Fana Mokoena: Hitting the big time with Pitt

Zombies beware: Fana Mokoena with Brad Pitt in a scene from World War Z. (Jaap Buitendijk)

Zombies beware: Fana Mokoena with Brad Pitt in a scene from World War Z. (Jaap Buitendijk)

Actor Fana Mokoena is well known for his many roles on South African television: he has been in Yizo Yizo, Generations, Hopeville, Soul City and The Lab. He won the Best Supporting Actor Avante Award for his work on Yizo Yizo in 1999 and the 2010 South Africa Film and Television Award for his work in The Lab, as well as an Emmy nomination for Hopeville.

He has also done some significant film work, including his portrayal of General Bizimingu in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, opposite Don Cheadle. He acts in Safe House with ­Denzel Washington and the yet-to-be-released Violence. Now he is starring in the international action spectacle World War Z, alongside Brad Pitt, which opens locally on July 19.

How do you relax when you’re not in front of a camera?
I’m always on my computer. I like graphics, I like writing — I write film, I write poems, I write stories — and I enjoy art, drawing and that sort of stuff.

What music do you listen to that gets you ready for a big day on set?
At the moment — which is funny because it’s not really my kind of music — I’m enjoying Calvin Harris and Ne-Yo and a song called Let’s Go, which is a kind of dance thing.
But my favourite music is reggae.

The lifestyle of an actor must be a stressful one. How do you keep yourself grounded during those periods when life takes over and you’re abroad?
You know I’ve always just considered myself a guy who works in the media industry and so I don’t really have those pressures. I try to keep my work as professional as possible. I keep my private life separate from my work and that’s how I survive.

World War Z was originally a book. Did you research your role by reading through it or is there any other literature that you used as inspiration for your performance?
I read the book — I had to read it for this film — but I also watched two movies ... I can’t remember their names but they were also zombie movies, or fall within that genre. I also had to understand the United Nations and also interviewed a lot of people here in South Africa about the zombie and how we understand the zombie in an African context. And I quickly realised that the zombie in Africa and the zombie in the United States are two very different beings, so I had to relinquish that research! But I had a conversation with the producers about the zombie in Africa and they were quite wowed about that, so hopefully when they do the sequel they can incorporate the African zombie.

Do you have a favourite movie in your collection that you watch every year?
The Usual Suspects … no doubt — it’s probably one of the best-made films. It has so many loopholes, probably the most loopholes of any film, but it’s still the best film ever made.

What measures do you take in order to stay in shape for a role?
It just depends on the role, I just did the part of Govan Mbeki in Long Walk to Freedom and I went on an eight-week diet — very strict because I’m a big man: exercise, running —it’s intense. But I’ve kind of got used to it now so I can slip in and out of it when I need to, and then I can go back to my burgers and ruin myself, and then if I need to I can slip back into shape.

What is your fondest memory of working with Brad Pitt?
I think it was that first day, because I came in quite cold and there was this big production and a lot of pressure on me to perform because I didn’t audition for this part. All the producers were there on that first day: Brad Pitt was there, Mireille Enos, Matthew Fox, the director who had his neck on the line and said I trust this guy with this work. I had to prove myself on that first day. The most amazing thing was when Brad Pitt came, he said: “Hey man, are you okay? You look a bit nervous”, and I talked about my nervousness — I was quite open about that and he said: “No, its cool”, and then we started talking. We chatted about England, about the weather, about South Africa, him coming to South Africa and going to Cape Town, shark diving, all of that stuff, and I think it really calmed me down a lot because the next scene that I did — my first — was this huge scene with him and Mireille Enos and the kids in a huge studio. Everybody was there, so I had to perform. So, that moment I think kicked me in and it was a beautiful moment.

Have you practised your American accent for a character or would you prefer to be typecast as an African character in your career?
I’ve always been working on my American accent but I’m working on it more now because of the possibilities that a project like World War Z can open for you. I don’t want to be typecast, I want to be a franchise. I do a Nigerian guy [in World War Z], and I want to be that guy, that African actor that can do any work because I think there’s a very limited understanding of us as artists on this continent. We are seen as this type, so it would be amazing for me to break that mould.

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