GOING VIRAL: Fana Mokoena in his authoritative role as Deputy General-Secretary Thierry Umutoni, shares screen-time with Brad Pitt in World War Z.

Sometimes understated roles lead to big breaks. That has certainly been the case for South African actor Fana Mokoena, who can now brag about working with A-list actor-turned-producer Brad Pitt in the apocalyptic horror, World War Z. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with Mokoena to find out what it was like being on set.

FANA Mokoena, 42, became a household name as Dr Mandla Sithole in SABC1’s flagship soap, Generations. But he was astute enough to break free of the shackles of the genre to explore other TV series (notably The Lab, Yizo Yizo, Going Up the first and second, Crossing the Line, Egoli, Flat 27, Khululeka 2 and 52 Regent Street) as well as several films and plays.

Mokoena has been relishing his time in Hollywood with roles in politically charged movies like Hotel Rwanda and Country of My Skull as well as Machine Gun Preacher and Safe House.

Interestingly, it was Marc Forster, the director of Machine Gun Preacher and World War Z, who suggested Mokoena for the role of Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni in World War Z.

“We did a feature shoot here in South Africa and I played John Garang,” he says. “We spent a whole day looking at the scene we were doing – it was one of those scenes that needed tweaking – and it gave the director an inkling of my work.

“When they were looking for the character, he (Forster) said he thought about me.”

The actor says his initial reaction was sheer disbelief. But they started shooting in September 2011.

“I went to the UK to shoot for the first batch,” he says. “We shot in Scotland, Budapest and Hungary – quite a number of locations.”

In the movie, which is adapted from Max Brooks’ novel of the same title, Umutoni calls on the services of his old friend Gerry Lane (Pitt) after a zombie outbreak threatens to wipe out humanity.

“I had a lot of leeway in terms of how I could interpret the character,” he says. ”So I looked at people like Thabo Mbeki, Kofi Annan… the level-headed, intellectual political figures. And that was the direction I took.”

As for working alongside Hollywood giant Pitt, he says: “Whether we were shooting together or not, he was always on set. I got to seem him as a human being. We got to chat about South Africa. He told me about his experiences in Cape Town and Namibia. We spoke about (Nelson) Mandela and politics.

“I have followed his career throughout and I now got to also see him as an artist,” Mokoena laughs. “He is an interesting sort of hands-on person. He doesn’t shy away from work.”

Mokoena admits the role provided him with a great opportunity. “The more universally recognised we (South Africans) are, the better. I think we are recognised in South Africa but we’re limited in terms of our (global) audience.

“While we are looking to capture the market on our continent, it is also important to explore the international market.”

He says the New York premier was interesting. “There were three types of people. There were those that read the book and expected the film to be the same as the book and were completely disappointed. They failed to see the film as a separate entity. We got very interesting reviews. And there were those that, when there were problems with production about a year ago, came with that pre-emptive perception it would be dead on arrival. They have been pleasantly surprised.

“Then you have those that are open-minded and they thoroughly enjoyed the film and the zombie saga,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mokoena says he is making the most of his window of opportunity. “I need to do the rest of the work. The people at World War Z have been very helpful in trying to open doors for me as well.”