Daniel Etim Effiong
As we grow, some things become clearer. We evolve into wiser beings, equipped enough to make decisions that end up curating our living experience. In a love story that started with one of Nollywood’s finest actors, Daniel Etim Effiong's decision to trust his gut feeling and switch careers, choosing fulfilment over security, has culminated in a brilliant career in the film industry with a beautiful family to boot. In this inerview, the Superstar actor discusses evolution, romance and everything in between.
Your career is different. You quit the presumably lucrative oil and gas industry—where you briefly worked as an engineer—for the film industry. Tell us about that decision.
It was life-changing. I think everyone reaches a tipping point in their lives when you have to come to terms with yourself and make a life-changing decision; that was one of those points for me. I had been doing the arts for a while—in primary, secondary and the university, but for some reason, because I was intelligent, my teachers just figured that intelligent people should be in science class and not the arts. And I had people in my family who were doing very well in oil and gas at the time, so it was natural that
I saw that as the goal. I was always being nudged towards the sciences very clearly by everyone who taught me in primary, secondary and university, so it was science class, engineering and then oil and gas. But my arty side was also very active because every opportunity I got, I was either writing or acting in the drama team or being in the debate club, so I was very active in the art. Even in church, I was always in the drama group. Those two worlds existed, but it got to a point in my life when I had to choose because they couldn't exist side by side anymore. I had this very interesting conversation with my uncle who was the head of the family on my mum's side and he was like, “Daniel you have to make a choice!” At the time, I am sure he was scaring me into abandoning the art and focusing on this engineering thing because, for him, the art was a distraction. After that talk with him, what I took away from that conversation was “dude, take the plunge. Decide on what you want and go for it and damn the consequences.” So I just jumped off the cliff. I didn't know if I could survive it, I just went with my gut feeling. It was security versus fulfilment and I chose fulfilment.
It was then a journey that started with going all the way to South Africa to study filmmaking. Why South Africa? Did it ever at the time feel like you were going to be part of the South African movie industry instead of Nigerian?
Because that was what I could afford [laughs]. I had big dreams of going to Hollywood but I was self-funded. No one actually believed in that dream, everyone thought I was silly for leaving that job security for something unstable. So when I was quitting my job, I didn't tell anyone. When I decided to go study in South Africa, I just knew I had to go and invest in myself and train, so I just started applying. I had to dig into my savings that I've accumulated from my years in oil and gas and took the trip.
In South Africa, the goal was to just go and study directing and come back, I didn't plan to stay. I didn't even know I was going to work in the industry there at all, I thought I was going to do menial jobs like wait tables just to get by if I run out of money. But as God would have it, while I was studying there, opportunities just opened up for me. I started modelling. I had a girlfriend at the time who was head of this modelling agency, and she was like “dude, don't you want to sign up? They are looking for a face like yours, not the typical South African one.” That was how I got my first job in South Africa as a model. With that, I was getting more acting gigs because it was a character modelling agency, so they were pitching me for more acting gigs when they saw that I could act. I was studying directing, but I was acting on the side. I auditioned for the South African soap opera, Generations: The Legacy and I got the role to act in the series, so it just became this thing. On the other side of me which is my filmmaking side, I applied to this agency in the UK called MOFILM and they signed me up as one of their filmmakers, and I started to direct TV commercials for them. It started as a competition that I applied for, responded to some of their briefs, and I won a grant to make a film and then they signed me up as one of their professional filmmakers. Then they decided to fly me down to Nigeria to film TV commercials. So all of that kicked off as I was a student of South Africa.
Was Ndani TV your first stint?
Actually, I started working with Ndani TV before I went to South Africa. The day I quit my 9-5 (in engineering), was the day I got an email inviting me to GTBank headquarters to come interview for the job position in Ndani TV. I had applied long ago while I was still in engineering, and it didn't come through until that day when I quit, funny enough. I went for the interview and got the job, I was at Ndani TV for about a year, but all I had was just passion and my “experience” acting in drama teams. I wasn't trained in filmmaking, I was a content producer at Ndani TV. I came up with some really interesting content there but I just felt it wasn't enough and I wanted more, I needed to put myself out there more. After about a year, I quit my job at Ndani TV, and that was when I left for South Africa. Then when I came back, I became a freelancer.
At Ndani TV, was it strictly just behind the camera?
So the first contact I had with Ndani TV was as an actor. I was working my engineering 9-5 at the time and during my break time, I ran there because I heard they were auditioning for Gidi Up. So during my break, I took off from work, went to 1004 for the interview and I got the role. I was an oil and gas engineer while I acted in Gidi Up season one.
