My eyes closed, earphones in, sitting in the backseat of an Uber, Tutu Puoane’s live recording of Dreaming On and On colours my journey to Fourways. The refrain “dream on, dream big” is repeated by the jazz singer.
Puoane’s silky vocals is a call to action, and the same call is made by Thuso Mbedu as our two-hour conversation starts to wind down. “Honestly,” Mbedu says with a broadening smile, “I think dreaming is what has kept me sane.”
She was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Winnie in Mzansi Magic’s Is’Thunzi.
And a dream herself, she is an amalgam of the quiet prayers, prophetic utterances and gentle dreams of her late grandmother.
The last time I saw or spoke to Mbedu was at our matric speech day at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High, almost eight years ago. Both of us were at the top of our drama class, alternating with each new school term between positions one and two — both of us yearning for a place in the arts. She headed to the Wits Drama School and I to the Rhodes drama department.
Mbedu is dressed in a yellow oversized Lakers jersey, sneakers and leather bucket hat, and she is exactly as I remembered her — relaxed, comfortable and very deliberate. There had always been an ease about the way she carried herself. Her energy, back then, had been that of a young girl determined to excel in all areas of her scholastic life — sports, school productions and studies.
Her new energy, and new swagger, is that of a young woman inoculated against the throes of celebrity, attuned to her purpose, seemingly in communion with the divine.
Our chat oscillates between old classmate nostalgia, filled with the silliness of school life, and an equally comfortable interview. She elucidates on her journey of the past eight years, and on her transition from varsity student to professional actress. It has been a winding road peppered with grief, loss, sacrifice and flashes of relative success. “Heeeyiii … umuntu has been through a lot,” she giggles. “It has been a tricky eight years.
“For the first four, obviously it was about varsity. My main focus was varsity. I was, like, ‘I’m not about to be that girl who goes back to KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] because I have failed varsity. Especially because my family didn’t understand why I was doing drama to begin with.”
She adds humorously: “At least, maybe go back to KZN because medicine had defeated me … but you can’t go back for drama. I mean what is that?”
She remains the embodiment of all the adjectives that might have been speckled across her report cards — intelligent, studious, determined and persistent, tackling the many challenges in her way.
“The most challenging thing apart from the academics was NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme]. At some point, they decided that my grandmother was ‘not pensioner enough’ for them to pay. I was like, ‘how does that work?’ I mean, if you had paid for the last two years, how I am suddenly not poor enough to qualify for tuition and for res?”
It is a familiar story shared by thousands of students plagued by the many holes in the scheme’s administration. But in her case, the problem was resolved relatively quickly. “It was a matter of me going home to pray and returning to the offices on Monday to find everything in order.”
Prayer has been an integral theme in Mbedu’s life, overflowing with blessings.
“After varsity, I left home without any financial support at all. I was squatting, from friend to friend. One week with a friend in Auckland Park, the next week in Soweto, and then the next few months, I was squatting with a guy friend in Braamfontein. At that time, angithi, you’re also sending emails to agencies trying to get representation but then agencies, are like, ‘you don’t have enough experience so we can’t take you’. But without an agent, I can’t get experience so how is this supposed to work?
“Eventually a friend of mine told me about an agent who had also studied at Wits. I contacted her on Facebook and said, ‘Listen, I need a meeting and I have just heard that you have started an agency’.”
Once Mbedu had secured an interview with the agency, it sent her to auditions. One with the acclaimed long-standing soap Soul City and the other with a newer, relatively unknown production, Saints and Sinners (which introduced her to South Africans as the young Boni Khumalo). She booked both.
“Soul City was an answered prayer at the time, in the sense that it was the exact amount of money that I needed to help my gran get out of debt.
“I still felt very strongly about Saints and Sinners … I felt like I had to venture into the unknown. So, I went into the [Saints] production only to find that the contract was more than twice as much as I was going to get paid on the other side. Then I saw the cast list, and it was just veterans only. It truly was the best decision I made.”
The story she recounts has the markings of a fairy tale, but as she continues, it is also punctuated with grief and loss. Soon after she had booked Saints and Sinners, her aunt, who had raised her alongside her grandmother, died. Three days before her national debut on television, she lost her grandmother, her family’s most important matriarch.
“I had to use the money that I had received from Saints and Sinners to relocate my sister and my niece from KZN to Johannesburg to stay with me because we all now no longer had a home.”
Relegated to a nomadic existence, Mbedu found solace in her craft. “I spent most of my time on set with the veterans and found their advice incredibly important and useful. I remember them telling me to always pay for my rent three months in advance if I could, because of the instability of the industry.
“And, ngempela ngempela, I chilled for three months after Saints without a job and nothing to pay the rent. But it was fine because I had already made that advance payment off the advice of my castmates.”
Between Saints and Sinners and Is’Thunzi, Mbedu also appeared briefly in eTV’s Scandal and in Isibaya on Mzansi Magic.
“It wasn’t a case of me not being able to book any jobs, there just weren’t any auditions around. But I remember my agent saying, ‘Thuso, whatever you book next, I strongly believe that it will be big for you and so worth it’.”
Enter Is’Thunzi, the Rapid Blue Production for which Mbedu has been nominated for an Emmy in the first season of the show.
It’s not difficult to see why. Is’Thunzi is one of the most compelling television programmes on South African television at the moment. The crisp cinematography, the strength of the narrative and the complicated, nuanced and detailed performances of the cast make it in one of our very best television productions. What I am most struck by is how Winnie, played by Mbedu, simultaneously straddles the city and rural girlhood.
It may not seem particularly impressive at first, especially when I think of all the black women who do this with ease all the time, but it is certainly refreshing to see it reflected on television with an unwavering authenticity.
“Winnie is totally different from me,” Mbedu says emphatically. “We both had difficult upbringings, but her choices are totally different from my own. What this process has done for me is to learn how to not judge the character and try to play the character as authentically as possible. Ingenze ngaba ne empathy, I’m more open-minded now and now I am able to look at other women and want to understand their stories and create community where I can.”
Our conversation moves away from Winnie to the role of performance and the importance of training as actors.
“The industry is really in need of performers who take their craft seriously,” Mbedu says. I agree.
As our meeting winds down, we recall the importance of dreams in our lives. We speak earnestly about the power of imagination and the ways in which prayer undergirds our capacity to create.
“Dream big, Fezi!” she says, and she talks excitedly about her trip to New York for the Emmy award ceremony.
I promise to try, while Pouane’s “dream on, dream big” lyrics linger in my mind.