Pearl's wisdom

Pearl’s wisdom

Proudly South African Pearl Thusi is making a name for herself in the US.
By Lauren Shapiro

It hasn’t been an easy journey to get to where I am,’ says Pearl Thusi. ‘People who aspire to live their dreams should realise how much hard work and dedication it takes – and what a thick skin, too.’ Born in KwaZulu-Natal, 29-year-old Thusi is doing us proud across the Atlantic, but I’m lucky enough to catch her for 30 minutes at the Mother City’s poolside Stella Café and Bar. She’s staying upstairs at Southern Sun The Cullinan on Cape Town’s Foreshore, on a quick trip home before jetting back to the US for the LA Film Festival where her new film, Catching Feelings, is making its global premier.

She orders water, but as it’s sundown and I don’t fancy drinking alone, I press her into a cocktail. ‘Okay, a cosmopolitan,’ she says. Why? ‘It’s sweet, but it’s got the right amount of vodka and a twist of lime. Much like me – genuinely sweet by nature, but knows when to hit back. And it reminds me of Sex and the City,’ she chuckles.

MODEL DAUGHTER

Thusi’s distinctive beauty has helped her make her mark. As a child, however, she was frequently taunted for being different. ‘Kids used to call me all sorts of names,’ she recalls. ‘They would tease me for being a tomboy, for my skin tone, my height – you name it.’ When she was 13, Thusi’s father thought modelling might boost her self-esteem, so he convinced her to give it a try. ‘And boy, did it work!’ she laughs.

Shortly after, Thusi won Miss KwaZulu-Natal; at the age of 15, she was crowned Miss Teen SA First Princess. ‘I thought: “Great, I can actually do this!” All of a sudden, I was okay with being the tallest, lightest kid and looking different to all the others. My confidence levels were skyrocketing.’

This confidence soon got her on to local screens, with roles on shows such as Isidingo, Jacob’s Cross and Zone 14. ‘I have always believed that I could act,’ Thusi declares. ‘I mean, modelling taught me to work with the camera, and modelling is acting, just static.’ Her natural vivacity has also earned her numerous presenting jobs, notably on SABC1’s The Real Goboza and e.tv’s Lip Sync Battle Africa. But soon, she was itching to try movies.

LOOK OUT, HOLLYWOOD

Thusi’s first big international film saw her battling giant man-eating graboids in Tremors 5: Bloodlines. ‘Auditioning was nerve-racking,’ she confesses, but with the help of some of her actor friends she made an audition tape, and got the part. ‘It was a dream come true,’ she says. ‘I played a wildlife vet and super-tough tomboy African tomb raider – the two things I’d always wanted to be while growing up! And, to top it off, I got to do that alongside some of the best Hollywood actors, like Michael Gross.’

More recently, Thusi starred in Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, released in March of this year. She was nominated for Best Actress at the local RapidLion Awards for her role as Mahlangu’s girlfriend. The film captures the story of a township schoolboy who joins the liberation movement after the Soweto Uprising in June 1976. Thusi puts down her cosmo and looks me straight in the eye: ‘Kalushi is a beautiful story that needed to be told by South Africans to the world. The way the story translates, the script, the acting … it’s world-class and I’m humbled and proud to have been a part of such a project.’

FEELING LUCKY

I’m becoming aware of passers-by whispering and pointing in our direction, but Thusi takes it all in her stride as she continues to give me her undivided attention, telling me about her most recent film, Catching Feelings, which is making its world debut in LA in a few days’ time. In this romcom noir, Thusi’s character’s life and marriage get turned upside down when a celebrated and hedonistic older writer moves into her Joburg home. ‘I’ve been hoping to work with Kagiso Lediga for a while now,’ she says of the film’s writer, director and lead actor. ‘I love his vision and his work ethic. I believe in Africans telling stories that are their own and evolving with the times. It’s about time that African film represented itself – not only through performance, but through production and funding too – and I’m really proud of what Kagiso is doing.’

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

When American producer Joshua Safran saw Thusi’s work, he asked her to send in an audition tape for the role of lawyer-turned-CIA-recruit Dayana Mampasi on the second season of thriller series Quantico. He signed her up at once – making her the first South African to have a recurring role on the hit series. ‘Dayana and I aren’t very similar, although we share the experience of being young ladies from Africa having to adjust to a new city,’ she says of her character.

Thusi now makes frequent trips between SA and NYC, but ‘South Africa will always be my home,’ she assures me. I ask if it’s difficult to maintain her proudly South African identity in the melting pot of cultures in New York. She smiles and answers confidently: ‘I believe you can always learn more about yourself by learning about other people. The irony is that I learnt more about Africa and Africans when I was in New York… Your heart is open when you’re not on home ground. You find home in other people, and you learn to be not just tolerant, but eager to learn and celebrate other people’s cultures.’

When in New York, Thusi spends much of her free time in Central Park and Jamaican diner Miss Lily’s, where the food reminds her of home. In general, she says, the cooking and quality of food is better in SA: ‘I don’t take South African food for granted any more!’ Thusi says she’s excited to see African fabrics and style, as well as the natural-hair trend, being appreciated overseas. ‘What’s sad is that the globe had to love it before South Africans decided to participate. Africa is being sold as a tourist trend; we should represent her as a powerful force.’

TAKING ON THE WORLD

Thusi is full of hope and faith in the women of Africa, and of the world. ‘The sooner women hold hands, the stronger we will be and I honestly believe it will be better for the world. I’ve learnt this through working with women in my industry, and also through Black Pearl,’ she says, referring to her haircare line founded with Ntombenhle Khathwane of AfroBotanics and entrepreneur Jennifer Bala.

As the sun fades, the hotel’s lights flick on and I know my time with Thusi is nearly up. I ask her about her goals for the future. Her eyes glint like the light across the surface of the pool. ‘Talk is cheap,’ she says firmly. ‘My life doesn’t offer a trailer … it’s a stage, and you need to rock up to see the show.’

Well, in that case, sign me up for front-row seats!

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