Olarotimi Fakunle: Inside His Long Overdue Rise To Mainstream Nollywood
Kazeem in Jade Osiberu’s Gangs of Lagos is one of the most iconic characters of his generation but the actor, Olarotimi Fakunle, had to fight tooth and nail to get here.
It’s a simple routine, if you get it right at least. Kill the goat, divide the pieces, bag them and calculate the proceeds at the end of the day. This was his reality for weeks as he learned the intricacies of being a butcher in one of the busiest markets in Lagos, Nigeria. It was more complicated than he thought — the process of determining how much money he could make from one livestock, and ensuring that from the killing to the slicing and selling, the total amount was complete.
While he worked, blood on his apron and fatigue-etched lines on his face, some people passed by to ask questions, to mock him, to pity him. This work he chose to do was undignified for someone they see on television. Perhaps he must be down on his luck and this was his only hope. Maybe being a butcher was all that was left and a few were sometimes moved to buy from him, to support.
The man at the centre of this tale moved around fast and made many valuable friends as he continued his trade. He learnt to sound like the street was his home and even became close with the butcher he was learning under — an Ibadan man who had come to Lagos to hustle, had been an agbero and now is a man of the people who sells meat. His mannerisms, gait and speech cadence were the perfect template for the journey of a character that was about to be introduced to the world.
In April 2023, about two years after, he appeared on our screens as Kazeem, a man who wanted power by all means and was ready to do anything to get it. The actor, Olarotimi Fakunle became Eleniyan, the owner of men, in the Jade Osiberu masterpiece Gangs of Lagos and finally had his moment in the limelight. The months of understudying the butcher in the market paid off. The world finally got to experience his talents and appreciate it on a bigger scale but it had taken 26 years to get here.
As he recounted his journey, his voice broke from held-up emotions. He described them as mixed feelings. In the mix is gratitude that his day in the sun is here and the dark, obscure days really are gone. Times were rough for the actor and he once considered ending his life at the lowest point of his depression but was saved by his dogs, who sensed his sadness and refused to let him go.
“My dogs saved me. I have a lot of them and I don’t joke with them even though some people think it’s strange that they are one of the most important parts of my life.
“There were times I felt like giving up and thought about drinking poison. I am telling you, there were times I thought about ending my life. One time, I went out at around 1 a.m. to do so and the dogs came out to play with me; a couple of them were crying as if they could read my mind. I looked at them and it didn’t make sense to leave them behind, to die,” Olarotimi said in between sighs.
The actor first trained at the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) in 1997 and described the training process as tough and exciting. He always knew acting was a passion and was happy to train under the greats no matter how rigorous it all was or how uneasy it made his family.
“I started learning the art of choreography and dance. Then, I moved into directing. Even at that age, I moved into acting. I remember that the first professional performance I had was in 1999 at the National Stadium. The stadium was still very fresh at the time and after we performed, I decided that even if my parents didn’t support me, I was going to study Theatre Arts.
“So, I did some menial jobs, got some money and went to Lagos State University. I bought a diploma form and worked my way through school to afford my fees. At the same time, I was trying to get shows here and there. I was on Speak Out at one point, on NTA2 Channel 5,” Olarotimi added.
Back then, the idea of acting as a legitimate source of income had not caught on and there certainly was no glam of social media to provide a seal of approval. Olarotimi knew taking this path meant choosing struggle but he was ready to do so for his dreams, holding on to his love for the art of performing and handling each project with unparalleled dedication.
In the years following, Olarotimi performed on stage in several acclaimed theatre productions, including one at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London. While he enjoyed his theatre run, the state of the medium in Nigeria did not provide actors with enough perks for survival. He sought to break into mainstream Nollywood, to get at least one project that announced his talents to the world and increased the commercial value of his skills. His tough walk towards the big screen was riddled with rejections and projects that almost made it but never quite caught up.
While he acknowledges that some film directors gave him moments to appear on scene, the general perception about him for years was that of a veteran theatre actor who might find it difficult to do films.
This assertion is particularly dangerous for an industry where male leads have been scarce for years, leading to a poor recycling of the same faces yet on the other side, theatre actors are waiting for their big breaks with readiness to pounce on the film material and pull stunning performances. Perhaps the industry needs to rethink its pipeline. Olarotimi, like others are doing now, worked and waited.
