being able to create such a chaotic environment in a very limited space and time and in a space where you wouldn’t really expect it,” Zainab Balogun, the actress who plays Hauwa, told Pulse Nigeria.
“Where would you find a ransom situation taking place like this on live radio? And so for me, it was just like, ‘Wow! This is crazy,” she added.
The character is emblematic of the power of social media to emphasise the opinions of a few and create a round-the-clock barrage on whichever victim the mob has decided is deserving of their ire. In this case, through stan culture and groupthink, Hauwa’s opinions, casual as one might think becomes absolute truth for fans.
“I think that with this sort of scenario, everyone is forced to really see their position and see how they contributed to what has happened,” Balogun said.
For the role, Balogun also had to pick up pidgin which doesn’t come naturally to her, having spent most of her life in the UK. “I mean, my pidgin before the movie was slim to none. Just your, a little bit of this, here and there,” she said.
“But it was very rewarding and to then have the support of fellow team members being there to tell me, ‘Hey, OK, we’ve got to switch your inflection a little bit here,’ or ‘This is the true explanation or a definition of this particular proverb.’ So it was fun.”
As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants in the UK, her first role was as a featured extra on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Being on set with Samuel L Jackson, Anne Hathaway, and Christian Bale changed the game for her. But Bale’s method of acting was particularly outstanding. All through that day on set, she said, he had remained in character, a familiar method rumoured to help produce excellent performances that many Hollywood actors have adopted.
“I watched this man stay in character the entire time, and just seeing the gravity of what was being created, and then eventually watching in the cinemas, I feel like I could also contribute and create in it,” she said.
Jaded by the roles she kept getting in the UK, she decided to give Nollywood a shot and moved to Lagos. To pay the bills, she took an EbonyLife TV gig and joined the daytime talk show The Spot with Ebuka Obi-Uchendu and Lamide Akintobi. The mainstream audience didn’t like her. She was criticised for being too snobby, too snappy and too snarky.
But as wellness, self-love, and conscious living began to take a foothold in the culture, she found her tribe.
Balogun currently boasts 344k followers on Instagram, where she has built those types of social media brands that pretend not to be about the tea even as they serve the tea. “You ever think about entering a discussion and say nope ‘This is not for me’? Let somebody else tap in,” she said in one post.
It’s also the kind of influential brands that claim not to be about fame. But seriously, she said, she’s not into fame. “Fame has never been something that I cared about. I don’t care about showbiz. I don’t care about the numbers on social media. I don’t care about red carpets unless I really have to because it’s a part of my work,” she said, even as her Instagram is littered with Fendi purses and Coach bags, a vacation in Lisbon, clear views of the Burj Khalifa, and that post of her on the white sand shores of the Maldives.
She is about to start reading her first book of the year, Courage to be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. It was a recommendation. “I really like reading books about wellness and mental health,” she said.
After she moved back, she quickly realised that her acting resume in the UK meant nothing in Nigeria.
“I decided to go on TV and build a brand that producers, directors, Nollywood would see and recognise when I came knocking on the door and say, ‘Hey, I actually want to audition for this, give me a chance,’” she said.
Balogun’s big break came as the overzealous event planner, Wonu, in The Wedding Party, while she worked at EbonyLife TV, now EbonyLife Films. Then she landed the lead roles in The Royal Hibiscus Hotel and God Calling. They were not blockbusters. But they cemented her place as an actress for those looking for the nearest thing to arthouse acting you can find in Nollywood.
“I’ve always tried to shape a career for myself that is just not limited by territories,” she said. She added that she has deliberately only starred in movies “You can pick up, you can place it in a different country, in a different industry and it will still thrive.”
In an industry like Nigeria where success is primarily driven by box office numbers, how does she define success for herself?
“One is me watching the project and feeling like, ‘Oh! Wow! This is great,’ and being able to seamlessly watch it without the producer’s eyes. There’s the financial success of seeing a project do extremely well, whether it’s in numbers at the cinemas or you know, eyeballs via streamers or being paid for, (or) being bought for a certain number of figures,” she said.
“Another huge success is when I’m able to take a project and say, ‘Hey, I want this in my showroom. I want this to be a part of my portfolio that everybody gets to see everywhere.”
Since the big streamers have landed on the shores of Nollywood with their big pockets, the budget for filmmaking in Nigeria has also shot up. It means that actors and producers get to make more money. But does Balogun see a downside to all of this?
She is excited about the “opportunity to invest in our stories and our productions and increased capacity and job creation and all of those great things.”
But the actress worries about the investments not trickling down and nourishing the entire industry.
“It also comes at a risk of what tends to happen sometimes in our industry, which is, there is a cornering. It has the risk of creating this environment where only certain people or faces or creators get access to this funding,” she said.
“And I know that everybody can’t benefit, but what we really need is a long-term vision that has growth.”
Career wise though her table is full.
She has also been actively trying to get back into the UK acting scene and has landed some roles in commercials. She is also working on a short film, Blood, a psychological thriller based on true stories of women with endometriosis and reproductive issues. Balogun has been vocal about her struggle with endometriosis.
“Gosh! I’m having a really great time with my career right now,” she said. “I’m in a really great place with my career and I’m just really loving getting back to the heart of what being an actor truly is,” she added.