THE NEXT! | AYAKHA NTUNJA

Ayakha
Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe, Producer: Felicia Naiwa Sithebe, Concept and Trainee Creative Director: Tumelo Mogoane, Article by: Karabo Mokoena, Photographer: Katlego Mokubyane, Wardrobe: Rirhandzu Phanga, Makeup Artists: Glenda Mhlongo & Mamello Mokhele, Production Team: Tshepo Marema, Glen Nkuna, Bonolo Maswanganye, Tumelo Mochochoko, Zintle Dingilizwe & Koketso Modisapudi

Ayakha Ntunja: The Trailblazer

From the early stages of Ayakha Ntunja’s life, a deep affinity for the performing arts emerged, setting the stage for an inspiring journey through theatre and film. Rooted in her years at the National School of the Arts from 2019 to 2021, Ayakha swiftly ascended with notable achievements, including the FEDA Acting Award in 2019 and the prestigious Best Performer Full Colors award the following year. Her versatility shone in 2020 as she claimed titles in Best Choreographer and Best Dancer, and she extended her impact by taking on the role of Programs Director at the Unspoken Words Theatre Factory, showcasing both leadership and performance prowess.

Balancing the demands of academia and the arts, Ayakha maintained an impressive Bachelor school pass average, emphasizing her commitment to excellence. Seamlessly transitioning from stage to screen, Ayakha graced the Showmax production Pearls of Wisdom in 2021, bringing her unique energy to the character Dudu under Eccentric Circus Productions. Her presence in the film industry continued with roles in NTASH (2021) on Showmax and appearances on Mzansi Magic in productions such as Ubizo Lakhe (2022) and Ke Bona Spoko (2022), both produced by Leburugraphy.

In 2022, Ayakha shone as Thembi in BET Africa’s MTV Shuga Down South, showcasing versatile talent and solidifying her rising status in television. Ayakha, an artistic beacon, anticipates Eccentric Circus’ Mimo wa Lerato, with audiences eagerly awaiting her captivating performances on stage and screen. She currently plays the role of Amo on Youngins, a sweet, determined girl from a rural town in KwaZulu-Natal on the show set in a fictional boarding school named Olifantsfontein High. It follows the lives of pupils as they navigate their academics and the drama in their lives. Ayakha is a future game-changer, shining through her speech and in how she carries her confidence. You will most likely find her speaking words of encouragement upon herself as she prepares for her next big role.

We find Ayakha already waiting for us upstairs. After a few pleasantries and further introductions, we get into it. She has a great sense of self, one that is very admirable. If you listen closely, you’ll get a glimpse into the inner workings of her profound mind:

Ayakha Ntunja Image by katlego Mokubyane for Actor Spaces

What’s one word you would use to describe this phase/part of your life?

I think I would describe this phase of my life as trialing. Yeah, definitely, a lot is currently happening all at once but I am definitely growing at the same time. And this moment here, I would say is absolutely just wonderful, you know. It’s crazy, you know, over the years you watch other people and you’re seeing these experiences that everyone else has and to be in the same spaces as people that you looked up to is, for me, a huge thing. So, it’s an amazing experience. I’m excited.

So, you just received the news that you are going to be celebrated as part of “THE NEXT!” What was your initial reaction and what does it mean to you to be part of that cohort?

I was in the car. I remember, I was on my way home from set. I received a message from my agent and she was asking if this is something that I would like to do? I saw Actor Spaces and I thought it’s probably an audition but then as I read further I realized that it was The Next. I had many other messages to respond to from her but then I responded to that one message immediately. I was like “I am definitely doing this one”

This campaign speaks to young actors who will most likely create an impact as it pertains to the future of this industry. As an actor, what do you think makes you stand out in your craft?

What I think makes me stand out the most right now is that I am quite subtle with the things that I do but I am doing it all without really noticing. I think it’s the fact that I am silent but yet I can still be perceived in a room. And that makes me stand out because I don’t think I need to always be the loudest – not to say that there’s something wrong with loud people – but, for me, I think my humbleness is actually bringing a taste to people that they are not used to. And the way I also portray characters is quite subtle. I am growing and learning that sometimes I don’t need to be the center in the scene to actually show performance.

What was your “AHA” moment when it came to pursuing a career within the creative space?

