The first thing you notice about Ijeoma Grace Agu is her face. You look at it once and want to see it again. When you do, it sticks to your mind. And when she sees you, she will smile at you and you will feel her face travel to your heart and etch itself in a part that you can’t reach. There, it will exist, independently; free from you, at liberty; uninhibited, unvarnished; unpretentiously operating in a space that demands lacquer.
The word is defiance; an open resistance, a bold disobedience. Defiance against misrepresentation. So, the face you will see, which will subsequently stick to your mind, will be her real face. Everyday. Why?
“…because I like to live the normal human life.” She said.
On the late afternoon our meeting was scheduled for, I arrived at the actress’ home and was led into her living room where I waited for a few breaths before she glided into the room and extended a firm hand to me. I reached for it, wondering why it wasn’t a hug. Talking to her on the phone several times over the past days had tricked my mind into thinking that we knew ourselves enough to break into a hug at the sight of each other. Well, not so. I was a stranger she’d taken a chance on and invited into her house. A handshake was appropriate. It could have been a wave from at least two feet away. At which distance, I would not have been able to observe that at 5.7ft I was not towering over her. We were standing shoulder to shoulder, it seemed. Have I been over-estimating my height? Or will an electronic screen make me look not as tall as I really am?
I told her I always believed she was less tall and she widened her eyes in surprise, then shrugged it off with a “really?” and a laugh. I laughed too. I could feel that the pressure created by the anxieties associated with first meetings had lessened.
She sat and stretched her legs on the sofa, revealing skin that was real and rich. Her bum short dug into her hip. She turned and flashed me another smile, signaling her readiness to talk. I was ready, too. First, what does it feel like to be unforgettable?
“What? Am I? I never used to get recognized by anyone at the market or other public places, until 2018. Even at that, they always call me the new girl. And I’ve been here fucking ten years. So, unforgettable? I don’t know.”
You could have pretended like you are? And many different people and situations have confirmed that you are? And you’ve always known that you are?
“That thing is packaging and I don’t know how to do it. Having done this for so long, I know that what people see on television determines their perception of us, but that is a far reality of who we are in real life. And I’m here to set the record straight.”
Ok. Let’s take a moment to consider how “setting the record straight” will affect your career.
“Industry professionals believe that not color grading and airbrushing things a little, affect careers of entertainers negatively, but I’d rather be me than give a perception of me that is not correct. Fake it till you make it, is not my slogan. I want to get things based on merit. I don’t want to get things based on a false air. Because when you put up that false air, you have to keep it up and I suck at pretending.”
But acting in itself, is a form of pretense.
“I know! But acting is a job! I should be able to clock out and live! So I give you the perception that I’m a jet-flier and then you meet me in person and I’m a far cry from who I sold to you? I’d rather you meet me as I am. That’s actually how I make friends. Do you know people grow cold when their expectations of a person aren’t met? That’s why I prefer to give it upfront from the get go. That way, you get to choose to like the real me, as I like the real you.”
Does everything you’ve said translate to you saying you’re living the life you want?
“Two years ago, I would have said, yes. But recently I’ve been in this bubble. You know I have a kid and it gets to a time you want to give your child better than you had. I’m at that point and I’m not equipped to do so. But I’m happy that I’m doing what I love. I’m happy that I’m trying to live my authentic life as best as possible. I’m in a happy marriage. My husband is my best friend. My family is my best and closest unit. In that regard, yes, I’m living the life I want. But in the regard of how I want to raise my kid, no: the atmosphere isn’t as good as I want it.”
Is that why you were neither sad nor sorry when you had a miscarriage, not long ago?
“Kind of. Right now, I don’t feel equipped to love a child the way they should be loved. So, I’m not ready for more. If I never had children, I’d be fine. But I have a gorgeous little girl who was specially manufactured for me. I want to be a responsible parent. As much as I didn’t plan marriage and childbirth, when they happened, I have been a responsible spouse and parent. I take my role as a wife and mother, seriously. And with one (child) it is hard enough. I don’t want to bring in another and at some point become resentful. Plus, there are things I don’t want my child to come and witness in this world. Do you know how much energy it takes to live as a woman in a world that would have you and your daughter think you are not equal and your feelings do not matter? Or your voices do not matter? Every day you wake up feeling like if you had done more, you would have saved your child from the heartache. It is a very painful thing to prepare your own child for the same battle you fought in.”
As a girl-mum and a feminist, I totally understand.
