With only a suitcase;R500; a bus ride to Johannesburg; no plan and a ‘You’re done with your studies, now go get a real job’ in her back pocket. Thuso Nokwanda Mbedu left her home-town: Pietermaritzburg to put her qualification to good use. When all you have is your sister, your talent and the world, there is no option but to push through. Raised by her late Grandmother after her mother passed away when she was only four years, being an academic was her saving grace.
We delve into the life of the bubbly Mbedu, aka Boni from Saints and Sinners ;aka Winnie
on Is’thunzi as she shares the whirlwind she has escaped to get this far.
What was it like growing up in Pietermaritzburg?
Pietermaritzburg is just another small town. For me it’s always weird when I explain my relationship to a place. With Jo’burg, people always reference the hype. When I’m in Maritzburg, I’m experiencing Thuso not necessarily the place and when I’m in Jo’burg, I’m experiencing Thuso in Jo’burg not necessarily Jo’burg. We went through tough times because ugogo was a pensioner. My mother passed away when I was four and I was raised by my Grandmother, I didn’t know my father, he passed away when I was 21. Growing up, my sister was my grandmother’s favourite. We didn’t get along but we’ve become very close since my grandmother passed away, we realized that we only have each other. We speak every day, when I go for auditions she prays for me, when I get the role she adds: “We’re gonna be famous!”,she knows that it irritates me when she talks about the fame because that’s not why I’m in this industry.
I was an academic child; I was dedicated to my books. I did all the so called ‘hard’ subjects, Maths, Science and Biology. Choosing to do drama in varsity was devastating for my grandmother. Drama was actually my relaxation subject but then I fell in love with it.
There’s a misconception behind drama that you can just wake up and become an actor. No! You can’t just wake up and start practicing as a Doctor, right? There’s a science behind acting and that’s what attracted me to it. I was ready to fight my grandmother in order to do what I love and that’s what I did.
Fortunately my mother was one of those smart women, she took up a savings plan for us and that paid for our education. When I turned 18 I received the balance of the lump sum. I paid for my res fees; part of my first year tuition and my sister’s fees. I got through the rest of my academic years through financial aid.
How did you deal with losing your grandmother?
She literally passed away two or three days before my T.V debut. I was really sad, and I still deal with it every day. At some point i started writing and from there, I developed a script that I would like to produce. I’m in the process of sourcing out funding for it.
Why did you choose to study at Wits?
There wasn’t an industry in KZN! 2010 was my first year in Varsity and that was the year the KZN Film Commission came into being. I knew that I wanted to do Drama and the best place for it was Jo’burg because it specializes in both Theatre and T.V. My next option was UCT because I couldn’t afford AFDA. Rumor had it that Wits was the best place.
You took up Physical theatre and Performing arts management.
Physical theatre is like ‘dance theatre’, it was the reason I went to New York. I said to myself
“I can act, but i want to train myself to be a versatile artist, let me train myself in dance, a skill I had no background in” I haven’t utilized PAM(Performing Arts Management) course yet. It’s meant to equip you if you want to start your own business.
Let’s talk about all the scholarships you received, there were quite a few.
I received an entrance scholarship at Wits which subsidized my fees according to the number of A’s
I had. At Wits, the fees were high but res was also expensive. It cost me about R47 000 in my first year, excluding tuition. I don’t remember all my scholarships but the one mind blowing experience, was when I was invited to the Golden Key Society: An international society for people who excel in their field. I was also accepted for the Stellar Adler exchange program in New York. At the end of my first year I decided to get a passport just in case I needed to leave the country. I had no inkling whatsoever that I’d travel anywhere, I’m the type of person who prepares for anything. In my third year Wits had an exchange program with NYU (New York University). I was walking with a friend when I saw the application for the program and thought well…“I have a passport and my academics are up to par.” We had to write a motivational letter and I got my lecturers to vouch for me. I sent in my application and carried on living my life. This one night I asked a friend to pray with me and in that prayer, I was very insistent, I said: “God I know you have a plan for my life but i don’t want your plan to limit me to South Africa.” The very next morning I received a call from Greg Homan saying: “you’re going to New York!”, Whaaaat! I responded, I left S.A and arrived on my 21st birthday.
What was the impact of your trip to New York?
New York was great because there were a lot of students from all over the world. I was the only black person there and people thought I was from Europe because of my accent. The first thing I thought when I returned home was… I have to go back there because they have a different culture, their approach to acting is different to ours. After that experience I learned to take my craft much more seriously; to fight for what I want until I attain it. I may not have believed I was worthy to travel to New York but there is something in me that makes me worthy enough to be able to compete on an international scale. Even through trialing times I knew that there is something in me that goes beyond the now. And because I worked with people of various cultures, from Brazilians to Mexicans; English was a struggle. It was great to observe and learn from them. Everybody has something to teach you.
What has been your greatest challenge since your career began?
The struggle can get so real, and I felt it this year. We finished shooting Saints and Sinners in August last year, then I dabbled with Scandal a bit, there on after I sat without work till July this year. My challenge is that I often get told: ‘You’re a great actor but you look too young.’ But what does that even mean? There’s make-up and wardrobe to aid in portraying an older woman.It’s really frustrating.
2014 was a monumental year for you
Yes…Before being cast for Saints and Sinners I was actually cast for a lead role in Soul City.
I had to choose which production to go for, I prayed about it, then I decided to go for the unknown: Saints and Sinners. Kanti ke… That was the best decision ever. When I googled the cast, OH MY GOD! I couldn’t believe it.
Where does being a basketball technician fit in the scheme of things?
That was so random because I’ve never played basketball, I always thought it was too aggressive.
I played Netball for the longest time. Pietermaritzburg girls high didn’t allow you to be idle throughout the term, so I started volunteering for the Basketball games and we got delicious chocolate cake in return. Then I met Arnold, the Technical Director for Basketball S.A, KZN region. He invited me to work for Basketball South Africa. The work didn’t involve anything fancy I was just doing the stats and taking down the scores. In 2013 I was invited to work at Basketball without Borders: An NBA outreach initiative. Then Last year the NBA came to S.A for the first time to play an exhibition game and I was there to work the game. My name is in the archives! I was told to jot my name down because the game is going to be recorded in the NBA Hall of Fame, it was a historical moment.
What has been your worst criticism?
I haven’t really received any criticism, unless I’m criticizing myself. That means I need to watch over everything I do. When I was shooting Is’thunzi, I said to Amanda Lane: my director and uSdumo, my co-actor who i also worked with on Saints and Sinners, that If there is any trace of Bonnie Khumalo in Winnie they must tell me. I don’t want to play the same person over. I don’t want to play pretty. I want to work.
Are you still in-touch with your home-town?
Yes I’m home often because I’m working on the script that I want to get funding for. It makes sense for the production to happen at home because the dialect in the script
is KZN Zulu.
What is the one note you’d like to leave us with?
Everyday I’m fighting for my craft, I believe that our industry accepts mediocrity. I’m only just starting out and I have so much to learn. We’ve got so much work to do and we can’t be complacent. As an actor you are never done with your job. Every day is a new challenge.
On thanking people that have helped me along the way, I want to start with Amanda Lane and Sdumo Msthali. The first two days of shooting Is’thunzi were the hardest for me. The character that I embody is nothing like me and this stressed me out of my mind. I’ll always be in Sdumo’s ear, asking: “how can I play this character better?”. He is not stingy with advice. My sister, Ntle Mbedu is my biggest cheer leader;My grandmother: Thokozile Lillian Zulu and my friend Steve.