Acting heritage: Atandwa Kani leads the charge. Picture: Ruphin Coudyzer

The first thing you walk into when meeting Atandwa Kani is the huge smile, then the dreadlocks that seem to swing him happily along, but oops… they’re gone.

He looks more like his famous father, John, without the hair, but there’s a purpose. He is recreating a role that achieved international recognition for actor John Kani many moons ago. And if that’s not pressure enough, young Master Kani is used to being checked on his family connections.

“When I sit in a theatre and watch him play, I marvel, like you, at what he achieves on stage. The man I meet at home, who orders me about and asks me questions about life, is my dad. That’s not John Kani.”

If anything, he believes it ups his game. Does he have a choice?

And sure, doors must have opened for this talented youngster when he first emerged as a Wits drama graduate, but his name was really put out there when he and close friend Nat Ramabulana told stories in a double bill titled ID Pending and Hayani, which blew away audiences because of their writing and acting skills and also the courage involved in putting it on.

Since then, it’s been an upward trajectory for this determined actor, who knows he is living the life he dreamt about.

With three extra souls in his life, fiancée Thembisa Mdoda and twin sons, Lonwabo and Lonwabile, he’s even more driven than before.

“I’ve been blessed with astounding energy, but it was only after the birth of my sons that I realised why I had been blessed this way. It was to be directed at those two.”

It’s changed Atandwa’s life. “I had to take a step back,” he says.

And if he was serious before, now it’s doubled. “I have mouths to feed,” he says.

When he talks about his friendship with Nat, he immediately refers to his friend’s guts. He’s the one that pushes them into these tight corners, scares them to bits.

Nat was also the one who came up with the suggestion of doing The Island and once they started talking directors, the name that surfaced most strongly was The Doc, the name Atandwa uses when referring to his dad in a professional sense.

“We wanted to do it on a big scale,” he says. No pussyfooting about for these dynamic operators.

They organised a meeting, “like the professionals we are”, says Atandwa, and while John was as surprised by the idea initially as Atandwa, in the end it was a slam dunk. How could they not go for it and in this fashion?

When they started production, it wasn’t clear that Atandwa would be stepping literally into his father’s shoes by recreating the role Kani senior did the first time.

“We realised it was the logical thing,” says Atandwa. He has a childlike energy, which works for the character, has a younger appearance than his friend and it made sense.

The process was a much more gruelling one for him than for his partner. Perhaps it’s the pressure, perhaps it’s just personality, but there’s no doubt in his mind that they will get to the point where they want to be and will pull it off.

Getting into the role was tough because while they’re products of apartheid, they weren’t living it.

“We had to allow the experience to come and sit in the body,” says Atandwa.

That’s also what he hopes the younger generation will take away from this. It is a story about our past and it is crucial to understand the grim circumstances many people lived through. But it’s also a story about a friendship, a relationship between two men and how there’s always someone who will take your hand and pull you through.

“There’s always someone who offers a gentler landing,” he says.

Another plus to their friendship was they could move straight into the play: “We didn’t have to spend two weeks getting to know one another. That bond was already there.”

If Atandwa had to hone it down, The Island is a homage, a celebration of the people who gave their lives to change our country.

His next project is in High Rollers, a 26-part drama for SABC 3, written by Luke Rous. The story evolves around three brothers divided. It is a family saga set in the high-stakes world of casino tables, church aisles and behind bedroom doors, involving three pillars of South African society – family, money and religion. It is set to start next month.

Atandwa’s character is a gay choreographer and he’s having huge fun. “I love the diversity of my life and the characters I get to play.”