Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe |Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Director Samke Makhoba | Make-up Artist Pumzile Mhlongo | Interview by
Editor In Chief: Mandisa Vundla
How did you get into acting at such a young age?
I wish I knew, but I have my mom to thank for that. It’s through her that I got my first agent, I was probably 10 or 11 years old. We joined a modeling agency and I thought that was it! That was all I’d do, Model. And I was okay with that, I mean at that age I thought I’d have an endless supply of clothes, little did I know. When I got my first casting, it was for a clothing label named Samson if I’m not mistaken. I remember shooting stills with them for their new range and thinking well, I’ve made it! “Laughs”, this is what ‘We Super Models’ do I guess. I felt like I was on top of the world. Shortly after that, I did a Nedbank brochure. What happened was, I’d just arrive somewhere and take pictures, no sign of acting required anywhere besides the fact that I had to pretend the strangers who were there with me were my family. Until I was part of The Lion King Stage Production and for the first time I’m acting, not just in a school play but acting, acting. It was a musical for crying out loud, surely I’m the next Broadway star! It was after this experience when I then joined Star Quality and from there on I found myself with Zinzi Zungu for about 8 years.
How did you get cast for lion king?
How that happened was, I had just turned 12 years old and my parents had planned a surprise trip for me. Here we are walking through the airport under the impression that my dad had a business trip… Next thing my dad bumps into this man, he seems to know him, they’re talking. I didn’t know who the gentleman was but from that encounter, I’d be sure to never forget the name. Turns out Duma Ndlovu was in Johannesburg casting for the Lion King and he mentioned that they’re also casting kids for the younger roles. My dad introduced me to him and I guess I looked the part somehow. Fast forward a week or two later, there I was at Monte Casino then later and in Newtown, attending auditions and rehearsals for the next couple of weeks. It was through that process that I learned the basics of acting, dance and singing. It was an epic experience, although I would’ve loved to have been able to tour with the company, I was young, only 12 years old, my mom didn’t let that happen. I was gutted right but she put school as a priority, she didn’t want to hear about any tutors or learning programs.
What was the first tv role you were cast for?
My first ever tv debut was in the year 2009, I’m in high school, grade 9 and I had been with my agent for some time now. At that point in my life, there wasn’t really a “burning desire” to do what I do now. All I ever did was just focus on high school until this one day, we get a call from Zinzi and we’re told to go to some house in North Cliff. I have no idea what is going on, I get there and I’m trying on different attires, getting made up, I had no idea that I was on an actual set. This was my first acting job, on TV… I played this young heartthrob/charmer, jock, Mr. Cool guy of the school, Azwi… that’s all I knew about him. This was for an ETV show called ‘4 Play Sex Tips for Girls’. I remember stepping onto set and seeing the likes of Kgomotso Christopher, Portia Gumede, Jet Novuka & Tiffany Barbuzano. I was star struck but that made me even more nervous and I thought Hey! I need to impress them! So there I was young clueless me, we’ve just shot a scene and they’ve just called cut. Now in the scene the ladies arrive bearing gifts that they’ve now left on the floor, I thought no let me be me and just be helpful, I went over to where they had left the props, picked them up and walked up to them. I felt as though I did something wrong, I was told there’s a department for that, now I’m confused, department? For what? Picking stuff up? It is through moments like those that I gained more insight on what a set means and how it operates, affording me the knowledge to call them as they are, The Art Department.
Did your parents come from an artist background?
My dad is what you’d call a Jack of all trades! There is nothing he hasn’t done and if there is, he’ll probably know how to do it anyway. One thing I am aware of is that he did at some point in his life teach indigenous dance at Wits. But my dad has always been exposed to the life of artists through a distant relative ubaba’ Mbongeni Ngema. Having worked with him over the years, he was part of countless stage productions and Sarafina the movie, on the marketing side. It’s through that, that we had a lot of what would be considered “wardrobe” but to the younger me, it was just old clothes. I’d always find something to throw on then put on a show for my parents, solely for their entertainment not knowing that the term for it would be “embodying a character”.
My mom, on the other hand, has been in tourism for the past 20 or so years, just as my dad was but more so doing tours and transfers. My mom worked for Thompson’s Tours for a long time so I wouldn’t say she has an artistic background per se. She wanted me to do something that’d be stable. So, In high school when I was given the option to choose between, ideally drama and accounting, you can sort of guess what I chose. I took accounting and I was surprisingly “okay” at it! With my highest mark for 3rd term at an 80 % and maths an average of about 70/75%.
Do you have any memorable highschool performances?
