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VIDEO: A candid chat with Thembi Seete

Her role as Gladys has stretched and established her as a formidable actor in the eyes of the public. The pop culture icon talks about how motherhood has helped her professionally, and being a mentor and mentee on Gomora
Thu, Dec 02, 2021

PHOTO: Thembi Seete Twitter

Thembi Seete sits perched on a black bar stool in the middle of the kitchen which is now her second home. She dons a black Gomora t-shirt with the short sleeves rolled up and carries a purple water bottle which is three quarters full.

We are speaking in whispers because a few metres away from us in the next room the rest of the cast and crew are shooting a scene for the crescendo of the hit telenovela's second season.

It might only be 10am but Thembi has already had a full day. She's been on set since 6am and already done four scenes. "I start my day so early, but I'm used to it now. By the time people are waking up I'm already a few hours in. I think that's one strange thing people don't realise about production. There is no such thing as normal hours."

Although having been on culture-shifting shows like Yizo Yizo, Gaz'lam and Zone 14, she is still a student of the game and is as curious as ever about her craft. While we wait for the crew to finish shooting, we exit the kitchen and stand outside the warehouse which is the Gomora studio, as Thembi paces up and down she talks to me about the bottomless brilliance which is The River.

"Everyone is always so on it on that show. I watch it and the scale of it feels so big, but the acting is so rich," she says. "I'm obsessed with The River and it's the kind of show that makes you look at yourself and push yourself as a performer."

And push herself she does. In Mzansi, nobody has acted better and been more consistent than Thembi as Gladys this year. From her storylines about losing a child, to killing one and being a woman scorned trying to save her marriage, she has oscillated between calm and hysteria, at times in the same scene with strange ease.

"Gladys is such a hard character; a praying woman and she believes a lot in God. It's just someone that I think everyone grew up seeing," she says.

"So that is a good base from which I've been able to work. My task then has been really understanding how a person with that kind of personality will react in the situations that she finds herself in. I am always reaching for honesty."

It's during the quiet contemplative moments, like in the episode where she gets ready to bury her child, flanked by son Ntokozo or when Melusi makes the case for them getting back together, that you can see Thembi's best instrument in full function. It's her eyes. In those moments she might be still but they offer a glimpse into a woman overcome with grief and grappling with sacrificing her independence because her longing for freedom is no match for her desire to be needed.

Thembi tells me that she didn't always feel like an actor but she is happy that now, this is what she is primarily known for.

"For the very first time with Gomora somehow I felt, yes there would be one two people that would mention, 'oh Thembi from Boom Shaka is Gladys', but the rest have forgotten that I'm that Thembi. So, for me that's like the greatest achievement," she says.

"With Gomora, I'm like a proper actor. I've won, I've achieved something that's very important that people have forgotten about me and who I am."

Playing a mother having also become one herself also has something to do it with it she confesses.  "Before I become a mom, I'm a nurturer, I'm a caregiver. The way I am helped shape and build the character but also as you grow and you go through challenges as an actor you sometimes borrow from your own personal experiences. Motherhood and womanhood are not the same thing and I hope that Gladys has given women the strength to stand firm in that truth."

Thembi is aware of the dangers of disappearing too deeply into a role that it becomes impossible to swim back to the shore. To combat this, she's infused her performance as Gladys with a kind of weird comic timing which is fashioned like a beat poem, often placing emphasis on the least important thing.

We laugh with Gladys as much as we laugh at her, she is haphazard, awkward and always striving to extort maximum happiness out of every moment. Her struggle for dignity is not joyless. This desire to affirm life is something Thembi has plucked out of her own life and it's been a meandering road to get here.

Now she is playing a character who's more defined than the ones she's played before. A plucky, witty underdog with a big heart. In a stroke of good luck for Gomora in general and Thembi specifically the question of womanhood, what it is and what it looks like is on everyone's mind and is as urgent as ever.

And as the show's second season draws to a close, the world continues to produce headlines which are eerily similar to the show's imagined reality. I ask Thembi if she thinks the telenovela's primary responsibility is to provide reflection or escape. She pauses for a second before giving a circumspect answer.

"I've never even seen one character coming from Alex that's boring. Alex is a township that's colourful and it's got texture. It's survival of the fittest and everyone is fighting for space. That's why our fans are so invested in our characters because they see themselves in us," she tells me.

"I think that's the most important thing, for people to see that their experiences are not trivial and that they are recognised.

Legacy is often seen as a dirty word, one that's brought up right at the very end of the road. But the meaning of things and the work is something that's been on Thembi's mind for a while, she tells me. On Gomora she lives between two worlds, she is more experienced than some of the younger cast on the show, but also looks up to Connie Chiume who plays Mam' Sonto and is a veteran. She is both mentor and mentee – roles that she takes seriously.

While we shoot the interview, we are with a young woman Motlotleng, who is an intern with a desire to direct when she claps for the first take of the interview, Thembi takes a minute to explain to her how she should do it.

"You need to feel confident in what you're doing and even when you don't, just push through and own it." When we do the second and third takes Motlotleng's clap is louder and she does it just right. "You see, you're doing it, that wasn't so hard," she says, and this is the Thembi you should know.

The one that is always trying to get things right, failing forward and whose career is a reminder that we should all try to live in the way Ingeborg Bachmann pleaded us to in The Thirtieth Year. "Rise up and walk – none of your bones are broken."