In conversation with the cast of How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral

Written by John-Otto Phike and Nadine Ndlovu

The festive spirit has a way of getting all of us in a cheerful mood, this was very evident when our Actor Spaces Rep Nadine Ndlovu had a Zoom chat with the cast and Executive Producer of How to Ruin Christmas: The Funeral.

Season 1 was a hot topic so the announcement of season 2 had all of us waiting eagerly and daydreaming about the next story twist. It was all chuckles and lots of reminiscing on the Zoom call with Nadine.

Nadine Ndlovu: I’m excited to be having this chat with you about How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral. What was your immediate response after finding out that How To Ruin Christmas was commissioned for season two?

Motlatsi Mafatshe: Been waiting! Let’s do it! Let’s do it again.

Saint Seseli: My initial response to my agent was “Oh there is a season two and i’m in it!? Hallelujah madlozi

Rami Chuene: I don’t remember what l said. I think l said “Well, I suppose we can do it because I just looked at my calendar. I do have a bit of space for you, so let’s shoot.” I was so excited, l said “yes let’s do it again”. I don’t know Retti’s version, I don’t know what they told her.

Rethabile Ramaphakela: I actually know what your reaction was. I’m laughing because I actually remember being told by the line producer what her reaction was. Imagine this, it’s a long email and it has all this boring contractual things we must consider. The reply: “BEST NEWS EVER!!”. But Rami, do you agree to the terms? Or you don’t even care? haha. Yeah that was her response.

Sandile Mahlangu: Well, firstly, I said, “Thank God.” I think that’s the biggest one because our industry is very uncertain and we are always praying for jobs. That was basically it and I asked, “so I’m in the second season? What’s the title?” They said, “It’s titled How To Ruin Christmas: The funeral.” My first thought was, oh it’s a funeral, I don’t know, am I? They said, “No you’re not.” I just thanked God two times.

Nadine: When you saw the title, ‘The Funeral’, did you think that maybe the funeral was for your character?

Rami: No, I knew it was not me. I was like no way. We didn’t know it was a funeral. It was just How To Ruin Christmas 2. We didn’t know what was happening. I was working and I couldn’t attend the table read and nobody was saying anything. I kept asking everyone if they said anything about me.

Rethabile: We actually kept that a secret from the actors. When they came for their first table read, it didn’t even say it on the script and then l told them, “It’s a funeral”, then their faces changed. It was very hard to keep it under wraps because we wanted it to be a surprise. Even when we shot the final thing, the scripts wouldn’t say ‘The funeral,’ it would just say ‘How to ruin Christmas’, incase the scripts got into someone’s hands. We were trying to keep it as our big secret.

Nadine: How did you as a cast rekindle your chemistry after being away from set for a while?

Rami: I’ve known Ausi Clementine for quite some time now, but it was the first time we found each other working together on How To Ruin Christmas season one. Most of us fell in love with each other in the first season and we still kept our relationship going. We didn’t even know if there was going to be season two but we still had our whatsapp group from season one. We attended each other’s this and that, dinner for two here, a lunch for three there, someone’s child is being Christened or something. We kept the relationship going. I think that’s what has made us so tight. It is very funny that since we started the show, it has been a year and even in the show, we see each other after a year but there’s been a bit of journeys in-between. We met because of the wedding, now we’re going to meet because of the funeral, so there’s been a bit of growth. What we did off-set paid off to contribute to what happens in season two so you can see that now they know each other even better. I think that’s what kept us going but we are also very close as a cast.

Rethabile: I got confused after season one, l thought they all knew each other before. It’s the bond that they formed. Bra Desmond and Aus Rami came to me one day asking me about a scene they had to reshoot, they came to me as Grace and Shadrack. I felt like l was talking to Grace and Shadrack and not the actors in front of me. That’s how great it is, everyone reverts into their roles and it’s really beautiful to watch.

Motlatsi: It felt like we never left. That’s how tight we are. We always chill together, we always watch and support each other as well. The guys come and watch me perform. I launched my song last month, they came through just to support, so we see each other. We visit each other’s homes and we check on each other. When we were all there together, it felt like oh snap, we are living that thing again. The Twala’s come to life, the Sello’s come to life, it just felt so incredible. This time around, we’re so comfortable with each other that the performances are top notch, we just lifted the stakes of performance and the chemistry was just too tight. There’s a picture Retti showed me where I was holding Swankie’s hand and l think we were not even rolling, we’re always in our zone. People always teased us for acting like a real couple, and that’s exactly what we want. When you see us, you must see Themba and Lydia Twala.