“I was always thinking about how to get into Nollywood big time. Don’t get me wrong. I had been in a couple of films but they didn’t quite do justice as everyone still categorised me as a theatre actor.
“But an actor is an actor. It shouldn’t matter what medium he uses. I was going from audition to audition and wasn’t getting any callbacks. It mattered to me that I became mainstream. I have been in the industry for so long and continued to hone my craft. I needed to earn better and get more accolades for my work. Of course, I was disappointed all those times but I also enjoyed working in television which has been a wonderful ride,” he said.
This chance to be mainstream finally came through a door opened by his present manager, Demi Banwo. He called one afternoon while the world was still trying to recover from COVID-19. Olarotimi was in the hospital, the weight of the world on his shoulders, when Banwo asked if he could come to the island for an audition.
“It was just post-COVID and I’d lost a lot from my farming – from my crop farm and all that, so things were a bit hard with cash. He didn’t even know I was in the hospital, and if anyone besides Demi had called, I wouldn’t have moved. So, I made my way to the island and there was crazy traffic in between. I remember the production coordinator called to tell me Jade Osiberu was going to leave because I was running late. I don’t know where I got the confidence to say she could not leave. I mean, people know I am a stickler for time and hardly ever late,” he narrated.
Jade waited and once Olarotimi arrived, he was given a scene to read and perform. She asked if he needed some time to prepare but he didn’t. In five minutes, he delivered flawlessly and did so with more scenes, leaving the production team stunned. A few days later, he got a call that he’d booked the job and was supposed to start stunt rehearsals.
“I am a living testimony. Like I’ve been telling people recently that no matter what it is, do not give up on anything. This took me twenty-something years, ’97 till date? In four years, it will be 30. That is, about 30 years of breaking--trying to you know—in the same direction, hitting the iron and now, we are here. I would not lie to you that the waiting process has not been very excruciatingly painful and tiring, and boring. But at the end of the day, I’m just so glad that I got this chance [and] I took it,” Olarotimi said.
At the time, he was not certain that this was the character that would finally make him mainstream. The prospect of the film being an Amazon Prime original was also unknown to him. What he did know, though, was that the production’s scale was bigger and more intentional than anything he’d been in.
Since the film’s release, Olarotimi’s character, Kazeem, has sparked several debates. The audiences find themselves asking what the character’s motivations were and are unsure whether to like or hate him. The actor hated him at first and struggled with the evils associated with the character. Then he decided to do some work. The process is an acting masterclass in itself.
The way he explained it, there are three ways to know who a character is. “What he says of himself, what the playwright says of him, and what his fellow actors and characters say of him. When I read the entire script and took a deeper look at the names Kazeem was called — son of a butcher, a person from a wretched background, Agbero, Eruku, the one sent to kill, the one sent to destroy and Eleniyan, it all made sense.
“I then channelled my energy into becoming Kazeem. From learning to butcher, and interacting with Agberos and Erukus, I began to piece together layers and layers of this character. From his start point to where it all ends. I had to create and embody these layers to play Kazeem — a man who struggled to fit in till he became Eleniyan,” he explained.
But what about Kazeem’s motivations? Why did he do all he did? In response, Olarotimi asked, “If Nino (Tayo Faniran) was in Kazeem’s shoes and was asked to do the same things, asked to kill to save his own family, wouldn’t he?”
He made the argument that it was the fight for the top, the position of Eleniyan and the fact that everyone in the ghetto universe was set up that way, to fail. “I mean, no matter what you say, Kazeem loved Obalola (Tobi Bakre) and even when he killed Pana (Chike), it was because someone had to take the fall. Everyone uses everyone at the end of the day and the issue of whether Kazeem is good or bad is a matter of perspective. People don’t like to hear this and some even enter my DMs to insult me but it doesn’t matter.”
What does Olarotimi want to do next, especially in the face of this growth he had sought after for so long? He wants to keep acting but is afraid of doing subpar work now that he has the world’s attention.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s two scenes I’m doing in any film,” he says. “There must be something spectacular and that is how I’ve always driven myself to work. That is the only challenge.”
“But the year is booked already for me as it is.”