What has kept me going as an actress for 40 years – Joke Silva

Joke Silva. All photos in the interview by Ayo Efunla

Joke Silva



There is something fascinating about Nollywood star actress, Joke Silva. Not only is she a multiple award-winning actress who is legendary both on stage and on set, she is also a philanthropist and a strong advocate for women emancipation.  A multi-talented thespian, she is a producer, director as well as an entrepreneur. This popular actress, who is married to veteran Nollywood actor, Olu Jacobs, not only turned 60 recently but also marked 40 years both on stage and on screen. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH she speaks about her childhood, life as an actress, her marriage and what has kept her going as an actress for 40 years.  (Photos by Ayo Efunla)

How does it feel being 60?

 I feel good. I’m grateful to the Lord that one is privileged to reach that mark. I think what really excites me is that it’s my 40 years in the industry as well.

What was growing up like? Where did you grow up?

 I grew up in Ikoyi, first in Glover Road, till I was about nine or ten, then Bourdillion Road till I got married at the age of 24 (laughs). Growing up was real fun. It was a lot of being with friends, cycling around the various roads, cycling together and doing quite a lot of fun things. I went to St. Saviour’s School, Ikoyi and there was all kinds of activities. There was Brownie. There was the Bible study group that we had. Those were the two that I did. It was very Eurocentric. So there was always Guy Fawkes Night around November, when there was a fair, there was a bonfire, where we burnt the Guy (laughs).

Joke Silva

What has been your most memorable moments in life?

 How do you start picking those? So many. When I finished in Holy Child College, for my A’ Levels I went to Milton Mount. And my memorable time was winning several cups for speech in drama and getting my gold medal in honours also for speech in drama.  So that was very memorable for me.  And over the years, performing in Jero’s Metamorphosis in 1981 with Olu Jacobs. He was Brother Jero and I was Sister Rebecca. And also performing in Nigeria’s 21st anniversary celebration, which was called Coming of Age, written by himself and Edith Enem. And bringing together the various acts from different parts of the country was beautiful. It was at the National Theatre. Those were the evolving days of the National Theatre. It was an exciting time. Performing in The Kings Must Dance Naked, directed by Uncle Bayo Oduneye, having him and having that wonderful standing ovation every single time we performed and at the end of the stage performance. That was in 1992/93 I think.

I have a whole list. Winning best actor award of Fame. The Fame awards came before AMAA and any of those other ones. The Fame Awards was organized by Femi Akintunde Johnson. Winning Best actor in a Supporting Role for Violated. Performing in Owulorojo, a Yoruba TV mini-series it was initially before it now became a proper series. It was reedited into a proper series. But, you know, and just going into the market as I used to do. I had forgotten that people had watched Owulorojo and so getting to the market and being chased by all the market women and me running (laughs). They were all saying E ma sa. Mo like ise yi (laughs). That was very interesting. Performing in Mind Bending, written and directed by Lola Fani-Kayode. The Director of Photography was Tunde Kelani. That was also in the early 90s. Mind Bending – dealing with the issue of drug addiction and various drugs. My story with Akin Lewis was on heroin. There was a story on alcohol. There was a story on Indian hemp. You know just drug addiction in general and how it affects the entire family and the community. And then my husband had produced Holy Child in 1986. Holy Child was a musical he had written in 1986 soon after we got married- we got married in 84. We did it in December 86. It was the Christmas story. We did it in 86, 87 and then in 90.   Then I now produced a play called Digging for Gold. It was a section of Oscar Wild’s An Ideal Husband that I now rewrote and Nigerianized.  And it went down very well. I’m still producing it. I have been producing plays, teaching. I had done a lot of teaching as well in secondary and primary schools over the years before we finally set up our performing art group.

You did quite a lot of theatre before getting into the screen. Could you speak about how you transited from stage to the screen?

