Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Direction Ayanda Sithebe & Gugu Simelane | Styled by Gugu Simelane
Profile by: Mathunzi MacDonald |
The virtual setting is more serene than I anticipated. The community around me is sitting quietly in their homes as we all adjust to life midst the Covid19 global pandemic. Today I am meeting with actor, businessman and philanthropist Thato Molamu. Our tables are our respective cellphones, and on the menu is a healthy supply of hand sanitizer. He does not sound panicked by the current state of affairs but instead he seems genuinely concerned about the pandemic’s effects on Africa as a whole. On his return from the IDYLLWILD Film Festival with the Losing Lerato team, we are meeting about the business of telling stories. I hope to unpack the bold phrase this multi nominated and award-winning actor uses when describing self and his acting journey; “I am a big dreamer”.
Mathunzi Macdonald: Would you ever stop acting and if so why?
Thato Molamu: I don’t believe that I would ever stop acting. It is a gift that has been given to me, that has also opened many door and opportunities to me. A gift that has allowed me to live my dreams, travel the world, be on international stages and journey me into the work that I am currently doing. What I will not do however is choose projects that are not aligned with my vision.
Mathunzi: Does acting carry the same meaning to you now as it did back when you started and when you stepped into the industry?
Thato: The meaning I have now of the work that we do is influenced by the impact that we have on people around us and the growth we experience through exposure in the industry. For instance, when I walk around, I’ll hear “Yo Nicholas, I love your work man” and that will move into a deeper conversation about what ever challenges that particular individual is going through. I’ve met people who will entrust you with their deepest darkest secrets, ambitions and passions because of the work I do. Then I understand that it goes beyond acting, I’m impacting lives. So, acting, for me, has a more developed meaning and I have a deeper appreciation for it. What we do allows people to engage with uncomfortable conversations and that is the beauty of creative industries as a whole. Unfortunately for us as actors, we do this to survive, and that makes it lose the art. But I love the impact acting from a story telling perspective.
Mathunzi: Would you pursue an acting career outside of the country.
Thato: No, not at the moment. I feel that I have a bigger responsibility here with the establishment of LIMA. Where we now have 92 kids in the creative sector, who now have the same access to quality education as that of private schools, which they would otherwise not have due to affordability. I have played the roles I want to play and for now I would like to focus on growing the skills sets of persons in the industry. And create a system where all of us who are creatives can gain something. I also took a step back because I was getting frustrated with how our industry runs. We have conversations like “open up the industry” but we are not careful not to open it up to opportunists. Real actors who have been in the industry for years are now being qualified the same way you would someone who has appeared on a few movies for television. You can’t compare for instance myself with a Dr John Kani. I may be brilliant but the wealth of experience bab’ John has is incomparable. I could mention so much more but these are some of the reasons I have decided to redirect my energies for now.
What I learnt from acting allowed me to expand further and get into the directing and entrepreneurial space
Mathunzi: Please do tell us more about LIMA (Leaders in Motion Academy)
Thato: One of my dreams when I established my business in 2013 was to open a creative school for township and rural kids. For the talented kids who have never had access because of their financial background. Note that it was going to be established as a charity but as an institution which also contributes to the economy. So in 2018 the conversation began to establish the school. I spoke to 3 or four of my friends and I told them that I have this dream. And in July of 2018 we launched with no money and no funding. I was however fortunate enough to meet a gentleman by the name of Dr MJ Tladi. I mention his name with so much reverence because he was the one person who believed in the vision so much that he agreed to find money to invest in the school. Which allowed us in the first year to give 35 students food, travel allowance and pay for a couple of lecturers. What was also great was getting people who are so passionate about the art, who agreed to come in at a fraction of the cost. We had the likes of Alex Jansberg, who was one of my directors on The Queen and Greed and Desire, who came in to teach directing. Bongi Ndaba, god bless her soul, was teaching script writing for free. We also had Vuyani Lebela who believed in the project. After a year, in 2019, we partnered with MICT and others allowing us to expand and establish another campus in Alexandra. The Alexandra campus was also a partnership with Mpho Malepo , another South African actor, who heads the Alex Arts Academy. I have always been the guy who fights for the guy without a voice and that is usually misunderstood. My intentions with that is to create collaborations and a coming together. This is why LIMA was established. And when we collaborate with these kids, they are not called township kids, they are called youth that is talented and wants to create. The name also comes from the idea of building leaders who will contribute back to their communities.
