It’s 4AM and another golden dawn breaks over California. Mark Tonderai is already awake typing up a script in his home office. He is surrounded by film: his favorite film scores fill the air, to his right is a poster of the movie that brought him a taste of success, House at the End of the Street, and scrawled on three whiteboards are writing assignments, ideas and production schedules for his next projects.
When inspiration is lacking, Tonderai doesn’t have to look far. He simply turns and glances out the window. There, on Mount Lee, stands a symbol that can taunt as the years wear on: HOLLYWOOD.
Tonderai was born to a British father and a Zimbabwean mother, in Hammersmith, London. His parents sent him to Zimbabwe where he completed his education at Peterhouse, arguably one of the most prestigious schools in the country, located near Marondera. After high school he headed back England where he studied architecture, but he knew there was something missing in his life.
“[Growing up] I was always drawing or typing on my father’s type writer. Looking back, I guess I’ve always been creative.”
Back in England, Tonderai applied for numerous jobs in the entertainment industry and landed a trainee-presenter job at the BBC. Three months later, he had his own radio show, The Mark Tonderai Show. It played a variety of music—hip-hop, R&B, classic soul and reggae—to a fairly conservative British audience in the early 90s.
Tonderai wanted more and went into TV. One of his proud acting credits was a role in the highly-acclaimed 2002 action drama, The Four Feathers, starring the late Heath Ledger, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson. Tonderai played an Egyptian orderly.
It didn’t get any easier behind the camera. A frustrated Tonderai felt he was fighting a losing battle and began making plans to go to Hong Kong where he would teach English, earn a solid income and figure out what to do with his life. Overnight, his luck changed.
“My wife picked up one of my pitches, read it and sent it to a competition… before I knew it, I was in production.”
In 2005, Tonderai’s film Dog Eat Dog brought him back to his mother’s land for the Zimbabwe Film Festival. His light skin and British accent puzzled many.
“Many people questioned whether or not I was really Zimbabwean because of the way I look. I had to defend myself… it was quite amusing.”
His road-film-thriller, Hush, which he wrote and directed, came three years later. The film did not do well at the box office but Tonderai was not discouraged. He worked harder, burning the midnight oil, to churn out what was to be his big break, House at the End of the Street. The film starred 23-year-old Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence and grossed over $44 million.
“It was really good for us… Suddenly so many things changed. The film was shown on over 3,000 screens in America and I had to pinch myself.”
Tonderai may be settled in the United States but he dreams of making films in Africa.
“I want to do a film set in Cape Town, based on Roger Smith’s book, Wake Up Dead… It’s is a film I was born to do. I would really like to kick it off early [next year],” says Tonderai.
For the man born in England, raised in Zimbabwe and living in the States he still considers Africa home.
“I always tell people I’m from Zimbabwe, even though I haven’t been there in a long time.”
One of the most important lessons Tonderai has learned on his journey is to leave no room for regret.
“Life is short, you have to get up and attack it. You have to make things happen because very soon you’ll realize that half your life is gone, then three quarters or your life is gone and then it’ll be too late. You’ll think back and remember all the things you wish you had done but never did.”
Things could’ve turned out very differently for Tonderai. He could have been an architect, he could have taught English in Hong Kong, but he took the road less traveled and that has made all the difference. Now he sits in the director’s chair yelling “Cut! Take two,” but he remembers that in life there are no second takes. FL