Terry Pheto

TERRY Pheto is a star. As in a big deal. It is only when you see the people she has worked with, who have sought her out for her talent and star power, that you realise that she is a pretty big deal.

In a story about South Africa’s top film actresses, I wrote: “When it comes to star power, Terry has it in spades. She is one of the most famous South African actresses and the film studios know this.

“Signing her up for a role in a film almost always guarantees you recognition from critics and the public. She is a favourite of international film productions and has played more Mandela women than everyone else.

“But then she is also something else – a good actress.”

When people watch A United Kingdom, I am certain the whole “Terry Pheto is not a good actress” narrative on social media will end because she more than proves her skills as an actress.

It is something that, while it should bother her, she has managed to tune out, she told me this week at Anant Singh’s VideoVision Entertainment uMhlanga offices.

“I think it’s important to know what the public and your peers in the industry think of you and your skills as an actor. But sometimes you need to be selective of the criticism you allow yourself to be exposed to.

“I have chosen to tune it out because it honestly is a very heavy load to carry – always thinking about whether people think you are good enough or not. It’s not healthy.”

One thing I have admired about Pheto’s journey in the industry since her debut as Miriam in Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning film Tsotsi 10 years ago, are the moves she has made.

From starring in a number of international film productions to being a L’Oreal spokesmodel woman for Africa, judging at the International Emmy Awards, and winning awards for her work as an actress, one would think she had done it all.

But it's only the beginning. In 2014 she announced that she was moving behind the scenes as a producer with her Leading Lady Productions, and successfully co-produced her first film, the critically acclaimed Ayanda, which was then bought by Selma director Ava DuVernay for her film distribution company, Array.

While she is still represented by Moonyeen Lee & Associates, she has also been signed by Los Angeles-based agency, Paradigm.

It's true success that does not come without a bit of chutzpah.

“I think I have never been afraid to fail, that is why I try to be brave by putting myself out there and doing things.

"It takes a lot of guts, especially in our industry, where you are, most times, expected to be happy with where you are or what you have been allowed to be a part of.

"But I have always looked at it from the perspective of me being a case study for future young female producers and directors on how to do it. It's the hope that it will be easier for them than it has been for me.

“I have been exposed to so much in the industry, both locally and internationally, so I thought why not? I really have nothing to lose.”

In A United Kingdom, Pheto plays Naledi Khama, the sister of Botswana’s first president, Seretse Khama.

The film tells the story of Seretse and his white wife, Ruth Williams, and the struggles they faced from Britain, South Africa and even their own families in accepting their interracial relationship.

It stars British actors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and is directed by Amma Asante.

“It's such an important story because, as much as we knew about Seretse and Ruth, most people don't know about the struggle they faced from the government.

“It shocked me just how much of a role South Africa played in making sure they were kept apart, as well as Britain's role in somehow keeping an alliance with apartheid South Africa.”

As much as it's a supporting role, Naledi is a very key support character in her support of both Seretse and Ruth.

“In the beginning she obviously does not understand why her brother, who was a chief, would go to school in London and then come back with a white woman. She's very hostile at first, and even though she is conflicted about their marriage, she loves her brother and soon grows fond of Ruth and sees what her brother saw in her.”

Naledi becomes a pillar of support for the lovers amid all the strife and when Seretse is banned from Botswana for five years, she’s there for Ruth.

“He expected Naledi to protect his wife, which she did. There is a scene where Ruth arrives at the supermarket and all the black women from the village are giving her dirty looks.

"Naledi is also there and you can see the struggle in her face to actually take a stand and support this woman. She understood that it wasn't an ideal situation for Ruth either, that she had made a huge sacrifice leaving London to come to Botswana with her brother. That is when she started becoming an ally.”

Naledi Khama died in May this year. Pheto, unfortunately, could not meet her during filming because she was sick.

“We did try to meet, but we could not. But I had access to the family and her friends and I used all of that information in my portrayal of her. She was a pillar of strength to them and a hugely influential person in the village.

“There is a picture of Ruth and Naledi with their dresses blowing in the wind. Those little moments were very key for me. Because they became sisters and that is how I approached the character.”

At the film's premiere in Botswana, which coincided with the nation’s celebration of its 50th Independence Day, the audience, which included the Khamas, were delighted with her performance.

“It really was an honour being a South African playing an iconic woman in the history of Botswana.

“Playing a real person is always challenging because it's a very sensitive thing. You can't mimic them. You take a chance and hope your portrayal of them is as true as possible, without it becoming a caricature.

“So I took most of my direction from Amma and she gave her more depth than I would have expected. She made her as important as the villains in the story and I appreciated that.”

Pheto said she enjoyed working with Amma and hoped they could collaborate again soon. “Ava and Amma are two women who are doing great work showing other black women what is possible.

“I look up to them as a producer and I study the moves that they have made. I want to be able to stand next to them and be worthy. Be an equal. And I can only do that by also creating great content.”

She is on her way to doing that, having secured the rights to the award-winning novel Coconut, by Kopano Matlwa.

“I’m really looking forward to developing this film. We're still in the early stages and trying to sort out a script. But I hope that it's just as, if not more, successful as Ayanda was.”

She is also in director and actor Charlie Vundla’s new film, Cuckold, in which she plays his wife.

She's also in the BET mini-series, Madiba, where she plays Winnie Madikizela-Mandela alongside Laurence Fishburne’s Nelson Mandela. She has now played three women from the storied Mandela family.

One of the key reasons for her success in film is keeping how she has kept her relationships with people she has worked with.

“It really is important. Our industry is built on relationships. I doubt this film would have been made had David not had a good relationship with Amma.

He brought her the book Colour Bar, by Susan Williams, and he thought she should direct it.”

Pheto received a British Independent Film Awards best supporting actress nomination for her work on the A United Kingdom.

At the time of writing, the winner had not yet been announced as yet. For Pheto, being nominated at these awards was affirmation of her skills as an actor. “I feel validated. I feel great because here is this respected awards body basically telling the world that I am worth celebrating.

“I was so emotional when I heard about it, because that day was my late brother’s birthday.

“He passed on before Tsotsi became an Oscar-winning film. I feel like I have carried him with me and he has pushed me to not be afraid to go for what I want.”

And, as we all know, stars go for exactly what they want and they succeed.

And that is why Terry Pheto is a major star.

l A United Kingdom is at cinemas from Friday, December 9, 2016.