My journey leading to taking drama on its own is quite memorable. Having taken accounting, my final grade 10 results came back and I remember putting the envelope in my blazer pocket, the suspense was killing me so I thought I’d take a peek. At first I saw a red circle around my maths mark, meaning I’d failed it… and when I opened it up more and I saw half of another circle and from then I knew that, that can’t be good, two subjects failed means I’ve failed the grade. I knew there had to be a mistake. After the school holidays, we went back to school with my parents to question it, turns out I wasn’t the only student there were three other girls who were part of the smart lot… When they returned with the remarked results, turns out they had made an error. On the first day of school, we were put with the grade 10s who were the grade 9s in the previous year. It was embarrassing, I was an RCL. They called me up to the office and when I got there I remember seeing my parents in the Deputy Principles office, when I sat down we were told that they had actually made a mistake and gave us the new results, I had passed. When asked if I would carry on with those subjects I didn’t even let them finish their sentence and demanded to do drama. I didn’t want or like accounting. I was then put into a new class grade 11a and was taken to my new drama teacher. Now do I have any memorable performances? DEFINITELY! A few months in, it felt as though I had joined the drama class from grade 10, I got a hang of everything and was actually enjoying it! We read a play called ‘Boesman and Lena’ which was my chosen piece for our monologues. My drama teacher was blown away. What blew her away wasn’t just the monologue or the recollection of it or the execution of the monologue, but the whole picture. I went and got a drie-foot, matches, paper. I got an old beer bottle -I had my own art department on fleek. When you read ‘Boesman and Lena’, the way I was dressed, already to her, she saw Boesman, I didn’t have to open my mouth. I then went on to join in on the inter-house drama plays which saw our company going to eisteddfods and winning multiple awards. I thought I was just entertaining people, I guess they were impressed, I saw my self winning Best Actor for the plays and Actor of the year at the end of year award-ceremony.
Why did you feel it was still important for you to pursue acting studies after school when you had already made your breakthrough in the industry?
I can’t go into something thinking my first attempt will be my best and therefore I can maintain it. As much as I was on screen already, where I saw myself going definitely needed a lot more than what I was giving, with that I sought tertiary training. I needed to know the basic terms that when I talk about what it is I’m so passionate about, I can give it a name and know how to distinguish it from other things. There’s a lot of things that people are passionate about in the arts and if not expressed correctly it could sound like we’re all doing the same thing. And for me, there was nothing wrong with feeling like I needed to learn more and I thought Wits was the best
until I was turned down by them. At one point it felt like my world was ending. I thought ‘what am I gonna do, I wanna act?’ If I can be honest that is where my career started, by not making it to Wits and going to AFDA because the genuine souls I met there are what motivated me to attend that one audition that meant prime time television.
What was your experience shooting the comedy Gauteng Maboneg, especially because it’s a different genre?
Comedy is very technical, comedy is about timing and that is part of the technicality but that is not the technicality behind the comedy. So besides the timing, I didn’t know what else comedy meant, I just thought, be ridiculous.
I felt like I had so much room for that because I played Mo, a dim-witted jock. Once again, heartthrob slash, cool guy, slash… It’s all these young characters. He was a bit of a slow guy so I played on that a lot. He was naive and unassuming, everything just went over his head. Gauteng Maboneng was great, I don’t have a lot of favorite actors, I don’t favorite people I just appreciate what you do. I can’t say my number one actor is… But on Generations, one guy that I loved was Choppa (Mandla Gaduka) and when I got a chance to work with him on Gauteng Maboneng, I think I had the biggest fan moment ever and he couldn’t even see it. There would be times when I’d find myself giggling at the stuff he did and I’d be like ooh sh#t, we’re actually rolling and then I’d try to play it off and they’d say no, no, no. Keep that! And I’m just like what? I was just laughing because I was out of character, and they’d say no keep that, that’s what your character would do. I was like sh#! I’m just loving the guy more then.
How did you find the balance between varsity and work?
After Gauteng Maboneng, Gold Diggers season one came and I didn’t know what a telenovela was at that time, I mean I was only in my 3rd year and was very grateful and fortunate that I’d been working all this time; from the 1st year & 2nd year. In my 3rd year, our biggest worry was Gold Diggers clashing with school and what happened was, it clashed with school. I asked ADFA how many days I have to pull back and they said I’ve got 21 days. I went to set, got the schedule and on the 12th day I came back to AFDA and said yoh guys, I’d like to get all my money back, I’ll come back next year and they were like, you only had seven days to get your refund. Anyway, cool, we leave that. I get into school, 1st month, 2nd month, 3rd month – around June / July, I’m six months in and Gold Diggers is also sitting me here, it’s tough, I’m not ok in my soul, I’m not eating, I’m constantly looking for distractions. Even when I go to class I hate being there especially because of how my peers treated me. It was like I’m wrong for being afforded an opportunity to do what I love, to do what we all actually came here to study for. Had any of them been given the opportunity, they pretended like they wouldn’t have taken it. I didn’t feel welcome amongst my peers, it got to me but it didn’t get to me because as much as they were not for me, I’m still doing what I set myself out to do. How could you be against that progress? I ended up having to drop out in July, it just got too much, I just couldn’t, every single day I’d leave set, go to school, from school go to set. That was my day, either set or school or both or just constant stress, headaches, deadlines, submissions, and…. I dropped out.
How did you overcome the pressure?
