Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Make-up by Glenda Mhlongo | dressed and styled by Ernest Mahomane
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |
There is more to Mampho Brescia than what meets the eye; first there is Iris of Isibaya fame, then on the left of her check there’s an indentation, a signature scar that adds character to Iris’ demeanor, there is also a much more intriguing story of how she earned it, “I was a naughty little sh*t!” The words come gushing out of her mouth, at the Moyo’s rooftop, where we are seated and sheltered from the blaze of the blistering sun. We get comfortable with our drinks in hand and the mild noise from children running up and down the isle becomes our companion. We allow the ambiance, rich with African decor, texture and design to absorb us while Mampho’s childhood memories absorb me.
Mischievous little Mampho knew very well that she was forbidden from playing in the streets, but days after her birthday she was gifted with a new bike. “A BMX!” She says with a thrill in her voice. She was anxious to test drive her new set of wheels outside the confines of her yard. One evening when her parents stepped out for dinner, the mischief kicked in and daring little Mampho joined her friends on a voyage to what they called ‘the haunted house.’ “I was the only one on a bicycle and you know how dramatic children are.” When her friends shouted “oh my God a ghost a ghost!” Chaos unleashed. “As we we’re trying to run away, I’m on my bike, I can’t see because it’s dark. I hit a brick and flew into a thorn bush.”
Did you get a hiding I ask? “Yes, I got the hiding of my life then I had to go to the clinic because I bled all over my pillow. I was trying to hide it from my parents. When my mom came to wake us up in the morning, she was like what on planet earth!” A rousing laughter follows as I imagine her mother’s terror. The nostalgia of growing up in the township kicks in. Mampho was raised in the streets of Orlando in Soweto. She misses the sense of community the township inspired and the familiarity of her neighbors, the real meaning of Ubuntu she says. “I don’t know my neighbors now, not that I care to.” She shrugs them off her shoulder while reminding herself that she knows she was not raised like that. She quotes a line from Robert Frost’s poem “High fences make good neighbors” to better explain her relationship with her current environment. Back in school at M C Auley House Convent, Mampho was the only thorn amongst the roses, the only black student amongst White Lilies. She attributes her rebellious nature to this, “I was as a very rebellious one.” Rationalising her behaviour, she elaborates further, “I think it’s because I was the only black student for a number of years. Obviously you go through a certain type of identity crisis because there’s no one you can identify with at your age and you’re forced to speak English all the time.” Fitting in was a stretch on the tongue for Mampho and a completely different culture to blend into. She grappled with the dynamics of it all; living in a world that was completely different to the one she went home to. At home, she was sheltered and cushioned inside books. “I wasn’t allowed to play in the streets, I had to read and fixate on learning this new language and obviously you don’t speak English at home.” Her voice intensifies. Mampho emmersed herself in books by Helen Keller and the likes. She watched movies about Hitler and the French Revolution, she also learned about Napoleon Bonaparte and how he conquered Europe in an attempt to conquer the English language herself.
I inquire about how she was able to attend M C Auley House Convent throughout the tumultuous phase of protests and stay aways.“I was smart,” she gloats unashamedly; her uncle was also a Catholic Priest and “he had those ties.” Acting on the other hand found its way to her while she was attending school at M C Auley House, “I was in school and Gainor who owns a talent agency was picking up her daughter and she scouted me.” Mampho landed her first gig in no time while only in standard one, “it was a TV show I did with Heins Films, I don’t know if they still exist.” Brescia can’t remember the name of the show, she reminds me that she is 40, and so much time as flown over the years since then. I stare at her, with my jaw fixed to the floor and utter “a gorgeous 40 at that!”
Mampho went onto join Professional Kids and featured in various commercials.
