Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up by Phumzile Mhlongo |Dressed and styled by Ernest Mahomane
Editor: Mandisa Vundla
Profile by: Mathunzi MacDonald |
There is a polite knock at the office door and I am excited to meet an old friend with whom I have been dying to have this exact conversation with. Yonda Thomas is accompanied by his partner Tazz. My eyes are met by her warm smile and striking dimples before I welcome Yonda’s embrace as his voice echoes through the entrance foyer of our offices. As with the conversation we prepare to engage in about his chosen craft, I am reminded that Yonda approaches his loved ones as he does his acting; with the utmost warmth. His partner’s presence adds the necessary weight to the telling of his story as she seems to fully comprehend just how deeply Yonda is invested in his career and art. The office table is decked with refreshments and my guests sit on the opposite end of the table as I peer over the laptop, waiting for the best moment to settle into the discussion. I use another art form to “breakfast” into this interesting tale, preceded by banter over the pronunciation of names and such.
Mathunzi : Rap or Hip-Hop?
Yonda: I don’t know. I’d say rap? Okay, let’s first get the difference. Let’s see if I’m getting this right. Rap is a part of hip-hop. Hip-hop is more than just rap it’s the lifestyle. So rap, definitely rap. I can relate more to the music than the lifestyle, or the stories they tell rather than how they look.
M: Where did you grow up and what were your favourite things to do?
Y: I grew up in Ezibeleni. It’s like an industrial community, where there are factories all around. The people that work there just kind of settle around there. It is by the Transkei, right on the border.
–Favourite things to do when I grew up; well, we used to take old bath basins, like small basins and we used to go to where the old industrial waste goes, there are these big pipes where the waste goes from the factories all the way down to this river like thing and we used to go slide there. That was nice! There was this one house, they had a lot of cows and we used to go look for the cows and herd the cows.
I don’t know if this was my favourite thing to do but I liked that I could do it. No one had cars and it was a distance to where the public transport was. So old people would have to walk all that way and they would go into town to buy stuff and when they come back they have a lot of things to carry. My friends and I would go and sit there and wait for them and help them with their stuff. And when they would get to their houses they would give us stuff. I’d probably get a couple of hidings if my grandmother found out, or when she did find out.
M: When did you decide and realize that acting is for you?
Y: I decided pretty early I think. Well, not consciously like “ I am going to be an actor.” I was in grade 6 when I did my first play and I was like, I love this, I love how people react to this. I love how much they react to what I do on stage and this is wonderful, this is great. Before that when I saw my first high school play, a school play rather
–cause I was in primary, I was like I want to be like that. I want to do what those kids are doing. And its people that you knew but when you saw them you were like; I didn’t know they were this awesome.
I didn’t realize that it is what I wanted to do until later on in high school. I told my mom when I was in grade 11 or matric and she was like, no that is not happening. You are not doing that with my money, you can do it with your own money. So I said oh well and I went through a couple of prospectuses and going through the whole varsity thing; I asked myself “what can you be good at?” I ended up doing Politics and Public Administration; a BA degree. Pretty early on I knew that I wanted to do it but I didn’t know it was acting.
M: When is it that you realize that it is “Acting”?
Y: It was in high school when I realized it. I think his name was Dini Nondumo, he was on Generations and he had dreadlocks. Before that, he was on Backstage and I was like this guy is so cool. He speaks isiXhosa, he is awesome, I want to be like that. It was so foreign but sometimes you would see people like uRay Ntlokwana performing and he would speak Xhosa and you would be “like Hawu Velaphi!” But it was still so foreign because he was a bit older so I didn’t quite relate and when I saw uNondumo, I was like here’s a young guy and he is acting and really doing this and I would like to do this. I then said I would like to be an actor.
The first person I came out to was my brother. I say “came out to” because I thought if I told my mom I wasn’t sure if she would be cool with it. She always asked me, “What do you want to be? Do you want to be a lawyer or a doctor?” But acting was never part of the conversation. My brother was too young to understand so it was safe. So I’d tell him, I want to be like that guy. I want to act. I don’t think he quite understood.
M: Which role, job or form of education do you feel began to shape your career?
