'I Was an Accidental Nigerian Film Star'
My cousin George during filming for his Nollywood blockbuster, Festival Of Love
My cousin George is one of those people who always ends up in preposterous situations. A couple of years ago he went backpacking in India, where he got kidnapped on arrival and held for ransom on a houseboat in Kashmir for a week. He spent his entire time there locked in awkward silence with an old man who smoked fist-sized rocks of hash out of a weird pipe contraption, and was finally set free after giving his captors his entire travelling budget. Why they didn't just mug him, I don't know. It seems like a lot more effort to keep someone hostage than to just leave them helpless in the street. But that's George.
A little later in the year, he was staying in Ghana and ended up becoming the star of Festival Of Love, a Nigerian film about witchcraft and Christianity. You can see George make his entrance at 1:50 here if you don't believe me/ want to be blown away by some of the highest production values around. I dug out his phone number and spoke to George about his experience.
VICE: Hey, George. First off, I guess tell me how the hell all of this happened.
George: Well, I was volunteering at a football organisation in Ghana, and I'd go drinking at this bar every evening with Dundo Nsawam, a Nigerian politician I'd met out there. It turned out one of his best friends is a top Nigerian casting agent, and he desperately needed a white guy for his new film.
Just any white guy?
Yeah, basically. Any English-speaking white guy. He said he really liked the chemistry between me and Dundo, so he wanted me to be in the film, but I was like, "This is absurd. I've never acted before in my life."
Did you have to audition?
Yeah, I got taken to some back alley in Accra, the capital city, and walked into a room where there were these five huge Nigerian guys in suits who were all smoking Cuban cigars. There was only one other guy there to audition – this overweight Ukrainian guy covered in gold chains – so he went first and had to say the line, "You are the most beautiful black creature I've ever seen in my life." But he had a really thick accent. I got up, said the line, and they were all over me. They asked if I was Christian, and I lied and said yes because I figured I was there and might as well go for it. I saw Dundo later that day and he told me I got the part.
I bet you were psyched. How soon did you start shooting?
I think it was about two weeks between the audition and the first day, so that gave me a bit of time to look at the script, which was full of the most horrendously cringeworthy lines I've ever seen in my life. Anyway, two weeks later, they picked me up in this van with the other 30 members of cast and crew and drove us three hours to this hotel in the Ghanaian rainforest, which also acted as the palace in the movie.
Very nice. What is the movie about, exactly?
It's set in a village called Insawa, which is famous for practicing old African magic, some of which involves killing babies and stuff. The prince of Insawa had gone to study at Oxford, where he met Pastor Williams – my character – who converted him to Christianity, so the prince goes back and tries to convert his village. But there's an evil goddess of dark magic there who makes it very hard for him. So, he asks me to fly over to Insawa to spread the word of God, but this goddess tries to kill me and – spoiler alert – we end up falling in love, she stops being so evil and the whole village gets converted to Christianity. The final scene is me and her with a mixed-race baby, living happily ever after.
Ah, you ruined the ending.
Well, the film's five hours long, so I was just saving you a bit of time. It's weird; I never, at any point in my life, thought that I might contribute to the Christianisation of Africa. It kind of became a real moral dilemma for me, because I think it's the most horrendous thing that's been done there.
What did you do to fill the hours between shoots?
Well, it got weird before we even started filming. The night we arrived, I found out I was sharing a bed with the producer and one of the lead actors, who were both absolutely massive, so that was kind of awkward. It then turned out that they were all uber-Christian, so they started listening to all this insane preaching, then began talking in tongues for a bit. Then, right after that, they whack on this ridiculous porn, so it goes from Christian love-in to porno session.
What about your groupie experience?
Oh god, yeah. That night, they left me in there by myself, then I get a knock on the door and it's three of the actresses holding a big boombox, playing all this hypersexual R&B. They all started stripping all around me and trying to get me up to dance with them. I was already so uncomfortable after that weird porn experience, and I think they were a bit disappointed I didn't join in, but I was scared.
Ha, fair enough. And this was all on the first night?
Yeah, I still couldn't really believe it was happening. The next day we had the costume fitting, and I was 18, had just lost about two stone, because I wasn't really eating, and I'd shaved my head pretty recently, so they put me in this ridiculously oversized suit and whacked a load of thick hair gel in my hair, so I look about 12 years old.
What was you first scene?
It was right in the heart of the rainforest, and I was surrounded by about 20 people. They gave me a loudspeaker and told me to improvise a monologue about the beginning of time and why I was there as a Christian missionary. The most ridiculous thing, though, is that everyone was about a metre away from me, so I'm screaming in their faces about how time began at the beginning of the Old Testament and all this stuff about my purpose as a messenger of God.
Wow. Then what?
I think next up was a scene where I had to perform an exorcism on a woman who'd been possessed, and this was during the local school's lunch break, so I had about 200 children watching me in hysterics as I was screaming stuff like, "Deliver the devil from the depths of your soul!"
That sounds like a lot fun.
It was horrendous. In the next scene, I was supposed to recite a prayer in front of about 50 locals, but, of course, I don't know any prayers, except for what I could remember of the Lord's prayer from school. They said, "OK, just talk in tongues for a bit." Obviously I'd never talked in tongues before, but they said if I just got in touch with the God inside me, or whatever, then it would be easy. I took a deep breath and just tried to copy what I'd heard the guys do in the hotel room the night before, and it obviously worked, because all these locals started going completely mental.
Oh, I forgot about my absolute favourite moment from what I've seen of the film. The love scene with the goddess in the waterfall.
Oh yeah, that was hilarious. It was a silent monologue where we had to pretend to be in love, and I hated the actress playing the goddess by this point. She was such a prima donna. You know, clicking her fingers for people to bring her stuff – I couldn't stand it. Anyway, we were supposed to be in love, so we'd be looking lovingly at each other, then she'd point at something in a tree and be like, "Oh my God, do you have any pets? What's your favourite food?" And I'd be like, "Oh yes, a cat, and I love shepherd's pie and pizza." Then, after that scene, I take her hand and lead her to this rock, look at her very sincerely, and say "You are the most beautiful black creature I've ever set my eyes on," which is just the most ridiculous thing I've ever said. It's very painful to watch.
I'm actually very jealous in a lot of ways. What happened after the movie wrapped?
Promotional interviews where I had to say stuff like, "I've been blessed by these people, and I think the script was so beautiful and eloquent, and it's so important to spread the word of Christianity," and a load of other ridiculous stuff. I also started seeing my picture everywhere, because the film got released in, I think, 13 African countries, and the method of advertising a film out there is to stick a load of posters on the side of a van, and drive round with a loudspeaker shouting about the film. So I started getting people shouting "Pastor Williams" at me in the street.
So you suddenly had an army of fans?
Not quite, but even as I'm talking to you now, I'm getting messages and friend requests from Nigerian women, either complimenting me on my chemistry with the goddess, or suggesting that we get married so they can get a visa. Wait, one just popped up on Facebook chat – someone called Promise Love – she's asking if I know how she can get an audition for a film.
Hook her up.
Oh, also, about a year after all this, I was out at a club in Manchester. It was about five in the morning, and I was having a pee. This guy taps on my shoulder and goes, "Are you that boy from that movie Festival Of Love?" I told him I was, so he got five of his mates into the loo and they made me reenact the "You're the most beautiful black creature..." scene in this nightclub toilet at five in the morning. It was bizarre.
Yep, seems it. Thanks George, see you at the next family barbeque.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton
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