Editor: Felicia Naiwa Sithebe, Writer: Phindile Mngadi, Photographer: Katlego Mokubyane, Creative Direction: Modise Motaung and Lihle Ngubo, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo, Hair: TumeloMj’s Afroboutique Production Team: John-Otto Phike, Karabo Mokoena, Rainy Nthangeni and Tshepo Marema
Chioma Umeala, please take us through your story…
I’m South African-Nigerian. My mum is Xhosa, and dad is Nigerian, specifically Igbo, which is where my name comes from. Chioma is an Igbo name, Chi means God and Oma means beautiful or amazing, meaning my name is Amazing God. I was born and raised in Jo’burg. As much as Jo’burg is my home, I do feel influenced by both my parent’s cultures. We went to Nigeria for every holiday that we could, and during the Easter holidays, we would go to the Eastern Cape to my mum’s home in Nqamakwe Dudumashe. I feel like I’m a blend of both worlds and I don’t feel like I’m half of any. I feel like I’m full of both.
What sparked your interest to be an Actor?
I’ve always been an artistic person. When I was ten years old, I started playing the piano, guitar and percussion instruments. I was a part of my school’s Music Centre Program and I just really fell in love with expressing myself artistically there. Drama wasn’t a topic in primary school, but in high school I realized that I am an artist. I enjoy Art mostly, but as a career, acting spoke to me so well.
Theatre and Television, how are the two mediums different? How did this aid in understanding the importance of transitioning as an Actor?
Theatre is the training ground for a lot of actors. It requires a lot of stamina. I think it’s where actors build their athleticism. I wasn’t trained specifically in one style. It was more about the honesty of the moment and allowing the director to bring the amount of honesty they want. The way I approach it is understanding that I am living a real experience right now. I did one theatre production, at the end of my schooling with Indigo View Academy, we had a showcase and I loved it. Theatre makes me so greedy because once the show is done, you are hungry for more. You want to be out there and stay there. It’s an actor’s playground as opposed to the screen where your performance is at the mercy of the editor and the director. You feel like you can be giving one performance, but how they edit it, is another way. Though, I’ve mostly done screenwork.
It’s always inspiring to have our African stars take up space on international productions, what teachings from your Nigerian and South African background shaped you?
I was a little bit too rebellious of the teachings. Nigerian culture is strict and formal, even when you’re greeting and speaking to people. I sort of resented that, though it made me a playful person. I think both cultures have so much joy in them. I embody that in my nature, I’m a sassy honey like Xhosa sassy and I’m stubborn like an Igbo person stubborn. That’s in my DNA.
My first role was Ayo on BET Africa Isono and I heavily leaned on my Nigerian family for characterisation. I would speak to my cousins for references because I grew up in South Africa. When my father passed away, it was very troubling and bittersweet to play a Nigerian character in honour of the heritage my dad gave me, but also knowing that the very first Nigerian in my life had just passed away. Every time I touch any of those characters that have that cultural heritage, it’s a big significance to me. I just hope to continue making him proud by representing his culture and country.
Your role on The Woman King as Tara was only fitting, what did that process teach you?
I learned a lot from it. The workload is nothing to joke about. It’s not glamorous. The Woman King was a warrior training ground. The hours were heavy. We were training for six hours a day, six times a week. It demanded a lot of you. It made me realize that the job can be physically demanding, but watching people like Viola and Thuso set that example of how to take that on at a good pace. That put into perspective the kind of work ethic I want to have moving forward into the industry. Watching Viola’s accuracy in how she tackles her character and the way she is present within her character. She embodies every single take. She’s intentional about who she’s playing. She doesn’t second guess herself because the second you question the decisions and choices you’re making, the camera can see it. Once you’re on set, once you’re there, you have to fully commit.
King Shaka had talent from all over the world, how were the cultural dynamics and what did you learn from them?
Wow, what I appreciate about, especially the internationals that came onto the project, was the deep respect and intention about portraying these South African Zulu characters and there was an openness which I enjoyed. They were open to learning and listening, and we also learned a lot from them. I was part of the Qwabe tribe. I learnt certain things from the Zulu people that were there. We had amazing Zulu instructors and representatives from KZN. They taught me a wealth of knowledge and so as a baseline, I used my Xhosa heritage to colour in the in-betweens, I learned from the Zulu instructors.
Stunt training has been an important part of your characters lately, how has this shaped your preparation and fitness as an Actor?
Funny enough, I always enjoyed being fit. I did gymnastics growing up. Before The Woman King, I did boxing, Muay Thai and kickboxing. It was always an intentional part of how I moved my body and how I kept it because, at the end of the day, my body is the instrument. To me, connecting to my instrument and making sure that I have the ability to move into different roles and characters and not be hindered by other limitations. It gives me the freedom to play more.
Women of colour are cementing their role as filmmakers, how important is this when it comes to the representation of black women on television and film?
It’s important because it’s giving a signal to young black girls and people like me who’ve had this dream before the industry even welcomed me, that there is a room being made for us, and that’s why it’s important when you dream to see someone that looks like you in your dreams. For me, it was when I saw the amount of Black Stars that were rising in Hollywood, and it wasn’t just a part of black Hollywood, it was Hollywood as a whole; the Directors, Producers and all of that stuff. It told me that Hollywood or my dreams were ready for me. It means that the industry was ready to have me in it and I think that’s powerful because I don’t have to second guess as much as before regarding whether or not I’m welcomed.
As The NEXT, what do you hope to imprint in our acting industry?
I would just love to continue to put the power back in the artists and other people behind the scenes that make our industry turn. There are so many conversations that crew and actors should be a part of. We should be allowed onto the negotiating table more and that is something that I hope to see, in my lifetime, happen to our industry. That would be a blessing.