For most of us, our first glimpse of actress Terry Pheto was in Tsotsi, a film that shook any warm-blooded human to the core. In it, a fresh-faced Pheto plays a widowed mother who is forced to care for a baby stolen from its parents. Audiences took one look at the young actress – her large, gentle eyes pleading for compassion, for kindness, for humanity – and couldn’t help falling for her. She was destined not only to melt our hearts, but to be a star.
Gauging by her captivating performance, few would have imagined that Tsotsi was Pheto’s screen debut. In fact, it was the first time she’d been on a film set. Between takes, she says, director Gavin Hood would spend time with the novice actors, teaching them about film-making.
‘I knew the basics,’ says Pheto. ‘But I’d never booked a job and acted in front of the camera before. Gavin was an amazing, nurturing teacher. He made us feel so comfortable. I never felt like I wasn’t a pro.’
Pheto says there’s a certain beauty in having no experience. ‘As a first-timer, you don’t have those insecurities actors tend to have. You have no idea what you’re doing, so you just act. You’re just happy to be acting. So there’s beauty in not knowing. When you are raw and not self-conscious.’
She may have been raw, but Pheto was also hungry to act. ‘That hunger and excitement meant there was nothing that was going to stop me from giving the best performance I possibly could.’
Pheto says she’d long known that she wanted to act. ‘I grew up in Evaton in the Vaal Triangle, and I moved to Soweto to pursue acting. I didn’t have means to go to a formal school, so I joined a community theatre drama school that has groomed many young actors. Some of the top casting directors would come there to look for talent.’
It was there that Pheto was discovered by South Africa’s foremost talent- and casting agent, Moonyeenn Lee. ‘She signed me on the spot,’ says Pheto, who at the time didn’t even know that actors needed agents. She says she’d imagined herself slowly working through the ranks, doing community work for at least another year. ‘I had all these timelines, but I guess God had other plans for me.’
She’d auditioned for other roles and been rejected a few times, so she felt emotionally ready for Tsotsi. And the role of Miriam was a godsend – not only because it would send her on to the Oscars’ red carpet, but because the character resonated so deeply with her.
‘The role was perfect for me,’ Pheto says, recalling scenes that echoed the reality of her own childhood growing up in a squatter camp. One poignant scene involved Miriam carrying a bucket of water while holding the baby. ‘I remember Gavin became very worried. He wasn’t sure if I could handle it. But I said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ve done this many times as a teenager.” Because as a child, I often carried my younger sister on my back while fetching water.’
While Pheto had a frame of reference for Miriam, it was harder to imagine that her very first movie would land her in Hollywood, watching her first Oscars live.
‘Before attending the Academy Awards, I’d never even watched the whole ceremony. I’d never walked such a fancy red carpet. I just kept pinching myself – you’re in a dream, floating. And you somehow know what to do, even if you don’t know what you’re doing… It was kind of like playing a role that I was ready for without having prepared for it.’
In some ways, though, arriving on the red carpet was a fantasy she’d been rehearsing all her life. ‘I grew up with lots of cousins at my grandmother’s house. We didn’t have much, not even a TV. Every night for entertainment, we’d have storytelling time – my grandmother would sit us kids around her and tell us a story. When she was tired, she’d hand over responsibility for telling the story to me. I could imagine myself in these different situations, in worlds inhabited by all these characters. I wasn’t necessarily aware that we were poor, but stories nevertheless allowed me to imagine a better life. So in a way, that’s where my love for storytelling – and acting – began. It was all about the fact that you could become someone else and escape your reality.’
That love of storytelling has stayed with Pheto who, in the wake of Tsotsi, began carving out an incredible career for herself. Aside from regular TV work, she appeared in the political thriller Catch a Fire (playing another character named Miriam), and starred as Zindzi Mandela in the drama Goodbye Bafana.
She got her first taste of working in Hollywood in 2011 when she joined the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful, which she calls an eye-opener. ‘I’d never done a soap before,’ she says. ‘With a film, you have time to work on your character and the story. You shoot maybe six scenes a day. But with soaps you can shoot two episodes in one day. The pace was shocking.’
Pheto says Hollywood taught her about staying fit as a performer. ‘In LA, actors work out every day. Even when you’re not shooting. You take classes, work on your voice and your body, do scenes with other actors, take workshops… You keep training because talent is a muscle that you have to keep training like any other athlete. It’s a lifestyle, not just a job.’
Pheto took those lessons on to the set of How to Steal 2 Million, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress accolade at 2012’s Africa Movie Academy Awards, and went on to play Madiba’s first wife in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. More recently, she appeared in A United Kingdom (2016), for which she won the Best Supporting Actress trophy at the UK National Film Awards, and she played Winnie Mandela in Madiba, a six-part TV mini-series starring Laurence Fishburne.
And in 2018, she starred in the HIV-themed film Faces, which she says satisfied a yearning to revisit her educational theatre roots. ‘When I started to act, I did industrial plays about HIV/Aids. I did that every day for three years. We’d go to high schools and connect with young people. After the shows, the kids would tell us incredible, heartbreaking stories. I remember going home afterwards and crying.’
Pheto continued that work after Tsotsi. ‘I was very passionate about it because I’d lost family members to the disease.’
The opportunity to make the HIV message film came along when she met Joseph A Adesunloye, a British-Nigerian director, in London. ‘I’ve always been very picky with the projects I do,’ she says. ‘As an actor, the first thing you want to do is book a job. But you also want to be part of good projects. I think it’s important to use your time and talent to not just entertain, but sometimes to try and help, raise awareness, even save lives.’ Pheto believes that Faces, which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival in July, is an opportunity to do just that.
‘It’s a beautiful film,’ she says, ‘a work of art dealing with an issue the world needs to pay attention to. HIV doesn’t have a face, but this film shows us that the disease is something that afflicts real people.’
That Pheto has built an extraordinary life for herself is self-evident. She’s graced countless magazine covers, accrued thousands of likes on Instagram for pictures of herself living it up at Coachella, and created a buzz when she showed up to watch Serena Williams at The French Open. The actress – and now movie producer and media entrepreneur – is seldom seen without her glowing smile, and is often dressed in some covetable designer outfit.
Yet, despite being in the public eye, Pheto has been true to her roots, remaining humble and grounded in a commitment to what’s important in life: Time with family, caring for children, and being involved in projects that will make a difference. ‘I think that to be able to live your truth is the highest form of freedom,’ she says. ‘People spend so much time trying to be something they’re not, worrying about things that aren’t important. You need to find something that you care about, something that will give you purpose in life.’
Her secret ambition – a fantasy since she was young – is to be a marathon runner. ‘I don’t know how I’ll start, but they say once you do, you get into it. Right now, running a block is enough. I need my trainer to chase me, but he only comes twice a week.’
Even if she’s not yet running marathons, Pheto says she is exquisitely happy. ‘I’m proud of the woman I’ve become – a strong, resilient, benevolent and kind woman. The older I get, the more I appreciate myself, and love the broken parts of me, the not-so-pretty parts. I’ve never reached a point where I think I’ve reached the top. I keep pushing the finish line, placing new challenges in front of myself, so I can stretch myself. So I’m always looking forward to meeting the Terry I will be five years from now – I look forward to seeing who she’s going to be. I hope I like her, I hope I love her. I hope I’m proud of her.’