Yoruba comic actor, Sanyeri, is the toast of filmmakers in his industry. He has been named one of the top three funny actors in his industry.
Born Olaniyi Afonja, he has appeared in nearly 100 films since 1992, many of them in leading roles and most of them are box office hits.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the 44-year-old actor speaks about his humble beginning, family and finding fulfillment.
PT: How did you begin your acting career?
Sanyeri: I started out my career by featuring in stage plays in my village in 1992/93. I was going to different towns and villages to act. I did that for about three years in Oyo State. I had to move to another town in Lagos, in 1996. I was trained by the late Oluseyi Adeoye.
PT: What were the challenges when you started acting?
Sanyeri: When I started acting, there was no money, I had to hustle for money. Something about acting is, you can’t start making money immediately you join. You’ll have to suffer and sacrifice some things.
Even transport fare might be difficult to come by. Some people might be doing great things and you’ll be pained that you can’t do it. At times, you might even begin to wonder if you’d have been on their level if you were not acting.
Once you are focused and determined, though, you’ll eventually get there. Personally, the passion I had for it, did not make me give up when it was hard.
PT: Who are some of your contemporaries in your industry?
Sanyeri: Adekola Tijani, popularly known as Kamilu Kompo, his brother, Adebayo Tijani, Ibrahim Chatta, Eniola Afeez and a few others. Those were people I started with and we are still together, and I’ve known them for over 25 years.
PT: Is it true that your friend, Adekola Tijani, brought you to Lagos?
Sanyeri: No, he didn’t. We came to Lagos together, not that he brought me.
PT: Have your tribal marks been a major challenge to you in your rise to stardom?
Sanyeri: I don’t know about any other thing, but I do know that I don’t regret having this tribal mark. That is not to say that I’ve not had challenges due to it.
There was a day one of my friends advised me to go and learn to edit or be among the crew that handles things behind the camera. He talked about my stature and the marks on my face like something people would not want to see.
I was really touched by what he said but the passion I had for the job kept me going. I told God that he was the one that created me the way I am and that he should make the stature and my look generally of advantage to me.
So, I thank God that the body that was looked down upon that day has become what people want to see.
PT: When did you get your first shot at financial breakthrough?
Sanyeri: That was when I featured in my first commercial advert for Globacom. I was scouted by an advert agency. I wasn’t really known at the time so I was surprised and thrilled when I was called. We shot it at TBS in Lagos. It was in 2009.
I can’t even remember the amount that I was paid. You know, at that time, I couldn’t dictate for them so I had to work with their budget. But today, if an agency should call me that they want me to shoot an advert for them, we will have to discuss the pay and I’ll only do it if the money is acceptable to me.
PT: What’s the educational background?
Sanyeri: I only finished secondary school. O levels. I stopped schooling because of acting.
PT: Do you plan to go back to school?
Sanyeri: I really do. God help me, I wish to go back to school. In fact, I do have a teacher who currently teaches me how to speak English.
PT: Is your educational background a hindrance?
Sanyeri: It has hindered me a lot. That is why I do tell students to be focused and make sure they excel. Education is something you have that no one can take away from you.
No matter how successful you are, education will make it better. As much as people accept me and my brand, I believe that the name would be bigger than this if I were educated. I’d prefer to go to the University of Ibadan because that’s my state, and I may or may not study theater arts. I’ve not decided yet.
PT: Do you have a plan to take on Nollywood roles when you finally go to school?
Afonja: I do take on English speaking roles in Nollywood already. It’s just that in such movie, I’d automatically be a Yoruba man. The identity is of a Yoruba man is on me. I act mostly in a mixture of Yoruba and English, or better still, pidgin.
PT: You mostly play comic roles in movies. Wouldn’t you like to diversify?
Sanyeri: There’s no role that I’m called upon to take that I can’t do. Meanwhile, I’ve performed many roles that are not necessarily comedy. An example is ‘Abuke Oshin’ by Yinka Laoye. It wasn’t a comical role.
PT: How many movies have you produced?
Sanyeri: I’ve produced so many movies and I’ve been producing since 2004. I don’t believe in just producing movies anyhow, maybe once in a year.