Mathunzi: Who would’ve then inspired you as an actor?
Thato: You watch a guy like Denzel Washington, and you are like ‘man when I grow up, I want to be at that performance level’. So if you ask me who was the person who had an influence on me as a performer, I’d say Denzel Washington. I love one of his quotes where he says, “If you don’t see it on social media it does not mean that I am not doing big things”. I then also listened to Chadwick celebrating Denzel in saying that there would be no Black Panther without Denzel. So Denzel understood his influence as a performer, as an actor and he used it to transform other people’s lives. That remains part of my core beliefs and that is why I also do a lot of philanthropic work and talks. I understand that acting has given me the opportunity to use my public influence to change and transform other black people’s lives.
Mathunzi: Please describe the reality of being a black father and an actor in this country?
Thato: For me, being a father is a blessing. I look at my children and think that I’ve been blessed with two beautiful souls that teach me so much every day. Without them even realizing it. They teach me that if you take life too seriously you will find yourself in a state of suffering. Being a black father is a bigger responsibility especially because not a lot of us were privileged to have a black father figure as a role model, who was available every day. As an actor in South Africa, in an industry that doesn’t respect the value of an actor, the responsibility is even greater. With statements from producers like “I can replace you tomorrow”, that creates insecurities in you as a black father. You look at your kids and these are individuals that you promise to take to school, feed and clothe, and make sure that their safe. Then you sit in a production trying to negotiate a contract and you hear that, yes you are trained and yes you bring value to my show, but I can only pay you this much. Without any benefits or a sense of consideration for the contribution you bring. The assumption is that we are always working when sometimes you don’t even have the rights to your own face. You sell your face in perpetuity to a channel and no royalties are paid. Even though your kids can look back and say, “Oh but my dad was famous”, there is nothing that they can actually quantify. With all the great performances you give on television you can’t even leave a legacy for your kids.
As a black actor father in this country you have to diversify your income. That’s why I chose to expand into business. For my family.
Mathunzi: Congratulations on your IDYLLWILD nomination for best supporting actor in Losing Lerato. Can you tell us more about the film and a little about Kagiso Modupe?
Thato: The film itself was a big passion project. What drew me to the film, even though I had decided that I am going to stop acting for the time being, was when Kagiso shared that he is doing the film for his daughter. Now when you are a parent and you’ve made a promise to your kid, you keep it. As a fellow industry parent, I was willing to try for the role of Jake as it was offered. For the film to get to that level of recognition? That speaks to the heart of the producer. His heart is what drove him to develop this film.
When I got the call about the nomination it was funny because I was just telling someone that it seems that something great always happens to me every ten years. In 2010 I was nominated for Intersexions and when I got into the Royal Shakespeare Company through the Brett Golden bursary. That’s also when I landed Generations and did the Brenda Fassie show. So, when my year started with the nomination, and I saw a fellow black brother succeed in making his promise a reality, I knew it was another good ten years. It was good news during the struggle of the covid-19 pandemic; bringing home 6 international awards and raising the South African flag.
Mathunzi: What stories are you dying to tell on South African tv?
Thato: Don’t get me started! There have been so many impactful leaders, both female and male, in South Africa. But we’ve never really gotten to know the life story say between mam Winnie and uTata Madiba. Yes, the political story is important but there’s more to it. The stories of Bra Baby Jakes Matlala, Dingaan Thobela. We’ve never heard the stories of bo Ntate Joe Mafela. You saw Thabo Rametsi play Solomon Mahlangu and those are the love and life stories we want to see. The life and love stories of African leaders and people. I want to tell feel good stories and stories that archive history. I mean why aren’t we telling the stories John Kani and Mbongeni Ngema while they are still alive?