Sandile: In the first season of How To Ruin Christmas, that was the wedding. We tested everybody and kept everyone in a bubble and not interacting with the outside world. In season two, we started somewhat not as harshly. Season one was more difficult, it was level 4 or level 5, it was just chaotic and season two we had something similar to that so we were spending a lot of time as the cast together. Revisiting where we left off, finding where everybody is and us finding out what everybody was up to throughout the year, we experienced somewhat similar things. It was really nice to know that other people went through what you’re going through. I think that on its own helped us reach a common place where we can then move on and get the chemistry back and find new ways to improve. We were shooting in KZN this time, so travelling to a different place got us to learn more about ourselves and everybody else.

Nadine: Would you say having a good relationship offscreen helps you as actors create an authentic bond on-screen?

Saint: Absolutely, because it does show on-screen. We talked about it earlier, in How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding we came together as a new cast and we were still finding our feet, trying to develop the characters and that kind of stuff. After having finished that, Like Motlatsi says, we never actually parted ways. It wasn’t like we promised to see each other and then we only saw each other when we were shooting again, we were always in contact. Once a month, we’d be at someone’s house doing a braai or whatever or someone’s launching a restaurant, someone’s doing this and your How To Ruin Christmas family is always there. It does work out beautifully because it looks organic on-screen, because we are a real family now, it’s not just actors trying to make characters come alive and bring the script alive. It is actually about the fact that we live together, we have a Whatsapp group that never stops, that thing never sleeps and it’s wonderful to see, it’s quite an honor.

Sandile: Definitely, I will tell you something that I haven’t told anybody, when I found out that I was casted for How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding, we were all in quarantine and I found out that Motlatsi Mafatse was going to be my brother. We did the script reading and after the script reading, everybody left except for Motlatsi, and you know what he said to me? He said, “Stop all that.” I didn’t know what he was talking about so I asked what he meant by “Stop all that” and he said, “The pretending. You’re not receptive, you’re trying to show us that you are also a part of us, but you’re not really showing us who you really are.” That hit me hard. Then I thought to myself, maybe I’m not really showing them who I am because of my own insecurities and from there, he hasn’t left that role. That’s my brother and that was already showing before we even started shooting. He showed me that he’s my brother and he’s here to support me in this. I learnt to trust in him and that trust really transcended past How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding. This is very visible in How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral but also outside of this, I have an older brother. Motlatsi and I know I can go to him if I have any problems and he will always be there, it’s a family.

Nadine: Have you found or discovered new ways to combat the Covid restrictions on set?

Saint: Many productions, but more specifically the ones on Netflix, have strict protocols. In How to ruin Christmas: The Wedding, we stayed in a bubble as a crew and cast and we’ve tried to do that in the second season as well. It does make it a bit more difficult. Even now, we’re doing this thing (zoom). We could’ve been face to face but thankfully, there’s technology and we’re able to carry on. We had testing every single week to make sure that everyone is protected and safe. That’s just standard protocol across the world and Netflix is no different.

Nadine: As actors, would you say that there are any similarities between yourself and your character?

Sandile: Oh yes, definitely. As everybody knows, Sbu Twala is the sensitive one and the problem solver. He doesn’t like to leave things open ended and that’s Sandile Mahlangu as well. I take other people’s problems and make them my own until they are fixed. I like to learn things and Sbu is also along those lines. As much as he is on the spoilt side of things, he does take into consideration other people’s feelings and emotions and he wants to be rooted in realness and that’s Sandile too. In season two, Sbu Twala is found having to balance everything, similar to season one. In this season he is trying to bring Beauty back down to reality to face what they’re facing and to heal from what they are healing from and that’s what Sandile does as well with most of his loved ones.

Saint: I think the biggest similarity is that Vusi Twala has two sons and I have two daughters. We were saying earlier that there really is no difference in the old patriarchy way of thinking. One would say, no but you need a son because of the surname and all this kind of stuff but no, I can play with my girl children the same games I can play with boy children. There’s no importance to a child being a male or being a female or anything of that sort. I wish I had his money but essentially him and I both want the same thing out of life. We want to have a happy family life, we want a happy partner, we want happy children, we want to have no problems and we want to have a legacy that you leave for your children. The main difference could be in how the two men, as in Saint and Vusi, go about getting their desires.

Motlatsi: The body’s mine. So I use my body to play Themba and so there’s not really much of a difference. The difference that we find is within the story and the characters because it’s two different people. What we can find in the script is what’s different from who I am. Themba as we know him from season one, the guy loves his bottle and you will never know if I do or not. Next question.

