Pheto in a gal­axy of film stars

Cape Times - - ARTS - Buhle Mbo­nanbi

TERRY Pheto is a star. As in a big deal. It is only when you see the peo­ple she has worked with, who have sought her out for her tal­ent and star power, that you re­alise that she is a pretty big deal.

In a story about South Africa’s top film ac­tresses, I wrote: “When it comes to star power, Terry has it in spades. She is one of the most fa­mous South African ac­tresses and the film stu­dios know this.

“Sign­ing her up for a role in a film al­most al­ways guar­an­tees you recog­ni­tion from crit­ics and the pub­lic. She is a favourite of in­ter­na­tional film pro­duc­tions and has played more Man­dela women than every­one else.

“But then she is also some­thing else – a good ac­tress.”

When peo­ple watch A United King­dom, I am cer­tain the whole “Terry Pheto is not a good ac­tress” nar­ra­tive on so­cial me­dia will end be­cause she more than proves her skills as an ac­tress.

It is some­thing that, while it should bother her, she has man­aged to tune out, she told me this week at Anant Singh’s VideoVi­sion En­ter­tain­ment uMh­langa of­fices.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to know what the pub­lic and your peers in the in­dus­try think of you and your skills as an ac­tor. But some­times you need to be se­lec­tive of the crit­i­cism you al­low your­self to be ex­posed to.

“I have cho­sen to tune it out be­cause it hon­estly is a very heavy load to carry – al­ways think­ing about whether peo­ple think you are good enough or not. It’s not healthy.”

One thing I have ad­mired about Pheto’s jour­ney in the in­dus­try since her de­but as Miriam in Gavin Hood’s Os­car-win­ning film Tsotsi 10 years ago, are the moves she has made.

From star­ring in a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional film pro­duc­tions to be­ing a L’Oreal spokesmodel woman for Africa, judg­ing at the In­ter­na­tional Emmy Awards, and win­ning awards for her work as an ac­tress, one would think she had done it all.

But it’s only the be­gin­ning. In 2014 she an­nounced that she was mov­ing be­hind the scenes as a pro­ducer with her Lead­ing Lady Pro­duc­tions, and suc­cess­fully co-pro­duced her first film, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed Ayanda, which was then bought by Selma di­rec­tor Ava DuVer­nay for her film dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany, Ar­ray.

While she is still rep­re­sented by Moony­een Lee & As­so­ciates, she has also been signed by Los An­ge­les-based agency, Paradigm.

It’s true suc­cess that does not come with­out a bit of chutz­pah.

“I think I have never been afraid to fail, that is why I try to be brave by putting my­self out there and do­ing things.

“It takes a lot of guts, es­pe­cially in our in­dus­try, where you are, most times, ex­pected to be happy with where you are or what you have been al­lowed to be a part of.

“But I have al­ways looked at it from the per­spec­tive of me be­ing a case study for fu­ture young fe­male pro­duc­ers and direc­tors on how to do it. It’s the hope that it will be eas­ier for them than it has been for me.

“I have been ex­posed to so much in the in­dus­try, both lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, so I thought why not? I re­ally have noth­ing to lose.”

In A United King­dom, Pheto plays Naledi Khama, the sis­ter of Botswana’s first pres­i­dent, Seretse Khama.

The film tells the story of Seretse and his white wife, Ruth Wil­liams, and the strug­gles they faced from Bri­tain, South Africa and even their own fam­i­lies in ac­cept­ing their in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship.

It stars Bri­tish ac­tors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and is di­rected by Amma Asante.

“It’s such an im­por­tant story be­cause, as much as we knew about Seretse and Ruth, most peo­ple don’t know about the strug­gle they faced from the gov­ern­ment.

“It shocked me just how much of a role South Africa played in mak­ing sure they were kept apart, as well as Bri­tain’s role in some­how keep­ing an al­liance with apartheid South Africa.”

As much as it’s a sup­port­ing role, Naledi is a very key sup­port char­ac­ter in her sup­port of both Seretse and Ruth.

“In the be­gin­ning she ob­vi­ously does not un­der­stand why her brother, who was a chief, would go to school in Lon­don and then come back with a white woman. She’s very hos­tile at first, and even though she is con­flicted about their mar­riage, she loves her brother and soon grows fond of Ruth and sees what her brother saw in her.”

Naledi be­comes a pil­lar of sup­port for the lovers amid all the strife and when Seretse is banned from Botswana for five years, she’s there for Ruth.