It was all fun and entertainment until her parents refused to allow her to pursue a degree in drama. “I think initially as a young girl they found it entertaining, it was all good for my personality and my expression but as I grew older it kind of changed because of the reality of television… It was not stable. When I went to varsity they said, we’re not paying for that, you better do something serious girl.” She settled for a more ‘serious’ degree in Politics, majoring in International Relations at The University of Witwatersrand.
As an honors student she applied for an exchange program which focused on East Asia and the withdrawal of Japan in East Asian politics, she lived and studied in Japan. Since then Brescia has enjoyed different professions behind the lens. She has worked as a news presenter for Afristat, a presenter for DSTVs ‘The Home Channel’, ‘Imali Mania’ and ‘Spirit Sundae’. With one foot in television and the other darting from film to film, Brescia has stretched herself across both planes. She starred in Generations, Isidingo, Home Affairs, Mtunzini.com, Zero Tolerance, the HBO series Luck and Jacob’s Cross. She currently plays the manipulative Iris Zungu that people love to hate on Isibaya. She scored a lead role in a U.S short-film ‘What to bring to America’ and has films like District 9, Swop and The Jakes are Missing under her belt.
Mampho recalls a time when she used to hate auditioning, it was top on her list of fears but after listening to a prominent actor at a talk she attended, his words have carried her through many audition rooms and callback appointments.“Don’t fear auditions, acting is really about choices and when you walk into a room every single choice you make is yours before anyone gets to f*ck with it.” The actors name may have slipped through her fingers but she clings on tightly to the power of his words.
When she sinks into the life of each character she has promised herself to, Mampho’s photographic memory simplifies her work. “Memorizing the script is easy, the greatest challenge is taking words that aren’t yours and making them your own, that’s where the hard work begins and that’s when you have to apply yourself.” When i ask her about the process of transitioning from a smaller role to a much much bigger role, she explains the philosophy behind the importance of every single character instead. “There is no such a thing as a small role, every little role or character you play is your time to shine, to give what you’ve got and your interpretation of who you think the character is.”
In Jacobs cross, Brescia assumed the role of Zanele who she describes as a clear cut character. “She was this high powered individual who fell in love with the wrong guy. There was no real kind of… We want her this way. It’s we’re going in this direction and you get to play.” Iris on the other hand was a preconceived idea, her character had a reference point, “initially the producers had wanted a character similar to Sophie Ndaba’s character on Generations,” but Mampho had worked on her own interpretation of Iris. She asked the producer, Desiree Makgraaf to trust her with where she would like to take the character. Though the two didn’t initially agree with eachother, Brescia breathed a new life into Iris and that’s how the character was developed.
Mampho is deeply connected to the roles she commits to, though Iris Zungu has proven to be more popular, she says the most fulfilling role she has ever played is that of the Ethiopian character ‘Helen’, in ‘What to bring to America’: a short film about an Ethiopian immigrant living in Los Angeles who is pressurized by her family and tradition to take a decision, as the moment approaches for her daughter’s circumcision.
She expands on the reasons why this role is her fave. “I loved the role because it was so freaking challenging. I had to learn a completely different language –Amharic.
The language sounded like nothing she’d ever heard before.
Playing the role of a mother, with difficult choices to make for her daughter meant drawing from other people’s experiences to feed the character.
“I didn’t have a child at the time so I didn’t know what it really felt like to be a mom.”
She also didn’t grow up in a culturally oriented environment so she didn’t understand the dynamics of what it meant to follow cultural procedures.
She was a fish out water learning to swim differently on the big screen.To prepare her body, mind and soul for the role, she spent a lot of time in ‘Little Ethiopia’
(a little Ethiopian community in L.A) indulging in Ethiopian cuisine and culture. She had to work
with an acting coach to perfect her Amharic accent and to polish her Ethiopian English accent. The role of Helen stretched her beyond her expectations. She speaks fondly of the producers and directors behind the film. She recalls how the writer was always present on set to guide the cast through the process and to ensure that there was no misrepresentation of the Ethiopian culture, its people and their stories. Working in the U.S was a challenge far from home yet close to Mampho’s soul. The journey was a voyage to her own discovery. “L.A is like the Mecca of what we do.” She says. The weight of her words make me understand the enormity of the risk she took, jetting off to the States with only her ambitions, a reputable contact or two and a suitcase filled with high hopes an actors hustle and her dreams.
