Johannesburg - They’re the total opposite of their TV personas – there’s nothing shy about Thabo Mkhabela while Charles Maja, who plays his alcoholic father, is a responsible dad who doesn’t touch a drop of the demon drink.
And yet fans have trouble separating the two Skeem Saam actors from their characters. They even resemble each other and their onscreen relationship is so genuine veteran actor Charles often finds himself facing down irate viewers who want to talk to Big Boy about the way he treats his son, Leshole.
This happened just the other day at a shopping mall in Lebowakgomo near his home village of Ga-Maja, close to Polokwane, recently. People chased him down an aisle saying he needs to stop abusing his kid, he tells DRUM, laughing.
“I ran into a store and the shop assistants phoned the police to escort me out to my car so I could drive home.” Was he alarmed? Not at all, he says. It shows his and Thabo’s acting is convincing and that fans are drawn in by their hard work. He really is nothing like Big Boy, Charles (61) stresses.
'Big Boy and I are complete opposites'
He doesn’t drink alcohol and describes himself as a God-fearing father of three and grandfather of two. “Big Boy and I are complete opposites – we don’t mix. He is rough and he shouts at people while I am cool, calm and collected. I can’t stand confrontation and would rather walk away than involve myself in an argument.”
Despite his success, Charles remains a humble rural homebody who makes his own clothes. He’s Pedi royalty and lives in his home village where his uncle, Cecil Maja, is the chief. He spends his weeks in the big city shooting scenes for Skeem Saam and drives home at weekends to Sophie, his wife of 30 years. “I love rural life,” he says.
“I would never move to the big city. Here I have hundreds of chickens, some lay eggs and some are fighting as we speak. This is what I love.” His profession is a calling for him, Charles says. “I started acting and doing radio dramas at Thobela FM in 1984 but I took a short break to finish my matric.
“While at school I taught myself how to make clothes and I was a fashion designer until 1996. I still make clothes for myself and my family. I only buy socks, underwear and shoes. I thought I would be a full-time designer but I found myself going back to acting and radio.” The versatile star still does radio dramas at Thobela FM and has been involved in over 20 dramas over the past 34 years. The shift from fashion designer to actor came when he was cast as Motlolu in 1997 on the SABC2 show Ke Bona Boloi. This role paved the way for him to get more acting gigs, including playing Bra Tick in the popular radio drama Mahlakung.
'I’m happy with my character'
Charles, who has no formal acting training, auditioned for Skeem Saam in 2011 and a few days later was told he had the role. He hasn’t looked back. “I’m happy with my character and I hope to do more TV shows so people see I’m different from Big Boy, who ill-treats his son,” he says, smiling. So what’s his relationship like with Thabo off-screen? Fun and playful, he says. “We sometimes get into trouble with the directors because we tell a lot of jokes on set and we waste time debating about languages and making jokes,” Charles says.
Unlike his character, Charles enjoys hearing Thabo’s opinions and has learnt a lot from the young actor’s fresh ideas. Thabo in turn has a tremendous amount of admiration for his on-screen father. “Ntate Charles is one of our veterans and he teaches me a lot about respecting people and respecting my craft. “When I make mistakes he phones me to tell me how to improve myself.”
Unlike Leshole who would sit in a corner too scared to speak to anyone, Thabo oozes confidence, greeting everyone in the DRUM office with a firm handshake before he gets down to business. “Leshole is annoyingly shy,” the 26-yearold actor says. “I am the total opposite.”
Thabo made his debut on Skeem Saam in 2016 straight after his final year in performing arts at the University of Limpopo. “I didn’t plan to be an actor – my dream was to study law but the course was already full and the only space available was in performance arts. So I did that to avoid doing nothing.” With only a passion for poetry that he picked up in high school, Thabo had to work hard at university until he eventually fell in love with acting and performance.
“There were students who had a basic background in drama and I had nothing,” he says. While studying, he took part in plays and even performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown two years in a row. “In my final year I met [actor] Putla Sehlapelo and he saw my talent and gave me a few numbers to call. I built relationships in the industry until I got a call to audition for Leshole in 2015.”
'I had to watch people with similar characters'
To tap into his shy character Thabo fell back on the values he learnt at school. “I had to watch people with similar characters and when I socialised I would watch people and their behaviour.” While he loves acting Thabo still has hopes of studying law. He loves the entertainment industry but worries it has a shelf life. “It’s unpredictable,” he says.
“There’s always a new kid on the block and I need a backup plan.” Thabo, the youngest of two boys, was raised by a single mother, Thandi, and his maternal grandparents, Phillip and Kedibone Mkhabela, in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. Not having a relationship with his father didn’t affect his childhood but made him a better person who can now empathise with his on-screen father, he says.
Skeem Saam is Thabo’s first big role and he hopes to play different characters in the future, such as a gangster in prison. “When I was in varsity I loved prison scenes because they always have a message. I don’t have a criminal bone in my body but a role as a gangster would show another side of me and maybe people will stop thinking I am like Leshole.”
From law to teaching young people in his community about the importance of education and flexing his acting muscles, Thabo has big dreams for the future. But right now he’s having fun exploring his shy side.