In 2016, I decided Gold Diggers is done, let me go back to school. I was supposed to go back to school in July but I was like well I’m not doing anything in the first six months of the year why not go back from the beginning, that way I can at least better my marks. I did the first semester all over again, then in June/July, Gold Diggers season two started. Now we’re doing experimental films, experimental plays, it was hell, it was hell… But Lord knows how much that cast has been there for me… On set, I found moments to step up, you find moments to showcase that character you’d like to play, you find moments to showcase other things you can do. I found myself getting into a bit of a psycho thing, I was like ooh, that’s nice I can keep that for that character, ooh let’s try this all in one character.
I guess that’s how I also kept myself on my toes. We are our own biggest critics and I personally suffer from feeling like I’m monotonous especially when it comes to my voice, I hate the sound of my voice but I need to learn to accept that it’s what comes with all my characters. It’s in those moments where you want to find ways to keep elevating going up and down to try to mix it up so it doesn’t sound like the same old boring flat line kind of thing. So as much as I was missing school I felt as though I’m learning more than anyone could ever gain because I was in between class and set, I had to find some sort of way to console myself and that was it.
Have you ever experienced a challenging audition?
I went to audition for Rhythm City in 2013 and I didn’t have a car, my bike wasn’t functioning at that time, I didn’t know how the hell I was gonna get to Sasani from Auckland park. I called a mate of mine from high school, I knew he went to U.J. I’m like look I don’t wanna bother you but can you … can you…?
While all of this is happening my friends Nikita and Dina were standing next to me like ‘do it’. They would have taken me if they didn’t have class, so they wanted to make sure that I went. I was this close to deciding that I’m not going, they pushed me. When I got there, there was this guy that was claiming the job saying, it’s mine, it’s mine and… ‘nikhape mina, nizobuyela ekhaya, this is my job. Here’s the thing about me and auditions and competition, I hate it, I’m so awkward when I get to an audition because number one, I’m not desperate for the job but I know what it means to have the job. I sat down and I thought, I wish I had his confidence. In me not realizing my potential and wishing that I had his confidence, it kind of got to me and I thought hmmm, maybe I’m not gonna get this until I stepped inside and later walked out. When I walked out, the feeling I had before going in; the moment I arrived and when I walked out were three different things because I was unsure of myself, not just the character, not just the role, I was doubting myself. Here’s this person who has much more confidence than I. I walked in there thinking of this man’s confidence but I had to say to myself, forget about that confidence and just focus on what you can do, focus on what it is that you are willing to give these people or what you have prepared. Everyone who knows me when we speak of acting knows I’m just big on truth, give me the truth I’ll give you the truth. I don’t see a need to over extenuate certain things. When it’s just a genuine moment, let it breathe, let it be natural and that’s exactly what I did and guess what? That actually got me the job. But every audition is challenging in its own way, you just learn not to let the challenge weigh you down I guess.
Do you have a particular approach to all the characters you play, the way you internalize and perform them?
The moment I read a character brief, I don’t want to see myself, I want complete transformation where I don’t even recognize myself and sometimes I know that I can’t fully achieve that because as much as I am the canvas, the canvas is what you see, and it’s my face, it’s my voice it’s my body that you’re seeing.
When approaching the characters the story is a huge determining factor. What world are we living in? You need to give your characters aspirations and goals that aren’t scripted. What is their through-line, at the end what is it that they need to achieve? How is it that they go about that? It’s the story that carries your character and it’s where all the missing information is hidden. Every single thing you need to know about your character is hidden in this. I could see this and be like, I just want to do it like this and then that’s it but sometimes how I do it motivates why all of a sudden that character’s story is changing. What is it that had such an impact from me to impact their story?
It’s not just about interrogating the story but interrogating the fictional aspect of it all and once you come to terms with the fact that it’s fictional you can then embody that and actually believe it, it sounds twisted but hey you know actors are sick!
One character you loved playing?
Lucky Gumede on Gold Diggers Lucky was a party, lucky was amazing, I loved lucky and yes lucky is me. Lucky is a lot of me or rather is a lot of how I would want him to react and through that, we still managed to get something good and it still worked because amongst all of that they needed me to be what I am to make it work.
As an actor, what inspires you to keep going?
The acting realm is about transformation, we can all live in our own skin but there are also grey areas and its how we choose to deal with those. Certain people choose to ignore them, when you ignore them they become bigger; certain people chose to address them; certain people choose to be aware of them and not address them. So to be fortunate enough to escape through my line of work I think is a blessing. What I really do take away from everything is just feeling like ‘I’m not Mpho anymore’. I know what restricts Mpho, I know Mpho is awkward when this happens but when I’m performing I know this has got nothing to do with Mpho, this is not for Mpho at all, maybe yes it is for Mpho, but what we’re doing at this moment does not serve Mpho. It’s for the character, it’s for the bigger purpose of the story. Sometimes those things sound like, ‘oh my God do you have such a sad life that you want to escape?’ but it’s therapeutic. I think that’s what keeps me at it, it’s our biggest downfall but at the same time our biggest accomplishment. Being In this and working through your own demons.
PORTRAITS | MPHO SIBEKO