Zainab Balogun is an award-winning actress, producer and presenter. Popularly known for her outstanding roles in top Nigerian movies such as The Wedding Party, The Hibiscus Hotel, Sylvia, Chief Daddy and God Calling, she appeared on foreign shows like Material Girl on BBC 1 and a Bollywood movie titled Cocktail prior to her Nollywood debut In 2012.
Zainab relocated to Nigeria and became the producer, presenter and co-creator of TV shows EL Now and The Spot. In 2018, she won The Future Awards Prize for Acting. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about challenges and opportunities for our local movie industry post-pandemic, her latest body of work debuting this month, making a career in film and changes she would like to see for women in the industry.
Would you say relocating back home was the best decision for you?
Yes it was. It took some time for me to realise it, but I can confidently now say it was the best decision at the time.
How has your journey been and what three traits would you say helped you get to where you are today?
Getting here has been a decade long journey and a lot of strategic processes. I’ve always gone against the grain with my career by playing the long game, which can be slow, yet rewarding. I would say that three traits that have helped me along this journey are discipline, focus and utmost professionalism.
You started out as a show host, what are some of the challenges you faced when you embraced acting? How did you overcome them?
I chose the presenter/producer route as a method to acquire visibility. By doing this, it meant people were willing to let me through the audition doors quicker. Acting was the beginning and end game, which showed in my portfolio of work. This meant my talent spoke for itself and was enough for people to give me a chance. For every person who didn’t take me seriously, I knew there was another person who would. I simply kept knocking on doors; and the louder I did, they had to answer.
Building a career in film requires determination, resilience and vision. What was it about Nollywood that attracted your attention to the point or recoating back home?
I started my career in the UK at a time where black representation in media was still very few and far between. Choosing Nollywood meant I wouldn’t have to face that fight. I grew up with Nollywood movies and watched how the industry developed over time and I knew focusing on Nollywood would allow me stretch my creative skills in tough circumstances. I see now that this was a gift although it often felt like it was going to break me at some point.
As a woman in film, what changes would you like to see in this industry for women?
I would like to see more women play an active role in all film related fields. From lighting, finance, cinematography, editing to directing, we need more women taking space.
Your latest project will debut on October 15, what was the process like? How did you get involved in the production?
I was called in for a read for the role, which is pretty normal in the industry. The shoot took place over an intense period of about two weeks. I don’t know how we did it, but it required a lot of patience and graft from the team. It was clear that we all love what we do and it’ll show in what the audience sees come October 15.
Beyond focusing on the legal profession, how will this be different from what has come out of Nollywood this year? What do you want people to take away?
What I love about the movie is how it weaves multiple real life stories that everyone can directly or indirectly relate with. This is hard to do when comedy and drama are typical crowd favourites. Charge and Bail will pull at your heartstrings and consciousness. It will make you question who you really are and what your values represent.
It’s always a pleasure working with artistes that are truly professional; it makes the entire process easy for cast and most importantly crew. The team was delightful and I have to say it was a joy to work with them all.
With the number of stories and characters that you have been able to play over time, what is the dialogue you seek to create through your films?
My plan has always been to tell real stories that allow me expand my acting muscles; to play the same characters or tell the same story would make me complacent. While I want to be able to say that my work entertains, I have the selfish desire to ensure that my portfolio is colourful with challenging efforts.
What should the industry be doing for directors, especially young women directors right now that it isn’t doing?
The industry should be opening more opportunities and development for young women in film. We need to trust them and be prepared to take the training wheels off. It’s also very important to cultivate an environment of respect and equality on/off set. Adia Uyoyou was great to work with; she took her time to really connect with actors, which is every actor’s dream.
The pandemic has disrupted the global film industry, what are the challenges and opportunities for the industry beyond the pandemic?
The challenges remain the same when it comes to Nollywood. While so much progress has already been made, we still need to witness growth in infrastructure, financial support, talent development, distribution and more.
What is the best film related advice you ever received and from who?
“Put in the work and add value always.” This has always been the word from my tribe of colleague and friends. I’ll be putting myself in trouble if I just named one person.
How are you helping upcoming female artistes looking for a big break in the industry?
Believe it or not, I was a bit shy once, but covered it pretty well. I think every female artiste can break out by slowly putting herself out there. This can be done from giving short presentations at school to reading in Church. These are little things that will help them get comfortable with public speaking as well as help to improve their communication skills. Start small and then move to more challenging environments.
Also, offering transparency on every level is the best thing I can do to for upcoming talent. There is a cagey like energy that runs in the industry that I believe needs to be addressed. We should be free in sharing information and expertise. I’m intentional about showing the ‘show’ and ‘business’ of showbiz if it can help another woman avoid the mistakes I made. This means being honest about the work both the good and bad. It means not being afraid of going against the industry norms, which can often seem daunting.
How best can we get Nigerian movies to win global awards and shine on the world’s biggest stages?
We can continue to tell more stories that are unique to us rather than being influenced by the norms of the west. They’re watching us for what’s next, so it only makes sense that we showcase more culture and stories with better production quality. There are so many books and folk stories left untold. We must take ownership of these before they’re bought over by the big names and studios. By doing so, we became a huge part of the change, conversation and particularly the transactions. Nothing should be happening on the continent without us.
Has there been any experience so far that has threatened to derail you?
There was a time where the rat race of the industry in Nigeria required elements that I found draining. For example, the need to be always ‘on’ and seen on every red carpet while playing a game of exposure versus talent. It got very exhausting quickly and took the fun out of the experience. I found that I had changed as a person and that life wasn’t necessarily feeding the person I became.
Personally, there was very little in the value the race gave and it forced me to take a step back to run my career at my own pace. Once again, this was met with frustrations. However, it was important that I carved out my own lane and did things on my own terms in order to find that joy again.
Best way for you to relax aside from watching movies?
When I’m not watching movies, I love to eat, sleep and travel. Ideally, I’ll be doing the first two on a beach somewhere.