Tiisetso won the hearts of many local viewers for his portrayal of Ali (Isithembiso), Mandla (Nkululeko) and Dingane (The Herd), but there was a time when he thought his dream of becoming an actor would never materialise.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main Photo by: Otsile Moloto
You can be forgiven if you are not familiar with the name Tiisetso Thoka, but there is no way you can be unfamiliar with some of his roles on TV.
His portrayal of the herdsman, Dingane, on The Herd (Mzansi Magic), Sundays at 20h00, has recieved rave views from fans and is constantly trending on Twitter.
Tiisetso’s breakthrough as an actor came when he was cast as the lead, Ali, on the drama series Isithembiso. He played the part with such grandeur that within no time he was cast as another lead, Mandla, on another Mzansi Magic series, Nkululeko.
With the character, the actor proved that he is no one-trick pony. He swiftly moved from playing a young city criminal to portraying a young closeted gay black man, struggling to come out of the closet. This further solidified his status as one of Mzansi’s young great actors.
But, before Tiisetso became a permanent feature on our TV screens, he went from job to job while trying to crack it in the rife local acting industry.
Unable to ignore his calling for acting, he bravely walked away from a career in law and presenting on YoTV, and embarked on the unpredictable journey of becoming a professional actor.
About two hundred auditions later, rejection proved to be imminent, forcing him to resort to being a bartender, porter, and salesman, in order to put food on the table.
“For a while I had to rely on mediocre side jobs in order to pay rent and put food on the table. I was so depressed. But deep down inside, I knew that one day I would get my break,” he tells Blacklight.
Unlike his character Ali, Tiisetso’ demeanour is quite inviting. He surprisingly has a short stature, but, what he lacks in height, he more than makes up for with his charismatic personality.
Blacklight:When did you first realise that you wanted to be a professional actor?
Tiisetso: I started doing theatre in Grade 3, but my parents did not really understand acting. In Lydenburg, Mpumalanga, we had a community hall where some local artists would do theatre productions. Me and my friend would go to school and then after go to the hall to do theatre – that’s how I discovered my love for theatre.
Eventually, I wanted to move to Johannesburg to study theatre because there were not so many opportunities for performing arts in my hometown. My parents were against the decision, and instead, pushed me towards law, because they wanted me pursue something that would sustain me.
I later moved to Polokwane to do my Grade 8 and 9. While there, I started playing soccer in order to remain active, as I was already used to the routine of going to theatre after school. I became really good in soccer, and professional teams even began pursuing me. However, my father insisted that I stick to the original plan, which was law.
I moved to Johannesburg to stay with my grandmother. That is when I rekindled my passion for theatre. I got an opportunity to work with Kere Nyawo and Thulani Didi, famous for portraying Popeye and Spinach on Zone 14, and actors like Terry Pheto.
I also started going to auditions, and I scored a feature on an Absa Currie Cup commercial. The ad was all over TV. My parents saw it and they were very pleased. Then everything started building gradually from there.
BL:But you still kept your promise and went to study law.
T: By the time I finished high school I was already exposed to the TV industry and I had an idea of how the industry works. That is what motivated me to study law and do auditions and gigs part-time. I also wanted to make my parents happy and proud.
After I completed law, I became a trainee at Europ Assistance for about two years, but it became crystal clear to me that was not the path I wanted to pursue. I told my parents, and since I had fulfilled my promise to them, they accepted my decision.
I trained for TV and Radio at On Cue Communications – which had former trainees such as Bonang Matheba and most of the YoTV presenters at the time. Two months after I finished the training, YoTV had open auditions for presenters and I went. I was hired as the presenter for a soccer show, Action Diski.
BL:You sound like you were quite determined. Did you have any moments of doubt?
T: I had many moments of doubt. I was on YoTV for a while and then I left because I still wanted to pursue acting. I was not in my space, I would say. So I got a new agent and I went back to auditioning.
I went to about two hundred auditions, but I never secured any roles. I was so sad, depressed, and unhappy.
BL:What kept you going during that time?
T: My mother was very supportive because she saw how much I wanted this. Her being able to understand kept me going for some time. My friends would also offer some encouragement on the side.
That period was rough because I was not making any income. But, people like Sello Maake Ka Ncube offered me words of encouragement and that fueled me to keep going.