“I was fortunate to live and study in the U.S because I have a husbank” –hahah!
–she says referring to her supportive husband, who invested in her dream both emotionally, mentally and physically. She didn’t have to worry much about financial stability, which gave her enough legroom to focus all her energy on acting, which she did.
While in the States, her survival kit consisted of an actor’s discipline and commitment. She enrolled herself in school and attended different classes, she worked with different acting coaches and teachers. Gavin Hood [Writer and Dir- Tsotsi] and Phillip Noyce [Dir-Catch a Fire] were her guiding light, offering advice on which school to enroll in and which acting coach to use. “I really focused on the work. I would finish at 10pm, go to sleep and start over the next day.”
The L.A experience was an enormous culture shock for the dream chaser, “even the waiters are actors or wanna be directors” The excitement in her voice lures me in, I can already picture the creative rush hour, actors trying to get to their next audition, casting directors looking for the next Denzel and writers trying to get a foot in the door.
Brescia has aroused my curiosity, in return I ask her to share the industry differences between L.A and S.A. She begins by emphasizing that in L.A “you actually have to perform to get an agent and you have to be good.” She stresses the high performance value one requires in order to survive that jungle.
“They have these showings and you receive a script you’ve never seen before and you have to perform it. If you’re good then one will take you, or not.
While Mmapho was soldiering on in the States, being a black female actor in L.A was another hurdle she needed to conquer. “They didn’t write for black females, I’m sure now It’s changed but generally they don’t write for black females.” Here my ears are sharp as a blade as i listen to how the industry has cut her open.
She continues to speak. “One thing I noticed was… There was this thing about what shade you are.”
She was perplexed when her agent sent her briefs for ‘mixed race castings’, “ I’d call him and be like Charl, I’m not mixed raised, and his like yeah I sent your picture and they want to see you. It was so confusing to me. I’d be like… But I’m black… How do you act mixed race? It’s just based on what they think you look like which is often really hard because you’re discriminated against, in terms of… are you pretty enough or are you thin enough.”
While grappling with the idea of auditioning for mixed raced characters, her body weight was also under attack.
When Mampho first arrived in the U.S, she was neither skinny nor big, she soon learned that this frustrated the casting directors who responded unpleasantly to the size of her body. “You need to decide you’re too in-between, it’s either you’re fat and funny or you’re skinny.”
While some casting directors told her she needs to remove her scar there were those who preferred it because it gave her more character.
In America, acting was a whole new ball game, played at a whole new level.
Mampho even remembers her biggest industry heartbreak, when she auditioned for a role in the fixer (Scandal) “I did good, I got two call backs but they wanted to go for someone with a bigger name.” She says with a tear jerking sadness. Although America was tough, her deepest regret was coming back home too soon.
“But coming back was kind of like a double edged sword because I came back to have a baby. That’s the biggest success of my life.”
Mmapho softens up when she speaks about her daughter, she says she named her Rain because “she came into my life after the drought.” After many futile attempts at conceiving a child, Brescia resorted to adopting. “You can’t argue with the rationale of loving a child that already exists, for me it just made sense.” Her family is the center of her universe.
Regardless of all she’s achieved Mampho still insists on wanting the stars and the moon.
She admits that she is still a work in progress and that she is still in orbit, there are many wonders to the world of acting she’d like to explore.
The mother, wife, career woman and actor may seem like she has it all but is adamant that her cup is not yet full.
“I want to be more enlightened as a human being, to not only exist on this planet and the aesthetics of it but to attain a certain level of spirituality where I’m closer to God.”