Strike while the iron is hot – this maxim couldn’t be more true for Vusi Kunene. On the back of his exit as business magnate Jefferson Sibeko from SABC3’s Isidingo, he has bagged a key role in the hottest soap in town now – Mzansi Magic’s Isibaya. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with him to chat about his floor-crossing…

THE true strength of an actor is derived from their ability to play different roles with such conviction that it is never overshadowed by anything they have done in the past.

Of course, in the soapie realm, where typecasting is a sad reality – a case in point being Sophie Ndaba (Queen Moroka from SABC1’s Generations) or Katherine Kelly-Lang (Brooke Logan from The Bold and the Beautiful) – this isn’t an exploit without challenges.

Yet Vusi Kunene has been able to negate those obstacles.

Despite his many years in the industry and his upper-echelon status, Kunene has retained his unassuming nature. He speaks with such confidence and clarity that you immediately understand why creatives favour him for their powerhouse characters, with a ruthless and authoritative edge.

The veteran actor explains why he believes his soap characters have won over buffs over the years, dating back to his bad-ass days as Jack Mabaso in SABC1’s Generations.

“It is about caring about my work and my role. I get really involved in the development of my character. I prefer for people to like, follow and appreciate them. When people say, ‘I hate you!’, I know it is about the character. That says a lot,” he notes.

As for the transformation in the build-up of his array of menacing characters, Kunene continues, “You know, starting from Jack, he was just mean. He didn’t care for anyone. Then there is Jefferson, who is more of a family man who loves his work. And he is conflicted by all those things. Then you look at Bhekifa (Ngubane), who is a combination of Jack and Jefferson.

People say I play the same role. I think Bhekifa is a step ahead of the mean and strong characters I have played – he carries all those characteristics.”

On how he came to bag the role, Kunene says, “Well, it was through my agent, who looked around for stuff. When they (The Bomb Shelter) found out I was available – they invited me. I went to see Angus (Gibson) and we talked about the possibility of me playing Bhekifa. After that we kept consulting about the character and my ideas.”

It deserves to be pointed out that the latter is a privilege not extended to many actors. But Kunene, who has been in their other production, Yizo Yizo, was granted such a liberty – something he is grateful for.

To expand on his character, Ngubane is a self-made scrap metal mogul, who is also the proprietor of a nightclub. Behind those snazzy suits, charming mannerisms and a refined palate for all things luxurious, is a man not to be toyed with. He wields a lot of influence and, as such, his path crosses with the soap’s other commanding figure, Mpiyakhe Zungu (Siyabonga Twala).

Kunene elaborates: “He is a successful man. But he has a lot that he needs to settle. There is a lot he needs to work on. He has got enemies and will grab at anything to hit his enemy (where it hurts). The opportunity to become chief is one of the weapons he is using to get the revenge he wants.”

Bhekifa facing off with Mpiyakhe is a tantalising prospect for viewers – this is the first time Kunene and Twala are sharing screen time.

He explains: “You know, we all have artists we really want to work with, but sometimes it never happens. We have been on the same production before but not really alongside each other. Now we are. It is one of the greatest things to have happened in my career.”

Amid the new characters and worlds created now that the award-winning telenovela has been expanded into a daily soap, Bhekifa’s family includes Zweli Ntshangase (played by Andile Gumbi), his son from his first wife, with Sibusisiwe Jili cast as Bhekifa’s gorgeous and ambitious mistress, Zanele.

Like with most powerful leaders, especially when they have such deep footprints in the underworld, Bhekifa has a right hand-man, Blade, played by Jeffrey Sekele.

On working with the industry newbies, Kunene says: “It feels like I’m being honoured with them saying, you have been here, here are newcomers you can take care of and guide. I think they (Gumbi and Jili) are doing fantastically well. I appreciate when we work, they don’t seem intimidated.”

In fact, off screen Kunene and Gumbi still cling on to their father-son bond.

Having shot his last scenes for Isidingo in December, he says, “I miss playing Jefferson, I was very connected to him. I will miss being on Isidingo, the crew and the Sibeko family.”

Settling in rather well on his new turf, Kunene says, “I think the storyline of Isibaya is brave. They talk about things that affect us every day. There is always an element of surprise.”

He teases: “Viewers must expect trouble from an angle. Not from the east or west but from the middle.”

Looks like this Jack of all Machiavellian trades has quite a few aces up his sleeve. Then again, that is what makes the Godfather-esque Kunene so legendary.

• Isibaya kicks off as a daily soapie from tonight on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 161) at 8.30pm.