How did you have the time for rehearsals?
It was during break and after hours. After hours,
I'd go there and we would film or rehearse through the night. It was like the two worlds were colliding [laughs]. I would go back to work the next morning with puffy eyes. The two worlds were getting in each other's way a lot and that was when I decided that I had to choose. At the time, I began to meet people and made enquiries on how to get in full-time. A job opening finally came on the day I quit my 9-5, and I took it. Then I began to work behind the camera. But when it was time to film Gidi Up season two, I was working at Ndani as a content producer when I filmed Gidi Up season two as Folarin.
Which of them would you say you enjoy the most?
It's actually a difficult question to answer because they do different things for me. I love acting because it puts me out there. I love to work with emotions. My zodiac sign is Cancer, I do a lot with emotions, that's my tool and acting provides me with that opportunity. However, as an actor, the only thing you have control over is your emotions, your inner world; you have no control of everything else. It is limited for me in terms of creative control. I love it but it limits me as a total creative. Producing gives you more of that freedom, that allowance to play with different elements of creativity in a film. You can work with the actors, writers, directors, and so on. That is the spectrum for me—acting on one side; it is great but it is very limited. Producing which is on the other extreme of the spectrum allows you to pull the strings, you are pretty much the puppet master. However, in between is the directing, writing, editing; the other things that I do and love doing.
It feels like you know a lot about emotions. In 2017 you met your wife. And then you were both involved in a project. What was it like at the early stages of your relationship?
At the time when we started talking, I was in South Africa while she was in New York. She had buzzed me and was like “hey, we should make a film together, I'm in New York Film School, let's do something together.” And I replied “oh great, I'm in a film school as well, in South Africa.” I love collaborating and meeting new people as well, so we started talking. And one day she was like, “guess what, I'm going to see you in Lagos; I got a job with Ndani TV.” I was like “really?! What are the odds?” [laughs]. I was still in South Africa at the time but they (Ndani TV) flew me down to shoot Gidi Up season three. This time, I was no longer working with Ndani, but I was still an actor on Gidi Up. So to shoot season three, which never aired, they flew me down to Lagos from Johannesburg. She was the production manager on that project and that was when we really started to hit it off, and the rest is history. We met, fell in love and got married.
It is almost Valentine's day, how would you define ‘Love’ ?
I would say love is a spiritual force. Love is the single most important spiritual energy in the universe. It's almost like the universe revolves around it, it is one thing that holds everything together, it's that force. It is what keeps two atoms together in the molecules,
it is what bonds human beings. So the way I see it is quite philosophical, but that's at the highest level. To bring it down to base, love is that thing that drives us to be better people, to be the best version of ourselves. When you love someone, you change, almost like you evolve, there is something it does to you. You want to dress, look and speak better and differently when you start to look at a girl differently. You do things that people call foolish but those are higher things. It is foolish to the normal mind because it is high. You do things out of your way when you are in love.
You paint a very vivid picture. You say it just as well as you act it. You've been featured in a few romance movies. Oftentimes we see TV couples transition into real-life couples. How are you able to control your emotions not to lead to actual feelings for the co-star?
I think it comes with the job. I mean you can't possibly fall in love with everyone you act in romance movies with. Discipline comes with growth. As you grow as an actor and as a human being, discipline is one of those things that you need in your repertoire. It's one of those things in your toolbox that you have to go around with if you are going to progress in this industry. As you grow, you learn to create a division between the character you play and who you are. On set, you become this character who is totally in love with this person, but when you hear “cut!” you are able to put that in a compartment and lock it up till the next time you are ready to bring him out again. It is a lot of mind work that actors have learned to use to develop. It is part of the job.
...but the kissing scenes are real
Yeah. So let me give you an example; I acted a film where I had about six sex scenes in a day, and the director wanted the scenes to be intense; I'm talking sex with like six different ladies. Very intensely, some of them were grinding on me, I was grinding on some, and I had an actor call me aside and ask me, “how come you never had a hardon throughout the entire episode of filming this?” And I was like “but I possibly couldn't because sex is mental.” In your mind as an actor, you know what to do. You put yourself in a box and keep yourself there. It's a lot of mind work, so you have to learn the art of substitution; put yourself behind—yourself that would naturally feel for this person, you put it on the backseat—and then your character has the upper hand. When the character wants to feel, the character can feel, but your natural self that is linked to this character cannot afford to feel. So it's delicate but it's possible.