It has always been very fluid for me. I have never had a time when it was all stage or all screen. Like when I started out I came from theatre into television, and then from television back into theatre and then getting involved in home videos. Our movement from television film was practically seamless. We did quite a few made for television films that were also sold in the market as film. I have never really had that break.

You’ve been so active doing so many things for television, stage, screen etc. How did you get the strength to do all those thing? And you are still very strong.

I think for me performance is performance, whether it is stage or screen. I have been very blessed to understand the technique for all of them, you know. Because there is a different technique for theatre, there is a different technique for film.  And to be honest also working with very good directors as well, especially in the early years because those early years were the formative years in one’s career. And so working with people like Lola Fani-Kayode, Amaka Igwe, with people who understood the medium and understood also the fact that one did a lot of theatre and so being able to help one to be able to transition very well and seamlessly. That was very useful.

Is it true that your parents didn’t like you going into acting initially?

I don’t know why people keep saying that. It wasn’t that they didn’t like it. I think they were just a bit scared. They were scared that the life of an actor is very hard, you know. It is. And so they just wanted me to have something else, something more stable, to fall back on when the acting was not sustaining one.  But I was a bit headstrong.  And they also realized that it was where my passion was.  And they were very supportive, right up till the very end.  My father always came to every single performance that I did in theatre until he fell ill. He came to everyone. And my mum was the same. She came to every show that I did. She died at the age of 89 and she saw a show of mine, let’s say about two, three months before she died. And she supported me all those years. Like I said,   I’m 40 years an actor this year. Right from the early years they supported me.  I think they would have preferred me to have it as a hobby. But when I insisted that it was going to be it, they said okay (laughs).

How has life been as an actor 40 years on?

Tough. Tough, as it is anywhere else in the world. I think somehow, one, I have been very lucky to be married to someone who not only understood the industry but also respected it.  There was no other profession that was better than being an actor.  I think that has to do with the fact that his training was in England, where actors are highly, highly respected, especially theatrical actors. So being married to someone like that.  And also understanding that being an actor also gave me an opportunity to explore various areas of my creativity.  So when I wasn’t acting then I was teaching in schools. Like I said, I was teaching speech in drama. I was teaching elocution and speech dynamics. We were running our performing arts schools. We were producing plays. So that if we were not acting we were doing something still within our area of expertise. And I think that is what has kept one sharp within the industry.

Joke Silva

Was there any time you considered quitting acting?  Because you just said it was tough.

Yes, it was tough, you know. Especially those times when work dried up and you had a young family, you had children. You needed to buy clothes, change clothes, change shoes. They were not going to stay the same size forever (laughs). And you had to make the money to sustain the family. So that was when one realized that one should explore within one’s expertise. So learning that, you know, as an actor, especially as a theatrical actor, you speak very well. And you speak with a lot of confidence. Those are the kind of things that you can teach children. You can teach in primary schools. You can teach in secondary schools while teaching drama. And you also realized that as a performer, there are things that happen to you, especially in theatre, where you are all together for, let’s say, about four weeks, six weeks. And you become a team, you become a family. Those are skills that corporate organizations need. Even public speaking. If you have that skill to teach, actors are great teachers on public speaking. So once one learned that one could use those, there was never any time one wasn’t busy? And then of course producing plays. I love producing plays, raising the funds to produce and things like that. Whether I am producing plays for the theatre or producing films for the camera, I like raising the funds, putting the team together. I enjoyed that. And then I do enjoy directing once in a while.

You were trained as an actor. Did that contribute to your success as an actor?

Yes. I think because one was trained, and the training process involved you understanding the process itself. And also part of the thing was teaching one about the life of an actor. So that there were things that happened. Yes, it was hard but it was not unexpected because part of your training too was reading about the life of an actor, realizing that those times would come, that our profession is very cyclical. And Taiwo Ajayi Lycett has a beautiful way of putting it. That you will be the flavour of the month only for so long. So what do you do when you are not the flavour of the month? And it is very true. So you need to find those skills within you to sustain you until you become the flavour of the month again (laughs)?

