She had South Africans eating out of her hands with her role on Gomora. Even though some hated her character, they still loved her acting.
Being the feisty and no-nonsense teacher from Pretoria, Mrs Jackie Hlongwane, in Mzansi Magic's Gomora is a great privilege Leera Mthethwa doesn't take for granted. She loved every minute of working on the show.
Leera tells Drum how she became a performer.
“In Grade 1, when my teacher used to ask what we wanted to be when we grew up, I’d say Brenda Fassie.”
That was the best way she could explain what she wanted to be, as she had no name for that kind of job in the spotlight.
“Surely this was not a normal answer and it meant this child wanted to be a performer? But there was no better way for me to articulate it at the time because I didn’t know what it was.”
The star tells Drum that growing up, she always felt the need to put on a show.
“I remember when I was about six years old I was with my parents on a bus tour in Kruger National Park. The tour guide was busy speaking through the mic when I approached him and asked for the mic,” she recalls.
As soon as she had it in her hands, little Leera bust into a song.
“I sang I’ll make love to you by Boys II Men.” She says everyone started clapping and singing along.
“Obviously it was so embarrassing for my parents. Like, what is this child doing?”
At 13, the actress attended Pro Arte Alphen Park in Pretoria, where she followed her passion for the arts.
“At that age, I was certain this was what I wanted to do.”
She studied drama and after matric, she enrolled at AFDA and completed her degree in screen acting before doing an honours degree in drama at the University of Pretoria.
“Since 2014, I have been working tirelessly, going to auditions and doing MC work,” Leera says.
She has also been on several productions, including Generations: The Legacy, Soul City, and City Ses’La, but those were always come-and-go roles.
“I’d be there for three months and when the story line was over, the show was over for me,” she says.
“But Gomora has been the one that has stuck. And I think it has stuck because I made a conscious decision to make her stand out.”
It took Leera a month and a half after they had started shooting to truly understand her character, Mrs Jackie Hlongwane.
“The entire time the character was speaking English, as I needed to figure her out.”
She says she took her time to choose a language that would better suit her character.
She landed on Sepitori, which is a mix of languages that includes Setswana and a bit of Tsotsi taal.
After all, she is from Pretoria and she wanted something that would help her find her place in the industry.
“I am setting stones where I am unforgettable. So, I am making conscious decisions to get Jackie to be who she is. It took research and time.”
The 30-year-old actress tells Drum it has been a dream come true working on Gomora.
“Gomora has been phenomenal. I was telling one of my producers that I finally have a home and what better home than Gomora. It is literally number one in my heart, it's number one in many people’s hearts. It's number one in viewership as well,” Leera says.
She tells us the atmosphere at Gomora speaks to good work ethics and you have no choice but to excel.
“You are working with professionals and young stars that are hungry, so the drive is even greater.
“I am working with some of the biggest names. Thembi Seete, I mean we grew up listening and watching her and here I am working with her and I’m like, do you know who you are?” she says. “My colleagues Zolisa and mama Connie, I mean the list is endless.”
Leera says playing Jackie has taught her the importance of being consistent.
“It doesn’t matter what you are going through in your private life, at work you need to show up and deliver.”
She's learnt a lot in the past year and has some pearls of wisdom for those still dreaming about the industry.
“If I had been asked this question a year ago, my answer would have been different to what it is now.”
A year back, she would have said producers need to open up the industry.
“But now I think we artists need to make ourselves sellable. We need to make ourselves relatable. We need to make ourselves a business. I came from a place of entitlement – I’ve studied so I deserve this job. But it doesn’t work that way.
“You need to think about how many other people have studied but they don’t have the job and how many people didn’t study but have the job. What do they have that I don’t?”
Sometimes people need to dig deeper, she says.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of introspection. The industry and the world owe you nothing. Sometimes you need to get up and redefine and rework who you are.
“I think the truth is to never give up. I never threw in the towel. I’ve learned that when you get tired, learn to rest but not to quit.”