Munyaradzi Vomo

With almost every irrelevant local celebrity releasing an autobiography nowadays, it is refreshing to know there are people such as local lass Nondumiso Tembe who have done very well in the arts, yet still prefer to be known only for their craft.

“I am not a celebrity, I am an artist,” Tembe said from her Los Angeles home.

“I went to school for what I do and I do it as a profession. I don’t see why I should be treated like royalty for doing what I love,” she said.

But after appearing in the Emmy Award-winning series True Blood and the much-loved drama ‘NCIS: LA’, where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, who could blame Tembe if she bragged about her notable achievements? Unlike some of her peers back home, she has the resumé to back them up.

But the singer and actress prefers to lay low and concentrate on improving her talents. Our chat was about her latest gig, a role in the original ‘NCIS’.

“It is a tremendous blessing for me because when I auditioned for a role on the show it was for a small part,” she explained.

To her surprise, the show’s producers called her with something else in mind.

“They loved my read for the lawyer part I was vying for. Since the role requires the procedural speak and I have played a lawyer before, I had no difficulty in the audition. But that said, the producers felt I was best off doing another role altogether. It was a much bigger role.

“I play a navy pilot [Lina Pierce] who is accused of murder. There was so much text in there it was very challenging,” she said.

“I enjoyed every bit of it because I got to crash a helicopter and there were real marines on set who taught me things about the army, like how to hold my hat and speak the way they do in the military.

“It was also flattering that most cast and crew members thought I looked great in the uniform, so much so I even joked to Mark [Harmon] that if this acting thing does not work out perhaps I will do the army thing,” she said.

Though Tembe has starred in other international hit TV shows such as True Blood, in which she played a Creole maid named Mavis, the NCIS gig has been the best experience yet for her.

“The cast and crew were so friendly and humble. This is a show that’s been on TV for about 10 years, but the people on the production were patient with me all the time.

“For example, Mark is the best of them. He is unbelievable. He is so humble and when I got there he took the time to talk to me and it was for a long time. He leads by example so there isn’t that Hollywood nonsense of hierarchy,” she said.

On some productions, Tembe explained, people are treated differently, in accordance with their status in the industry. Say, for example, on a lunch break there is usually a hierarchy when the crew go about getting their meals. The “big names” starring in the film dish up for themselves first, while the “less” important folk must wait until they are done. On ‘NCIS’, however, everyone is treated equally and that made Tembe feel at home.

“You stand in line with everyone else at lunch. As actors we have no right to look down on crew members because they work a lot harder than us. If your call time is 5am then it means someone was up two hours before that just to make sure everything you need is ready. You have to respect that,” she said.

Once the actress had her lines down pat, Tembe had the support she needed from her colleagues to prepare for the emotional aspects demanded by the role.

“I remember Cote de Pablo encouraging me to go to a vulnerable place so as to get the actual emotion to portray the pilot. The director was very patient with me and gave me room to improvise. They all spoilt me so much I didn’t want it to end,” she said.

When she is not on the screen rubbing shoulders with the famous, Tembe is making music. Her debut album, ‘Izwi Lami’, did well on the local scene last year and she is often torn between acting in Los Angeles and singing in SA.

“I keep getting requests to come and perform back home in South Africa and sometimes I have to choose and it is not easy. I have one foot in South Africa and another contributing to the arts here,” she explained.

The most recent development in her music career is the release of another music video off Izwi Lami, for the song Black Gold which features rapper Young Nations.

“It is a different and interesting song in that it is politically charged, unlike the other songs,” she said.

The next we will probably see of Tembe will be early next year, when and if she manages to pull together her theatre project which is in the works.

The ‘NCIS’ stint Tembe stars in will be aired later this month in the US and at a later date in South Africa.