Y: Education. I think it was varsity. And not what I studied, it was more of the stuff that you are exposed to that makes you realize who you are. Self-discovery, I discovered a lot about myself when I was in varsity because I was away from a lot of people that knew me. I got to find out the kind of things that I like and the things that I don’t like. I think varsity life prepared me because acting has an element of you needing to know who you are. You need to know what you are capable of and what you can do. Your limits, how far you can push yourself and what you can relate to. Certain things resonate. Certain roles resonate with you and you can relate and say I know that, and that is for me. And some stuff you say “I don’t think that is for me.” Not everything should be for you. Not every role is something you will say yes to. Varsity also taught me what I believed in and what I didn’t believe in. I think being independent, being on your own and being comfortable with being on your own. That is what prepared me for acting. With my process, I usually want to be alone and find out what this guy (character) is going through, what are his struggles and what is his story. I feel that you need to be comfortable on your own when doing that, and try to find that inside and outside.
M: You are considered an attractive person who has commercial appeal; has this ever stood in the way of your art or aided it in any way?
Y: A bit of both I think. I sit sometimes with my fellow actors and we’d be talking. These are people I’ve worked with but I don’t want to drop names now. We’ll talk about the roles we’d like to play and I’ll say how I’d love to play a gangster, a hard role. And they would say “but you don’t look hard though”. My response would be that I do not have to look hard to play a hard role. I don’t need to look like a gangster in order for me to play a gangster. In fact, most of the people that I knew growing up who were doing all the bad things, breaking into houses and such, were the guys all the girls wanted. They would then mention ‘Warren Masemola’ and how he could play a hard role, and I’m like yes and he can also play a flamboyant gay man.
But when I started I think it worked to my advantage. It gets some doors open, especially when they are looking for romantic leads, etc. It opens the door for you but if you don’t have the skill to back it up once you are in the room, it does absolutely nothing. This is something I have always said, you can be the best looking guy, you can have a 6 pack and you can have all the stuff that makes people turn their heads, but if you get into the room everyone is going to be like “Wow he looked so good”, and you are just not going to get it. It is sad though because the industry seems to have taken a different turn. I say skill because you may have the talent and whatever else is required but if you do not hone that and turn it into a skill then you are just a billboard.
M: What are your views on “type-casting” and how have you been affected by this?
Y: I have been a victim, although I don’t want to use the word “victim”, of type-casting. Part of it is you, having a choice, you can take the role or leave it. I played a cop once and after that, they were just calling me for cops, I’d walk into the audition knowing that I am being type-cast here. I’m that guy who plays a cop; maybe it’s the way I look or the way I played the first and the second role. But if you allow it to limit you, it will. I feel, in terms of myself, instead of playing the cop you play the man. Who is this guy besides his job? How does he conduct himself because they are not all going to be the same person?
There’s a lot more to people than their jobs. Go into it thinking, this guy has layers and I need people to see it.
M: If you could change one thing in the industry what would it be?
Y: Just one? That’s a tough question.
I’d say it is the question of, why do we compromise skill and are more concerned with how people look. It goes to the conversation of opening up the industry. We need to stop catering for the lowest denominator. We need to start finding skillful people. Someone said television is a very regressive thing. We recycle a lot. Not a lot of people get thrown in the pan in order to see who is really great for this. We need to start allowing actors to act. Let them act, let the kids act. In a nutshell, I wish we had more opportunities.
M: You are speaking to your teenage son who wants to pursue acting as a career, what do you say?
Y: Why? Why do you want to do it? For me, I could have gone to politics and become a diplomat but I let that go because I felt there was something calling me to this. It was something deep, something inside me, like a force pushing me towards this. I’d ask him why. Is it because of fame or instant riches? What would you like to do with it? Is there something that you want to say to the world through this?
I wouldn’t tell him why he should or shouldn’t do it. I would ask why and if he wants to do it for fame, there are a lot of things you can be famous for. Don’t do it to be famous, do it because there is something in you that compels you. –Does it make you happy?
Try to say something with what you do. Be better than fame and riches.
M: Is there any one thing that you would give up acting for?
Y: I could give a lot of things up for acting but what would I give up acting for? I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
M: Favourite quote or lesson?
Y: Be like a postage stamp; stick to one thing until you get there.