Mom's death turns actor Nelson Ntombela's life around
Rhythm City actor Nelson Ntombela's rags to riches or zero to hero journey is something that unfolds like a character arc in a Spike Lee Hollywood production.
In the past couple of months, Ntombela has undoubtedly become the most hated man on local TV for his portrayal of gangster Chicken in the e.tv soapie.
But, his storyline is a fascinating tale of art imitating life. The 33-year-old actor is in real life a reformed gangster who has done jail time.
"The character is a walk in the park," Ntombela says.
"Growing up wasn't easy because I grew up under the umbrella of gangsters. People used to be afraid of me because of the people I used to hang out with and the things I used to do."
Ntombela strongly believes acting saved his life. He made his debut on Rhythm City a year ago as a prison inmate with no name who terrorised Suffocate (Mduduzi Mabaso) and Sabelo (Ishmael Songo).
He recently made his comeback on the show, bringing more trouble and his character this time had a name - Chicken.
"Whenever I dress, I will always wear clothes with a chicken logo," he says.
"Then when I started attending events I would carry a living chicken. That became my trademark and I trended a lot as a result."
Ntombela started as an extra before his breakout role of Chicken. Before long he had captured the attention of many directors and producers; scoring small roles in Isidingo, Generations: The Legacy and Isithembiso.
He didn't have acting experience, aside from a short stint at The Market Theatre in 2008 in physical acting.
"Acting became a calling for me. It's something I didn't go to school for, but I'm doing it and respect the craft like I have a diploma. Acting is my baby," he says.
Born in Kagiso, Ntombela is the last-born of seven children. By age 16, he was arrested for armed robbery and released a few months later. He returned to prison at 26 for house breaking.
"I was very popular in prison because I knew a lot of gangsters. I know a lot about that life, it became home, but it was not a good place to be in. Most of those people I used to hang out with died, some are in prison and some are reformed like myself.
"When you see so many people close to you dying and getting arrested; there comes a point where you ask yourself am I going to end up like that too?"
He cites the death of his mother as a turning point in his criminal life.
"My parents were pensioners growing up, so there were certain things they couldn't do for me," he says. "The only thing she could do for me, my mother, even when I was in trouble, was be there for me.
"After she died I realised I had nobody . it was time to turn my life around," he says.
"I think my life changed because I welcomed God into my life. Everyone has a gift . You have to find that. It requires time, patience, dedication and believing in yourself."