Was it a conscious decision you took? Wasn’t your foray into theatre accidental?

No, no, no. It was very conscious.  Mine was very conscious.

You met your husband in 1981, when you were on stage for Jero’s Metamorphosis. How did it happen?

He (my husband) had just come from England. Everybody had been talking about him coming. We were working on the play, Jero’s Metamorphosis. Enem, especially, was talking about Oh Olu Jacobs is coming. There is an actor from England, Olu Jacobs, who is coming to play the part of Brother Jero. I didn’t know him. And so we were in rehearsal, in the main bowl of the National Theatre when I was asked by the director to please get Enem, who was the artistic director of the National Theatre, from her office to come and watch how far we had come with rehearsals.  So I went to her office, opened the door and the first person I saw looked at me and said, This is the woman I am going to marry. . And there was this deep baritone voice that said so. So I looked at him. I just looked at him up and down and said, Who says things like that? And I just ignored him and told Enem that we were ready. It was later on that I discovered that I was going to be Olu Jacobs’ (laughs). And he came with Mr Enem to watch the rehearsal. You can imagine my consternation when I saw him. Yeeps! (Laughs) This was the person I had earlier shunned (laughs). Anyway, we became very good friends, excellent friends. We were very good friends for a long time.

And how has life with Olu Jacobs been in the past 36 years you have been married?

Very, very interesting. It has it’s up and down. But I would say what Ruby Dee, an American actor, said, that if you have more weddings in your marriage than divorces you have a successful marriage. So what that is telling you is that there would be beautiful times. If your beautiful times are more than your divorce times, those times when everything seems like it is going to tear apart and all that. In other words, those times would come, those challenges would come. But how do you overcome those challenges? And as long as you have more of the sweet times than the challenges, then you’ve got yourself a successful marriage.

You were the principal at Project Fame. What was your experience like on the show?

 It was wonderful. I loved it very much. And also one of the things that I ended doing as well as the Principal of Project Fame was also teaching them about acting.  So that I find that quite a few of my students of Project Fame are also actors.  You have Ayoola. You have  Oluchi who is incredible. Bisola too is an actor. These are all people that were learning singing. But I focused on the acting. So I am very pleased that at least I had something to do with any of them acting.

Joke Silva

Could you speak on Lufodo Group? What challenges have you faced running the organization?

We started Lufodo when we were both in England. But it was registered here. It was registered as a company that could do all kinds of things. The business arms was Lufodo Enterprises. The production arm was Lufodo Productions that does drama content for all platforms, whether school or theatre or radio. And then you have Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts.  Lufodo Productions had done several works over the years. We’ve done a lot of Professor Ahmed Yerima’s plays.  Especially there are two that I really like. That is The Sisters and Little Drops, both written by Professor Ahmed Yerima.  As a production company, we’ve taken The Sisters to London, to the Hackney Empire, when was refurbished – a thousand-seater theatre. And we performed there to full houses.  We had successes there. We had some failures too, you know (laughs). We’ve done a production at MUSON where we had only two people in the hall (laughs). But that was a learning curve for us because at that time we were focusing on the adults coming to the theatre and marketing for adults and realized that, wait a minute, we could market to schools. And that is how we started marketing to schools and getting schools to come and watch plays. I still come across a lot of people who came to see our shows then from the secondary schools. So we learnt a lot from that. We forayed into film. We did The Kingmaker and we were pirated mercilessly at a time. We were told by the marketer that Oh your film sold, your film sold a lot. I mean they pirated it but they sold it for money they never returned. So that kind of made us step back from that. But we are going back into that now to produce maybe with more safety nets. Because a lot of the times for film production what we did was to raise money from amongst some individuals that we know and to have the film pirated. But we still make sure we paid every investor back. We had done it for one of our stage plays, Digging for Gold. We got some individuals to invest in the play and they really invested and got their money back. So we wanted to do the same thing in film. But hey (laughs). But we still paid them their money back, which is good. So which make it easier for us whenever we go asking for investment we don’t have a problem. We don’t have that difficulty. We just want to make sure that if we can’t make a return on investment, then let’s make sure they don’t lose money.  But things are better now. Yes, it’s a high risk business. It’s a high risk sector of the economy but with high risk are also high returns. So because of all the various forms of exploitation that is possible now, we are looking in to do more productions. We are actually working on two productions right now, collaborating with other people. One is a film   and the other is a TV series.

