Article by Lindokuhle Mbonani
Bokang Phelane is a Lesotho born South African actor, who is best known for her recurring role as Pula on SABC 2 telenovela Keeping Score. Phelane studied a BA in Psychology at Monash University South Africa.
She featured in the musical film She is King, which was showed at the Cannes Film Festival; and featured in a number of television series, beginning with a cameo role on the SABC3 comedy-drama Soap on a Roap and on Generations: The Legacy. She began another recurring role: as the tenacious investigative journalist Noxolo on the SABC3 soapie Isidingo. Currently Phelane is a Lead on Showmax’s new original Blood Psalms.
Bokang Phelane is Actor Space’s Young, Gifted and Black this week and here is what she had to say.
- As an actor who did not study drama at school, how did that affect your journey as an actor?
Even though I did not formally study drama, I never gave myself a chance to enter the industry as an untrained actor. When I decided to pursue acting I was in contact with an acting coach which I worked with for several months until I qualified to be in an acting academy. In retrospect I am so grateful that the actor in me was born in that acting academy where there was so much emphasis in honouring and learning the craft of acting. For example, there were actors who have been successfully working in film and television for over ten years but they were back in that environment to learn new techniques and skills and continuously improve their craft. What that taught me is that success and longevity in this industry is really dependent on one honouring the craft of acting and continuously improving and learning new skills.
- What do you think is the importance of training in your craft?
Training is important in our craft because talent is great but without the support of skill and technique talent always falls short. Training is an actor’s best friend because it equips you with competence and competence equips you with confidence therefore who would not want to walk into an audition room or on set feeling confident and ready for the moment!?
- Coming into the industry, what are the realities that you had to face?
Coming into the industry, some of the realities I faced were being aware that as an actor you will hear a lot more of a ‘NO’ than a ‘YES’ and you just have to figure out how to transform that into improvement. In a similar vain you will encounter a lot of circumstances and conditions that are undesirable and sometimes the temptation with actors is to engage in it with rage. However, it is better to ask oneself how to outgrow or improve those particular circumstances and conditions.
- You are a proud Mosotho woman, is there still relevance in us telling our stories in our mother tongues and why?
As a proud Mosotho woman and as a proud African woman, I absolutely believe that there is still relevance in us telling our own stories in our mother tongues because we understand and express ourselves best in our mother tongues and it is important to continuously see and hear ourselves in great stories that are being told.
- You did a few things before getting into acting professionally including getting a BA in psychology and working in aviation. As much as these things are non-related to acting, what would you say you learnt or received from those experiences that has contributed to your craft now?
My study in psychology was always connected to my fascination with the human condition which is essentially what storytelling is – diving deep into the human condition in the form of story. That is what gravitated me to aviation because I was exposed to a rich variety of human beings and their diverse stories and a peek into their lives. In retrospect, even though they were not exactly what I was looking for, which was storytelling in the form of acting, they brought me closer to the feeling of what I wanted until I could identify what it was that I was not fulfilled with, because of that I do not take any experience in the journey towards my goals for granted anymore as I understand that every experience is as important as every runner in a relay race.
- You recently directed you first short film Friendzone, how was that experience and why should actors look at expansion beyond acting?
My first experience directing a film was an absolute magical experience. I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to tap into other aspects of my storytelling. I have always loved directing. I am so grateful for the team I worked with, during that time, I learnt that absolutely anything in this industry is possible as long as you stubbornly believe and give it your all. In the same spirit, we are full steam ahead in script development for my first feature film and I think it is so important for actors to expand themselves beyond the scope of acting because having others skills in the industry frees you from the limitations and challenges of this industry. Being able to express yourself in other ways and being able to have other means to make a living for yourself is empowering.
- Blood Psalms is your first commercial lead role, what new lessons did you take from leading a cast of over 50 people?
It was not a new lesson, I just got to actually see the value of knowing this in action which is preparation is everything. An actor prepares. Right from the beginning I was always aware of the magnitude of this project. I was always aware of its importance towards shifting the narrative in the continent. I was always aware of the scale of actors and artists that I would be working with not just in front of the camera but behind the camera too. I felt that my role was to honour the opportunity, the moment and the story with preparing like a beast which I did. For example, I am from Lesotho – born and raised – I learnt the Nguni languages for the role of Princess Zazi. We physically trained like soldiers, it was hard but it was worth it because an actor prepares!
- Considering how physically demanding playing “Zazi” was, what training regime did you engage in to prepare for the role?
The physical training for the role of Princess Zazi was quite intense. Shoutout to Yelllowbone Production for providing all the necessary resources and support that we as actors needed to go on our transformation and preparation journeys. I was paired with the African continent’s best stunt woman. She trained me to the bone and transformed my body to look the way the body of a warrior princess would look. I had no choice as Jamil showed me the reference of Red Sonja and had envisioned Princess Zazi to look that way. However, it was not only about physically preparing me but also about mentally preparing for the conditions we were going to shoot under once we were on set. It was the beginning of Covid-19, it was winter, pre-colonial wardrobe and we had to be barefoot out there. It was a warzone! My physical training was very important to prepare me for it.
- What mindset shift do you need to adjust to when working on an unconventional piece like Blood Psalms?
First of all, make your mind malleable. One of my favourite phrases is “What is the use of a mind that cannot change?”. Be prepared but when you get on set that day, depending on what happens as we are doing something so unconventional, you might need to toss some things out the window and be the character that is most appropriate at that time. Set yourself free and prepare as much as you can, but also more than anything be in the moment as much as possible because that is where you will be able to access your spontaneous power of what to do when things are different and when everyone is required to pull out a different hat.
- What were the most important lessons you learnt from your character, Vanessa, on Justice Served?
The most important lesson I learnt from Justice Served, especially jumping into Vanessa’s mind was how to think like a militant woman. I am personally very soft natured and spontaneous in my methods and execution but Vanessa gave me a chance to be a “silent and methodical” type of woman.
- You have worked with legends in the industry, such as, Hlomla Dandala, what have you learnt from actors of that calibre as a young actor?
From actors of the calibre of Hlomla, I learnt that dedication to the craft had no age. An actor prepares, period!
- In what ways did you prepare yourself for this role? What research did you get into?
I did a lot of research about self taught hackers, one of my sisters is a coder, I leaned in to her expertise a lot for this character.
- As an action actor, what is your training regime to remain fit and ready for roles?
As an actor my training regime involves working about three days in the gym, two days of mixed martial arts training to remain stunt choreography ready, also so that I have my own special stunt moves that I can bring to any character if need be.
- What is your dream role?
The story of the women of kwaito is an untapped and rich story. I would love to be in a project that honours the women of kwaito! I probably will direct a story that honours the women of kwaito, but more specifically to this context, I would love to play the role of Queen Yaya. I am absolutely in love with that period of artistry. Those women inspired me to be an artist, so it would be my dream to honour them in story one day.
- What makes an actor fall under the category of “Young, Gifted and Black”?
What makes an actor fall under the category of “Young, Gifted and Black” is if they are ferrously focused on their goals, if they are consistent and if they find ways to transform every challenge into an opportunity to expand.