With the release of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, we chatted to SA actress Terry Pheto – who plays the role of Nelson Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Mase – about getting the part, working with Idris Elba and Naomie Harris and (with such a busy schedule) finding time for boys!
GLAMOUR: How did you get the part in the film?
Terry Pheto: Like most actors I had to audition to get the part. I knew how big this film was going to be and the importance of the subject and the story. I also knew that being part of it was going to be a very big deal. I went into that auditioning room armed and ready to kill it.
How much research did you have to do in order to play the role of Evelyn Mase?
We were lucky enough to be presented with lots of material – documentaries to watch, stuff to read – and we had the chance to have one-on-one sessions with a number of the researchers who worked on the film. They have been working on this film for more than 16 years, so there was plenty of material we had access to. But, for my part specifically, it was fairly difficult because there isn’t much information on Evelyn Mase and she’s really not that well known.
Did you try and make the character your own because of this?
Well I spoke to one of the main researchers who had interviewed Evelyn a number of times. We spent the day together talking about Evelyn, so through her (the researcher) I got a sense of who she was. But obviously what I had heard from this researcher was from a journalistic point of view and wasn’t really that personal.
I also got the chance to meet some of the family members. I actually spent a bit of time with one of her granddaughters, Ndileka Mandela, who she raised from the age of two. Through her I got to know the woman, the mother, the grandmother: the person who I was acting as in the film. Added to that, as an actor I had to make my own choices: who do I make this person? It was a great opportunity for me to create this new character because nobody really knows what she looked or sounded like.
Playing the role of a person who is deceased must have been quite difficult due to the fact you couldn’t relate to her?
I was very worried because I had never met her and there wasn’t really anything that I could relate to so that I could mimic her mannerisms. For example Madiba has the voice and the walk – and Winnie does, too – but with Evelyn’s it was all about what went through her mind and how she felt. I had to make my own choices as a woman and put myself in her shoes. After the premiere I was very happy because I met up with her family and her granddaughter and they thanked me for playing the part.
So they were happy with the way you portrayed her?
They were really happy and they told me that I played the part with such dignity. Evelyn was a very dignified and soulful person. She was a Jehovah’s Witness – very kind and soft-hearted. I really hope I did her justice.
In terms of the script did you have much room to play with it or was the director fairly strict?
When it comes to the script in most movies I guess it depends on which director you work with. For us, Justin Chadwick was an amazing director. I would describe him as an actor’s director because he cares about your performance and your thoughts, too. Yes in a way we had to stick to the script so that you don’t rewrite everything. We had an amazing writer who had done so much before this film – we had to respect that and get the content right. However, there is always room to play around with your work with a director who cares about actors – there’s always room to bring your own dynamic.
What were the highlights for you while you were shooting the film?
Besides the fact that being a part of this is the highlight of my career and meeting Nelson Mandela was the highlight of my life, for me it was bringing my life and my career together into one project. It’s such an important film and working with Idris Elba was amazing. He’s an amazing performer, actor and person.
Well we think that Idris Elba is gorgeous…
Yes he’s hot! He’s also really nice which makes him even more attractive. He really is a great catch.
What was Naomi Harris like?
She’s an absolute darling. We didn’t have too many scenes together – actually we only had one scene. We met each other and she’s genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met. And the fact that we didn’t have many scenes together meant that I new her as Naomi Harris not as Winnie Mandela because I was never on set performing opposite her. So it was knowing her and seeing her performance; trying to make sense of the two.
What was the atmosphere like on set; was there much pressure?
I think individually we had our own pressures, especially if you work on such a big production. But there was never the kind of pressure when someone’s always on top of you. To be honest we were like a family, and I guess the subject of the film helped, too. The spirit of Madiba was felt throughout the production. It was always fun and easy. Everyone was in it for the same reason.
How do you think the South African audience will receive the film?
Honestly I think that everybody should get a chance to watch the film. For me as someone who was born in the ’80s, someone who remembers a bit about Apartheid and who remembers when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it really answers many of the questions that I had. The film closed wounds that I had no idea I ever and was a kind therapy for me. I hope that it inspires people to do better and learn from a man who was actually never perfect and who wasn’t a saint. Madiba never wanted to be portrayed that way. I hope this movie sends a message to everyone who watches it.
What was it like attending the various premieres around the world – you visited America and Canada and you were brushing shoulders with some of Hollywood’s elite – was it daunting?
It was so great to be apart of that and to represent South Africa. It wasn’t really daunting because you are aware of what it means to be an ambassador for the country; you embrace it. It was great because when there were questions that Naomi Harris wasn’t able to answer I was able to step in and help her explain. It was fun, too. As an actor that is the only time you get to have fun – you get to do your hair and your makeup – and on set we don’t get to look like that.
So when you get time off how do you usually spend it?
I love to travel and I love photography. I’m also a very girly girl, so I love to go shopping and watch movies. I’m also a great cook and I love holding dinner/lunch parties.
And are you dating anyone at the moment?
I am so committed to my work right now and I feel like it’s taking so much of my time and I don’t even think about other things.
So for you it’s work first, boys later?
Finally, where to from here?
It’s actually quite scary. I mean what do you do after working on such a great movie? I’ve read a couple of scripts, but I’ve had to ask myself: should I do another international movie, or should I do something small? I’m still toying with idea of going back to TV which I haven’t done in a while. I really miss TV because it’s a different aspect altogether. However, film is my first love but I try to balance the two. Watch this space!