Nine Nigerian Actors Blazing a Trail
Whether you have or haven’t heard of them yet, here are nine top Nigerian actors you should be closely following.
Nollywood is entering a golden age. The industry is experiencing growth in scale, technical capacity, and even education as major players are launching film schools to educate, prepare, and launch actors and filmmakers. The influx of streamers — and foreign money — has also changed the type of stories being told as the industry shifts from formulaic light-comedic films to crime dramas, remakes of classics and indigenous historical films.
This diversity in stories is incredible for actors because there is more to play with. One doesn't have to be funny on Instagram to lead a big Nollywood film today; being able to act is becoming a vital criterion again.
This shift is bearing fruits already. We have seen skilful leading performances from Tobi Bakre and Chidi Mokeme in the gritty Brotherhood and Shanty Town, respectively, and there is Kunle Remi’s charming delivery of Saro in the historical Aníkúlápó. Then you have the YA shows like NdaniTV’s Schooled and Netflix’sFar From Home introducing us to highly talented young actors.
OkayAfrica takes a look at some of the trailblazers you should be familiar with because you will see them on your screens for a long time to come.
Tobi Bakre is perhaps Nollywood’s most exciting actor today. The Big Brother Naija alumnus is soulful and charismatic — a throwback to old Nollywood actors who could act and charm. It is more exciting because Bakre is only scratching the surface, like a superhero coming to terms with his gifts. We might get an actor for a generation if he continues to play the right roles under capable directors.
Bakre was the highest-grossing actor thanks to his star-turning performance in the electrifying Brotherhood, and he is leading Prime Video’s first African Original, Gangs of Lagos.
Uzoamaka Aniunoh has an actor’s face, the type that’s unassuming at first glance but can progress a narrative with a smile or smirk. It is no wonder she is becoming a favorite for art-house filmmakers. The exceptional C.J. Obasi cast her in the mystical Mami Wata, the first Nigerian film to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival official competition earlier this year.
The past few years have seen Aniunoh rise from forgettableroles in popular TV series like MTV Naija Shuga and Skinny Girl in Transit to leading the Africa Magic Telenovela Venge, and playing prominent roles in Showmax’s Diiche and in the reboot of the classic Domitilla.
While Aniunoh is having a great time in front of the camera, she is also starting her journey behind it, by writing a short film called Love Language.
There is a scene in Africa Magic’s Dilemma where Onyinye Odokoro’s character, Rekiya, enjoys being manhandled by her narcissistic ex. It is a Joker-esque scene many would fumble by overplaying, but Odokoro gives a restrained, nuanced performance that makes her character more intimidating. It was one of her earliest roles, but her performance on the show announced her talent with certainty.
She is also gaining attention outside of Nollywood. While shooting Dilemma, Odokoro had the notice to audition for a character she didn’t know about. That character, Sophia, is one of the major characters in Sky Original’s Unwanted, an international series premiering later this year. The actress is also leading the reboot of Domitila.
Emeka Nwagbaraocha has had pockets of breakout roles. He came into prominence with Ema Edosio’s Kasala, a low-budget comedy where he played TJ, a Yoruba kid with an Igbo accent and enough swagger to make you forget it.
He has gone on to play several supporting roles in a few films and the recurring MTV Naija Shuga series. However, with Netflix’s Far from Home, he has been shot into a higher stratosphere — and has even become a popular meme on Nigerian Twitter.
For his next chapter, Nwagbaraocha wants to play outside his comfort zone, like being a villain in a horror or crime film villain. There is a glimpse of that in Jade Osiberu’s The Trade, where he played a kidnapper. It will be interesting to see how he embodies villainy.
It is easy to forget that Genoveva Umeh’s breakout role in Blood Sistershappened less than a year ago. Her rise since debuting in the Netflix original has been meteoric; she has been cast in original productions from all prominent streamers present in Nigeria, and is appearing in the sixth season of MTV Naija Shuga, which releases later this month.
The Enugu-born actress told OkayAfrica in an interview last year that she helped prepare for her foray into the acting world by shadowing producers, learning the ins and outs of the industry, and that her goal is to “work and have fun with the characters [she] plays.”
Uzomaka Onuoha knew she wanted to act as far back as high school, so she majored in Theatre and Film Studies. Her love for film is infectious; you will find adoration for the classics she watched growing up on her social pages. No wonder she often works with artistic filmmakers and on prestige projects.
The Ebonylife Creative Academy alum has featured in short films that have toured the globe, from queer drama Country Love and Finding Diana to the haunting Swimming in a Sea of Trauma, which premiered at the recently concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).Onuoha had been in several film and theatre productions before her 2022 breakout when she was cast as the lead for Showmax’s Diiche. It was a challenging role where she morphed from an ordinary daughter to something sinister, but Onuoha was more than capable.
Gbubemi Ejeye was one of the delightful surprises on Far From Home for many, but those who have seen her in Africa Magic’s Covenant, where she plays a classic Nollywood poor girl loved and to be saved by a rich man’s son, know she is a gem and more. The impressive thing about Ejeye’s acting is its simplicity; nothing is ever too much or too little.
Another welcome surprise off Netflix’s Far From Home, Natse Jemide is a fine boy who can act. It is pretty easy to fumble the Reggie character, a cool kid with zero worries, but Jemide has been one. “Playing the character allowed me to infuse some of my personal experiences; I captained my football team when I was younger and even took martial arts, just like Reggie,” he told OkayAfrica earlier this year. So he never forces the act; he gives the right amount of oomph, and it is no surprise he is the most beloved of the cast.
His fans have gone as far as establishing an association of wives — perhaps a message to Nollywood that here is your romance lead, a pretty boy who can act and make us swoon.
On a list of names to keep a close eye on, Paul Nnadiekwe’s place is guaranteed; he is a bona fide talent whose time has come. He made his breakout on NdaniTV’s Schooled, playing the charming Ayo, an intelligent kid from a poor home who wins a scholarship to attend a prestigious school.
Schooled is just the beginning for the 23-year-old actor, who trained under the Nollywood veteran Hilda Dokubo. He is the lead actor for a few major projects, including Kayode Kasum’s Afamefuna (a film about the Igbo apprenticeship system) and Jade Osiberu’s social drama, Everything Scatter.
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