We have seen her on ETV’s soapie, Scandal, Mzanzi Magic’s Saints and Sinners, as well as MTV’s Shuga Down South. 26-year-old Thuso Mbedu shares where it all began
Please give a sneak peek into your childhood, what sparked your interest in the Arts?
I was always a quiet child who found solace in books and learning. I have always been a reader with a vivid imagination. When we were in primary school and were given a challenge of reading 100 books, I read more than 200. In High School we had to choose our subjects when we got to Grade 10 and I chose Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Biology and Drama. I had chosen Drama as the subject that would give me a break from the hard subjects of Maths and Science but then I fell in love with it. In Grade 11 I wrote and directed my own productions. I started writing poetry which was meant to be for my eyes only but there was a poem I wrote and performed that left the whole auditorium in tears. In matric I directed Sue Pam Grant’s Curl Up and Dye for the House Plays and we won Best Overall Production. I did a Bachelor of Arts in Dramtic Arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and I was able to pass my Honours Cum Laude.
Did your family support your dreams of being an entertainer?
Not initially but they do now. My mother had been a Maths, Science and Geography teacher—she had wanted to be a Geologist but couldn’t be because of apartheid. My father had been a Maths and Science teacher and I guess I was expected to go the Medical route so it was a shock for everyone when I didn’t. After I told my grandmother that I wanted to do Drama in university she didn’t talk to me for about a month. But after I got good grades in acting my grandmother couldn’t hide her pride in me. Also, her heart was also put at ease in 2012 when I got a scholarship from Wits that sent me to New York as part of the NYU/Wits exchange programme.
However, when I completed my degree and my grandmother couldn’t do much to support me as she was a pensioner, I had an aunt tell me to look for a “real job” as I had had fun with the acting thing. I put some money away and left home with a large suitcase and R500 and came back to Johannesburg knowing that I would crash with a friend of mine for a week and God would have to make a plan beyond that. God came through for me as my family could not support me financially as well. I think they still had doubts even when they celebrated seeing me on TV when the first seasond of Saints and Sinners came out.
How did you get into acting? What was your first major role and how has your journey been?
I studied Drama at Wits (2010-2013). During my time I acted in theatre pieces from 2011. From second year we were allowed to be in theatre productions. I worked with Gys de Villiers in a devised piece called Aquamine which was a very memorable stage production for me as it was full of seniors that I looked up to at the time. In TV, my first major role came after graduation as I did not want anything distracting me from my studies whilst still in varsity. I landed my first role after my second audition. My first audition was for latest Soul City and I got the role there but before they had gotten back to me I had gone to audition for Mbalemnyama which South Africa now knows as Saints and Sinners. I had to choose between the two roles because both were lead roles.
Who has been your favourite actor since you were young and have you had an opportunity to work with them or get advice from them.
Internationally, I fell in love with Meryl Streep after watching The Devil Wears Prada. Her acting was the difference-maker for me. I would like to play a villain or something very similar to her Devil Wears Prada character one day and hold it down with the same strength, grace and fierceness as she did. I have also followed the advice of Denzel Washington online. He really is a true inspiration especially as he proclaims that it is God who has gotten him where he is. Issues of faith are always tricky in our industry but I always say I am who I am and I am where I am because of God. I was raised by my grandmother from the age of four when my mother passed away and we did not have much but she gifted me with faith which is what got me through. My trip to New York to attend a Physical Theatre for Acting Summer programme at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting was an answered prayer. My being able to travel from KZN with nothing but a suitcase and R500 in my pocket and being able to be where I am today is an answered prayer. My whole life is an answered prayer.
Locally, I worked with all my favourites in my very first production. Nthati Moshesh, S’dumo Mtshali, Tumisho Masha, Sibulele Gcilitshana. First class actors! They are veterans who are now my colleagues and my supporters. What an honour! I had the tendency of choosing to chill with them on set during our breaks because I knew that there was a lot I could inherit from them and as a result I have received a range of advice which I apply in my everyday life. Something Sis Sibu said to me very early was that I should not let awards and accolades determine my value in the industry. Do what you do because you love it and keep challenging yourself with each new role.