However, my first movie was ‘Ọkan eni’. Some of my other movies include; ‘Aina Orosun’, ‘Opa kan’, ‘Okala l’America’, ‘Oro Olọrun’, ‘Adaba’, ‘Asiwaju’, ‘Atiba’ and ‘Saworo’. The latter was produced in 2019.
PT: Do you have any favourite actors whom you would love to act alongside?
Sanyeri: I can act with anybody. I like to draw a line between work and friendship. I can act with anybody, just do your job while I do mine. But when it comes to comedy movies, Kamilu Kompo, Odunlade Adekola and I are mostly always ‘cast’ together. Sometimes we have Okunnu as well.
PT: It is believed that entertainers don’t have lasting marriages but you’ve been married for 13 years, what’s your secret?
Sanyeri: it’s the will of the Almighty that we are still together and nothing else.
PT: How did you meet your wife?
Sanyeri: I met her at the National Theatre and I developed an interest in her; I knew right away that I would love to have her as my wife.
She came to watch my first movie (Ọkan Eni) that I was showing that day. I walked up to her and jokingly told her that she’s beautiful, she ignored me, and I requested for her number, she told me she didn’t have a phone. What do I do?
Because of my persistence, she gave me her mum’s number. Whether mistakenly or deliberately, I don’t know. I called the number several times and the mum would always say she’s not around or she’s running an errand for her; virtually that’s all her response all the time I called.
On a particular day, the mum had to tell me the truth, she said the lady had always been with her whenever I called but, she didn’t want to speak with me.
PT: What did you do next?
Sanyeri: I pleaded with her that she should help me appeal to her to accept the phone and she promised to. I don’t know what she told her daughter but all I knew was she started taking my calls and we’d talk for hours. And then love happened.
We met in 2004, and later got married in 2007. We didn’t have the money to throw a big wedding at that time. She got pregnant and we did the traditional rites.
As at then, my wife married Olaniyi and not Sanyeri because I had next to nothing at the time. Not the name, not money. That is more reason I love and appreciate her.
PT: Why did you relocate your family to Canada and how do you cope with the long distance?
Sanyeri: We all ask God to make our children successful. The way I started, the journey was rough and not enjoyable at all. I do not pray for my children to pass through the same condition. Besides, I don’t stay at home much. I’m always traveling to movie locations. I have two children, Olasunkanmi and Bólúwatifẹ́ Afonja and they are both in Canada.
PT: How was the name ‘Sanyeri’ birthed?
Sanyeri: I went to meet a friend that was my senior in our theatre group then, Adeoye mMtion Pictures. He was already a graduate at that time and he was doing stage plays for primary schools.
That day, he told our boss that he wanted one of us, so our boss said I should join them. I was known as ‘Oriowo’ at the time and my friend was Dehinde. There was a particular person in his group that was called Sanyeri, there was a problem with him as at then, so I was fortunate to follow the group to Ogbomoso as a replacement. I was told I’d perform the role of Sanyeri. Since then, I was referred to as Sanyeri, that’s how the name got stuck.
PT: You have a very beautiful wife. How do you manage her male admirers and don’t you feel insecure?
Sanyeri: There are some things that can’t be changed and there is nothing you can do about them. People will definitely admire my wife but she will be the one to watch herself and be careful, so as not to embarrass her husband.
You’d realise that she’s not even active on social media. I don’t monitor her or look for her mistakes and she does not try to monitor me as well. A woman must know how to control her home and manage herself. I trust her totally. Most importantly, when there’s love, we should be able to manage ourselves.
PT: How are you affected by insecurity and the poor economy as an actor?
Sanyeri: Generally, everyone is affected, but our prayer is that God should intervene in our country, and we should always pray for this country.
As an actor, if the economy is bad, no one will give us gifts just because they appreciate us. How will people that are struggling to eat spend money on movies? So it is a general problem.
As Nigerians, we shouldn’t be enemies to each other. If these killings are happening because of money, won’t the money be spent? We need to stay united and peaceful. May God help us.
PT: Do you have any plans to join politics?
Sanyeri: I don’t have any interest in politics, but my children may decide they want to do it.