South Africas Thando Thabethe and Nomzamo Mbatha Ready to Break Through on Global Screens
Around the time she was in the seventh grade, South African actor Thando Thabethe auditioned for the lead role in a school play. It didn’t pan out the way she’d planned — she landed a small part in the choir, “sort of singing ‘Kumbaya’ and not really doing much,” she recalls, with a laugh — but a spark was lit. “Even just being part of something that small at such a young age is what shaped me, knowing that this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life.”
That life-long dream now has Thabethe poised for breakout success. First comes a star turn as Constable Nandi Cele in the crime drama “Reyka,” an eight-part series produced by Serena Cullen Prods. and Quizzical Pictures for the South African pay-TV channel M-Net that Fremantle is distributing globally. That will be followed by a lead role in “Blood Psalms,” an ambitious epic series co-produced by South African SVOD Showmax and Canal Plus Intl.
Local stories produced for a global audience, both series reflect not only Thabethe’s trajectory as a rising international talent, but also the growing reach of a South African industry poised to make a giant leap in the coming years. “We’re finding ourselves working in spaces and with people that we otherwise wouldn’t imagine ourselves working in,” she says.
Thabethe was only 14 when she landed her first major role in the hit sitcom “My Perfect Family,” acting alongside stars as Lillian Dube, John Lata and Baby Cele. “It was a cast of South African actors that I watched as a little girl, so I sort of knew the gravity of it,” she says. “But I think a beautiful thing about being young is you don’t overthink things.”
It’s a virtue that would power Thabethe through her burgeoning career as an actor and radio presenter. Despite making a name for herself in comedy, Thabethe jumped at the chance to play a starring role in the telenovela “The Housekeepers,” in which she played a girl looking to avenge the death of her mother.
It was a performance that broadened her range — and her understanding of her craft. “I find acting very therapeutic, and I didn’t know that doing comedy,” she says. “It’s only once I started doing the dramas and the thrillers that I started seeing the therapy in it, and how a character can even mold you as a person.”
The series, which broadcast on Mzansi Magic, a network owned by South Africa’s MultiChoice, began Thabethe’s relationship with the continent’s largest media group. “I think the work that they’re doing is absolutely astounding — how they’re able to bring Africa to the world,” she says. “I think it’s so beautiful that they’re recognizing South African talent, and they’re giving it the space to live and flourish.”
That recognition comes at a transformative moment for the South African industry. “I worked in South African television when this was something that could not be achieved,” Thabethe says. “I think a lot of the time we’ve had our stories told by other people. And now, to be able to watch our people tell our stories in such powerful ways — I have goosebumps even talking about it.”
Now Thabethe finds herself preparing to take on the world. Fresh off an audition for Viola Davis’ TriStar pic “The Woman King,” which is lensing in South Africa, she says she’s been inspired by the “elevation of Black productions that has happened in the U.S. over the years,” citing influences such as Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”
But her bucket list as an actor includes working with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, as well. “I’m like, ‘Bring it on!’” she says.
Growing up in a township in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region, coming from what she describes as “not a very privileged background,” Nomzamo Mbatha couldn’t easily admit to her dream of becoming an actor. When she performed in school plays, she kept it a secret from her family; when it came time to pursue a degree in higher education, she chose accounting. “I was a kid who knew from the get-go that she had to make something of her life,” Mbatha tells Variety.
That didn’t keep her from sneaking off to the movies every chance she got, or auditioning for a part in “Isibaya,” the flagship show for a new channel being launched by South African media giant MultiChoice in 2012. The talent search drew more than 600 participants, with Mbatha landing a role in a series that would go on to become the biggest daily telenovela on the continent. “It really changed my life, and it changed the trajectory of my career,” she says.
That trajectory is rapidly rising, with Mbatha appearing alongside Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s “Coming 2 America” and starring across from Bruce Willis in the forthcoming thriller “Soul Assassin,” which tells the story of a former black-ops soldier who takes the place of a man who died as part of an experimental military program, in order to find out who killed him.
Yet despite making “the great leap” to Hollywood in 2019, a part of the South African star remains close to home. Mbatha still has close ties with MultiChoice; she recently worked with the company to enroll two mentees from underprivileged backgrounds in the MultiChoice Talent Factory — an initiative that offers paid, on-set training to film students — and describes the company as “my first family.”
“They really know how to nurture and grow talent. For me, it’s really been a very cultivating environment to be in,” she says. “I know that I’m able to foster different relationships under the umbrella of MultiChoice and under the umbrella of DStv.”
After her success in South Africa, Mbatha admits the transition to Hollywood hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Shooting “Coming 2 America” was a “daunting” task, she says, because of “the bigness of the film, the legacy of the film, being surrounded by Hollywood royalty.” But it emboldened her, too, as she constantly reminded herself “that you’ve worked hard and you deserve to be here.”
Playing across from Willis in director Jesse Atlas’ action-thriller presented a different but welcome challenge. “It’s important for me to be able to play in different roles, to show my range and to show what I can offer as an actress,” she says.
That range extends to Mbatha’s interests off screen, where she serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency, working to provide healthcare and education for refugees and IDPs. Advocacy plays a key role in her life. “I think it’s important for us to be able to have something to say about things that are affecting us as human beings,” she says.
Mbatha is encouraged to see how borders are coming down and the world of film and television is growing smaller, citing as inspiration the breakout success of British-Ghanaian multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel and her Emmy-winning hit “I May Destroy You,” and British actor Lashana Lynch, who’s plays the first female 007 in “No Time to Die.”
“For me, it gives me hope that I don’t have to sound American to be a successful actress in Hollywood. I don’t have to look American to be a successful actress in Hollywood,” she says. “It’s really just a great time to be recognized as Black talent and to be given equal opportunity. In the past, the opportunities were just not there.”
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