Terry Pheto learned the art of storytelling from her grandmother. Now she stars in some of Hollywood’s biggest stories.
If you close your eyes, you may remember this. It was a historic moment for Africa’s film industry. For the second time, a South African film stood a chance to win an Oscar. Millions anxiously glued to their TVs, crossing fingers in hope. With a white envelope in hand, American actor Will Smith took to the stage. Without hesitation, he announced Tsotsi as the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award in 2006.
The Kodak Theatre in Hollywood was packed with the who’s who of America’s film industry. You could see Terry Pheto, a newcomer in the industry who played Miriam in the film, clap her hands and sigh in relief as director Gavin Hood accepted the award. History had been made and Pheto’s life was never to be the same.
For Pheto, this was a world away from the streets of Evaton, the township 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg, where she was born on May 11, 1981. Here, she found her love for acting.
“My love for acting came from the love of storytelling. My grandmother was the best storyteller and I looked forward to story time every evening. My cousin, Siya, even nicknamed me storyteller because I also started telling stories like my grandmother,” says Pheto.
It didn’t end there.
Pheto says she knew she wanted to tell stories for a living. At the age of 20, she left home to study acting in Johannesburg. It was tough. She lived in a shack until she was 21. One day, while acting in community theater, she was discovered by Moonyeenn Lee, South Africa’s casting agent extraordinaire.
With a talented agent by her side, Pheto thought the road to stardom had finally arrived, yet she went to audition after audition for over a year and had no job.
“I had roles that had been offered before but they never worked out. Sometimes the filmmakers would decide to go a different direction,” she says.
She was ready to pack her bags and go home when she received the script for Tsotsi.
“I am thankful that I trusted the process because I feel like God wanted me to be in Tsotsi which was my first film and was massive for my career. I was introduced to the industry by the right project.”
It was the perfect role for Pheto. Miriam is an attractive, young, single mother. She lost her husband, who was murdered on his way home from work. Despite her pain, she maintains her dignity and runs a small sewing business to support herself and her child.
It marked the rise of who many see as the leading lady of film in Africa. Everyone wanted a piece of her talent. International roles quickly trickled in.
In 2008, Pheto joined the list of beauties endorsing L’Oreal. It set her as the first South African face for the cosmetics giant. She then left South Africa to try her luck in Hollywood. It was the right decision. She landed a recurring role as Dr Malaika Maponya on The Bold and the Beautiful, an American soap opera watched by 35 million people every day.
“I got a call from the SABC and I thought it was a joke… Because I didn’t audition for the role, the role was given to me… It was such an honor to work with people who have been doing this for such a long time and being chosen was dream come true for me,” she says.
Pheto says working on a soap was a culture shock. She was used to films where there is more time to work. On a soap there are multi cameras and everything is done at lightning speed.
Her acting career was progressing just as quickly.
In 2017, Pheto also became the first South African to play Winnie Mandela, a character that has been played by American singer and actress, Jennifer Hudson, London-born Sophie Okonedo and Naomie Harris, an award-winning Cambridge University educated actress. These are big shoes to fill, but Pheto nailed the role in the miniseries, Madiba.
Pheto says she always felt like she knew Winnie Mandela, even before she met her because of how people admired her. In preparation for the role, she read books and watched interviews and documentaries of the struggle icon.
“Playing Mam’ Winnie Mandela has always been my ultimate dream. She is powerful and remains a beacon of hope considering all she has been through. …I have met her before but Mam’ Winnie hasn’t been too well so I couldn’t spend time with her to prepare for this role. There is no greater blessing than living your dream. I am very lucky to be doing what I love,” she says.
At home and abroad, this leading lady always steals the show. Hard work mixed with talent has won her more awards than we can count.
This September, she added two international accolades, at International Achievement Recognition Awards (IARA Awards) in London, to the list. She was the biggest winner of the night bringing home the Best Actress 2017 award for her role in A United Kingdom, and the Best Actress TV/ Drama 2017 for her role in Madiba.
“Both A United Kingdom and Madiba portray very important stories. Seeing these stories travel globally has been a beautiful journey. It has been an absolute honor to be in a position to have played strong characters in both roles. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for example is one of the strongest women I know. I’m in awe of her strength and resilience after all she’s been through. She inspires me to believe that I can overcome any obstacles or challenges in life and still remain human, kind and unshaken,” says Pheto.
A United Kingdom depicts the true story of Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president. Pheto plays his sister, Naledi Khama, alongside British-Nigerian actor, David Oyelowo, known for playing Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 awarding winning movie, Selma.
Oyelowo is not the only international star Pheto has worked with. Among them, she counts Idris Elba on Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
“It was fun working with Idris. He is very humble and very talented,” she says.
Pheto says her mind is always working in overdrive. It means she can wear many hats. In addition to her successful career in front of the camera, she is also an entrepreneur.
“I knew it is important to also be behind the scenes and know what happens there. I am able to produce and also act and do other things. You just have to surround yourself with the right people.”
Ten years after Tsotsi, Pheto produced her first film under her production company, Leading Lady Productions. The production company has just finished working on a short film shot in Los Angeles.
“I am working on developing enough content. There is a library of scripts I am going through for next year,” she says.
There is more.
This year, Pheto and her best friend, actress Mampho Brescia, cofounded, Let’s Learn Toys, an educational toys company to help prepare children to be leaders. Although not a mother yet, Pheto says, in a statement, she is a devoted aunt who tries to give children around her more than she had growing up. The company has 2,000 different toys for children between 12 months and 18 years.
Surely, there should be a secret to this success?
“One thing I learned from a very young age is to be humble and always respectful. These are the principles my mother and grandmother taught me and they were right because people can see through you. Working hard and everything else just adds to that,” she says.
Clearly, this is not the last we will see of Pheto.