How Genoveva Umeh Became Nollywood's Rising Movie Star
Ever since bursting onto the scene with her stand-out role in 'Blood Sisters,' the Nigerian actress has been fast on the ascent.
Just a few hours after the Netflix Original, Blood Sisters, dropped in May 2022, it began causing a buzz: viewers became curious about the little-known actress who played Timeyin, the unruly, drug-addict anti-hero of the crime thriller. “Genoveva Umeh,” Nollywood folks who knew her, responded to the queries. For many, it was the first time hearing her name, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The morning of the show’s release, Umeh’s following on Instagram was 4616, a friend noted—they were anticipating the growth that would follow if the show became a hit. But not in their wildest dream did they imagine the outbreak of admiration that followed. “Her phone was blowing up all day and night,” the friend and fellow actress Nancy-Olive Itohan told OkayAfrica. “And she was responding to every comment, tag, mention, everything! In fact, I was concerned because she wasn’t sleeping.”
The furor that day is partly because Nigerians are accustomed to known faces being the talking points of our films and shows. Umeh, who had only appeared in a handful of small films, was a revelation, and she didn’t look out of place while being flanked by veterans like Ramsey Nouah and Kate Henshaw.
“It was really overwhelming and actually unbelievable,” Umeh tells OkayAfrica about the sudden attention she started receiving. As her social media numbers blew up and everyone looked for her, she recalls the waves of emotion she felt. “It [was] shocking! Like, I didn’t understand what was going on because, essentially, I just want to work and have fun with my characters, but the reception was absolutely incredible and overwhelming.”
“It was really overwhelming and actually unbelievable,” Genoveva Umeh tells OkayAfrica about the sudden attention she started receiving when 'Blood Sisters' released on Netflix.
Since Blood Sisters, Umeh's star has been fast on the rise. She has been cast in a South African project, Soccer Season, and a Prime Video Original, Breath of Life, and she's led an episode of Showmax’s Crime and Justice Lagos. When approached for this interview, she had been wrapping up promotion for another Netflix Original, the YA series Far From Home, where she played Zina, a carefree teenager who she says is just like her. She is now prepping forMTV Shuga Naija Season 5, set to debut in April. “God is good,” she says about her blossoming career.
Born in Enugu, a lush city in the Southeastern side of Nigeria, Umeh grew up feeling like she was on a holiday every day. A far cry from Lagos, where she now lives and works, everyone knew and cared for each other. Her parents were the relaxed type who allowed their kids to be kids. One of the few noes in the house was no vernacular, but a young Genoveva would always speak Igbo with her cousins whenever she visited her hometown in Anambra.
When asked if she speaks the language very well, her British accent disappears. “Ofuma, what do you want me to say?” she responds in perfect Igbo. As a child, she participated in Igbo cultural events, and watched a lot of Nollywood, especially Igbo stories. “I miss Igbo representation on screen,’ she says about the dearth of Igbo stories in today’s Nollywood. “The most authentic ones, not the ones painting Igbos a type of way. [The ones] where you’re watching an Igbo family, and it just entering [feeling it deeply] because you can relate to all of those things.”
In 2006, her parents relocated to the United Kingdom — there, her interest in acting was nurtured. It was the only subject she fully committed to in high school. “I just enjoyed those two hours, and they were the shortest time in the world,” she reminisces about her acting classes. However, she could only do it as a hobby. As a child of first-generation immigrants who struggled to relocate to the UK, she felt she owed her parents an actual job that would make them proud.
Still, the desire to become an actor never waned, and she learned she wasn’t built for a 9-5. “I think with acting, I found out I love this thing and want to be incomparable at it.” This pushed her to abandon the relatively comfortable life being a law graduate provides to chase an acting career in Nigeria, in a period when most young Nigerians are seeking greener pastures abroad.
Yet she didn’t pursue the acting dream while in the UK. “We know of great actors that have come from that place or that have trained their entire life there, but if you think about where they made it, it wasn’t [in] the U.K.,” the 27-year-old actress says. “I [also] knew that it was a completely different ball game; there is a lack of diversity in the space, and I really wanted to get practicing on camera, get as much acting experience as I could.”
She may be a well-known name in Nollywood now, but according to those who know her, Genoveva Umeh is "still the same kind, thoughtful and consistent friend" she was before she found fame.
Success in Nollywood did not come easy, though. She struggled to adapt to the life of Danfo and her extended family, who housed her, lived far away from the island, where work was often happening. “The sun really dealt with me that time,” she says. “I was black. I was slim. And I didn’t know there was an expectation in terms of self-care and how you look after yourself. I could present myself in the best ways [and] talk a good game, but I wasn’t ready to be [featured].”
But Umeh always looks on the bright side of things. She had prepared for an uneasy foray into Nollywood, and these little challenges would not deter her. Instead, she prepared herself for the next steps. One of the things she did was reach out to producers to work as an understudy. One of them, Lala Akindoju, took her under her wings and into rooms. “I got to see her process, hosting, acting, producing, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff,” says Umeh. “So I got to experience what work was like.”
When the Blood Sisters opportunity came about, she was ready. She has since settled into Lagos and Nollywood. And, while she is now famous, not much has changed about her, according to her friends. “She’s still the same kind, thoughtful and consistent friend,” Itohan says. “[Although] she is a lot busier, which is what we’ve always prayed for and she can’t go to certain places without her mask.”
Umeh isn’t complaining; she approaches fame positively and wants to wield it purposefully. “As well as my work, let my life also be impactful and force people to move,” she says. “I think that’s the best part of fame, and I tend to focus on just the best part because whatever my mindset is, I will birth into the world. I just want to be my best self and do my best work. I want to enjoy the process and the journey.”