Johannesburg - Life can be challenging when you’re 27 but look like a kid. Actor Themba Ntuli opens up about overcoming his insecurities and how he hopes to inspire others.
He’s the pint-sized half of the anti-rhino-poaching pair wreaking havoc and hilarity in equal measure in the name of conservation and good, solid entertainment.
And we’re lapping it up. Frank & Fearless has been did well at the box office since opening and no one is more delighted than Themba Ntuli, the 1,2m tall actor who plays 11-year-old animal-lover Fearless. He teams up with Frank (Leon Schuster) to send the baddies packing and their escapades have had moviegoers rolling in the aisles.
It’s the latest offering from Leon, the doyen of local comedy flicks, and Themba is delighted to be working alongside him. It’s a dream come true, he says. “The first Schuster film I watched was Sweet ’n Short with Alfred Ntombela and I knew at some point in my career I would act in one of his films,” he says.
“With Frank & Fearless, everyone thinks Leon has replaced the legendary Alfred with another short guy – me – but that’s not true. “No one can replace that guy’s talent and wit and unmatched laugh. I think Leon needed the perfect person to play an 11-year-old and I just did better than anyone else at the audition.”
This is hardly Themba’s first foray into the world of entertainment, of course. He played the young car guard Pule in a recurring role in Rhythm City, was in the Afrikaans movie Meerkat Maantuig and appeared in the British TV shows Leonardo and Mad Dogs (where he played a tokoloshe). Themba, who is now 27, has been acting since he was in Grade 11, and is a little sad to be working with Leon (67) only now “at his old age”.
“He is still crazy but not as young as he used to be. There is so much more I would have loved to explore with him. He has created a brand for himself and it is an honour to work with him. He believes in the people he works with and trains you on the job to stretch yourself.”
Themba was impressed with the veteran filmmaker’s ability to keep his cast and crew motivated during shooting, especially as Themba is a motivational speaker himself. “My calling is to encourage young people to better themselves and to dream bigger,” he says. Yet he admits it took many years to become a confident, optimistic performer and motivational speaker.
“My height, my petite body and small voice have been the cause of my low confidence,” he says. “But I’ve learnt to love and accept myself for who I am because we aren’t all packaged the same way. “Yes, I’m smaller than many other people and mostly play the role of a child but I’m a grown man. God has given me an ability and I can do anything I set my mind to.”
Growing up in Vosloorus, Themba was aware from early on that he was smaller than other kids his age. His parents, Kenneth (60) and Nokuthula (56), couldn’t afford to send him to a specialist. The doctor they could afford “gave me lots of Scott’s Emulsion [cod liver oil] because the branding said it would help me to grow”, he recalls. He had a happy childhood nonetheless.
“My parents accepted me for who I was and made sure I was happy, healthy, and safe and fed.” It was only two years ago, when Themba had to see a doctor for a routine medical check-up to ensure he was fit enough for a role, that a growth hormone deficiency was picked up thanks to blood tests he had. This deficiency occurs when the pituitary gland in the brain doesn’t produce enough growth hormones and, unless treated in childhood with injections of hormones, can lead to small stature and delayed puberty.
“I asked the GP what difference does knowing this make now? All I know is I am made in the image of God. I am wonderfully made. Had I not adopted that thinking a long time ago, I would still be looking for cures for this condition, even when it’s too late,” he says. Themba believes everything happens for a reason. “I use my height, my body and my small voice in my motivational talks.
For me to speak this confidently has taken tears, learning to love myself, belief, faith, confidence and lots of work in overcoming doubt. I’ve struggled to socialise but my family made it so much easier for me to accept myself,” he says. Themba has two “normal-sized” younger brothers, Zethembe (24) and Msizi (20).
“I’m sometimes treated differently by outsiders but at home I’m treated the same as my brothers. I still need to do the dishes and clean up when it is my turn. There has never been any special attention.”
His height made it hard for him to find love, Themba admits. When he approached girls to ask them out, they would tell him he was too short to date. “Girls told me they want a brother man who can pick them up, someone they wouldn’t be ashamed to walk in the streets with. But I didn’t let it get to me.”
He says he knew someone would come into his life who would love him for who he is and not be bothered by his looks and lack of height. “And that comes with a lot of maturity,” he says. “I had to sit down and do some introspection. I realised I needed to accept myself for who I was before I could love another person.”
He’s only 27, after all, and the world is his oyster.