Akin Omotoso: From actor to filmmaker
Versatile, creative and oozing talent – Akin Omotoso is making his mark in the movie business
HE’S been an actor, writer, producer and director, and if you ask him which discipline he loves the most, he wouldn’t be able to choose. Because for him they all boil down to one thing – telling a story. That’s what he really loves.
Akin Omotoso is good at it too. The romantic comedy Tell Me Sweet Something, which he co-wrote and directed, raked in more than R2 million at the box office and won the award for best narrative feature at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia in the US last year.
His newest film, Vaya, which tells the story of three strangers trying to make their way in Johannesburg, was the only South African film to be selected for the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.
The movie is set to hit South African screens sometime this year. It’s based on the real-life stories of people living on the streets – some of whom appear in the film – and explores the harsh realities of life when you’re not in control of your own destiny, the 42-year-old filmmaker says.
The three strangers find themselves on the same train bound for Johannesburg and arrive full of hope and plans, unprepared for life in the unfamiliar city.
Akin knows what it’s like to arrive in a new place and try to make your way there – he was born and grew up in Nigeria, and moved to South Africa with his family at the age of 17.
His father, writer and academic Kole Omotoso, had accepted a job in the English department at the University of the Western Cape and so the family moved to Cape Town.
Akin completed his last year of school at elite boys’ school Bishops and went on to study drama at the University of Cape Town. While his struggles weren’t the same as the characters in Vaya, the themes of new places, expectations and fears struck a chord.
He’s also always had a strong social conscience and Vaya gave him the opportunity to train his lens on what poverty means for society.
“Poverty strips people of choices – choices that are both practical and moral,” he said in a recent interview.
“When you have no money, no job, home or family to support you, it’s very hard to be good. When poverty leaves people with few options, how do we judge the moral choices people are forced to make?”
ALTHOUGH he’d always wanted to be a lawyer, the creative streak that runs in his family won out – which is why he chose to study drama.
Besides his writer dad, who’s most familiar as the Yebo Gogo guy in the Vodacom adverts, sister Yewande Omotoso is an acclaimed writer too and his late mother was an architect.
“Creativity was encouraged – we were surrounded by it,” Akin says. “There was a very artistic feel in the house. My mom was constantly drawing stuff and we often went on site with her. With my dad being a writer, there were always books around the house.
“I’ve always liked telling stories.
“When I was younger I would write stories on my dad’s typewriter. But thinking about it as a career happened only when I was in drama school – that’s when it started to crystallise. “Some of my friends say now it was obvious but it was never that obvious to me.” He never saw acting as his destiny. “I thought I’d get to law later. Yes, I studied drama but it wasn’t like, ‘ This is going to be it.’ But I did feel that if I applied my mind properly it could work.” He tried out various things while at drama school and realised he was interested not only in acting but in directing as well. It was a good thing too because a lot of the actors he knew didn’t have enough work. “I’d go to a restaurant and see them waiting tables so I was like, ‘ You better find something else to do.’ And that’s when I started to teach myself to direct,” he says. In the two decades he’s been in the industry Akin has been successful on both sides of the camera. “I never stopped one to do the other – they’ve had to find a way to coexist.” After plenty of stage and some TV work in Cape Town he moved to Johannesburg when he bagged a role in the soapie Isidingo in 1998. He used the money he made from his acting jobs to makeKiss of his Milk. first professional short film, “On the days I wasn’t shooting Isidingo I was peddling this 17-minute film and because of that I was asked to do another short film, The Nightwalkers,” he says. “there ThoseHe movedas shorta director.”from films Isidingohelped meto Genera-get out tions,all the in while which jugglinghe played directing Khaya and Motene, acting. “I wrote and directed the feature film God is African in 2000, the same year I landed the role in Generations,” he says. “I would be on the Generations set from 6 am to 6 pm then I’d go to the God is African set and we’d wrap at about 4 am. I’d sleep for two hours then have to go back on set. “I always joke that the first couple of times viewers saw Khaya on Generations he was probably frowning because I was tired.” AFTER four years with the soapie, Akin left to focus on producing and directing for TV, starting a production company with partner Robbie Thorpe. Today it’s called Rififi Pictures and they have another partner, Rethabile Mothobi.
Besides directorial triumphs such as his 2011 film Man on Ground, a hard- hitting drama about xenophobia, he’s also had plenty of acting highlights, including roles in Blood Diamond alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Lord of War alongside Nicolas Cage and most recently Queen of Katwe with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
“It was great and I learnt a lot from watching and talking to each of them,” he says of working with the A-list stars. “They were all very open and gracious and made my experiences on those sets memorable.”
This year marks his 20th year in the business and he’s thrilled with what he’s achieved. “I knew that I would just have to work hard and that nothing is promised. Everything I’ve done, both on my own and with my company, I’ve worked hard for – every inch of it,” he says.
Finding funding for his films is a constant challenge but it’s been worth it. In November, Vaya won the special jury award for outstanding film at the African International Film Festival in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Over 20 years I’ve seen people come and go, people crash and burn. You see a lot of that. I’ve always been fortunate to have a good support structure around me to pull me back from the darkness, as it were.”
But he has no regrets because if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he’s a storyteller at heart. “I think,” he adds with a laugh, “I would have been a very frustrated lawyer!”
MAIN PICTURE: Akin Omotoso once dreamed of becoming a lawyer. FAR LEFT: He comes from a creative family – his dad is Kole Omotoso (CIRCLE), whom many remember from Vodacom ads. LEFT: Akin with Nicolas Cage in the film Lord of War. ABOVE: Here he is...