Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe |
Interview by : Ennovy Chauky Article by: Sisonke Mbalekwa
Just a couple of weeks ago, the South African audience was introduced to Tebatso Mashishi in spectacular fashion. The talented actor, writer and rapper, who goes by the stage name Prodykal Son, burst onto our screens with his portrayal of cool wannabe entrepreneur, Papi. Tebatso was born in Limpopo and moved to Mpumalanga at a young age, before his family finally settled in Atteridgeville, Pretoria. These are the experiences he attributes to his refreshing and well-rounded approach to storytelling. Tebatso studied science before realising his strengths lie elsewhere. As a drama student at the Tshwane University of Technology, he took to the stage many times to embody a wide variety of characters before landing his first camera role in a Sotho series called Ya Lla that aired on Mzansi Magic in 2015.
“Mom attended none of my performance for about six months after I started studying at TUT. After pleading with her, she finally agreed to watch ‘Final Whistle’. It was a two-hander play where I played Sam, a death row inmate in conversation with a nun. She was impressed with my performance and became very supportive after that”.
How did you find your own identity as an actor?
I first had to get comfortable in my own skin. Being comfortable with who I am ensures that I bring authenticity to any role I take on. As an actor, you can’t try to be someone you’re not, the audience will see right through you and your performance will be one dimensional. Theatre and film mirror real life and real people and you can’t embody the character and do justice to it when you’re not being real. It’s that realness that helped me find my own identity as an actor.
Was it easy to adapt from theatre to the film?
I watched a lot of films growing up and enjoyed mimicking the actors I saw. There were techniques that I had learnt from doing that but going to school is what really helped me. Drama school introduced me to the theory of different techniques and I was given a platform to practice in front of an audience. I developed confidence and knowledge of oneself. As an actor, you need to know what makes you tick. I learnt how to tap into parts of myself, access emotions and memories that I didn’t even know existed. So studying drama basically gave me all the basic tools that I needed to be able to act in any environment making it easier for me to manoeuvre between stage and camera.
Are you still in contact with some of the people you went to drama school with?
Those that were my friends, Yes! We even have a WhatsApp group where we share knowledge of auditions and support each other. Most of us are going through similar things, where we feel like all the hard work we’ve put in has gone to waste. Every day there is an actor that feels like they just want to quit. So we help each other overcome those moments. Hard work always pays off, that’s what Matwetwe has proven to me. It doesn’t matter how long it might take, if you consistently work hard, someone is bound to notice you. That’s why for me, every person I come into contact with is an opportunity for me to learn something new as an actor. Every role that I get to play is an audition. I have to give it my all every time because someone might be watching.
Do you consider Matwetwe as your big break?
Yes and no. Matwetwe has given me a great platform to share my talents with everybody. I learnt a lot being on the set and it was a very pleasant working environment. The fact that it was shot in my hood made it even better. However, when people have only seen you play one character, they’re never completely sold. Some think it was just luck. I definitely need another role first before I can say I’ve broken into the industry.
Which role do you think will really challenge you as an actor?
Anything extreme. Think Christian Bale in ‘The Mechanist’ and in ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’. He had to lose drastic weight for those roles. In South Africa, we hardly do complete transformations like gaining or losing weight, or shaving your head and eyebrows for a role. I want to play a role that requires me to completely transform, physically and mentally, into a completely different person. That would be the ultimate challenge.
Is there anybody, actor or director, that you dream of working with?
It’s not about big names for me. I just want to work with passionate people that want to tell authentic stories and respect the craft. People that will not restrict my performance but enhance it. Big names don’t guarantee my growth as an actor, and that’s what I want more than anything. If there’s a great script, great director, great cinematography and great performers, I want to be there. I don’t really care who they are.
The film and television industry has been constantly accused of casting actors solely based on their social media presence. What’s your opinion on that?
I think it’s counterproductive to hire someone to be an actor based on the number of likes their selfies get. A film is a story and that should be respected. Matwetwe’s success proves that it’s not necessary to cast based on social media followers. If we want our industry to be taken seriously, we have to take it seriously ourselves and start casting roles based on merit. There are so many talented actors in South Africa, many of whom have invested years and money into their craft and are unemployed because there aren’t any jobs in the industry. Those people deserve to be given a chance. People are treating film like it’s advertising. The method of getting a famous rapper to endorse a certain sneaker works for the advertising industry but it doesn’t work with film. Of course, film is a business, but the laws of business don’t work the same. With film, people need to be able to relate to it in order to buy into it. You can’t achieve that with likes. You can’t fool the audience and there is nothing that can substitute for a good story. Not even a big budget.
Do you ever consider creating your own work? If yes, what would you create?
Creating our own work is the only way in which we can grow our industry and morph it into what we want it to be. It’s also a way for us not only to sustain ourselves but to create opportunities for others as well. I’m really interested in disability within the arts and I want to create roles and opportunities for actors living with a disability. Living with albinism has brought with it a lot of shortcomings. Roles are typically written for people who are black, white, coloured, Asian etc. And even though I’m a black man, my shade of black comes with a lot of politics. This skin has it’s own politics that casting directors don’t want to associate themselves with. Much like the politics associated with disability.
So I want to go back to school and do my masters. I want to focus on actor training for blind and deaf actors. I went to a school for the disabled in my primary and high school years. I’ve seen a lot of blind and deaf actors that are very talented but when I got to university, there weren’t any blind and deaf drama students. I want to change that. I want to stop seeing able-bodied actors play characters with a disability all the time. I believe actors living with a disability deserve a chance too. Not because they are marginalised and excluded in these spaces but because they are talented. Look at Peter Dinklage, he has dwarfism but he’s also an award-winning actor. We have people just like him in South Africa too, but they’re not granted any opportunities.
Please elaborate on how Albinism has affected your acting career.
It’s something that I have to think about on a daily basis. Before I can say I’m a black man that can act, I have to say I have albinism. It seems like having albinism comes first to being black and that’s not how it should be. I am a black man first before any condition that I might have but I find my acting abilities overshadowed by the politics of this skin. People will encourage me to go audition for a role that wants a young black man, but I find them raising eyebrows at me when I’m at auditions. I’ve never seen a brief that says they specifically looking for an actor who has Albinism. And even if there was, they’d be so few and far in between that, we’d have to compete with each other instead of aligning with each other to get roles. We have to break these boundaries.
How do you sustain yourself holistically, not just financially, but also emotionally and psychologically, so that you can keep a healthy sound mind in an industry as difficult as this one?
Currently, I’m working behind the scenes as an assistant director on a soapie. It pays the bills but I have made a decision to either follow my dreams or ‘die trying’. I would rather ‘die trying’ to reach my goals than to settle for security. I don’t want to be remembered for the latter so its all or nothing for me. I believe that if I work hard though, I’ll do great. I strongly believe the work is bigger than all of us, and that keeps me grounded. A lecturer of mine taught me the importance of discipline and removing one’s ego from the work. He changed my outlook on everything. That’s why I don’t feel famous. There have been so many great actors that have come before us and set the bar high, there is absolutely no space for a big ego. I’m also a rapper, so creating music also helps me keep a level head.