What does your wife think about it (the sex scenes)?
We work together through it all. It is something that we talk about and sometimes she is definitely not comfortable with some of the scenes. Some scenes I have to report myself, not before but after. Sometimes I hint it and be like “this project I'm working on has a lot of sex, so prepare your mind.” I don't go into details. After I've done it, then I can report myself and tell her how the thing went, “Oh, it was terrible! Oh, it was amazing! Oh, you're going to love it when you see it! Do not watch this one, you're not going to like it.”
Let's talk about the Superstar movie that is still showing in cinemas nationwide. Your character’s love interest is Nancy Isime's character whom, although was with you as a rebound, you shared really good romantic scenes with. Have you ever been a rebound in real-life?
If I was, I didn't notice. I'm such a damn good lover, I would overshadow any rebound effect. I would be your main [laughs].
Do you sometimes take elements or lines from your scripts to your real life relationships? If yes, which one?
Not at all. I think it'd be corny, I like to be myself. I think people fall in love with me for who I am rather than trying to be a character in a movie. I find that human beings are very deep and multifaceted, so if you look really deep, you'll find characters. You'll find a lot of things that you can work with rather than going external. I think going inward is more powerful and authentic.
Last Valentine's, Still Falling was showing—you did that with Sharon Ooja. It narrates the ordeals of a toxic relationship. Have you ever been in one? And did your experience influence how well you were able to play that role?
Yes I have. I think in life, you are a product of what you've been through and what you're going through, this will in turn shape how you respond to what you are going to go through. I think we are not separate from our experiences. We are a total of our backgrounds, upbringings and idiosyncrasies. It is all a kaleidoscope of experiences. In view of that, yes, I use my experiences in my films to paint the narratives.
How did I deal with toxic relationships? The truth is that, men —especially for men like myself who aren't very vocal— like to internalise and do things by themselves, it is different to handle.
...you're not vocal?
No, I'm not. I'm an introvert… largely.
And it is difficult for me to even talk about (the toxic relationships) because you know trauma is never really something you deal with and walk away from, it is something you constantly work on. But in dealing with it, first of all, you seek help, you talk about it. Most times what happens is that we live in self-denial and say it is because of something we've done but not at all, it is a toxic relationship; are you the toxic one? Is she the toxic one? Are both of you together what's creating the toxicity? You have to really look at it and be sincere about where you are at that time.
Let's get away from the toxicity. It's another Valentine's day and you're ‘still falling’ for your wife. Do you have any Valentine's day plans?
Do you know I thought about that today [laughs]. I'm still thinking about it and nothing concrete yet but I'm thinking of different ideas. I'm travelling on Valentine's day by the way (for work), at night, so I have to make the day quite memorable for us. It has to be worth it, so I'm working on something.
Congratulations on the birth of your son. It must feel great.
Oh yeah, it feels great to have an offspring. When people ask me how it feels to have a son, I often tell them “so you look at your son and you see a version of yourself that is so pure, so innocent and so open. It's like a sponge ready to soak in everything you throw at it. That humbles you and makes you want to do things right. It's always an opportunity to do things differently and right your wrongs in life. You know because you're looking at this child and thinking, as a father or parent of this child, you have one of the highest chances of influencing the child's life. And if you're a thinker, you look 20 years down the line and you're like “whatever I do today will affect this child.” You immediately start to self-edit and always watch yourself. I feel enormous responsibility everytime I look at this child, but it gets easier the more children you have. It happened with my daughter and it's different for sons because it's like you, and you have the experience of being a man. It's interesting and life-changing, you'll just be like “I've gotta get it right.”
A son and a daughter, is that it? Are you looking to expand the Effiong family?
Who knows? I really am fine with two kids, but I'm not the only one who's invested in this thing. It is a joint venture and so it has to be a two-way conversation.
Are there any projects we should look forward to this year?
A lot of projects. I worked so hard last year, so this year I plan to do less work and make more money. The strategy is to be more selective and choose carefully the kind of jobs that I'm involved in. But the truth is I'm developing other sides to the brand. I want to make more films this year as a producer and director. I also want to develop avenues where I can earn without necessarily being present there, so I have time to spend with my family. That's the goal for this year.
I think it comes with the job. I mean you can't possibly fall in love with everyone you act in romance movies with ...On set, you become this character who is totally in love with this person, but when you hear “cut!” you are able to put that in a compartment and lock it up till the next time you are ready to bring him out again”