The many faces of Winnie
Pheto’s dream role
Terry Pheto is the first South African actress to play struggle icon Winnie MadikizelaMandela. She will star in a six-hour miniseries titled Madiba, set to be released early next year. And she has big shoes to fill – not only Madikizela-Mandela’s, but those of actresses who have previously played her: American Jennifer Hudson and the UK’s Naomie Harris.
“I think when you have a dream, it scares you sometimes. This is my dream role. It’s a role I’ve always wanted to portray,” she says.
Pheto will star alongside US actor Lawrence Fishburne, who will play Nelson Mandela.
The six-hour miniseries is based on two Mandela books, Conversations with Myself and Nelson Mandela by Himself. The story tells of the younger man in the early 1960s, dealing with the political violence that engulfed South Africa.
Madiba will also feature other Mzansi actors: Katlego Danke, Hlomla Dandala, Sdumo Mtshali, and Pallance Dladla. Pheto says the Madikizela-Mandela story needs to be told. “It’s about time for this icon to be recognised and her journey acknowledged.”
For Pheto, this is not just any role. Playing MadikizelaMandela has made her grow both as an actor and a person. She admits that before she knew she would get the role, she was already attached to the character.
“I’m very lucky to be doing what I love. I’m successful because I work hard. When people see your success, they think you’re lucky, but there’s a lot of work, dedication and sacrifice,” she says.
“But there is no greater blessing than waking up every day and living your dream.”
Madikizela-Mandela is famously derisive of international actresses portraying her. So does Pheto have her blessing?
“Mandela’s grandson Kweku Mandela is the executive producer of the miniseries. So we’ve got all the blessings from her,” she says. Kweku is the grandson of Mandela’s fist wife, Evelyn. Pheto was unable to spend time with Madikizela-Mandela because she has not been well for the past few months. She says she was fortunate to meet her in person in the past.
“I feel like I’ve spent time with her because, growing up, I knew her political work through my grandmother’s admiration of her, and she was the only role model I had.”
Madikizela-Mandela, she says, is a big influence in most women’s lives.
To prepare, she says, she read Madikizela-Mandela’s book and the letters she wrote to Madiba. She also watched documentaries and interviews with her from the 1960s.
“I was fortunate to have enough material to work with,” she says, but adds that it’s always hard to play someone who is alive – and so well known.
“You always want to make sure you don’t try to mimic the person, but tell her story as sincerely as possible. One of the hardest aspects to nail is her voice. “I could never mimic her; there is only one Winnie Mandela. I can just try to tell her story the best I can and the way I understand it. But we do have a dialogue coach who makes sure we are consistent,” she says.
Pheto prefers not to be compared with Naomie Harris and Jennifer Hudson – her intention was never to play the role better than anyone else.
“What gives me an advantage is that I’m a South African and I understand the essence of what makes a South African. These are unique things other actors didn’t have.
“I took this role with my heart; I have so much respect for Mam’ Winnie. There are very few people I looked up to and she is one of them. Playing her made me realise how she survived everything she went through.
“You cannot help but admire her spirit and courage, and how she remained poised.”
Pheto says what affected her most about MadikizelaMandela’s life was how lonely it was for so long.
“The only time she saw people was when she was harassed by police. You can imagine as a young bride, your husband is in prison and you have to raise two children alone. I don’t know how many women can survive that.”
Terry Pheto WELL PLAYED US actress Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela