Pearl Thusi, the star of Queen Sono, talks to Helen Herimbi about her directing debut and dealing with trauma.
Pearl Thusi places her right hand under her chin and regards me suspiciously. One of her fingers sports a gilded Minora blade ring but she doesn’t look like she’s about to cut me. She’s actually tickled that I remember a story she told me two years ago.
Fresh off the immense success of the 2017 romantic drama Catching Feelings, where Thusi starred opposite the film’s writer and director, Kagiso Lediga, the actress and entrepreneur was given a glimpse into what could possibly be her future.
“I went to see a tarot card lady and she told me I am going to end up working on both sides of the camera and I might end up doing that type of work with my future husband,” she had told me in 2018.
Now, sitting in a penthouse overlooking Johannesburg at a hotel where the Queen Sono cast was being given the royal treatment, she laughs at the memory.
Her frequent collaborator, Lediga, is the creator and sometimes director of Queen Sono, which is billed as Netflix’s first African original series. Thusi plays the lead character but her role wasn’t relegated to the front of the camera.
“Kagiso is not aware that he’s a feminist, but he is,” she says, the blade ring glistening as she waves her hand in my direction. “We were running out of time shooting in Zanzibar [in Tanzania] and he still had some other stuff to shoot.
“So he calls me [aside] and says: ‘I need you to direct some scenes. Not a big deal.’ I’m just like: ‘What!’ He was trying to downplay it but I was stressed.
“He is always ready to empower anyone, regardless of their gender. It was the first time I’d ever directed and I was also in the scene,” she says.
“So I’d have to plan the scene, check out the playback and then go and do it. It’s a small scene but my directorial debut is on episode one of Queen Sono! I’ve now been on both sides of the camera,” she pauses to grin and then says: “So I’ll let you know how the husband part goes!”
DRAWING FROM THE REAL
Like Thusi, her character Queen isn’t waiting for Prince Charming to save her. Queen is a top spy in a South African agency. She is sent on missions around the African continent and has a knack for leaving a trail of blood, bullets and burnt bridges behind her.
But Queen has lost too much to worry about playing it safe. Importantly, her mother was murdered when she was just a child and, refusing to deal with her feelings around that, Queen throws herself deeper into her work.
Thusi is no stranger to hard work. She’s appeared in international productions such as the American thriller series Quantico and the film Scorpion King. But like Queen, this recent Mac Cosmetics partner also lost her mother at a young age.
I ask her if there were moments she felt triggered [by this] on set. “I dropped out of university, so emotional recall and emotional placement – finding ways to remember how a situation made me feel and then bringing that into the scene in a healthy way – is a big part of my work.
“My technical skills are the ones I learnt on the ground because I just jumped into the deep end [with acting]. It was important and different but I felt like I was able to pay some homage to my mother using this,” Thusi says.
“You can draw from it but, weirdly enough, as an artist there’s a point where you start feeling guilty for using your mother’s memory in your work,” she continues. “You don’t force it to happen when you’re in the bathtub alone crying because you miss your mother. That’s literally what I do. I schedule time to cry.
“There was a time when my work really suffered because I hadn’t processed a lot of my trauma. I suspect I even went through a depression and couldn’t feel [anything]. It was so painful because I only had anger, anguish, self-disappointment and other negative things. But when I started feeling again, it was so liberating and it did a lot for my work. So I’m happy that I took the time to work on that.”
WALKING AWAY SATISFIED
Queen Sono tackles social ills through clever concepts, witty dialogue and subtle but powerful imagery. The choreography in the fight scenes makes them believable, just as it helps in the steamy sex scenes Queen is involved in.
“I asked for that. Isidingo sex scenes are like: kissing and then acting like you’re undressing and it’s over,” she giggles.
“I love watching behind the scenes of movies and listening to actors tell their experiences. I heard this actress talk about a particular director who overdirects sex scenes.
“He’ll say things such as: ‘ok, so you take your hand and you caress across that person’s hand. Then kiss them lightly on the forehead...’ Just so no one feels like: ‘wait, do you really want me?’
“So I asked Kagiso for that. I wanted it to be done as quickly as possible because no one wants to be this naked in front of everyone for too long. So there’s a lot of that and choreographing it and making suggestions and just making sure the actors aren’t unnecessarily caught by surprise in that type of environment.”
Thusi is used to baring her feelings for all to see. Some of her tweets are evidence of this. But with Queen Sono, she aimed to wear her heart on her sleeve, reach out to Lediga with some ideas – one of which was an African Tomb Raider concept – and the result was her favourite filming experience yet.
“It was the first time I finished production and walked off content and satisfied. There was nothing missing.
“Usually, when I finish a production, I imagine all the possibilities of the character and what more I could’ve given if I had the opportunity. With this series, we had all the opportunities, so I’m very proud of the work I put in. I’m just waiting to see what happens next.”
- Queen Sono premiered globally in 190 countries on February 28 2020.