Both controversial and scandalous, the homosexual relationship on Mzansi Magic telenovella The Queen is hard to ignore.
Portrayed by two heterosexual family men – Eastern Cape-born Vuyolwethu Ngcukana, 34, better known as Vuyo, and soap legend Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, 56 – the pair has managed to warm the hearts of South Africans.
Ngcukana, a newcomer on the TV scene, was born and bred in Mthatha where the Xhosa traditions are kept sacred.
But it is thanks to his grandmother that he ended up on the TV screen.
“I was always involved in the arts, from my grandmother’s crèche, we used to do recitations, and my mother also put me into productions – so much so that I would model clothes for a local store.”
Eager to study arts, Ngcukana went on to further his studies at RAU (now University of Johannesburg) where he enrolled for a diploma in public relations – which was shortlived when he stumbled upon the drama department at the university.
“I fell in love with drama. It overtook my studies in PR,” said the actor.
Ngcukana was forced to drop out eventually, having to assist his family back home, which led him to becoming a call centre agent – a time which he believed helped harness his script reading and voice projection and annunciation of words.
“We had to stay in character even during breaks, you couldn’t sound like a South African leaning towards American,” he said.
TV and theatre royalty Ka-Ncube is no stranger to the limelight, having started his career at 15. Maake Ka-Ncube is among the best South African performers.
“When I began to know what a play was, I was fifteen and from there I started to mimic what I saw on the stage. As an actor your wealth is your craft and how good you are at it.”
His breakout moment occurred in the ’90s, when he made his first appearance on Generations as Archie Moroka.
How did you end up on The Queen?
VN: I don’t know how I got the role exactly, but I had begged Shona Ferguson for months to give me some of his time. He gave me five minutes to sell myself. Later I got a call from my agent telling me about the role I was being offered and it was an unreal experience.
SN: First and foremost I need to acknowledge that I am an actor and being an actor you need to be able to do all kinds of things. But this has been a challenge as this character has forced people to see me in a different way. After I had read the script and saw who my character is, I remember telling my family to watch as they would see me in a different light. My kids were shocked and my friends were convinced I had been hiding as I play this role so well.
After finding out about your character, how did you prepare your family and friends for it?
VN: I come from a very liberal family and because my mother understands the arts, it was never a big thing. When I found out my character would have a gay love interest, I took it as a challenge and decided I would play gay like it has never been done before. Our communities are filled with guys like Schumacher; the term is After Nines or Down Low (DL). We know them but hardly ever speak about them, so this was an opportunity for me to open the conversation.
SM: When I read the script for the first time, I was like, okay this is interesting. Sadly, because it’s TV you find that there is no enough time to research the type of gay I wanted to play.
The chemistry between you and co-star is so believable, how do you prepare for scenes together?
VN: When I found out who I would be acting with I couldn’t believe it, firstly I grew up watching this man on TV. I aspired to be like him, he was Archie Moroka on Generations and now he would be my lover. My first day on set it took me 20 minutes before I could pluck up the courage to greet him but when I eventually did, we hit it off. In fact people didn’t know if Ferguson got a gay man to play gay or not as I took this seriously and played with the many facets of being gay: from super feminine and flamboyant to finally landing on a neutral role.
SM: I think as an actor you have the ability to observe human life and culture. I love to watch humans interact, but because of what I do, it’s hard to sit and watch people without being recognised. I am also guided by a quote from writer David Kalaber which goes: “In a script there is no character, only words and actions, which are brought out by the actor.”
What has been the greatest challenge you have faced about your character?
VN: Fortunately for me I have many gay friends – in the closet and friends that are Schumachers and have girlfriends – so I could observe their behaviour and I had to ask a lot. Even on set we have gay crew members who will call me out if I’m not being real.
SM: When you approach acting as if it is you, you will have problems. I am able to remember that when the lights go on: I am Kgosi and I need to see life through the eyes of Kgosi, who happens to only have eyes for Schumacher, played by Vuyo. In the same light, when the lights go off we both come back into ourselves and it is not Kgosi and Schumacher anymore.
Have you experienced any backlash because of your respective character?
VN: Yes I have, it was a mild homophobic attack which happened at a restaurant bathroom in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. I was standing by the urinals and this guy walks in and gives me a nudge, which at first I took for a greeting. But then he continued to push me, saying: “you are gay” and went on to say “you stabani” (derogatory gay term). When I saw the look in his eyes, I decided to move away and step out. This opened my eyes to how tough life must be for the ordinary gay guys who have to live among the hatred.
SM: They try, but I think I have an intimidating persona, but I do get hit on by gay men.
I remember a time back when I was on Generations, where this poor good-looking boy couldn’t even speak to me.
What can viewers expect from your character?
VN: Schumacher is a character; he continues to develop and grow but people will have to watch to see how and when it takes place.
SM: I don’t know … Life happens … so as much as we would like them to take a certain direction, we do not have the power. All we can do is wait and see.