Image by Mlungisi Mlungwana|
BY Lillian Zandile Tshabalala|
Opening night! Nerves rushing from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet, hands shaking like a sudden earthquake, heart pumping blood through the valves of an unsure but hopeful body. Backstage! Kids reciting tongue twisters and ‘one liners ’. The bathroom line; reeking of anxious tummies, & puke that could strike promptly. Ten minute call! Five minutes! Places! Doors open! Audience walks in filled with proud & equally nervous parents. The National School of the Arts! Preshow announcement! Ripple sounds of cell phones switching off across the theatre. Silence! Lights come up on a thin, 14 year old chocolate skinned girl from Soweto dressed in green; ready to take on the leading role of Peter Pan in the school play. Zethu Dlomo, a star in the making!
The first time I saw Zethu Dlomo was on SABC1’s Room 9, she played a detective and I was in awe of how she spat fire into that role! After that I started following her work and realized that her star started shining way before a lot of people caught on. I sat down to chat to her about her road to stardom over coffee on a chilly Friday morning. Fearless & uncensored; she didn’t hold back on anything!
Lillian Tshabalala: Where did your acting journey begin?
Zethu Dlomo: Oh wow…Well firstly I did not know that I had the gift or talent of acting when I was still young. As you can see I’m a “dark dindi” (dark skinned girl) and I would get teased a lot by kids at school because of my skin color and as a result I was a shy kid growing up. Back in those days I used to love watching Generations which was on once a week. My favorite character was Ntsiki who was played by Pamela Nomvete; I’d watch her on TV then rush to the mirror to imitate her as practice for how I would reply to the kids who would tease me the next day. At the time I didn’t know anything about masks or putting on a character but that’s exactly what I was doing in order for them to not affect me.
LT: What was life like with your friends at home?
ZD: When I got back home from school I would let my guard down because my friends at home were cool. We would go play house and build things like mud huts. Creativity flowed like crazy because my imagination was wild when I was a young kid! I could write things easily and my confidence in my Art came about in grade 5 when I was 10 years old and I joined the drama club by accident. I initially thought that the club was just for dancing and singing which was what I wanted to do when I got there; but I found that it was more for acting. They gave us poems and monologues to perform and the first monologue I’d performed was called Leisure. My teacher gave it to me and I learned it off by heart in an hour, that’s when it became clear that I could actually grasp things easily.
LT: What did you do to nurture the talent once you knew you had it?
ZD: When it was time for me to transfer to High school I missed the auditions at NSA (The National School of the Arts) So I went there the next year from grade 9-12 then I went to Wits University thereafter to study drama and now I’m an actor.
LT: How was your transition from an ordinary high school environment to the National school of the Arts?
ZD: In grade 8 I went to West Ridge high and I played a lot of sports like Tennis and Cricket and when I moved to NSA they said that they don’t have any sports but I was going to be doing drama so that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I learned a lot from NSA, I wasn’t part of any cliques and didn’t have a lot of friends even from primary school so the Library was my friend! I hated break because I’d think “urg now I gotta go sit alone” so I would go to the Library, read books and let my imagination run away with me. It was a great escape for me at the time.
LT: Please tell me you had a much better social life in University
ZD: I went to Wits University and that’s where I met my friends Tumy, Momo, Kitty and Cubeka. In the first year we were a group of friends then eventually broke away with the ones we connected more with and that’s basically how I met the “Thenx ladies” 10 years ago; we’ve been friends ever since and now we’re a group.
LT: How did Thenx come about?
ZD : Thenx was established around 2008/9 when we had to do homework for Comedy during the holidays. So in the last minute we pulled together to create a show, this included 2 more guys namely Lwando Mavi & Tsholo Phiri, we came up with a show called “Keeping up with the Kumalos” and it was really cool, people really enjoyed it. Time went past and we graduated in 2010 and 2011 we had our first Thenx show at the Plat4orm. From there on we got motivated to do more. The Plays we’ve done together are: Youth in society, The people shall kurk, The triple M Mamas & our most resent play “Azanya is five to”. And now we’re getting ready to go to Cape Town where we’ll be performing a mesh of everything “The triple M mamas kurk about Azanya” which is basically a mix of all the good gems we picked out of all the shows and put together. We also try our best to always be relevant, consistent and current.
LT: How has it been working with your friends & how do you ladies balance out friendship and work?
ZD: We are four independent women who know what we want, we are a group but also have our individual brands & because we are already so concerned about our individual brands we definitely don’t want to mess what we have together up. Sometimes life can get really interesting; if we spend a lot of time together even our period’s start coming around the same dates. We have to be open minded and forgiving of ourselves and each other, I’d say that our friendship, respect and professionalism keeps us together.
LT: What do you tell people who come up to you saying they want to be performers.
ZD: Every time someone comes to me and says they’d like to Act my first response to them is always “ I know this sucks, but go to school” because I believe that’s the only way you would know if this works for you or not. You may think you’re an Actor but end up figuring out that you’re actually a great director once in school!
LT: What was your first professional acting job?
ZD: “Justice for all” in 2006 was my first acting job on TV. I was in grade 12 and had just joined MLA when I got the gig.
LT: What character did you play?
ZD: I played a girl named Mantwa; which was very weird because growing up I used to love watching Yizo Yizo and my favorite character on there was Mantwa. I would always say “when I grow up I want to be Mantwa” and then I forgot about it. So I guess this is where the”law of attraction” from The Secret comes into play because years later I attracted a character called Mantwa.