“He ex­pected Naledi to pro­tect his wife, which she did. There is a scene where Ruth ar­rives at the su­per­mar­ket and all the black women from the vil­lage are giv­ing her dirty looks.

“Naledi is also there and you can see the strug­gle in her face to ac­tu­ally take a stand and sup­port this woman. She un­der­stood that it wasn’t an ideal sit­u­a­tion for Ruth ei­ther, that she had made a huge sac­ri­fice leav­ing Lon­don to come to Botswana with her brother. That is when she started be­com­ing an ally.”

Naledi Khama died in May this year. Pheto, un­for­tu­nately, could not meet her dur­ing film­ing be­cause she was sick.

“We did try to meet, but we could not. But I had ac­cess to the fam­ily and her friends and I used all of that in­for­ma­tion in my por­trayal of her. She was a pil­lar of strength to them and a hugely in­flu­en­tial per­son in the vil­lage.

“There is a pic­ture of Ruth and Naledi with their dresses blow­ing in the wind. Those lit­tle mo­ments were very key for me. Be­cause they be­came sis­ters and that is how I ap­proached the char­ac­ter.”

At the film’s pre­miere in Botswana, which co­in­cided with the na­tion’s cel­e­bra­tion of its 50th In­de­pen­dence Day, the au­di­ence, which in­cluded the Khamas, were de­lighted with her per­for­mance.

“It re­ally was an hon­our be­ing a South African play­ing an iconic woman in the his­tory of Botswana.

“Play­ing a real per­son is al­ways chal­leng­ing be­cause it’s a very sen­si­tive thing. You can’t mimic them. You take a chance and hope your por­trayal of them is as true as pos­si­ble, with­out it be­com­ing a car­i­ca­ture.

“So I took most of my di­rec­tion from Amma and she gave her more depth than I would have ex­pected. She made her as im­por­tant as the vil­lains in the story and I ap­pre­ci­ated that.”

Pheto said she en­joyed work­ing with Amma and hoped they could col­lab­o­rate again soon. “Ava and Amma are two women who are do­ing great work show­ing other black women what is pos­si­ble.

“I look up to them as a pro­ducer and I study the moves that they have made. I want to be able to stand next to them and be wor­thy. Be an equal. And I can only do that by also cre­at­ing great con­tent.”

She is on her way to do­ing that, hav­ing se­cured the rights to the award-win­ning novel Co­conut, by Kopano Matlwa.

“I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to de­vel­op­ing this film. We’re still in the early stages and try­ing to sort out a script. But I hope that it’s just as, if not more, suc­cess­ful as Ayanda was.”

She is also in di­rec­tor and ac­tor Char­lie Vundla’s new film, Cuck­old, in which she plays his wife.

She’s also in the BET mini-se­ries, Madiba, where she plays Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela along­side Lau­rence Fish­burne’s Nel­son Man­dela. She has now played three women from the sto­ried Man­dela fam­ily.

One of the key rea­sons for her suc­cess in film is keep­ing how she has kept her re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple she has worked with.

“It re­ally is im­por­tant. Our in­dus­try is built on re­la­tion­ships. I doubt this film would have been made had David not had a good re­la­tion­ship with Amma.

He brought her the book Colour Bar, by Su­san Wil­liams, and he thought she should di­rect it.”

Pheto re­ceived a Bri­tish In­de­pen­dent Film Awards best sup­port­ing ac­tress nom­i­na­tion for her work on the A United King­dom.

At the time of writ­ing, the win­ner had not yet been an­nounced as yet. For Pheto, be­ing nom­i­nated at th­ese awards was af­fir­ma­tion of her skills as an ac­tor. “I feel val­i­dated. I feel great be­cause here is this re­spected awards body ba­si­cally telling the world that I am worth cel­e­brat­ing.

“I was so emo­tional when I heard about it, be­cause that day was my late brother’s birth­day.

“He passed on be­fore Tsotsi be­came an Os­car-win­ning film. I feel like I have car­ried him with me and he has pushed me to not be afraid to go for what I want.”

And, as we all know, stars go for ex­actly what they want and they suc­ceed.

And that is why Terry Pheto is a ma­jor star.

l A United King­dom is at cine­mas from Fri­day, De­cem­ber 9, 2016.

Terry Pheto has made her mark.

BIG NAME: Terry Pheto stars in A United King­dom, based on the book Colour Bar by Su­san Wil­liams.

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