I believe it’s important to surround yourself with people with a positive mindset so they can help motivate you when you seem to be losing your way.
BL:What was your lowest moment?
T: I was working at some hotel and one of my tasks was washing dishes. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. I did not know what to do with my life and I thought maybe I was not meant for great things. But I had this co-worker who would inspire me to keep my head up.
My mother didn’t have a stable job and so I had to man up and take care of myself. I would look at people my age and I would be envious, because they were having fun while I was working twelve hours a day doing a job I did note even like. I thought I would never be happy again.
BL:What was the most frustrating critique you would get as an actor?
T: “You’re too short.” Whenever I got that critique, I thought maybe I would never make it because of my height.
I would literally go mad when the company would say, “You’re good for this role but the problem is your height.” On the other side it helped me because I looked young for my age, so I was also able to audition for younger roles. Any disadvantage can also be an advantage.
BL:Tell us about the moment you got the ‘Yes’ to play one of the leads on Isithembiso?
T: I just had a cameo on the TV series, Gold Diggers. Bomb Productions held open auditions for the telenovela, and I went. I was so late for the audition and I was sweating heavily (laughs). I finally I got to meet with one of the executives of the show, Angus Gibson, and It was such a unique auditioning process for me.
We sat down and spoke about my life, and in that moment I felt like he truly understood my journey. He then gave me a scenario to play out, I did it, and I went home.
I did not have much hope, but two days later I got the call to play the lead, Ali. Ali was supposed to be killed off quite early on the soapy. That saddened me, but I pushed myself and as a result the audience fell in love with the character. They made so much noise which led to them deciding to keep him. Finally, I had a permanent job and a stable salary after struggling for so long. I was truly happy.
BL: Would you say you have ‘made it’, now?
T: Ever since I can recall, I have always wanted to be a known actor. People might say I have made it, but I believe this is only the beginning – there is still so much that I want to achieve. My main goal is to crack the international market and work with some of the great actors and directors in the world.
I am a boy from emakhaya [rural areas] and when you are on TV, everyday, you get treated like a President. Your family becomes proud of you aswell. It’s only in those moments that I allow myself to take pride in the term.
BL:Viola Davis once said: “A great performance does not happen by accident. A great performance is a lot of elements that culminate, and create a perfect storm.” What are those elements for you?
T: Before I go on set, I remind myself why I do what I do. I ask myself, ‘Who are you? What’s the purpose? What do you want to achieve today? What do you want to say? What is this character trying to say?’ Understanding those questions helps me to show up for the character.
When it’s time to perform, I switch off, and I allow the character to take me where it wants to go. I respect the director, I respect my co-stars and I respect the space. That’s how I make sure I continuously deliver great performances as an actor.
BL: What message are you communicating with the roles that you play?
T: When all the characters add up, I believe they are about being proud of who you are as a person. We should never conform to what society wants us to be.
When I think about my recent character on Nkululeko, Mandla, he was a closeted gay man, but the moment he opened up and came out to everyone, that’s when he became free.
Ali, on Isithembiso, was always doing everything for everybody and in the process neglected himself. When that put him in prison that’s when he decided to start living for himself.
Dingane on The Herd is an open book, and that’s why some people didn’t like him and wanted to get rid of him. So, all the characters for me say, ‘Always be the person you were meant to be.‘
BL:When are you the most happiest?
T: When I am on set I feel so much connected to myself. I am the happiest. You know sometimes, during breaks, I talk to myself and sometimes I catch myself smiling for no apparent reason.
My family also makes me happy. My siblings look up to me and they are always rooting for me – they keep me grounded.
BL:What quote best describes you?
T: “Heredity nothing, environment everything,” – Bessie Head. Which means, it’s the environment we grew up in that shapes us, not our genes.
BL:What’s the next chapter for you?
T: I have a movie coming out and I am excited because I have always wanted to do a feature film. I am still on Isithembiso, but I am also shooting another drama series. I love that being on the show allows me to do other projects on the side, which is why I am with them for the long run.
In the past, I have also dabbled in music. I have managed a few artists from Kalawa Jazmee, including Mshoza. I am a performance artist, it doesn’t matter what medium I use because it all comes down to just being artistic and expressing myself. So, people can also look forward to musical projects in the near future.