In many ways, the entertainment industry is a fickle one. As much as we as the audience love, and love to hate, the people we see on the screen, our curious human-nature always yearns to peek behind the curtain. Also, as much as we love to see our favourite stars rise, we are not averse to being equally fascinated by their fall. There are, however, a few actors who have gone above and beyond merely surviving the industry’s pitfalls but have literally made it their business to thrive. One of them is Thapelo Mokoena.
I met with him on the “Broken Vows” production set. He was a tad late, but one cannot fault a man who puts everything on hold for the sake of his family. As he takes his seat he tells me that he had to go see his son who was in the hospital at the time, fortunately, doing just fine. “I am the father that I knew I wanted to be and had to be”, he says, with a deep sense of pride. This outlook, he points out, is not necessarily intended to offset any of his experiences with his own father, who was a busy businessman. “He lived a different dynamic, he had two wives” he continues. This dynamic meant contending with a strict mother who kept him and his four brothers on a tight roster that ensured that housework was done. A story that is the testament to his mother’s strength and resilience is the tale of how his mother was not able to make it all the way to the hospital to give birth to him. Instead, Thapelo Mokoena was born on the side of a road, under an Ukhamba tree. He has a tattoo of the tree on his leg.
Elaborating on the lessons that he has learned from the previous generations of fathers he says that, “I told myself that showing up will be my number one thing. Presence will be my number one thing.” The socio-economic realities of the previous generations meant that many fathers would be away from their families for long periods of time. This was not only seen as necessary, but it was deemed noble. To this, he counters, “I will not work on every single project that is put in front of me.”
You don’t get to the level that Thapelo Mokoena is at without honing your ability to choose your projects into a veritable skill. He exercised this skill when he dropped out mid-way through an accountancy course at Wits in his younger years. With a phone call, he told his parents, all the way back in KZN that he wanted to rather study acting. With this move, he demonstrated a trait that has served him well in his career; merging his passion for the screen with acute and resourceful business acumen. Not only did he tell them he wanted to quit accounting to instead study acting, but he also sweetened the deal for them; by committing to pay his first-year fees himself. How? He had already landed a lead role in a Sprite ad. Only then were his parents convinced enough of his own conviction to continue paying his fees.
This foreshadowed Thapelo Mokoena becoming one of the most recognised brand ambassadors in probably one of the longest running brand ambassadorships in the country. He has been Hunters Dry’s beloved “Chinas, China” for nine years straight, a title that he has now relinquished, gladly so as he felt that the role was beginning to alter his brand. While the rest of us may hold humorous memories of those ads of him downing a sweaty green bottle in the middle of a desert, Thapelo Mokoena is distinctly aware of the brand equity that he carries with him. “For a brand to own that much of a person’s identity, they’d have to be paying a lot more”, he says. Also, what we don’t know is that he was actually involved in the creative process of some of the work in those ads.
There is a way in which Thapelo Mokoena talks about a business career and an acting career that makes it seem like he is talking about the same thing. He envisions his brand in the same way he inhabits a character. He alludes to consciously crafting his brand both in acting and in business as one built on a reputation for efficiency and consistency. “When you come to set prepared, you save people money”, he says. “That’s when they ask ‘how much do we need to keep him?'” To further illustrate the fluidity in his approach of treating his acting career as a business, he mentions that he picks roles not just for the story or the character, but also according to an overall vision of what ‘season’ he is in his life. “I will not do romcoms”, he says, “I’m done with that.” He feels that he has played roles that gave the audience certain expectations and now wants to explore different characters, “the disheveled guy, I want to get into roles where I can grow out my bolding head.” Instead of merely giving his audience what they enjoy, he wants to dig for a deeper, more visceral connection.
While we were talking, a guy with a clipboard came by to inform Thapelo Mokoena that they were going to shoot his scene soon and that he had to go into make-up. I took it as an indication that our chat was over… Instead, Thapelo Mokoena turned to me and motioned that we go into the make-up room to continue there. At one point, he was making a phone call, while getting his makeup done, and conducting an interview with me, and he did all of this without ever seeming neither distracted nor distant.
The phone call was regarding his mobile cinema that basically takes movies to the hood, it’s called Kasie Movie Nights and has been running for several years now. It is an initiative that aims to “grow an audience” for the local film industry. This, he says, is where the gap is in terms of some of the challenges facing the local productions. He has seen his fair share of challenges moving from big-budget films such as Drum, a role he landed while still a student, to his own production company’s Skyf. It was a project that did not fare well compared to some of his more glamorous work, but, he says, “it taught us everything we know about film-making.” In many ways, it was an ode to his never-say-die attitude that saw him get up from a real life hit and run accident and come up with a movie script inspired by the incident.
I ask him how he defines success and, with a straight face, he answers, “I’m not successful.” In the brief time that I had spent with him, this response was not surprising in the slightest. He has a relentless sense of humility. But it’s not the self-deprecating type of humility that shies away from one’s achievements. Rather, it is the kind of humility that strips away the gleam of major strides and presents them as mere facts. The reason he feels that he is ‘not successful’ is not based on a sense of failure, but rather a ferocious appetite to achieve more. It is a hunger, and he is not careless in how/what he feeds.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Thapelo Mokoena functions like a well-oiled machine, but he is wearily aware of the industry’s tendency to take advantage of artists, “because we have the fire and the drive.” Yet, “it is important is important to put systems in place… especially on your home front.” By this, he means making sure that first and foremost one’s family is taken care of. This involves practical steps such as setting schedules for even the most intimate of life’s moments with his wife and son.
Far from being a machine, he is more of a body of work. He is intuitive in how he treats/deals with people, be it directors, partners or colleagues.
He breaks down fatherhood as an immutable process of “presence, touch, hugs, the tone of voice… it is like getting into a character.” So intrinsic is his love for acting that you feel that he is always acting. This is not to imply a kind of pretense but rather; that he has chosen his role in the world and more importantly, it is a role that he is writing himself.
Writer: Vus Ngxande Photographer: Judd van Rensburg Stylist: Mpumi Sinxoto Copy Editor: Kabelo Sono Creative Director: George Gladwin Matsheke