What is the ultimate role you want to play?
I would love to be in anything created by Shonda Rhimes. When talent, dedication and creativity meet research greatness is inevitable. I am in awe of everything she has shared with us from Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal (The Fixer) to How to Get Away with Murder to The Catch. I know that it would be a great challenge to bring to life any character that has been created on paper and I am constantly running after challenges. That is how I grow.
What are some of the challenges and highlights you have experienced as an entertainer?
My biggest challenge to date has been chilling at home without work for extended periods of time because of the unstable nature of the industry. However, the tough times have made me stronger as they have forced me to take initiative and work on my own things rather than relying on the next gig. I have to create the next gig for myself.
The highlights are knowing that I have touched people through my craft. Also, I always say “you’re only as good as your last performance” and so I constantly challenge myself to do better and be better. When people respond positively to that it is always humbling: the hard work is not in vain.
Are there any other projects you are planning on branching into?
I have an interest in working behind the scenes. Amanda Lane is the best. As we are shooting Is’thunzi 2, I am shadowing her as a director. I am also bothering her with my attempts at writing and she is more than great as she takes the time to help where she can. In June the plan is to launch my pilot for a series that I wrote and directed. When I wrote iDRIVE I was writing from the place of wanting to give myself a role that I have not done before and would love to do right now. From that space I was able to come up with a Crime Action as I have a great love for action: fast cars and fighting. The cast list includes myself, S’dumo Mtshali, Altovise Lawrence, Chris Attoh (Ghanaian actor) and Bohang Moeko. There are a whole lot of other things that I would like to get into before the year ends. It’s only a matter of time and I am already thanking God in advance.
What drew you to the role of Ipeleng in MTV Shuga DS?
MTV Shuga DS speaks to many realities faced in South Africa. Ipeleng’s story is the reality of most children. A lot of children find themselves having to head up their households nowadays. In addition, I also know what it is like to lack. In 2014, when my grandmother passed away, I had to use my first pay check to move my whole world from KZN to Johannesburg. At the time my sister didn’t have a job and so she and my niece had to move in with me. After Saints and Sinners 1, I didn’t have work for about another three months. Luckily, I had made sure that I had paid my rent 3 months in advance so I did not have to worry about that. Like Ipeleng, it would’ve been very easy to sell myself off to a man who could provide for everything and more but again, like Ipeleng, it was not worth who I am. Prayer and hard work got me through. Blessers and Blessees are given so much airtime on our televisions to the point that it is being seen as a glamorous lifestyle, something to be aspired to by our young girls (and boys). In a time where technology has given us access to shortcuts, not enough credit is given to the hard worker who does not compromise on who they are. That is why Ipeleng made sense to me and I wanted to tell her story.
How would you define success and have you received it?
Success for me is living in purpose and maintaining your peace while doing so. Living in purpose is a journey. It has its great days but there are low moments as well. Where I am right now I can truly say I am in peace and joy as I feel as though I am aligned with what I was created to do. There are a lot of other things I have yet to do but I know that I am growing every day and every new experience, good or bad, brings me that much closer to making a lasting difference and helping this generation and the next. I am living success every day. I love what I do. Every. Single. Day.
What are your long-term career plans?
You will always see or hear of me in different capacities. I want to get into directing and producing so that I don’t have to wait for work anymore. I want to create work that interests me rather than going with the flow because I need to pay the bills. Just watch this space. However, all in all everything that I do has helped me achieve my ultimate goal to open a creative arts academy and orphanage for orphans.
What is your advice to other aspiring actors?
Work on your craft. There is no way around it. I still have lengthy discussions with my director and colleagues about how to better myself. I still read up and take notes on how to improve my craft. I know that S’dumo Mtshali sets time aside to meditate on his roles and prepares himself both mentally and physically so that he can make the best offer. If you put in the work, your work will speak for you. I have no time for people who want to take shortcuts and are only doing it for the fame. You become famous and then what? This industry is not for the faint-hearted. You’re going to experience a few knocks, and training gives you the muscles and strength to be able to get back up again.
Connect with Thuso Mbedu on: