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What the queen of media has to say about being in one of SA's most popular shows

After almost 25 years in the industry, Kuli Roberts took up a role on The Queen as a seductress. However, the pandemic had other plans. How did she pull off those steamy scenes with level 4 lockdown regulations in full effect?
Thu, Dec 24, 2020

To be completely honest, I loathe being the centre of attention, but we won't get into that as nobody believes me. But, when I was offered a role on The Queen, one of the most popular shows in South Africa, I was over the moon. Obviously, this was months after begging Connie Ferguson for some work for a few months – I should be embarrassed but I don't make the planet's rules.

I finally got the role of Mildred – the seducer of young Thato, who loved it. What a sexy storyline, I was on cloud nine and single – so maybe I would get kissing scenes to ease the cobwebs. I received my scripts weeks before shooting, nervous and scared, I learnt them and prepared for each day which started at 6am and ended at 6pm.

I learnt them because I did not want to halt a shoot because I had forgotten my lines. I had other scenes to shoot and I was grateful to be in such a high calibre show loved by so many. I was no longer Nomakula but Mildred – who happened to have so much in common with Kuli – which made it easy for me to relate.

I had shot a series before in 1996 and to say I was rusty was an understatement as Aba Kwazidenge was nothing like the efficiency of The Queen. It was like an assembly line, everybody ready to create magic without loitering or bickering.

At 6am, upon arrival we would be tested by paramedics [for Covid-19 symptoms] and grab our packed breakfast for health regulations. I gained about 6kg as the meals were abundant and presented in take-away containers for safety reasons.

The craft ladies were like younger sisters and a great help with script rehearsing. After breakfast it was off to make-up and hair where a glam squad made me look rich and appealing instead of the goat herder look I had been sporting during lockdown level 4.

After a character-ready face beat, I would be ushered to my dressing room with my name on it. Yes, I took 300 selfies next to that door – I was proud. As soon as I was dressed, I would be given details regarding my scene, prepare for it and go off to shoot it. There was no messing around, loitering and gossiping, just a bunch of focused actors. All there to work, so I followed their lead.

The directors were gentle and generous, not cocky or arrogant, while giving great notes to improve the performances. I must say I was glad when I did not fluff but also knew that it was a part of life to reshoot a scene, so with their warmth, I got on with it.

Of course, acting with the boss Shona [Ferguson] was daunting, but he too was generous, calm and kind, which ensured I was too. We did not do more than three takes, which was impressive considering all the different angles and that it had been decades since I acted. In a day, I would shoot about six scenes with a stellar cast who guided and supported me when I had dumb questions – there were plenty.

But I had some regrets about shooting The Queen as I wanted kissing scenes and had spent days exfoliating my lips and getting ready for some smooching, but Covid-19 said, "no!". We had to social distance while I was trying to seduce him and it was tricky, but I was working with gurus, so I was in safe hands – even if they were far from me.

I liked Connie [Ferguson] and was on Strictly Come Dancing with her years ago – that's why I had the audacity to ask her for work – but I watched my step as this was now my employer. I spent hours wondering where she was in that huge mansion but kept it cool as I liked it there. I just wanted to thank her and after two weeks of shooting I finally spotted her while shooting a scene and she came to say hello. Gracious and model-like, I felt dwarfed and encouraged to do my best, but not be overly familiar with my boss.

This was after the exit of some popular characters, and social media was alert and ready to pounce. It had been a tense period of folk lamenting about their issues, but we had work to do and our business to mind, so got on with it.

I must admit that the experience was great as I learnt to always work on the craft and to remember that brilliant actors like Warren Masemola are there for a lesson or six.

Oh, reciting my lines out loud confused folk who thought I was talking to them, which I found amusing. The other actors were welcoming and I felt no negative vibes. Xolani Mayekiso, who plays Thato, was a sweetie who genuinely thought we were going to kiss: he had that look... or maybe it was the cold mornings. He is a great actor, a sweet gentle teddy bear who promised to call me… but I will wait.

I loved my on-screen daughter Warona and was happy to be paired with such a talented and studious thespian. The rest of the cast was warm, kind and equally supportive when the jargon seemed like Spanish and I must say they made my first telenovela a breeze.

I think if anyone wants tips about the industry, just do as Brenda Ngxoli once said and "continuously work on your craft". I have some tips too: Respect all the crew irrespective of position and definitely stay in your lane. It's a job like any other and you don't want to seem like a fan but an employee.

Obviously being Kuli, I gave about 12 people unsolicited gifts, I watched SK [Khoza] and [Loyiso] MacDonald act as if born in Stratford-upon-Avon and I wished I was that confident.

The change room with my name on the door was tweeted 45 times and made me feel like a star, at last. My experience on The Queen was exciting, riveting as it boosted my confidence and made me realise I could entertain folk by acting too.

With a great cast and crew and I was so proud to see how far we have come as Black people since I was on Aba Kwazidenge when the crew was lily-white with the occasional black grip or sound guy. This time we had black and white directors and a crew that reflected the demographics of the country. I was working for a black-owned, efficient, well-oiled machine and it felt good.

I am in a telenovela currently sipping non-alcoholic champagne in Zimbali, longing to share another lover with my on-screen daughter. Thanks for the gig guys, you really are doing the industry proud.

(I loathe being the centre of attention as I don't want to disappoint.)

  • Catch The Queen on Mzansi Magic (channel 161), weekdays at 9pm