‘I’ve always had big dreams, but I’ve been blessed beyond my expectations,’ says Terry Pheto, actress, role model, face of L’Oréal and … storyteller?
‘My grandmother was an amazing storyteller and, because we didn’t have TV at home, she would tell stories every night. I would recite them to my friends the next day and I think that’s where my love and passion for storytelling started,’ recounts Terry.
It’s a passion that’s seen her move from a little town in The Vaal to a shack in Soweto, on to Oscar glory with the Tsotsi cast and now an exciting new acting challenge in Los Angeles.
‘I didn’t want to wake up one day and think: I could have been somebody.’
Do you remember your first ever role, when the acting bug bit?
We did a school play when I was in primary school. I was so happy to be chosen, and I remember thinking, ‘This is cool, I can definitely do this’. But growing up I went to a township school and there wasn’t a drama class or anything like that, so we started acting after school. We were just a bunch of kids messing around, but I took it more seriously than anyone else.
Were you already inspired by films at that age?
The first movie I saw that really blew me away was e’Lollipop. The fact that it was a South African movie really connected with me. I’d seen other movies before that, but I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. I want to be a part of this, that’s what I want to do as well.’ And when I saw Leleti Kumalo in Sarafina, I realised it was possible, even for a woman.
You achieved exactly that with Tsotsi. How do you feel about the film now?
It’s still the most important moment of my career. It was my first acting experience ever in front of a camera, so it will always be special to me. I remember I was so emotional on my first day on set. I was so happy, and so scared, and so anxious. I don’t think anything has topped the success of it yet for me.
Were you surprised by the film’s success?
Funnily enough, I always knew we were doing something special. I really had a feeling that the movie was going to change so many lives and that it was going to be huge for me. Obviously I didn’t think we were going to win an Oscar or anything like that, but I knew we were on to a winner.
What is your lasting memory of going to the Oscars?
It’s one of those surreal experiences – there’s so much happening, I don’t think the TV cameras are able to pick up everything for people watching at home. But for us the excitement was just being there and hearing people screaming: ‘Tsotsi! Tsotsi!’ as we were walking the red carpet. They were rooting for us, they wanted us to win.
You’ve gone on to star in films such as Hopeville, Goodbye Bafana and Catch a Fire. What do you look for in the characters you choose?
I’m not afraid to be vulnerable and I’ve shown that side as an actor, but now I just want to have fun and challenge myself as an artist. I did a film called How to Steal 2 Million last year (it’s coming out in July) and I play a badass. I saw the film for the first time the other day and I thought, ‘Oh my word, I didn’t know I had it in me.’ Another thing is I don’t judge my characters – I will tell the story the way it is supposed to be. I think the blessing as a storyteller – and as a woman especially – is to have so many emotions one can go through to express strength. One of them can be vulnerability, which some people see as a weakness but I don’t. The beauty we have as women is power, and the ability to affect others is a blessing.
On the subject of beauty, you’re also the face of L’Oréal…
It’s another blessing in my life, another highlight. Very few people can mention L’Oréal on their CV so I’m really, really grateful. I don’t see myself as an ambassador for the brand only – I’m an ambassador for the country and for other women as well, especially for young girls who grew up in the townships with absolutely nothing, so they can see it is possible to achieve your dreams.
How do you feel about being a role model?
I’m aware of it but I’m not putting on an act so people can follow something I’m not. I’m as real as I am and I think people can see that. And if I talk to young girls, I always encourage them to look for someone closer to them, who they can talk to on a daily basis, as a role model. But I also make sure I set a very good example, because some young girls don’t have anyone to look up to, and they look up to me, so I have to take on that responsibility.
Who are your role models?
There are people who I really look up to as an actor and as a woman, including my mother – I think she’s amazing. My grandmother was also a phenomenal woman. I have cousins and friends who I really admire for the way they handle certain situations. So I’m constantly looking up to different people for different reasons. It’s very difficult to pick out one person as my role model because each and every person is unique. I think people should just take what works for them and then let go. For example, I don’t know her personally but I admire Hilary Swank because her commitment to the craft is really inspiring.
What does the immediate future hold for you?
There are some exciting things happening very soon – I’ve got a huge offer in LA. I’m really happy about the opportunity; I really hope it will put the country on the map and make history again. And for me, as an actress, I think it will be a fun challenge to take on. It’s something I really never thought would happen, but it did, and I thought, ‘How do I say no to this?’ It’s a new chapter in my life and hopefully it will open even more doors for other South Africans as well.
- This article originally appeared in Equinox, the official magazine of the Tsogo Sun hotel group. (Image: Aubrey Jonsson)