'Lockdown's' Dawn Thandeka King tells us what it's like transforming into MaZet: 'It's like a spirit enters you'

Dawn Thandeka King as "MaZet" on Lockdown (Photo: Supplied/Showmax)
Dawn Thandeka King as "MaZet" on Lockdown (Photo: Supplied/Showmax)

Johannesburg – Constitution Hill in Johannesburg is a historical monument. The likes of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were once imprisoned behind these walls. The atmosphere is alive with the stories of those once held captive. Though on this day, as much I yearn to walk around and take it all in, I'm visiting the museum for a different reason. 

Today, and for the past few weeks, it has doubled as a film set for award-winning South African drama Lockdown

I'm on my way to meet Dawn Thandeka King, who plays "MaZet" in the show. It's a warm day in November and the last day on set for the cast, as filming for Season 5 wraps up. 

Everyone is in costume when I arrive – I spot 'wardens' and 'prisoners' moving between the concrete walls. It's lunchtime now, so cast members have some time to roam about and get a bite to eat. 

Dawn is waiting for me in the back room of a restaurant on the premises. She's in costume too. 

Being here takes me back to conversations I've had with colleagues about Lockdown; many agreeing that the show, which deals with heavy subjects like rape, drug abuse, and physical violence, can sometimes be emotionally taxing to watch. 

I ask Dawn what it's like being on the other end of those scenes. 

"There's no preparing for this. It's called diving in," she tells me. "With regards to what affects the people, it's because we are true to the stories that we tell. It's not difficult to tap into emotions, whatever they may be. Because you are part of the story."

Many of the women on the show undergo a significant transformation, breathing life into characters that are the polar opposite of what we've seen from them before. 

For Dawn, she says something takes over when she gets into character, likening the experience to a possession. "I know it sounds weird, but it's like a spirit enters you while you are here, and until you're done, it never leaves."

But taking her mind to the extremes required by the role of MaZet can have adverse effects. Dawn says she has learned, over time, how to break herself out of that mental prison when she falls too deep. Five seasons in, the actress tells me her approach to her role is a lot "calmer".

"I used to be very nervous to tap in [emotionally]. I went to dangerous places. For some people, when you cross that line, it's not easy to come back. So, I've developed skills that make it easy for me to come back when I've gone there."

Now those emotionally challenging scenes don't scare her at all. In fact, she welcomes them. Though, she admits as she laughs, that the prison fight scenes are not her favourite. 

"I don't like the fighting ones so much, cause I'm not a good fighter – I just don't fight."

At some point during our chat, two actors dressed as wardens walk through the door behind me. I'm quickly reminded where I am. For a minute, I had become so lost in conversation that the sound of food orders being hastily prepared in the kitchen next door had been completely drowned out. 

Talk naturally turns to our setting. "I think that's what motivates us more," Dawn says when I ask what it feels like to film in a real prison. The actress believes being on this site aids them in giving an authentic performance. 

For producer Mandla Ngcongwane, the key to delivering such a great show is casting. 

"Casting is everything. You can have the best script, but if your casting is wrong, it kills it," he says when I find him on set finishing up his lunch. 

He's right. And when it comes to casting for Lockdown, so far, he has nailed it. 

The fifth season of Lockdown premieres on Showmax on 30 January 2020, with two new episodes released every Thursday.

Dawn gives us a little taste of what to expect. 

"There's a lot of betrayals, which is the common thread. There's a lot of frustration inside and wanting to be outside. With my character, it's that struggle of the betrayal [and] blackmail."

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

Binge season 1 – 4 on Showmax now.