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Thuso Mbedu is ready for battle

From Pelham to the world, Thuso Mbedu made her big-screen debut with The Woman King. The star talks about her new life in the Hollywood Hills, her battle with depression and her exciting purpose-filled plans for the future.

IT USED TO BE EASY TO SPOT A HOLLYWOOD ACTOR, her skin fair, hair blonde and face plastered with makeup. They looked like everything I wasn’t.

Thuso Mbedu, on the other hand, has short, lusciously kinky hair. During our video call, her makeup is barely there – if at all. Right next to her is a bulky one-litre bottle of water, the sort you carry around everywhere, only to have a few sips and forget about. When interviewing a celebrity, a dance usually happens, an air of pretence mixed with nervousness that results in high-pitched fake laughter. Thuso, surprisingly, doesn’t play along with that act.

Perhaps it’s the excitement of talking to someone from back home. Or, maybe, this is how she is every day. But the conversation flows – it’s almost as if she’s talking to a friend she’s known for a long time.

“With a green passport, it’s hard to get excited until things are confi rmed, confi rmed. Mina ngidikidwa ngama visa manje,” she says about her travel plans for The Woman King press tour.

She performs the classic South African switch-up, seamlessly moving from one language to another without skipping a beat.

To borrow a Hollywood phrase, she’s what you’d describe as a relatable girl next door. This time, we’re not talking about white picket fences but her home, where there is stop-nonsense, polished red floors, and she blasts Tamia on Saturday mornings as she and her grandmother do the cleaning.

Image: Kwaku Alston

While Thuso’s relatable, nothing about her life at the moment is. From red carpets to counting one of the greatest actresses of our time as a friend, she’s as Hollywood as they get.

“I met Viola [Davis, her co-star] during the audition process for The Woman King. We started training together before the movie offi cially went into pre-production and continued during

it. Even now we’ve wrapped, we’re still friends, and still train together. I’ve been able to see this new chapter of my life, Thuso in Hollywood, through her. And that’s been absolutely valuable.”

After over a year of shooting with a star-studded cast including Davis, John Boyega and Siv Ngesi, Thuso is finally ready for her big-screen debut with this fi lm, a historical epic directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

“My character’s name is Nawi, and, like me, she has this burning desire to join the army, which she joins as a recruit. She doesn’t know how she’ll make it into [the army]. She’s not

necessarily preparing to make it in, but life happens in such a way that she ends up there. She’s stubborn, hard-headed and very independent. Because she was adopted, she’s used to having to do everything by herself. The [idea of ] give and take isn’t something with which she’s familiar, so she immediately clashes with Nanisca, played by Viola.”

The movie is inspired by true events in The Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African kingdom located within present-day Benin that existed from approximately 1600 until 1904.

“[This role] stretched and challenged me. Never in my life have I had to use positive self-talk, but I had to for the stunts in this movie.”

She’d already received two industry nods for her performance before the fi lm’s offi cial release in September, including being named a rising star by the Toronto International Film Festival. ‘The story of The Woman King is certainly Thuso Mbedu. It’s as if Viola Davis passes her the movie-star baton during the two- hour action spectacle and just watches her go. She’s thrilling to watch, from beginning to end,’ Vanity Fair Awards Writer David Canfield tweeted from the Festival.

A star is born in Pietermaritzburg

The actor’s life now is a far cry from where it began. Thuso Nokwanda Mbedu was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1991 to a Zulu mother and Xhosa-Sotho father. Her parents sadly passed away when she was very young.

Her Zulu grandmother stepped in to raise her and her sister in Pelham, where she attended Pelham Primary School, Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School and studied Physical Theatre and Performing Arts Management at Wits University.

“I grew up as someone who flies solo and built a wall of protection. So, I generally didn’t know how to be around people.”

Image: Kwaku Alston

Thuso’s decision to attend Wits University was part of her strategy. Joburg is South Africa’s hub for the industry, so she knew attending the university would open doors for her. She was right. While at Wits, she had an opportunity to do an exchange programme between the university and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting at New York University, which affirmed her decision to not only become an actress but to pursue her dream of cracking Hollywood.

“Following that programme were people from all over the world, including Australia and Brazil. Witnessing their talent, exchanging ideas, I was, like, there’s no way I can go back home and be the same person. I knew I needed to leave South Africa again to experience more of that, then take those lessons back home to share with others.”

From the classroom to the big stage

Thuso’s achievements in the eight years since she graduated in 2014 are awe-inspiring. “More than anything, it’s taken focus and involved sacrificing things that people hold in high esteem, such as clout and relevance.

“I decided that very early, knowing my intention wasn’t to stay in South Africa. Stuff such as partying and frivolous material things were there before I got here and will be there after I’m done and have achieved everything I want to. For me, it was a pursuit of excellence. It was always about a pursuit of purpose.”

Thuso went straight from the classroom to the big stage.Her first job after graduation was the lead role of Bonnie on the Mzansi Magic television show, Saints and Sinners. “I’m grateful to say I’ve never had to deal with imposter syndrome, even in that first role, apart from when a little boy died in episode three and I was the only new face in a lead cast of veterans.

I had no issues blending in, to which I credit numerous factors. Number one, I know what I bring to the table with the quality of my work.

I spend so much time preparing for a role that by the time I get to a set, I’m already in conversation with the director, I’m not there to prove myself. I’m also very teachable, there to learn and grow. I don’t have a big ego, as I’m not afraid to ask questions. I could go to sis Thati or sis Sibu or Sdumo and admit something doesn’t make sense to me and ask them to talk me through it. That’s something I’ve carried with me to Hollywood.”

From Isibaya to Snake Park and Scandal!, Thuso’s winning streak continued as she was cast in roles in numerous popular South African shows. But as she moved from one great role to another, many people didn’t see the behind-the-scenes struggle that comes with being an actress in South Africa, where the industry is exploitative. “We have a lot of talent, but they’re just not getting the opportunity because they’ve made it a clique-based thing, costing the [local film industry].”

If you’ve ever seen pictures of Thuso, you’ll have noticed a tattoo on her collarbone that reads, Faith. Hope. Love, a testament to what she’s survived. ‘I got the tattoo after struggling with depression [for most of 2016] and declaring that without faith in God, hope in my purpose and love for God and my sister, I probably would’ve taken my life,’ she posted on Instagram.

For half of 2016, she didn’t bag a single job and her bills piled up. She picked up a cough-syrup habit, which caused hallucinations. “I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my biggest enemy. The only reason I didn’t take my own life was my sister.

Everything I’ve gone through, everyone I’ve lost, my sister has too. So, it wouldn’t have been fair to me to add my body to all the losses my sister had faced,” she said in an interview with Emmy. Shortly after this dark period, Mbedu was cast as Winnie on Is’thunzi. ‘I went into this role telling myself I’d perform like it was my last.’ Her efforts earned her first award nominations. She won a SAFTA for Best Actress in a Drama and an International Emmy Nomination for the same category.

“My primary motivation is to help one or two people like my grandmother helped my sister and me. I wouldn’t be here if not for her sacrifice, so it’d be selfish of me to put myself first.

Even when things got really hard, didn’t make sense, and I considered changing careers, I could never decide what I wanted to do. It was a case of, that’s not what you were called to do. You were called to bring healing through your gift, which is performing, and that’s why I was able to see it through.”

Read the full interview in Glamour December/January Party Issue, now availble in-stores, and online here.

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