Okawa Shaznay is a Nollywood actress,model and a television personality from Cameroon and the first from her country to successfully break into Nollywood with her role in the blockbuster movie Iyore; starring alongside Rita Dominic and Joseph Benjamin. She has enjoyed an impressive career. She is very beautiful,talented and naturally gifted in acting. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Texas Southern University in Houston,Texas,USA.In this exclusive interview with A CHOICES,the versatile actress speaks about the new direction of her career,the industry,childhood,her relationship and lots more…
A-CHOICES: Hi Okawa! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, To start things off, can you tell me about your background and your growing up years?
OS: Basically, I am from Cameroon. I am from the English speaking region of Cameroon. I grew up there, did my primary and secondary school education in Cameroon and then I did my university studies in Texas at Texas Southern university where I studied accounting and there as well in Houston, I always took part in different African stage play productions and things like that so that’s how I kind of dabbled into the whole branching off into doing Nollywood films and things of that nature but then I had always loved doing movies at a very young age. So, yeah, that is my subtle background.
A-CHOICES: How did you get into acting? Was it a childhood dream; were you inspired by someone or something?
OS: Hmm… Growing up in Cameroon, I had always enjoyed watching movies. I loved, I was just fascinated about films and you know, back then growing up, we used to watch a lot of Indian movies, Western movies, Chinese movies, and things like that. Then, all of a sudden one day, I came across my very first Nigerian home video and because of my love for movies, I was really stunned by the fact that I could see people who looked like me, whose culture kind of resembled mine and I could just see myself in them and automatically, because I loved watching movies so much, I thought to myself: Hey! I can possibly be able to do this if I can see people who actually do look like me doing this thing as well. So that is how my whole interest started off for acting, watching my very first set of home videos.
I watched after the storm, which was a TV series at one point back in the day. I watched glamour girls, I equally watched other films. I watched a whole bunch of movies back in the day. Already spoke of glamour girls, living in bondage and things like that. So, that is how I kind of got my interest in acting. It has always been a childhood dream and I’m inspired by so many talented actors across the globe. It’s really hard sometimes to name a specific person, I’m just so fascinated by the art and the craft. All about acting, I just love it so much, it has always been a childhood dream of mine.
A-CHOICES: Modelling and acting together can be both physically and mentally demanding. How do you go about handling both roles considering that you have a daily life to manage as well?
OS: First of all, I no longer model as a profession. I used to do commercial print modelling back in Houston, years ago when I was in school. That’s when I used to dabble into a lot of commercial print work in Houston while I was at the university. Right now, I don’t really do a lot of modelling, I’m solely an actor professionally and that’s my main role and yes, I can do some modelling on the side if need be but right now, I’m really an actor and an actor only but then, being an actor is actually physically and mentally draining.
It requires a lot, you become somebody else each time and we spend so many hours on set, working with our heads and running lines and all of that stuff, its also very physically draining. You might say yes, I’m doing acting alone but trust me, it’s not easy, we’re always busy, we’re always filming, we’re always switching up from one character to another so its very demanding and can be quite draining but then its the job, that’s how it is. How I go about handling it, I just try as much as possible to give myself sometime in between characters. I try not to jump from one script to another, right up the bat (immediately). I try as much as possible to give myself some breathing space if and when I can.
A-CHOICES: Where your parents supportive of you when you wanted to get into the movie industry?
OS: When I stated my claim and interest on wanting to become an actor professionally, I wanted to do theater arts in the University but then my mother encouraged me to take on another course rather than acting just as a guide saying that “just incase acting doesn’t work out, what else would I be able to fall back on?”
Since I was also very good with Commerce, Economics and Business mathematics, I decided to pursue an accounting degree in the university while I continued doing my acting on the side. So in a way, my mother, she was very supportive and my dad also. At first, he was a little skeptical but now, everybody has wholeheartedly accepted it but at the beginning, it wasn’t really easy but then my parents were still kind of supportive. They just wanted me to have a sense of direction like “what if this doesn’t work”, you know, the whole acting thing, it’s kind of tricky, it’s not everybody who comes in and tries to leave a mark or even have the opportunity to go far. So, my mum always told me it’s very important to have a backup plan. So, in a way, yeah, I would say that my parents to an extent were supportive of me getting into the acting industry. At the end of the day, yes.
