Exclusive: We talk to Terry Pheto – South African actress on a mission to tell Africa's stories

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South African actress Terry Pheto has been making quite a name for herself ever since she starred in Tsotsi back in 2005. Since then she has gone on to bigger and greater things and starred in several international films like Catch A Fire, A Long Walk To Freedom and even starred in Bold and the Beautiful. However, she remains a true South African at heart and is equally dedicated to starring in local films and TV productions and telling African stories.

And next up for her is the big film A United Kingdom about Botswana founding President Sir Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) and his British wife Ruth Williams Khama (played by Rosamund Pike) and their controversial interracial relationship and subsequent marriage during a tumultuous time in the history of Southern Africa. The film is set to be released in South Africa on 9 December and we will have a review up for you up closer to its release date.

Pheto plays a big part of the movie and has even been nominated for a prestigious British Independent Film Award for her performance in the film as the President’s sister Naledi Khama. We had the opportunity to speak to her courtesy of UIP South Africa to discuss her role in the film, but also importantly get some inside input on the state of the SA film industry.

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TheMovies: What was your experience like making the movie A United Kingdom?

Beautiful experience. To work with people who I look up to in the industry was an amazing experience. Guy Hibbert (writer) and Amma Asante (director) in particular did a fantastic join in taking a political story and making a love story out of it look seamless.

TheMovies: It’s a story that surprisingly not many people know. I almost found the film educational as it introduces us to an important part of Botswana’s history.

Absolutely. It’s been incredible to be part of a film that tells such a big and important story. It’s surprising how little I knew about the story and now to be part of a film which looks to tell the full story behind it is an incredible experience. The story is such an important part of what has now made Botswana one of the wealthiest nations in Africa.

It’s a movie that tells an important part of Botswana’s history, but how do you think South African audiences will respond to the film?

Entertained. The story is great and features some great acting. I think people will resonate with the idea of using love as a weapon of choice and fall in love with the story. It is a story that many people are familiar with, but will relate to the story of love triumphing over the racial prejudice of the Apartheid and British governments.

TheMovies: You have obviously worked in a number of different films, both local and international. Is there a big difference between foreign and local films?

Not really, the stories are still mostly the same. People are equally dedicated. I have never felt a part of a production where I felt things were different or there was less passion involved in making the film. Yes, the budgets might be different, but everyone is still there to try and make a great movie.

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TheMovies: How beneficial is it for local actors like yourself to star in movies such as this? Does it bring the required exposure to bigger Hollywood studios?

The film was obviously shot on location. The house that we filmed in was real. The locations were real. It will provide an incredible amount of exposure to the country of Botswana. The film featured a largely local cast and so its great exposure for them. The world needs to see more African stories.  It makes us more appealing as a location and gets to introduce our talent to a wider audience.

What’s important is that we need to tell our stories and not wait for Hollywood to be our savior. There are so many African stories to tell the world and we need to be the ones that make that happen.

TheMovies: Where do you see the future of the SA film industry headed?

Definitely growing. Every year there are new graduates of film makers and actors and we see many more locally produced films. And these films are starting to show SA actors as bankable. We still have a long way to go, but its growing.

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TheMovies: What is the Botswana film industry like?

Very small. Certainly not even close to the size of South Africa or Nollywood. Nothing bigger than A United Kingdom has ever been filmed in the country. Hopefully this film will attract some tourism to the country, both overseas and from South Africa and help the country and in particular its film industry to grow.

TheMovies: Do you have any aspirations to step behind the camera?

I actually produced the local film Ayanda that came out last year. It’s definitely something I want to get into more, but it all obviously depends on how my schedule works out. It needs to be a story I want to tell and believe in. There are some stories that I would like to develop in the near future.

TheMovies: If you could advise people in South Africa wanting to start in the industry, what would you tell them?

Treat the industry with respect. Just like people respect lawyers and doctors as a profession, you need to do the same with the film industry. You can’t expect to become a doctor or lawyer without a lot of hard work and the same can be said of film-making. We need to be protective of our industry as well.  What’s important is that as an industry we are responsible for telling stories that shape the next generation. Our responsibility should be to foster their opportunities and help them to grow

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So what’s next for Pheto? She will soon be off to London to be a part of the British Independent Film Awards, but thereafter she intends to just keep working with a lot of projects in the pipeline. Most importantly though, she wants to be involved with stories she believes in and wants to tell, both as an actress and producer. She is certainly not an actress who is willing to compromise her values for stardom, but is also making smart decisions about her career and keeping Africa – and South Africa in particular – on the map.

It’s great to see more and more South African performers getting international recognition and Pheto is certainly one of our top exports to the international film industry. With A United Kingdom being one of the biggest films that our local industry was involved with this year, we’re looking to try and secure even more news on how the film could further help our local film industry to grow.

A United Kingdom will be released in South Africa, Botswana and East and West Africa on 9 December 2016.

Last Updated: November 25, 2016

Craig Risi

A man of many talents, but no sense how to use them. I could be discovering the cure for aids or finding ways to achieve world peace, but I'd rather be watching movies and writing here instead.

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