Nadine: Beauty, and Sbu face challenges this season, with regards to losing a baby. Vusi went through some financial problems, which were caused by his dealings. Themba was facing postpartum issues with his wife and just helping her through that. What research did you do to understand the issues that your characters were going through?

Sandile: Loss is a thing that everybody goes through. A lot of people have gone through a lot of loss because of Covid. The biggest thing that we tried to do was to really be true to the characters. We really trusted in the script and we trusted in the director. One thing we told ourselves is that we are dealing with a big thing here and we should not try to make it a case study. We wanted to do our jobs and remain true to the character. We really let that flow through us instead of us trying to put any expectations and intellectualize our character’s emotions. Trusting in the script and the director gave us a truthful understanding of where our characters were coming from and where they’re going. Just being truthful in the moment really did tell the story, in the way that it was intended to be told.

Motlatsi: I’ve been a father twice now in terms of experiencing the whole nine months and then the child arriving. That experience can’t be bought, it’s either you have it, or you don’t and so much goes down, particularly with women when they have to come back hormonally. Also with guys, how we relate now, particularly because we say “You got to be there, holding her hand when the child is coming” and others will say “No, don’t go through that.” Nonetheless, I think my experience from home helped me get into the script cause I remember it very well. I know the grandmother will say the child needs to be breastfed and there’s no nanny. You see it bring conflict, it’s no longer Lydia’s child, it’s now Valencia’s child. Those are things that I think we get to address in this picture, in this season. We know that in December, alot of kids come together and we celebrate and visit our homes and then grandmothers tell us that this is how children are raised and it’s like no, just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that we need to fight. When it’s Christmas, we need to come together and unite, let’s all get along, let’s all be a family and reunite. Let’s not impose what we wanted to do with our kids on other people’s kids.

Saint: I always think that the basis for any good story is the script. If you have an awesome script like we’ve had for both seasons of How To Ruin Christmas, then it makes it easier for the actor to prepare. You know as much as the stories are relatable, the characters are relatable too. The choices have already been made. The actor’s choices have been made in season one, most of the preparation was done in preparation for season one, the wedding, because you’ve made those kinds of decisions as to what my characters are about, this is how we would respond to X, Y and Z. It makes it much simpler when you walk into season two. You know that this is not a Vusi thing, how would he react or respond to this? But then now the World evolves, the world changes which then pushed me to now think differently around how it would be. In doing research now for that particular thing that’s come up in season two, I have way too many examples of people that have gone through that awful experience of kind of losing it all and having to face possible ruling. So it’s very easy, because you know, you think about it, how would it feel to lose the things that you hold so dear? One, it’s the death of a family member, but also against that is now this other world that is now changed.

Nadine: This season had a lot of themes around being carefree, youthful and playful. Rami, how did it feel to embody these energies for your character?

Rami: I’m playful. I think I’m kind of like auntie Grace in a way. I’m 20% of what Grace is in terms of character, because she’s crazy. I think I’ve got like a teaspoon of crazy, she threw a whole bucket in, but it was effortless and I think the biggest challenge for me was having to be playful, authentic, sincere and tell the story. Sometimes when people hear that it’s a comedy they start looking for the gags rather than telling the story. So you still need to tell the story in a very great way. That’s what happens when someone is a comedian, you tell a story and people laugh at what resonates with them, but you don’t say, this is a joke and it’s going to sell. You just tell it the best way you can within the right amount of faithfulness, the right amount of commitment, the right amount of sincerity and all of that. Then you hope that in the mix, the story is not lost within the comedy. I think that’s what makes How To Ruin Christmas work, because it is not, “Hahaha let’s laugh all the time”. There’s a lot of underlying stories that people, black families especially, deal with and sometimes if you don’t deal with them, you will end up laughing it off or crying it off. Those are some of the things that we bring out in the second season.

Nadine: When did you, as an actor, find yourself being challenged by your character?

Sandile: I think the biggest challenge that I had was the fact that I was shooting with very experienced people and with that comes the insecurities that any young actor would have. It was lovely shooting with such beautiful people. The veterans that we were shooting with showed me that it’s okay to play, it’s okay to feel insecure, it’s okay to let these emotions be. They were there to just see me through that and to tell me everything’s okay, let’s just play, let’s have fun. They were very assertive and validating and I think that sort of pushed away all those challenges. Ultimately, I had a great time shooting that’s why it took me a while to think about the challenges.

