Thuso Mbedu: Re-(act)ing to a ‘lethal’ industry

With days to go before the 46th International Emmy Awards, New Frame caught up with Thuso Mbedu, who has been nominated again.

God resides squarely in the small things. 

Arundhati Roy might have popularised a version of that phrase in her debut novel God of Small Things, but for Thuso Mbedu, who has been nominated for an International Emmy Award for the second time, God’s provision and grace sit beyond the glamorous.

Speaking to New Frame in the abundantly verdant Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens west of Johannesburg, Mbedu recounts how the blessings she has received this year have been specific and deliberate, and a by-product of sticking to her purpose. 

“I’m really grateful for the nomination again and that they happened to see something in me, but I am also in a place where the industry now sees that such opportunities are possible but I feel like they are not doing anything about it. We have a lot of brilliant actors and actresses who could have received the nod and it’s not necessarily because I did anything exceptional … I just feel like I am aligning with what God had envisioned for my life,” says Mbedu, 27. 

Coping with a cold industry 

That said, the young actress adds that opportunities for acting jobs have been relatively few and far between for her since being nominated for her first International Emmy last year, then winning a South African Film and Television Award for best actress in a lead role in a TV drama earlier this year. 

“I really don’t yaz’ … I don’t despise the time I’ve had to take [out this year],” she starts. Mbedu, who became well known for playing Winnie in Mzansi Magic’s Is’thunzi, has been cast in less acting work than expected for a performer of her calibre. “In as much as I choose the work I do, carefully, the reality of it is that I don’t hire myself,” she continues.  

Mbedu’s notable work this year includes acting on MTV Base’s Shuga, SABC 1’s Generations: The Legacy and Mzansi Magic’s Is’thunzi. But apart from these, she says she hasn’t been able to secure any other significant roles. “I have been told that I’m too expensive but often that comes before we’ve even discussed contracts. How would you know if I am too expensive for you?” she says candidly. “If anything, if I really, really like the project I am willing to negotiate my rate down.” 

The dearth of acting work is not an uncommon story for black actresses who are perceived already to have reached the pinnacle of excellence in their field. 

Brenda Ngxoli, who was nominated for an International Emmy in 2007 for her role as Vuyo in the SABC 1 drama series Home Affairs, also expressed a similar sentiment when she returned to a rather cold and unwelcoming industry back home. 

Across the ocean, Halle Berry, who was the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress, has also expressed that her historic win in 2002 did not translate into substantive work opportunities. In fact, Berry was quoted by Variety  as saying: “‘Wow, that moment really meant nothing. It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”

Mbedu says that since the Emmy nod, she’s had more success in the corporate world. “I have been aligned with organisations such as Capitec and, nakhona, I enjoy working with platforms like those because they’ve given me an opportunity to learn more about finances but also to share my own experiences of [working] with money, which is something that the industry really doesn’t care about.”

Honouring the writing process

In the absence of acting work, Mbedu has created a digital series called iDrive TV Series , a production she created with friends and colleagues, Sdumo Mtshali and Bohang Moeko, among others. 

“I took some time to go to Cape Town and work on the script for iDrive,” explains Mbedu. Having worked closely with Amanda Lane, the writer and director of  is’Thunzi, Mbedu used the time off to work on her script with Lane, who is the script editor for this project. 

“Through this process I have found that I am learning and growing, and I am seeing the world differently, which obviously informs my work. Learning and reading the work of abantu who are experts in their fields, you know that the writing process takes time. So when you hear that there was a script that was commissioned and was written in two weeks or less, you’re just like these people obviously do not respect us and certainly do not respect the viewer,” she says. 

Mbedu continues to express her worry about feeling as if she’s in an echo chamber, in which there exists a nexus of actors, directors and producers who are not accountable to one another and are less inclined to produce work of high quality. “For me, instead of the industry getting better, I feel like it’s declining and getting worse,” she giggles with slight exasperation. “I suppose that’s what discourages me the most … I mean, yes, we can praise is’Thunzi. Audiences will praise it and seem hopeful about the possibilities of our industry but beyond that, there’s very little out there.” 

Rehearsing those pesky takes

Mbedu takes her craft seriously. Training has always been an important foundational principle for her as it provides her with the appropriate tools to portray characters in a more considered way. This is apparent in the dynamism and breadth of her character work, as seen in her digital portfolio .

“With is’Thunzi, the one thing that I think really worked was Amanda’s insistence on rehearsals, whereas other production companies don’t do that.” Mbedu points out that although production company Rapid Blue’s budget was relatively limited, the actors expressed a hunger to rehearse and perfect their craft over and above the contractually agreed upon hours. “Amanda said, ‘guys, it will have to be for free because it’s not paid and that’s the reality of it.’”

“On set, you’re running against the clock because you are shooting 13 episodes in just five-and-a-half weeks. Because of rehearsals you know where you kind of need to be emotionally as a character with the scene. 

“You know, Amanda always says that most of the stuff you see on screen is the first take – one take because time is not our side. But [because of rehearsals] she is confident enough to take that one take and put it on screen.”

As the conversation winds down, Mbedu reflects on how difficult the entertainment industry can be. 

“Our industry is lethal … it’s brutal and it will crush your spirit if you don’t know what you are about, [but] I do think that [university] training does help because you do put in four years of your life into this. So even when the industry happens, you’re that much tougher than the person who decided to wake up and be famous,” she concludes.

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