The creative space has always been a space that I played around in. It started with dance then it went into theatre and eventually TV later on. But I have always kind of had this inkling that there is something there. I remember writing my first play and directing it in Matric for a festival and I was like “This feels different. This is something that I can see myself doing”. I think in creation in general, just seeing things come to life is amazing and the way people receive whatever story you are portraying. For me, that is what really stood out and I knew that it is something that I want to do. Obviously, they don’t prepare you for Film and Television because Theatre and Film are two different things but I think just keeping a steady mind in knowing that storytelling is the essence of everything for me.

What does acting do for you that you could never find in anything else?

For me, being on set feels like an out of body experience. It feels very naturally consuming without me even noticing it and coming out of it feeling like I wish I could do that the whole time. It takes you out from the world and puts you into this realm that you know what, whatever happens goes. I feel like I am lighter on set than I am in my regular life. In my regular life, I am panicking about everything and I’m knit-picking everything. When I get on set, it’s just so calming and so natural and that encourages me to implement those traits in my normal life. When I embody a character, I never find myself overthinking that character.

What have the characters that you have played, so far, taught you about the craft? And what have they taught you about yourself?

A lot of my characters are definitely a growing aspect in my life. I feel like everytime I walk away from a set, I have learnt something different about myself or something that I should change that I think I shouldn’t be allowing myself to do too much. With my recent characters, I have really embodied not judging or criticizing anything and not trying to make everything perfect because it really isn’t. So, my characters have really taught me to accept life in a very different manner.

How conscious are you of the digital era and the role it plays within the creative realm? And how have you used that to your advantage?

I’m not gonna lie, I am not very social. I am not very conscious of it in the sense that I don’t make it my main priority and that’s just a personal decision. I have never really found myself saying that I am going to be so digitally inclined to a point where I am gonna keep up with my numbers, likes and following, I don’t. I literally wake up and I see what I see then I am good. A lot of people use it to grow and expand themselves which is amazing. I understand that it comes with my work but I don’t have to make it my all.

Do you remember your first ever audition? What was that like? And how has your perspective on auditioning evolved from then to now?

My first audition was for a movie called Pearls of Wisdom. I was seventeen when it was shot. I remember we were auditioning in the hall and I remember being nervous about everyone being in the room to see me. I was thinking of my lines and what not to say wrong and we were also asked to sing. I kept asking myself “What am I doing?”. And they liked it and that’s when I knew that it went well. As I evolved in audition rooms, I realized that I like auditioning live rather than on tape. I really like it when casting directors call me in. For some reason, the energy that is in the room is quite unmatched. I’ve also learnt not to put so much pressure into auditioning. I never do more than two takes. If I have to do more than that then I am just overdoing the character and putting too much pressure on them because the way I perceived the first two times was how I thought they could play and that’s it.

How do you stay creatively inspired between projects?

I think for me it’s definitely watching theatre, movies and writing. I love writing. I like journaling so I jot down my creative ideas because it is my form of expression. I always keep myself involved in what is current especially in different spaces- the movies that are coming, for instance, how they are directed, how they are produced and also learning as well. Right now, I want to learn more camera work, writing for the screen. Those are the things that I do when I have time.

Ayakha Ntunja image by Katlego Mokubyane for Actor Spaces

How do you handle setbacks or rejections in your career?

Funny enough, rejection has never gotten to me to a point where I am discouraged. I’ve learnt to just say “Well, it’s cool. It’s just not mine. Someone else out there had to get it and they are going to kill it and that is okay”. So, I have never taken rejection as a bad thing because it’s really just about timing and the space of mind that you are in. I always say opportunity meets preparation.

People have very different ideas of what achievement means to them. What would you consider to have been your greatest achievement so far as an actor?

I think my greatest achievement is actually seeing myself achieve the things that I used to dream about in Grade 11. But I don’t think I’ve reached even close to where I want to be. However, I am proud of myself because I have learnt to grow without breaking myself down. I used to be very critical of myself. Now, I’m proud of the way I perceive who I am now. I am also proud of how I have grown into my characters and have accepted the different characters as well.

What is your take on youth day? What does it symbolize? And in what way do you think the history of this day has been preserved by the youth of today?

I think, for me, June 16 just symbolizes who we all are right now. I’m of the opinion that without that kind of fight and without that kind of resistance, we wouldn’t have half of the things that we have now. The standard and level of education that we have now, we wouldn’t have. Having schools like NSA, having resources that can help you grow is testament to the legacy that the uprisings left. I believe that the mind is a very powerful thing. Now, we are exposed to so many other areas of life and you can actually go anywhere that you want to be at. You just need to work hard at it. It’s really a beautiful thing.

Ayakha Ntunja image by Katlego Mokubyane for Actor Spaces

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