When art imitates (real) life

Actress Nyalleng Thibedi plays gangster Nkunzi's stepdaughter Zekhethelo on SABC1 soapie Uzalo.
Actress Nyalleng Thibedi plays gangster Nkunzi's stepdaughter Zekhethelo on SABC1 soapie Uzalo.
Image: Instagram

Portraying Zekhethelo on SABC1 soapie Uzalo has affected actress Nyalleng Thibedi personally, forcing her to deal with her painful past.

Born in Rockville, Soweto, Thibedi plays one of the most complicated roles on TV.

In the soapie, Zekhethelo is the stepdaughter of KwaMashu's number one tsotsi Nkunzebovu Mhlongo (played by Masoja Msiza).

Her character has been through an emotional roller coaster - from discovering that Nkunzi was not her biological father to being homeless and becoming a drug addict.

In a bizarre twist, when the new season began in January, Zekhethelo shocked viewers as she returned as a police officer. The new role left social media gobsmacked.

Thibedi defines Zekhethelo as a young woman who grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth, who always strives to be independent from how she was brought up.

In the past few days, viewers have watched as Zekhethelo was abducted by Nkunzi's enemies. Thibedi admits the scenes that she has been shooting have been asking a lot from her emotionally.

"The past weeks' scenes really affected me because if I am to look real for people watching, I have to go through my own pain.

It leaves me feeling different. Some of Zekhethelo's scenes affected me personally because I went through something painful in my life," she said without revealing much.

Thibedi refuses to reveal her age and says she has been using yoga to deal with emotional and traumatic scenes. "It helps me to get out of it. Sometimes I get thrown off a little.

Yoga is good because it is mostly meditation, it takes you to a space where you are the real you away from the world. It forces you to look at yourself.

"At the acting school they always teach you ways to withdraw from the character, but the challenge is when you are on a long-term running show ... you come out of it now and the next morning you are back at it again. But for me acting is therapy.

"Zekhethelo is intelligent and she comes across as strong. She has perseverance and is goal-oriented. One thing I don't like about her is that she is very forgiving."

Thibedi, a qualified chemical engineer, said she was pleased at how Zekhethelo grew from a small role to being in the main story.

Zekhethelo was introduced as one of the small roles but writers extended it due to her impressive portrayal. The actress said she has welcomed all the challenges that come with the character because they were making her grow.

The talented actress said she always loved acting despite being good at science and maths. She said she resigned from her job to pursue her acting dream.

She was so desperate to make it work that she did not care whether she had a scholarship to study at the New York Film Academy or not.

When she lost out on a fully paid scholarship, she resigned from her chemical engineering job, emptied her savings and headed to New York.

She said she had to complement what she had by working at restaurants in New York to pay for her studies.

"I went to New York because I felt people would think I am crazy [by resigning from my job]. I had a degree in engineering after graduating at University of Cape Town.

"I was working at a chemical engineering company but I knew that I wanted to die acting," Thibedi says.

But after returning from New York, she struggled to get a job locally for two years.

Thibedi is also the mother of a young boy.

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