Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up by Phumzile Mhlongo | Dressed by Andile Jila | Location | The Potato Shed Newtown
Article by: Sibongile Fisher
Acting is my sense of power.
With boastful laughter, Nthati Moshesh has an epiphany. She shares a reflection on how acting has always been a powerful tool for her. We are sitting in an intimate corner at the back of the Potato Shed in Newtown. It is a beautiful and sunny Sunday morning and the energy in the space suggests a surreal encounter. She is a powerful woman who has earned her stripes in the industry. Her humility accommodates my cold-stricken body and she is patient throughout my nasal questioning.
I learn later that she inherited her kindness from her late mother. “My mother used to make the effort to get to know the essence of who people are, she had the ability to make you feel like the most important person in the world.” She reminisces on moments spent with her mother at shopping centres and petrol stations and how she was always awe-filled at her mother’s knowledge of every teller or petrol attendant’s name.
Having gone to a private school as a young girl from Katlehong and being the only black girl in the school when she arrived, she found dramatic arts after her father encouraged her to take it up as a subject. At St Andrews school for girls, acting became her coping mechanism and it made her feel superior.
“It was this one thing I had over these white girls.”
This marked the beginning of Nthati Moshesh the actor. Taking this experience into account and the student years that followed we try to compress a career that spans over three decades in the industry—in one seating and we succeed, laughing and sharing “ah-ha moments”. Professionally, Nthati has been in the industry for as long as I’ve been alive—28 years of sweat, love, tears and joy. She likens her casting experience throughout high school and Tech University (where she was the only black girl in her year) to that of Will Smith, one of the few actors in the industry, who are not typecasted according to race. During these years as a student, she played roles that are not “black roles” but instead are deemed acting roles. She owes her unique experience to the producers she has worked with during her study years. This experienced stretched her as an actor and she gained a lot of knowledge from her training. Upon entering the professional field, Nthati’s experience changed. Like most of her contemporaries, she became typecast and this has remained her reality since. She is only cast to play strong black women but what most people don’t know is that she is really funny. I pick it up in our conversation. She once acted in a satirical play as Thabo Mbeki’s wife and she did so well that she got nominated for it. Her interests in comedy come with conditions. She has a witty sense of humour and would love to act in a comedy of that nature. Her versatility is a result of her diligent training and it is unfortunate that due to typecasting we are limited at experiencing it. This doesn’t say that it has all been challenges. She has had a softer experience with her craft—having always been appreciated. Starring in both international and local productions, Nthati’s talent is becoming, she holds the accolades as proof, but after being in the industry for so long she finds that the industry has changed— and she misses some of the perks that came with acting back in the day: Like having an acting coach, a dialogue coach, drivers, changing rooms and arriving on set to act without worrying about production— this has often left her at the doors of quitting. However, acting runs in her blood, it crawls under her skin and the little girl from St Andrews who finds a place of power in acting won’t allow her to quit.
“I can’t shake it off…oh, I only ever want to quit for two seconds.” She jokingly speaks about her short-lived desire to change industries. She is incredibly animated and bubbly. Acting is all she knows and she loves it to the bone. She just hates some of the conditions around acting. She speaks of productions such as Egoli, 7 De Laan and Home Affairs with pride and it is the standard industry practices and perks she experienced in these local productions coupled with some international productions that lead the creature of habit on a new and challenging journey to adapt to the times. Things have changed; some good, some bad.
“It was this one thing I had over these white girls.”. We list her frustrations: Remuneration, Punctuality, Discipline, actors getting scripts on set oh and she emphasizes “cell phones on set. A director says action and the actor gives you the phone to hold.” We unpack the importance of the above, wondering how an actor can be on their phone and still be able to exploit the moment in a scene. “Training is important. It doesn’t have to be from a formal institution.” She emphasizes how training influences an actor’s conduct on set. After a mouthful of revelations, she takes a moment to reflect “Maybe I need to change, maybe I need to adapt.”
“Don’t get frustrated, instead teach, guide Nthati.” She reminds herself. Her face is glowing and she remembers the guidance she received from legends such as Thoko Ntshinga when she was younger and finding her feet in the industry. We both agree that there is something that the old and new generation of actors can learn from each other. “I am always keen to work with young filmmakers. I know that the money is not great, but if the work is good then I always tell them to bring their work to me and we can work something out.” We both agree that the older generation and younger generation of actors have something to learn from each other and Social Media is one of them.
