Themba Ndaba chats about playing the bad guy, remaining convincing and being a platinum blonde, writes Helen Herimbi.
Themba Ndaba is dressed to the nines. He walks tall in the BEE uniform: a high collared shirt with a suede jacket and pointy club shoes to match. He is wearing the clothes of Austin Ntabele, the newest addition to Zone 14’s characters and a villain with expensive taste.
But he is not in character yet. His smile and intense concentration on a music video proves that. It’s American breakout artist, Wiz Khalifa’s music video. The actor bobs his head to every chant. Black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow. It’s clear he doesn’t know the words to the song but he is enthralled nonetheless.
After explaining to Ndaba who Wiz Khalifa is, I ask him if he likes this sort of music. He laughs and says: “you know what I like about these songs? The sound is so big, it’s almost orchestral.” Ndaba settles back into the gigantic couch and reminisces about when he was around Wi Khalifa’s age.
“I started out helping school drop-outs catch up with their studies,” he begins. “I would help them with English literature and other things so that they could get back into the mainstream with other students.” That’s when – as the cliché goes – the acting bug bit.
But what was it about this art that swayed Ndaba – who studied economics at Harare Polytech in Zimbabwe – from numbers to characters? Ndaba’s eyes widen: “it was the ability to use myself to tell a story. When I started, it was a feeling of ‘wow, I can be somebody else’ and I enjoyed it.” He thinks a little more. “Then the challenge was ‘how do I make this person believable?’ It is still a challenge now.”
Thankfully for drama lovers, Ndaba has been convincing each time. He was believable in Soul City as Zimele, a philanderer who brought HIV-Aids into his family. We believed him as the heart-breaking Amos, a down-and-out man struggling to connect with his estranged son in the award-winning, Hopeville.
And I never forgot his role as a gay hairdresser with platinum blonde hair in Streaks (a sitcom from the 90s) and his signature catchphrase, “deedee dahling.” The actor who has starred in productions as vast as Generations and Cry The Beloved Country laughs uncontrollably. It seems the nostalgia has got the better of him.
“You know, I always used to cover my hair with a hat when I went outside because my hair had to always be peroxide blonde. That character was really flamboyant.” He chuckles some more, “so the hard part wasn’t channelling this gay character, it was walking the streets afterwards.”
Aside from a few gentlemen trying to pick him up, he had no problems playing someone who wasn’t necessarily acceptable in 90s South Africa or playing someone who brought disrepute to his family’s name in Soul City. Even someone whose life was ravaged by alcohol abuse in Hopeville or even now playing Austin whom Ndaba describes as “driven by the love of money and nothing else.”
“The trick,” explains Ndaba, “was that I had to go beyond the necessary to make sure that I was believable. I was trained to act by two people. One of them is Phyllis Klotz (artistic director and co-founder of Sibikwa Arts Centre in Benoni, Ekurhuleni) and in workshops. She would always say ‘I don’t believe you’ if you were acting.”
“I have to believe it myself. Sometimes when I am playing a character, I will ask the lady in my life if this is the way this man would talk, walk or think. You must be able to internalise the character beyond just lines in the script. Are you believable?”
Doesn’t he think that makes him sound a little too hard on himself? He fidgets with the high collar for a moment: “Before, I used to critique myself too much. Back then, I was hard on myself but a bad job is a bad job. If this is what you are good at and passionate about, then you can’t let certain catalysts change the direction of your formula. That’s what I’ve learnt.”
But if the critics are your children, then their opinions are most welcome. Ndaba, who has children with his ex-wife and Generations actress, Sophie Ndaba, looks up, eyes gleaming. “When I was nominated for the Best Actor Award in the Monte Carlo Television Festival for Hopeville, my daughter said to me, ‘Daddy, you’re the shiz niz,’” he beams. The compliment obviously brought more joy to him than any award nomination.
He pauses for a long time and says, “I think Amos of Hopeville is my children’s favourite character.” And don’t tell anyone but it may just be his favourite too. “I enjoyed Hopeville because that man was coming from a very low point in anyone’s life,” Ndaba says, struggling somewhat to find the words. “He was just nothing. I enjoyed going there to bring that character out. I almost understood what it was like to be at that low level. Almost.”
Before this (and the Soul City role), Ndaba had taken a decade-long hiatus from the TV industry to focus on his advertising company, Vutha Advertising. “The company didn’t do well, so we had to get rid of it quickly before it was of no worth,” he jokes.
But now he owns an online branding company called Visual Republic Media. He is also wearing his producer’s hat on a drama series called Mshiya Rider, which is about to go into pre-production.