You’ve been a strong advocate for human empowerment. How has it been in a highly patriarchal society like Nigeria? How have women fared so far?

I think it’s a case of the struggle continues. Because in this generation we keep finding new challenges. I think right now one of the biggest challenges is getting more women to participate in the decision making process for the nation. We don’t have enough women. How many women do we have in the senate? It’s insane. We are like half of the population and we have representation of about six per cent. It doesn’t make any sense and is probably one of the reasons why things are getting from bad to worse for us as a nation, whether we are talking about security, whether we are talking about the values in the society. Society wasn’t built with just one gender. We need the two. So let the two also be part of the decision making process for the evolution of the nation. We are evolving, yes. But if we don’t want like a cripple, let’s use all the strengths that we have. And women are very important part, are one of the strengths that we do have as a nation. And it’s very idiotic of us to just neglect that.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

I’m unapologetically so.

You recently said in an interview with Funmi Iyanda that you realised you were an adopted child between the ages of 10 and 11. But before that realization, did you have any inkling, maybe from the body language of your parents, that you were an adopted child?

No, no no. I didn’t.  What I did know was that I was living with my foster mother in Yaba. We called her Mama Yaba.  And at the time, at the foster home in Yaba, whenever my mother came, all the other children would say, Joke your mummy is here. Your mummy is here. Your mummy is here. So for me, I just thought that my mother travelled a lot and so I needed to be in a home until she could come back. And then when I went to live with them in Glover – when I was probably about four – I was with my mum, my dad and you know.  So not an inkling whatsoever until I came across this woman who went “Whose child did you say she was?” And then discovering those documents.

You were given a national honour in 2014, Member of the Order of the Federal Republic, MFR. How did you feel when you got the national award?

Great. Absolutely great. Because I think my husband had received his a year before and my mum had gone. My mum wanted to be part of it. She wanted to be part of receiving the award. And my mum had an OON. Then my husband got the MFR. And when I got my MFR, one of my aunties, Chief Mrs Kofo Olawoye, called me and said, “Joke Congratulations. Starting from your mum, your husband, then yourself, your son must be the next one to get it” (laughs). It was actually good. I felt highly honoured to be that appreciated.

Do you think actors are appreciated in Nigeria?

Oh yes.  Yes. In Nigeria, yes. We are appreciated by the audience. It’s the industry that is having an issue. So we need to get the industry to have the same appreciation for actors that the audience have. The remuneration, the conditions of service leave a lot to be desired. It doesn’t lie with one sector of the industry.  Everybody has to work together to make sure that everybody makes a better standard of living because we can, We can  make a better standard of living than we are doing so far. It’s not just a particular sector of the economy that needs to be making the money. No. It’s everybody. Yes, it’s very important.  Otherwise we would lose talents.  And instead of improving, we’ll keep going back to the starting block because areas where you should have passed with a particular generations you had to go start again. Because you have truncated the development by not providing a better standard of living. And we can have good standard of living. We can. So part of it is better remuneration from the works that we do. Probably not everything up front, but if you don’t do hundred films, I’m sorry you shouldn’t be working with me.  And we are looking at better remuneration and on the other hand too we have to be better educated financially.

Sometime ago you led a campaign against the idea of actors begging for financial aid when they are ill. Could you speak on that?

