Thando Thabethe, a South African actor, auditioned for the main part in a school play while she was in seventh grade. Things didn’t go as planned — she got a little role in the choir, “sort of singing ‘Kumbaya’ and not really doing much,” she laughs — but a flame was sparked. “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.”

Thabethe is now on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong desire. First up is a starring role as Constable Nandi Cele in the crime thriller “Reyka,” an eight-part series produced by Serena Cullen Productions and Quizzical Pictures for the South African pay-TV channel M-Net and distributed internationally by Fremantle. After that, he will play the lead in “Blood Psalms,” an ambitious epic series co-produced by South African SVOD Showmax and Canal Plus International.

These series highlight not just Thabethe’s trajectory as a rising worldwide artist, but also the expanding reach of a South African business primed to make a great jump 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 trait that would propel Thabethe’s budding career as an actor and radio host. Despite her success in comedy, Thabethe leaped at the chance to act in the telenovela “The Housekeepers,” in which she played a daughter seeking vengeance for her mother’s death.

It was a performance that expanded her repertoire — as well as her grasp of her art. “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.”

Thabethe’s association with South Africa’s largest media organisation began with the series, which aired on Mzansi Magic, a network owned by MultiChoice.

“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.”

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 said in an interview.

It didn’t stop her from sneaking out to the movies whenever she could, or applying for a part in “Isibaya,” the flagship show for a new channel created in 2012 by South African media conglomerate MultiChoice. The talent hunt received over 600 applicants, with Mbatha earning a role in a series that would go on to become the continent’s largest daily soap. “It really changed my life, and it changed the trajectory of my career,” she said.

Mbatha’s career is on the rise, with appearances alongside Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s “Coming 2 America” and opposite Bruce Willis in the upcoming 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 programme in order to find out who killed him.

Despite making “the great leap” to Hollywood in 2019, a piece of the South African celebrity stays in South Africa. Mbatha remains connected to MultiChoice; she recently collaborated with the company to enrol two mentees from poor backgrounds in the MultiChoice Talent Factory — a project that provides paid, on-set training to film students — and refers to the organisation 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.”

Acting opposite Willis in director Jesse Atlas’ action-thriller was a new but pleasant 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 said.

Mbatha’s interests extend beyond the screen to her work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency, where she works to offer healthcare and education to refugees and internally Displaced Persons. Activism is very important 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 inspired by the breakout success of British-Ghanaian multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel and her Emmy-winning smash “I May Destroy You,” as well as British actress Lashana Lynch, who plays the first female 007 in “No Time to Die.”

Main Image: Nomzamo Mbatha and Thando Thabetha| Instagram
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