A-CHOICES: You were also a finalist at the Miss Cameroon USA 2010 contest?.
OS: Actually, I was representing Cameroon, I was Miss Cameroon USA, 2010. I was representing Cameroon in the Miss Africa USA pageant for 2010. It was an interesting experience, I had never done any pageantry before then and that was my first and only pageant because it was some sort of humanitarian/scholarship pageant. It was a little bit different from your regular pageant stuff so it was interesting and we had to do a lot of humanitarian work back in Texas and also, to do some other work that would reflect back home in Cameroon at the time so yeah, that was basically it. It was an interesting journey being in a pageant for my first time and that was the first and only time I was in a pageant.
A-CHOICES: Tell me about your breaking into the Nigerian film industry, getting a good role in Nollywood and difference between the Nigerian and Cameroonian Film Industry?
OS: Breaking into the Nigerian film industry, this for me has actually been a journey and its still a journey. While I was in Houston like I said earlier, I was taking part in a lot of Nigerian stage play productions, some small movie productions while I was working and schooling at the same time. So back then we had a lot of film producers from Nigeria coming to Houston to work so that’s how I started having connections to see how I could come back to Africa and star filming. So, I had the opportunity to shoot a movie with Frank Rajah back in 2013 in Atlanta so from then I had an opportunity to come back to Nigeria in 2014 and shoot my first Nigerian movie Iyore with Rita Dominic and Joseph Benjamin. From then, I just started doing different stuff and by God’s grace, I have been blessed to do a whole lot of lead roles from then on. So basically, I started my Nollywood career in 2014, so that’s how I broke into the Nigerian film industry. I broke into the industry with the movie Iyore. It did well in cinemas at that time and it’s also actually on Netflix right now. That was my breaking into Nollywood movie, Iyore.
Then the difference between the Nigerian and the Cameroonian film industry, I haven’t had an opportunity to stay in the Cameroonian film industry for long because I traveled out of Cameroon way back in 2005. I travelled out for my studies so I did not really have the opportunity to really explore the Cameroonian film industry. Though the Cameroonian film industry is not as big as the Nigerian film industry because as of right now, we don’t have a very strong distributive network that spreads our movies far and wide from Cameroon and so we’re still doing our thing, doing festivals and stuff but that strong distribution network within the country, it’s not there yet so I think that’s one of our major difference between the Cameroonian film industry and the Nigerian film industry which quite huge. That’s basically it. It’s just two countries doing their thing, talking about their culture and who they are in their films but I just feel like as of right now, the Cameroonian film industry’s distribution network is not as strong yet but we’re getting there.
A-CHOICES: So, how many movies have you been in so far? Which one has been most challenging?
OS: I would say I cannot really give you a ballpark figure right now, I would say roughly, I think I might have done over 30 movies or so. It’s in between 30 and 50. I have a lot of stuff that has been unreleased so I can’t really give you a figure right now. The most challenging film role I have had. I have different challenging ones, I can’t really pick which is most challenging. Iyore was very challenging because I had to play three characters and those 3 characters were just so different.
One was a warrior, one was a princess and one was a lawyer and they different characteristics and she had to keep coming back and forth between the present time and an ancient era so it was really challenging, you had to try and make a difference between those roles. And it was physically demanding as a warrior also on that project. Also recently, I just wrapped up a film called Heart of Stone, a very beautiful script and beautiful movie by Amber films production but funny enough, if I tell you the most challenging thing in this film, its really funny to some people, I had to put on contacts and wearing contacts for this film (I had to wear them for the character). It was my very first time putting on contacts so that was a major challenge for me because I just had this foreign object, it was just clouding my mind most of the time. Yeah, that was the most challenging thing for me physically as well, but other than that, I’ve done so many stuff, I can’t really think of more. Yeah, those 2 for now.
Oh, I forgot, In my country as well, the movie is on Netflix at the moment, it was also quite challenging for me at that time because I was filming it while I was pretty sick so it was a very challenging movie because I had to have this emotional character. The character was super emotional because she was almost losing her child so I had to deal with that and then I had to deal with my personal, not being very okay, I was very sick but I still had the chance to pull through it. So, those three were actually really challenging for me.
A-CHOICES: Your daily beauty routine and how you have managed to maintain your complexion?
OS:Hmm. My daily beauty routine is pretty simple. Each day after my filming, and usually daily (I do this regardless even if I haven’t filmed) I have a simple cleansing routine. I use a facial cleanser and I do my moisturizing then from time to time, I exfoliate as well, maybe once or twice a week for exfoliating my face and all of that, I drink lots of water, I try as much as possible to exercise as much as I can. I don’t really do any kind of dieting because I feel like if you just do a normal exercise routine and just eat normally, I feel like it just works perfect for me, I don’t try to do any dieting at all, I just maintain what I eat and try to workout, drink lots of water and that’s basically it and I feel like what you put in your body reflects on your outer body. That’s just basically it for me, I don’t have anything special or out of the ordinary, that just works for me.
A-CHOICES: In 2016 you won the Exquisite Lady of the Year (ELOY) award for TV Actress of the year for your role in Delilah. What was like working with veteran such as Clarion Chukwurah (as Sylvia Ambrose)
OS: It was very humbling winning that title, getting that award. We don’t work for awards but it gets really beautiful when you’re acknowledged and you see that people are watching you so that 2016 award for best female actress of the year for my role in Delilah, it would forever be something that I’d never forget because it was such as great honour. And working with Miss Claron Chukwuma, that was my very first time meeting and working with her. She is such a force, she is so talented and was so easy to work with. She just made things very easy and we just blended very well. She’s just amazing, I learnt a lot from her. So, it was quite a beautiful experience working with Miss Clarion Chukwuma. She’s amazing, yes.
A-CHOICES: What is your definition of a great film?
OS:To me, a great film has to do with first things first, I feel like if we have a good story, a strong script, it just sets the tone. And then, we have to have a good visionary, a good director who has the perfect vision to portray through the characters to bring this story to life. I feel like once we have those two basic things (a story and a director who is driving force of the film, I fell that would make a great film. Now, coming to that, we equally have to have a good production team, the things that would make the film come to light. What are the things we need in place? The art direction, what it brings into play to show this film. All of those things all come into play to make a great film so once we have that good script or story and we have a good director who would make sure that things would be executed in the right way, I feel like that would make a great movie.
A-CHOICES: So much has changed in the industry since you launched your career nearly 10 years ago. What type of stories do you think Nollywood needs to begin to shoot?
OS:Actually I started my career in Nollywood in 2014, that’s about six years ago not ten years ago. So much has truly really changed though. I think that Nollywood is in a great place at the moment. Great place in the sense that we are going into a direction where we are putting in efforts in having a good production quality, we are authoring great stories as well. For example, 96 days, which talked about the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, talk about The ghost and the house of truth by Akin Omotoso. Those are great movies which are talking about things in the society and then the production quality too is top notch so I feel like Nollywood is already on the right part with the recent movies we’ve been shooting. We don’t just do comedy, we do a lot of stuff that talk about the society, that reflects our society.
I feel like we just need to do more, just become better and put more efforts again into our stories more and not just forget about our stories and concentrate more on the technicalities of things. I think we had great stories back in the day, the technical aspects weren’t really strong as they are now and I think that we are doing quite well in that direction of the technicality but I just pray and hope that we also enforce great story while embarking on this – doing better in our technicality. I just feel like we’re in a great part. And then to add to that, I also would love to see great Nollywood productions that have to do with the mystical aspect. I know we’ve done a lot of stuff in the past but I would love to see stories done now with a better technical aspect in the mystical themes and our folktales are epic stuff. We want to see epic movies that have beautiful technical display in them. I feel those are the kind of movies that we should also look into right now because I think we’re doing very well with the contemporary but I’d love to see epic stories brought to that same grandora, if you could say that.
A-CHOICES: Nollywood is almost an all-comers affair. What skills do you think budding actors have to possess?
OS:Budding actors, I just feel you should come in being you. You’re unique being you. When you come in and just be prepared to be an open canvas where you can be molded into different characters. I feel like if you come in with that mindset, being ready to just be molded into different characters and to bring that unique thing that pertains to only you, I feel that’s what you need. You also need a lot of patience, you also need to have resilience, you have to work hard, you have to have this uniqueness about you and just be ready to learn. I think boarding actors, you should be able to possess all that and more.
A-CHOICES: When you are offered a role, what is the next thing you do? Do you read the script many times, or once. Do you like taking direction from a director or do you rehearse several times?
OS:The first thing when I get a script, I have to talk it with either the producer or the director about the story. Of course, I have to read the script the first time, I don’t only read it once, I read it more than twice, just so I can get to understand how I connect with the other characters and what I bring to the story so I just need to do that to understand all of that then I have to do my personal breakdown of the script to know I can flow through scene to scene emotionally and the physical attributes I can bring to a character and definitely, of course I love taking directions from a director. It’s important, That shouldn’t be a question or something that you should wonder, you have to be ready to take directions from your director because a lot of time, what you have in your head, you think that you’re portraying a … but the director sees what he seeing, you don’t see yourself so you should be able to take directions and just be open to be that canvas so I actually enjoy taking directions. When I don’t get directions, I get worried so it’s important for me to get directions so I can see that and know that I’m going in the right way or having the director’s vision in play. Then definitely, I rehearse several times before I shoot a movie.
A-CHOICES: How do you get into character?.Describe a memorable character you played
OS: Once I get a role, I try to figure out the character’s background. Who the character is, where is she from? Where she lives, why does she behave the way she behaves? Who are her parents? Where are they from? Who is she? What’s her background? All of those things. Once you pick up a script and you read, you’d be able to tell the bits and pieces of the characters background so with that, you would be able to know how to portray your character. If the character is not well to do, there’s a way she behaves. If a character is from a certain clan, there’s a way she behaves.
If a character is from a single home, from a terrible family, there’s a way you bring that character to live. So, you have to understand your character’s background, you have to have this “character bible” as we call it, to be able to play the character so that’s how I try to get into character by understanding who my character is and understanding what the character’s background is. And one of my most memorable characters I have ever played is Delilah, the mysterious case of Delilah ambrose. I find that character very memorable because I had to be her for a very long time, I took maybe 2 months or so being just Delilah. The character is a strong character, she’s a little bit mischievous because the character says at a young age, she has been through a lot. At a young age, she’s been married four to five times, she’s an informant so there’s a way she carries herself. So that character had a lot of complexities about her so that’s a character hat I will never forget and I really enjoyed playing her.
A-CHOICES: What actors do you long to work with?
OS: In Nollywood right now, I have been blessed to work with a whole lot of actors that I’ve always wanted to work with. I’ve worked with a lot of people. I haven’t worked with Miss Genevieve Nnaji. I haven’t worked with Miss Kate Henshaw yet. I had the opportunity to recently work with Mr Richard Mofe Damijo but then I’m looking forward to working with much more but so far in Nollywood, I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of great talented actors. The largest scale worldwide, Hollywood, I love Eva Green, she did Penny Dreadful, I would really love to work with her. I also love Helen Mirren, I love a lot of them. I’m just open, I’m ready to work with a lot of great talented people in the whole acting business. I don’t really have specifics, I’m just open and ready to work with everyone.
A-CHOICES: What advice would you give young actors ?
OS:My advice to young actors would be study, go for auditions, watch lots and lots of movies, be patient, be resilient, keep working hard, keep stretching your limits and try to figure out different ways in becoming a character. Study, it’s very important.
A-CHOICES: Was there a moment you contemplated walking away from acting?
OS: No, I have never contemplated walking away from acting ever. I love it so much so I’ve never really contemplated working away.
A-CHOICES: If you were to choose another career apart from acting, what would it be?
OS:I know for a fact, if I wasn’t doing acting, I would have been in the financial sector. I studied accounting so I think that’s where I would have been. I would have been in the financial sector doing some sort of accounting and things like that because I’m equally very good in that area as well, while I was in school.
A-CHOICES: Do you generally try not to watch your own work?
OS:Funnily enough, everything I have done, that has been released, that I know of, I have watched. I’ve watched almost everything that I have done. If it’s been released, and I know about its release, and I know where to watch it, I have watched it. I watch my work and I would tell you that I have watched my work more than once. I watch my work to analyse what I’ve done, to see how I can become better. It’s very important to
watch what I have done, I’m not the actor who doesn’t watch her work, I watch all of my stuff, I think I’ve watched everything I’ve been in.
A-CHOICES: Are you married or in a serious, long term relationship?
OS:No,I am not married and right now, I am not in a serious or any kind of relationship. I am not married.
A-CHOICES: A lot of women don’t feel too good about certain parts of their body. Do you wish you could change any part of your body with cosmetic surgery
OS:As of right now, no. I am fully content with the way I look. Recently, I’ve been working out much more often and I think I like what I am seeing but I never really had any dislike with any parts of my body to the extent of wanting to do cosmetic surgery on it. I am okay, by the grace of God with what I have, thank you.
A-CHOICES: What are your views on cosmetic surgery and women who do it to enhance their body parts?
OS:Personally, I wouldn’t want to do it on myself. What do I think about it on other women? I think it’s their choice. If it’s something you would like to do, why not? If it’s something you enjoy, you want to do it, it’s your choice. Your body, your choice. I don’t see anything wrong with it. Personally, cosmetic surgery is really not for me, it’s not my thing but I have no hues against it. I just feel like cosmetic surgery has to deal with a personal choice and to each his own or each her own. I don’t really have anything against it but to do it on my body, I don’t have any interest in that area.
A-CHOICES: What new city are you desperate to lose yourself in?
OS:I would really love to go to Italy. I also would love to go to any of the cities in the Caribbean. I love nature and things like that so I really want to go to places in the Caribbean. I think those are my two places I would love to go to, anywhere in the Caribbean and I’d also love to visit Italy,Greece as well.
A-CHOICES: What new projects are on the cards?
OS: I have a new movie coming out on Netflix in 2021, it’s called The Batman. I shot it alongside Mr. RMD – that’s Mr Richard Mofe Damijo, Gideon Okeke, Uncle Sam Dede, Miss Shafi Bello. We are on that project together. It’s going to be out on Netflix in 2021 and I have a new series coming out this December called Grow up or Nuts with Sofia Alakija and Efe Irele. It’s a web series coming out on YouTube, December 26. I have so many other movies out right now, Lekki on Arrival, Concession, I have a whole lot of movies that are actually out this last quarter of 2020. So those are my projects on the pipeline and then I have a lot of unreleased work that you would see in 2021 by the grace of God.
A-CHOICES: What were you doing when lockdown first started?What plans do you have for your acting career next year?
OS:During the lockdown, I exercised, I watched a lot of movies then I got introduced into Turkish cinema, my goodness. I started watching a lot of Turkish series, I just bumped into them and they are so amazing so I just started watching a lot of Turkey series. Even till now, during my free time, I still watch a lot of Turkish series so that’s like my new thing that I love. So, during the lockdown, my Turkish series, they got me locked in with beautiful stories. So, that’s basically what I was doing during the lockdown, I watched a lot of movies, different films, I read some scripts as well and then I exercised a lot as well.
OS: What plans do I have for my career next year? This is how I normally do with my career, how I take things and how I look at it. I try as much as possible not to say I’m planning, I just hope for the best and just prepare myself. I study and plan and just prepare myself for the great opportunities that await me. I just don’t try to say “Oh, I’m planning it this way”. Certainly of course, I want great things for my career of course but right now, I just want to go with the flow and I feel like with that, it’s just best for me. I’m just open and ready for what comes next. I just try to remain this open canvas to let things flow as they will. So that’s it.
Author: Gbenga Teejay Okunlola