Well, I think it’s rather disturbing that when actors are ill you then go cap in hand trying to raise the funds. Now if we had better conditions of service we wouldn’t have that many people. Better conditions of service which means you are not working all hours of the day, which is bad for one’s health. We then look at the medical insurance scheme. And because we have numbers we should be a sector that should be courted by medical insurance. So I just feel it’s degrading to have to go cap in hand every time. So we need to find out what we can do. We should be the ones blessing people. If we are better remunerated, then we should be able to be the one people will ask to help. To say Oh these people are having these, can we help? If we realized that our audience is not just limited to Nigeria but is the continent of Africa and the black race. So we are talking about a billion people. So if that is the audience, if that is the people who are buying, even if one billion people are paying one naira that is one billion naira. So there is no reason for anybody in the movie industry to be broke. So it needs us to get up our greedy platform. So it’s not just the actors. Everybody is working within the industry. Why is it that in the Nigerian industry that we really cannot point to people who are wealthy. How many people can we point to who are wealthy? It shouldn’t be one or two or three. It should be in the millions.

Has there been any improvement since then?

We are working on it. . We must not give up. And I’m not a believer in Oh because the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners, NANTAP, is not doing it or the Association Of Nigerian Theatre  Arts Preactitioners,  ANTP, , is not doing it, let’s set up a new platform. No. I don’t believe in setting up anything. I believe in letting what exists work. And if it is possible, let’s all come together. Because united we are strong.

Can an actor live on acting in Nigeria?

When you say can an actor live on acting, is there the possibility. Yes. If the remuneration is probably done. Now if we are doing films on the budget of two million naira, then it is not possible.  But if you are working on a budget of two million naira for a TV series for instance, of course.  Because you are using the same set of people in a TV series. People are saying that they are still using the same set of people but not in the same story. So the likelihood of getting different sets of people at a budget of two million is high. So that is, you are fractionalizing the dues. So if you find that what you can give for any particular product is two million naira, then make it two million naira per a TV series or five million naira per episode of a TV series.  That way, everybody wins.  But when you say you’re doing a TV film between five and two million naira, what are people earning?

Joke Silva

Any regrets being an actor?

If there is any, it’s the fact that I don’t have as much money as I should have. But part of it too will be my own financial illiteracy. Because there were times when I was making good money and my financial illiteracy affected how I invested. If I was a bit more financial literate, there were opportunities I have had that I could have used better. That’s the honest truth. From one’s own experience, there would be times when you would be making money and at those times invest or try and get financially literate.

You’ve been in the industry for 40 years. Has there been any improvement in the industry?

Of course there have.  I think the opportunities, the various platforms that exist are just so numerous. Now you have Netflix.  Amazon is there. You have Disney. These are all beasts, as you would call them in the entertainment industry. And they are all here. We have all seen the opportunities. Which is why when people say things about Oh there are no opportunities in Nigeria, why don’t we ask why do foreigners see opportunities in Nigeria and Nigerians don’t. We need to interrogate that, so that we also see the opportunities in our country and make use of these opportunities and explore those opportunities.

What advice do you have for the young ones who want to take acting as a career as well as those studying Theatre Arts in the university?

When Theatre Arts student finish school, they need to find somewhere they can train themselves. Because, like it is called, Theatre Arts but there is very little film done. Whereas where to make money is film because one, we don’t have enough theatres to make a living off stage plays. Unless you work behind the stage, you are a producer, you are a director, you are in lighting then you can be working all the time.  And you can be working in the various platform. But as an actor, you need to get training in film as well. You need to learn how to perform for the camera. What are the techniques that are useful to perform for the camera? And it is a training one on its own. Let’s not play with it. Because we don’t have enough people on the ground who are practising, who can help the actor. Before we did. But not so much anymore. So it is better to get proper training,

If given another opportunity, would you still take acting as a career?

Oh yes. I would definitely. Definitely I would. I would probably do things differently, but I definitely would. I love it. It’s the way I am wired. It is embedded in my DNA. I love performing (laughs).