LT: What character has had great impact on you since your acting career began?
ZD: In grade 12 whilst at NSA I auditioned for Grease and landed a character who had no lines at all, but I can definitely say that show had a great impact on me because I was basically an extra but wasn’t going to let that get to me! I went to every dance rehearsal, music lesson, learnt all the lines and jumped in where ever I was needed; I realized in that production that being an extra is actually hard work! That’s why I can never get my head around people who treat Extras inhumanely on set. That role taught me to be creative and work harder, I walked away with a Platinum certificate from NSA and I had never received any awards at school until that role came along.
LT: What do you think the expectations from casting directors are these days?
ZD: It depends on the location and the type of story they want to tell but a girl like me is more likely to play a slave on a ship in the sixteen hundreds, or a princess of a previously enslaved community like I do on Black Sails. You are most likely to cast a girl like me than a light skinned girl for those roles. But when it comes to roles for this day and age, they seem to be going for the “yellow bones” and I really don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when socialites suddenly turn into actors. “Because you’re pretty and trending it must make you a great performer” I mean, it’s fine if you want to delve into acting there’s plenty of room, but can you at least know what you are doing! The subject on ‘notions of beauty’ can be a tricky one, but I tell myself that there is a market for girls who look like me and I have never been more proud to see a dark skinned girl win an Oscar, Viola Davis is goals!!! She’s not your typical shot of ‘Hollywood Beauty’ she’s not a Kardashian but she’s slaying and paving the way for girls like me.
LT: Let’s talk about your role on Black Sails, Tell me about Princess Madi.
ZD: Madi is a Princess of the Maroon people who were part of a group of slaves that managed to escape from their European capturers by jumping off ship, made it to shore and hid themselves in a secret camp. Madi was born into that community and has never really experienced slavery herself. She’s not scared of going out into the world like her people are, she’s powerful and doesn’t feel the need to bow down to or be intimidated by anyone. Her bravery beams through when she falls in love with a white man. She thinks the impossible is possible!
LT: Madi got into Black Sails on the third season, how did it feel going into an international production that big and how was the experience working with your fellow cast members?
ZD: I hadn’t seen the show when I auditioned for it so I binge watched it with my man. It only hit me at the end of us watching it that I was really going to be on that show. The first day on set was fantastic, seeing all those people; like Captain Flint and Charles Vane was mesmerizing. The professionalism and warm welcome, and things like having a person who is number one on the call sheet treat me like an equal really helped me confidently step into my character.
LT: I’ve seen you post pictures of some beautiful fan Art on your Instagram page, who is creating those.
ZD: Fans from across the world! It’s different people who just love watching Black Sails! I’ve been receiving so much love and I love the interpretation of how people see me as a cartoon. The tweets I also get really warm my heart. I’ve had someone tweet me to say “You’re one of the most inspiring black women in the world”. It’s very humbling.
LT: You have been blessed to work on so many platfoorms: Stage, TV & Film. How do you balance all that and your personal life?
ZD: I have to tell myself that Oprah, Jay-Z and Beyonce also have the same 24 hours I do in a day, they do not rest and that’s why they schedule vacation time into their year. It’s really about sacrificing and scheduling in advance. My fingers are in many pies because you have to be smart in this industry.
LT: What else would you like to do in the industry?
ZD: My fiancé and I are both Christian and we’d like to open a Christ centered production company, where we can shoot films and shows that reflect the true lives of Christians. I really want to shatter the notion of Christians having perfect lives because that’s really not true! I’d like to tell people about God’s love without them feeling like I’m “preaching” to them.
LT: What awards have you been nominated for in the past?
ZD : The first Award I was nominated for was sort of a “double dose” because I got nominated for a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Awards) and SAIFTA (South Africa India Film and TV Awards) for my work on Fanie Fouri’s Lobola. Then I got nominated for a Naledi Award in 2014 for my performance on “Have you seen Zandile”. It was really an honor winning an award for that show because it is a piece very close to my heart. Momo and I had done it in fourth year then at a time when we were broke and unemployed we asked ourselves the question “ why aren’t we acting when we have degrees?”. That’s when we brought it back and asked Khutjo Green to direct us; and the rest as they say is history. I didn’t expect for my name to be called out that day, I hadn’t even prepared a speech because I just told myself that I’m just a nominee “Always the bridesmaid never the bride”
LT: Speaking of Bridesmaids; you’re about to officially move from that category into bridal shoes, how does that feel?
ZD: It’s exciting and Stressful. Weddings don’t get cheaper but I’m blessed to be in love with someone that gets me. He’s also an actor and it’s also exciting when we get to work together. I don’t know what to expect but I’m really excited about the process and our journey as a married couple. I’m really happy to have someone that can pray for me when I am down and that I can pray for as well.
LT: How do you stay sane and humble?
ZD: God! It’s about reminding myself that I’m not perfect and as talented & gifted as I am; I still need the sound guy, the makeup lady and the behind the scenes crew who work tirelessly to make me look. It’s about realizing that I can’t do it all on my own!
LT: What upcoming shows can people look forward to seeing you in?
ZD: I’ll be performing in a one women show titled “Penny” written & directed by Momo Matsunyane; and again with the Thenx ladies at the Alexandra Bar theatre in Cape Town from 20 March- 1 April. We hope that the people in Cape Town will come out in numbers for that run. We’re very excited about it because this is our first time touring out of Johannesburg with the Thenx ladies show, Don’t miss it!