Photography by David Blaq | Styling by Lesego Kgosimolao | Makeup by Kutlwano Segale | Production by We Are Seven |
Once in a while in this industry, but only very rarely, you meet celebrity performers who surprise you.
Almost always, in spite of all the necessary research beforehand, the interviewer and their subject usually already know how the interview is going to pan out: there will be some pleasantries to begin (warm-ups), followed by a rally of questions and answers that yield very little that's new and, before you know it, the meddling net cord (usually a publicist) intervenes to try to settle the tie.
Just like tennis, there can never be a draw – the meeting must produce a winner. The audience demands entertainment. That is to say, a cover story must help peel back a subject's layers.
Frequently, a cover story is a reproduction of an Instagram feed than an enlightening read, in which the interviewee has remained somewhat mysterious and the only character to emerge victorious is the stylist or art director.
When I meet Mduduzi Mabaso for dinner on the eve of this cover story interview, I'm surprised by how retiring he is for someone who's also oh, so direct. Similarly to many characters he's played over the years, including Bra Elliot in Mzansi Magic's new crime drama DiepCity, there are very few grey areas with him.
In fact, he could be considered brusque and too blunt for the industry he's in – where talents are expected to be genteel and to steer clear of controversy.
In fact, as he sips on his water and digs into his steak and veggies, he says something so unexpectedly churlish about a journalist he once met at an event that the dinner table is stunned into silence – until Fatima, his 'wifeager', like a net cord, intervenes.
"That's obviously off-the-record," she blurts out, and like an air release valve, we can all breathe again.
The pair are rarely seen apart and are first to arrive for the shoot the next morning at a studio in Strijdom Park, Johannesburg. If she's a glass of bubbly, he's an aged whiskey. He is enigmatic, yet charming. He doesn't give much away, and you will never hear a guffaw come out of him, but you will know he is having fun or that he approves from an eyes-only smile of sorts. There's an upward pull of his cheeks that reassures you that he doesn't hate your company. Whew!
"I love meeting new people now," says the father of four, as he gets ready for an outfit change and a make-up refresh.
"I wasn't always like that. Early on, I used to come to work, shoot my scenes and then jump into my car and head home. I couldn't even hug people. I think my wife, Fatima, helped me become a more rounded person because she's been in the industry for a minute herself."
It's a very young crew working on this shoot and occasionally there's a slight generational mismatch in energy. To help the 46-year-old grootman acclimatise, the music is changed from the For Broken Ears EP by Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems to throwback hits by Trompies, Mandoza and TKZee.
Immediately, there's a loosening of shoulders and a visible softening of his face.
"Mara, ungahleki, jo!" teases Fatima (the pair met on a set some 14 years ago). If love and tonnes of patience are a prerequisite for parenthood, then he possesses a fair amount, having fathered four (Njabulo, Zolile, Ntokozo and Nompumelelo) between his previous marriage and his current.
It's that indefatigability that has sustained his career – not to mention, this shoot. Mabaso has been a trooper throughout the test shots, wardrobe changes and calls about unanticipated DiepCity call-times, which gets me wondering whether there has ever been a role or scene he has turned down because it clashed with his beliefs or values.
"I don't think there has ever been a role that I rejected because it made me uncomfortable.
"I believe we [actors] have a calling that we are not always appreciative of. We can be healers of people and their marriages and households because of this job. You become everything to people," he says. "But if you do not respect the craft and the privileged position it affords us, it will also humble you."
Mabaso maintains a self-effacing and gracious, but quietly ambitious outlook to life and work – regularly saying he's only achieved "2.5% of my dreams", and "I never want to feel like I've arrived", and saying he's been "blessed" enough to have roles written with him in mind instead of still going to auditions.
It wasn't always the case, of course.
Before landing roles in Hollywood blockbusters Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond, and before he became a primetime television staple, he had to regularly borrow taxi fare to go to auditions for roles he never landed.
It was vindication for a family that never approved of his passion – apart from his nephew, who would take taxis from home in Alexandra to the Market Theatre in Newtown to watch him on stage (he has appeared in productions including Cry, the Beloved Country, Madiba Magic, Shaka Zulu, and Divide and Rule).
He says of that dark period: "I didn't watch TV for a very long time because I was quite angry. I was hungry for work and I was jealous of a lot of actors. I wondered when my blessings would arrive because I'd sat around for something like seven years."
Eventually, after borrowing yet more money for transport so he could go and confront the late Moonyeenn Lee, his then agent, about a lack of opportunities, his career changed forever. Lee sent him for an audition in Marlboro in front of Don Cheadle for Hotel Rwanda.
He's been working ever since and has collected two from three SA Film and Television Awards (Saftas) nominations – not to mention the adoration of a countless number of viewers.
Now, he plays the devilish Bra Elliot in the pulsating DiepCity, which explores the struggle of four young women who were forced into crime while in high school, just to make ends meet. The cast includes Dawn Thandeka King, Nozuko Ncayiyane and Hamilton Dhlamini. It's gritty and stark, and that's just how he likes it.
The Mandla N-helmed DiepCity is filling the 8.30pm daily slot on Mzansi Magic which, for eight impressive years, was monopolised by Isibaya – the glut of awards and viewership numbers attest to its acclamation. No pressure, then.
"There will always be pressure, but I think people will relate to DiepCity. I relate to it, I understand those guys and I've seen them. I know the depth of the story.
"I was convinced to take this role because I like the way Mandla N [producer and director] works," he says. "But I also joined because we do not have shows like it in this country. A lot of telenovelas that have come out in recent years show a lot of people in suits and in boardrooms and in estates. If we're committed to edutainment, we must reflect the lives of people on the ground too."
Ultimately, the only "playing to the crowd" that Mabaso does is while on stage, because everything else is a distraction. Once in a while in this industry, but only very rarely, you meet celebrity performers who surprise you.
- Catch DiepCity on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 161), weekdays at 8.30pm
Production Company We Are Seven Producer Thato Sithole Production Assistants Washington Nyanda, Wellington Nyanda, Ntokozo Mguni Videographers Henry Hansen, Nathaniel Ledwaba Photographer David Blaq Art Director Chelsea Pitt Wardrobe Lesego Kgosimolao Wardrobe Assistant Bongiwe Masina Make Up Artist Kutlwano Segalo 3D Artist Nathaniel Ledwaba