Younger actors know how to deal with social media, she was in fact asked by one of them to join it. She, however, dispels the myth that social media can get you jobs by saying that seasoned actors don’t really need it. If a producer wants to work with you, then they will. She knows a few older actors who are not on social media but have managed to stay relevant. For her, social media is an opportunity to connect with her followers and she controls this by curating the content she posts on the various digital platforms. Her advice to young actors is to go with the flow and remain true to who they are. There is a song playing in the background and she starts dancing. Her nostalgic pride lightens up our conversation and I am left in awe of the powerhouse humbly seated before me. She feels like an older sister I never had.
She is from a generation of actors who happen to be famous and not the new wave of famous people who happen to be acting. The fame came with the profession so it was easy for her to separate the two and stay clear of the limelight. She points out that she has nothing against the fame, she just doesn’t prefer it. Watching the industry change has taken its toll on her and yet at the same time it has offered her the best plot-twist. It has presented to her a desire to return to her purpose and calling—Theatre. Nthati’s theatre training and background have enforced the discipline and respect she has for her craft. The rehearsal room and film set are a sacred space for her. She is excited at the thought of returning to theatre, where it all began and where she looks to reignite her flaring creativity and finally create content that pays homage to the Basotho Culture.
Nthati is turning down jobs due to the remuneration being low and she is not the only one in the industry. This has forced her to expand her creative flair into other avenues. She is in the process of starting a business; working behind the scenes and exploring other industries. Approaching her 50th birthday, her financial situation has pushed her to the next phase of her life. I am inspired by the youth in her passion and how excited she still gets over a good script. She is easily energized by good storytelling; recently when she came across a good script, written by a friend, it restored something in her. It is this restoration that lights up her face. She loved the script so much that she stayed up all night and spent the following day reading it. She loved it so much so that she wants to produce it. It is immediately obvious that she values good simple writing with all the dramatic elements but I am not stunned by how much she avails herself to mentoring and opening up avenues for developing young black writers. She recognizes the contribution Bongi Ndaba has made in the writing rooms of the industry and it is women like Ndaba who give her hope.
We both agree that the witchcraft storylines that flood our televisions are not a true reflection of our audiences, although there is a market for it, these stories don’t necessarily excite us all. Representation is important and the issue of language is a lump in our collective throat as a country. One of the reasons she is not getting jobs is because the majority of the narratives are for Nguni-speaking actors and occasionally if the story intersects with that of a Mosotho character then she will get the role, this is the reality. The collective storyboard is not reflecting the different official languages proportionately. One may argue that Nguni-speaking people are a majority, no matter how true that is, there is no direct relationship between the number of stories being pushed out and the number of audiences that are tallied for the primary language in each story. There is a disconnect between the narratives and the audiences and we both agree that we don’t feel represented by most of them. This doesn’t speak to the quality of the content produced however we just seek to raise a brow on the diversity of the content. She poses a question referencing the American improv-comedy show “Whose line is it anyway?” By asking: “Whose life is it anyway?”
We break into laughter and I realize that Nthati-The-Actor is flamboyant and animated whereas the real Nthati is a self-proclaimed loner who values “me-time”. Give her a book, videos, Netflix and she is at her happiest. She is not a city person and dreams of working for six months in the city and then spending the rest of the year in a quiet place on the outskirts. She keeps her private life private! She is reluctant to do interviews because she is media shy but also because she fears being misquoted.
Nthati looks at my phone and is reassured that because I’m recording our conversation, she can be at ease. She was headed to L.A earlier on in her career when her friends wanted to throw her a farewell party and her father asked: “What for? Why should people know that you are leaving?” She now heeds to her late father’s advice to keep some things for herself, in that way she gets to own her life. Her dad was her biggest fan. He visits us, and the spiritual Nthati takes a moment to acknowledge his presence. She speaks of her father with such reverence and glee. My heart warms to this legend sitting next to me and the brown couch we’re both seated on for a moment becomes a magic carpet, reminding me that our idols are also human. She shares an intimate memory of her father –her last memory of him. She was feeding him oats in the hospital and he couldn’t look her in the eyes, it was the sense of closeness at that moment that comforted her when later that day she learned of his passing. Her father shaped who she is career wise but it was her mother who taught her what can only be lost in translation if I attempt to mention it otherwise: Botho, Botho, meaning Ubuntu, the essence in all of us, our humanness. She lost both her parents and keeps a black & white picture of their younger selves in her bedroom. She is in constant communication with them. Her family keeps her grounded, “none of them watch my shows” and she likes this because acting becomes what she does and when she is with her family, she can be their aunty, sister or mother which are roles that are closer to her heart than the characters she plays. It is clear that her longevity in the industry is not only owed to how she was raised but also to her ability to create and collaborate. I ask her what’s next and with a smile, she answers:
“There are still so many roles… I’m going to be acting until I’m 90.”