“You know, it breaks me every time I remember that men think they have a right to a woman’s body. A woman will be raped but can’t talk or get justice? How can the world continue in its course when this is happening? Everyday a woman is dying a thousand deaths. She wakes up and dies over and over again because an injustice was done to her and we as a people are practically not doing much about it. Most times, I feel bad that I brought a girl child into all of this. This society does not deserve to have children born into it. I know that is a cold thing to say. We can’t keep saying because we are navigating it, so our children will also be able to navigate it. Why should our kids also have to fight this? As a teenager, I always had a scissors or a knife with me. Why should my child live like that? Right now, even girls are beginning to accept the idea that sexual assault is one of the things they have to go through and it is painful…In this fight, I have lost a bit of my warmth, because you learn to be hard. Put on a hard exterior and build these walls. But my child is teaching me to be loving and compassionate.”
We’re constantly evolving, aren’t we?
“Yeah. I wish I can tell you about other experiences that have changed me. If my husband was here, he would have done that, because he is very good at introspection. He knows what time of the year is his down time or up time.”
Oh yeah? What is the love story between you and your husband?
“In summary, my husband just came in a flash and landed on my lap and I was like ‘ok fine, let’s do it’. Even he was shocked when I told him, ‘you (say you) want to be my husband? Oya na, let’s go’. We went and had a secret wedding and told people a year later. Not much thought went into it. We didn’t even pay for the pictures, because we were broke. I was just stupidly in love with him even though I was in a five year relationship when we met.”
Wooo! You were in love, broke, and in an industry where gloss is a requirement. Is there another story there?
“No! And I think it goes back to home training. I’ve always been self-aware since I was young. My husband boasts about that. I always knew what I wanted and what I did not want. It has always been important to me to speak and live my truth. So nothing moves me. Your truth does not move me. Brand names don’t. So being in a relationship where money was insufficient? My attitude was, we will make money. Let’s work hard for it. And I really want to raise my child like that because I have seen how strong that has made me. And how much better I am, because I don’t get moved by what others have or how they are living their lives. It is very important for people to know their paths and walk at their own pace.”
How did you identify your path?
“I just knew. I came across TV and fell in love with it. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. Since I came into my own and I’m able to remember things I do not remember wanting to do anything else but acting. I remember vividly being the only child who will still be watching TV late into the night and sleeping off on the couch. My father had to carry me to bed repeatedly. I’m still the one who sat to watch credit roll after a movie. I loved the behind the scenes; how movies are made. It is like when you love someone, you want to know everything about them that the regular person may not be interested in….you want to know where they grew up, what makes them tick…for me I wanted to know the real name of the actor. I wanted to know who the director is, where the movie was shot, etc…Then I turned 14 and one Saturday I’m watching TV and they’re showing an acting group and I saw my friend who lived down the street. I just jetted out of the house, ran all the way to her house to find out how she got on TV. That’s how I started.”
How did you go from there? Tell me more!
“My friend helped me join the drama group. I committed myself to it. All I needed was a part in whatever they were doing. Tell me that I am a tree and I’ll be the best tree ever. Or tell me all you need me to do is shout from one end of the stage to the other and I’ll give you the best shout you’ve ever heard. We went on to do a lot of things. Then I had to go to the university to study a course I didn’t like, but while I was there I turned to writing. I’d call marketers and talk to them about what I’d written. I used to write on my note book. I didn’t know you have to type and bind. So the first time I went to sell my script, I went with a notebook. The buyer flipped it and was like this one is not serious. Then I got to Teco Benson’s office and saw how scripts were done. I sold my first script for thirty thousand naira. I was nineteen when I sold it. And I was so proud of myself. I graduated from the university in 2006, came to Lagos finally to pursue acting. I went to numerous auditions, bagged my first job in 2007. Actually, let me tell you how I bagged it. I used to follow my friend everywhere because I did not have transport money and she was more experienced in the film circuit. So I felt following her might get me opportunities, even if it means getting the crumbs. So she went to audition for a role, got it and on our way back I said, “Can you help me ask them to let me audition for a part too?” She said, “Sure”. I did and got a part.”
And here we are!
“Yes, here we are! I arrived here by pursuing what I’m passionate about and seeking for what appeals to me regardless of how every other person perceives it. For me, the questions have always been, “Am I happy here?” “Do I want to do this?” “Am I fulfilling purpose?” If it is a yes all around, then we go, as long as I am not hurting anybody in the process. I know it is easy in theory than in practice. It was challenging for me too, to the extent that one time I decided to get a job just so I can get a regular income, because an actor’s income isn’t regular or guaranteed. Even that did not work out, because I never went to submit the application.” She broke into a sincere laugh.
I studied her face for a moment and concluded that her laughter, though happy and honest, was an attitude she had to learn while navigating the discomforts which are peculiar to creating, because a shift in attitude is required when the execution of a dream is challenged by different things.