From Tokyo to LA, this fall guy is on a roll
Dancer, teacher, police trainer: BIANCA CAPAZORIO crosses swords with stuntman Sensei Ndlovu. Pictures by CINDY WAXA
ACTOR, dancer, choreographer, stuntman, teacher. You name it, Sensei Thulani Ndlovu can do it all. Oh, and he speaks Japanese too. You would be forgiven for thinking that Sensei is his martial arts title, but actually, it’s his real birth name, printed in his green barcoded South African ID. So how does a 100 percent South African, born in Durban, land up with a history in martial arts and a name like Sensei? It’s a matter of genetics, really. His father studied martial arts, and so did his six brothers. Sensei was the first-born, hence the name.
“Sensei is made up of two parts, Sen meaning first and Sei meaning birth, so it translates as First Born. My father studied martial arts and when my mom was pregnant, he was talking to his Japanese friend about what to call me, and he suggested Sensei,” he explains.
And through the years he has lived up to his name, taking up karate at the age of eight, originating his own martial art, becoming a teacher – Sensei is often used in Japanese to refer to somebody who teaches. He teaches stunt work to third-year drama students at City Varsity and can hold a conversation in Japanese.
“I learned Japanese out of passion. For me, being able to count from one to 10 in karate class wasn’t enough. I wanted to do a little bit more, and I’m passionate about Japanese culture,” he said.
An FNB Vita award-winning dancer, Ndlovu, who now lives in Observatory, fell into stunt work through a series of lucky coincidences. Working as a full-time dancer in Durban, a photographer friend told him about a Sinbad series which was due to start filming, for which they needed a stunt double. Ndlovu compiled a CV, and a few months later was invited to audition.
“At the audition I had to do all sorts of physical tests like climbing up ropes. They did auditions all over the country and in Toronto as well. I didn’t hear from them again, and then six months later I got the call that I got the job.”
The job entailed intense training in martial arts, high falls, rolls and weapons’ use and health and safety practices in Toronto, before two years of filming.
After that, Ndlovu hit the big screen. Stunt work and acting roles followed for a number of local and international series and films. These included big motion pictures like Lord of War with Nicolas Cage and King Solomon’s Mines with Patrick Swayze. He’s worked on the hit series 24 and has worked with big names like Keifer Sutherland, Steven Segal and Wesley Snipes.
While “humbled” by the experience and the actors’ respect, he says he has absolutely no plans to pack his bags for Hollywood.
“This is home and the skills I have to invest and share, I want to share here. It’s easy to complain and to pack up and leave, but what have you done to try to change the way things are?”
Ndlovu has been investing his talents in South Africa since his Dimensional Stunt School opened its doors in 2002. He says it was the first stunt school to open in Africa.
It was an idea that had been in the pipeline for years, and which Ndlovu worked tirelessly to get recognised. He wrote all the policies and procedures surrounding stunt training himself.
“There was this core of about 15 guys that I always used to work with.
“They travelled all over doing stunts because there was no one else. There are not a lot of black stunt performers in this country, but no one had the time to put down the hours to train new guys.”
Ndlovu took on the job, picking students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but says his idea was initially not very well received.
“I went to the education department with this idea to train guys, but they thought I was mad. They looked at this idea of teaching guys to kick and punch and fall off buildings and asked, how is this an education?”
The school has since been recognised by the education department and has been successfully turning out qualified stuntmen and women.
Earlier this year, the Bree Street building that housed Ndlovu’s school burned down, destroying all its uninsured stunt equipment – but he is surprisingly Zen about the whole experience.
“They say that when one door closes another opens, and maybe it was meant to happen. We couldn’t insure the stuff because it is very difficult to insure training equipment, with all the wear and tear. But we’re training somewhere else now.
“I got the contract to train the Metro Police, so everything has turned out okay.”
HEAD OVER HEELS: Drama student Inge Frolicks learns how to stage a fall.
WHEN I SAY JUMP: Precious Nyawuza takes a flying leap.
CROSSED SWORDS: Ndlovu takes on City Varsity drama student Allan Murray.
GIVING IT HIS ALL: Sensei Thulani Ndlovu becomes passionate when talking about his job.