Nadine: What is your process with finding that balance of telling the story and bringing awareness to these very important issues and topics, but also still being able to be funny?

Rami: You find the balance because these are our stories. You get to dig very far. If it hasn’t happened to me, it’s happened to someone that I know. It could be my cousin, my sister, my brother, it doesn’t matter. It’s because the stories are so authentic and the stories are so us that you don’t have to go do research or find out how to deal with this. When there’s a funeral someone has to sit on a mattress, I don’t need the research for that, that’s us. That’s why when we tell the story, sometimes the viewer doesn’t know whether it’s part of the story or is it really us because the story is so us that it just comes out so effortlessly, but then still remember that, even if it is effortless you must still tell it as beautifully as possible for someone else who doesn’t understand the culture. We’re being watched all over the world, the story must still make sense. They must still be like, “OMG can you believe this is what they do in South Africa when something like this happens.”

Rethabile: Yeah and I think that one of the important things that I’ve learned while working with Rami, is that the actors were always prepared and I think that’s important in comedy because then you can play, but if you’re still worried about your lines and you don’t know what the scene before this was. The script supervisor has to remind you. Everyone always got on set knowing exactly what we’re meant to be hitting. When you can do that, then the fun can happen, then you can be like, “That’s great, we should try that.” I feel like we had a cast of actors that were well prepared and they know their lines. There was never a day where l said, “Wow she doesn’t know the line.” If you know your lines, you know the story. They’ll even know other people’s story lines and Rami kept saying that her favorite scene is the scene that she wasn’t even in and you know that’s exciting to kind of know that you’re not just reading and paging through looking for Grace’s lines. It’s more like, what is the whole story, what is the whole world and then you can all kind of fit in and juggle your pieces, so you always kind of know where the story is pivoting.

Nadine: Would you say it’s helpful to know the whole story?

Rethabile: Yeah because we have scenes where all the characters are there, and they might not have dialogue. Auntie Grace might not have dialogue in that scene but she’s there, she’s present and if she’s following the trajectory of her story within the biggest story, then it all makes sense. I don’t have to worry about why Grace is looking at her phone because l know Grace is being Grace. I don’t know if you watch the background so you see scenes where Shadrack is not in the foreground or anything, you will see things. At the funeral, he’s standing up, Grace is pulling him down. There’s little things that Bra Desmond does that is not scripted but it’s still within the character and in the world and not distracting that you have to be like “guys stop what you are doing”, no, it’s bringing the world to life. These two together are always doing something. I think that’s great.

Nadine: What would you say was the best part about working with this cast?

Rethabile: It was madness and chaotic. The show is a hot mess. If you think of How To Ruin Christmas, it embodies what a hot mess with families is like. We really became a family. We bickered, “Why is this like this? let’s just shoot.” Every production has its downfalls, but I think at the end of the day, everyone knows we’re making the show and this is what we’re going to do. We always make it, that’s the best part! You can even tell now, we’re not faking this energy.

Rami: I don’t know what she’s saying. If there’s someone who’s crazy here, it’s Retti. This is the same person who came to set wearing a onesie and a hoodie with ears and little muffs on her ears and a bling pink fanny pack and l asked her, “So this is how you came to work today?”. l have to give props to the producers and the directors, because you should see even when we were tackling scenes, the way they describe what they want to see, you can feel the passion, they dream it and when they dream it, it’s easy for us to pick up the pieces of the dreams and build on that and make it amazing because you can see that they’re invested. We laugh at our own stupid jokes you know when you act and think, “l know l’m funny”, we feel ourselves like “yeah yeah, no this is funny.” if it is convincing to us, then it’s easy now for us to convince you as an audience, because we believe it first. So they believed it, they wrote it, saw the vision, laughed by themselves, came to us, we laughed together, and then by the time we started shooting it was more like just fireworks everywhere. We really wanted to see this working. There was a time when I was freezing. I was dying and Retti was like, “Okay l just need one more take, just one last shot.” At that time she’s wearing boots, she’s dressed warm and we are shooting because it’s ‘summer’ and we are just dressed for vibes, l think the only warm thing l had were my shoes and they were not even that warm.

Rethabile: Best believe when we said action, there she was in character as Grace as if nothing happened and then when we cut, she looked at me like, “We’re done right?” and I’m like “Just one more”.

Sandile: This is a star studded cast. Most of them have about 10 years experience in the game. When you’re on set with them, you just sit there and you watch these people play and you really get to understand what it means to actually play in a scene. They are just playful with one another, they feed one another new things, and throw you in the deep end. I’ll take my brother on the show Motlatsi Mafatse who plays Themba Twala on the show which is Sbu Twala’s brother, the way that he plays is that each time he will give you a line he will give it to you differently to show that we’re here to play, we are finding the rhythm and we are doing that. That’s what I took from working with this cast and I’ll take it to my next job as well. In How To Ruin Christmas season two you will get to witness just how much we’ve grown as a cast as well as outside. From season one to season two we have grown so much because we listen to one another, we poke at one another, we can throw each other into the deep end to better ourselves.

Thando Thabethe and Sandile Mahlangu

Nadine: In closing, what are you looking forward to this festive season?

Saint: What I’m looking forward to this December is How To Ruin Christmas: The funeral, on the 10th. It will be available globally to every single person of the 214 million people that are members in 190 countries, imagine that. I mean when we used to work on South African television and if something was huge, you would wait for the Omnibus to go see it maybe next week or on the weekend. Now it’s there, Worldwide, I mean wow!

Motlatsi: I share the same sentiments with Saint, to share How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral with the whole World, with the Netflix family. It’s not thousands, it’s millions of people, globally, checking How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral, on Netflix. It’s like a dream come true. I mean I remember last season when we were getting calls from France, Argentina, you name it, just wanting to know about us. I’ve got journalists who are following me from all these countries and l don’t even understand the language and they’re like “Oh man, we love your work” and so we’re doing it again this season, this time it’s even more people. So you have to watch this show, it’s amazing.

Saint: On top of that, just in parting, I think that the most important thing with Netflix having set up Netflix South Africa, is that it means our stories are getting heard, we are no longer just sitting and waiting on Hollywood to bring up what they think is important, it is our own local story that is now becoming available to the rest of the world and that’s more exciting than anything else. You think about Netflix, I mean, how many things have they done in South Africa? Queen Sono, Seriously Single, How To Ruin Christmas, Jiva, this is a South African story out there to the whole world.

Rethabile: l’m actually looking forward to hearing everyone’s reactions and seeing everyone’s reactions, I think this is a different season and an exciting season.

Rami: With the pandemic and everyone being so unsure about what’s going to happen, l hope that How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral, because of the nostalgic feeling that it has, brings hope to people, warms them up and brings smiles to their faces. I want someone to watch ‘How To Ruin Christmas’ and pick up the phone and call that relative, that aunt, their brother who is probably in Amsterdam, who is probably in Nigeria to say “oh man I can’t believe I’m doing Christmas without you or whatever the case.” Other people will be in Polokwane and others will be in Joburg, they won’t get together because of the pandemic and this and that. I want it to be such a soul stirrer, something that pulls someone’s heart strings. I would want someone to pick up the phone after that and even if they’re sitting together to say, “ Oh my gosh I love you so much.” It’s just a whole sense of family that irrespective of the fights you have as a family, the disagreements, that at the end of the day, you still have each other and even if given a choice, you wouldn’t want it any other way and I hope that impact stays. We just want to remind people of the spirit of what family is all about, even in the dysfunctionality, it’s still important.

Sandile: I am looking forward to spending time with family. Being in this time and being in Johannesburg for so long you are even afraid to go home because you don’t know whether you have this Covid and you don’t want to take it home, but this time around, I made sure that I really do isolate myself from the outside world. This Christmas I’m spending it with my family because you never know when it’s time for one of your family members to leave you and especially now, it’s just become so easy. It’s something that happens way too often and I think spending time with family is important. For those who are already spending time with family, please, watch How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral on the 10th of December. Watch with your family and spend time with them. I think that’s very important in this day and age, where people are just so focused on staying alive and making money, we forget to check on the family at home, and I think that’d be a great thing to do this December.Well you heard it from the cast themselves, this December is all about family! We hope you enjoyed reading all about their experiences and highlights of making this new season. It seems like a season filled with lots of laughter, cries, relatable life challenges but most importantly, the spirit of family. We hope that it has made you excited to watch it and come together with your families and loved ones to join in on the fun so you too, can laugh your lungs out. How To Ruin Christmas: The Funeral comes out on the 10th of December 2021, you don’t want to miss this!

The world is truly becoming small through platforms such as Netflix that are bridging the gap of accessing stories, we are excited to be a part of the evolution! How to Ruin Christmas: The Funeral, tells a story that we can all believe and genuinely relate to and the invested cast delivers moments that speak to the heart.

Tis the season to be jolly indeed! We’ll be sure to snuggle up and binge on this great production, streaming now, 10th December 2021.


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