'Taking it all in': Gail Mabalane's lead role in Netflix's Unseen has been ten years in the making

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Gail Mabalane as Zenzi in Unseen.
Gail Mabalane as Zenzi in Unseen.
Photo: Netflix

After 10 years in the industry, Gail Mabalane has landed her first lead role. In a one-on-one interview with News24's Leandra Engelbrecht, she talks about the character that allowed her to go where she's never been before as an actor.

Since her television debut, Gail Mabalane has played various roles— from a chic fashion editor in The Wild, singer Stella in The Road, a black diamond in Rockville, to Thandeka, a mother searching for her lost daughter in Blood & Water.

In Unseen, her first lead role, Mabalane, gives an authentic, raw performance.

In this six-part crime thriller, which is an adaptation of a Netflix Turkish series Fatma, created by Özgür Önurme - Mabalane, plays Zenzi Mwale. The character is described as a nondescript domestic worker who searches for her missing husband but comes up against powerful and violent criminals.


What makes the South African adaptation different is its "very local feel", says Mabalane.

"I think what's very different is that Unseen is told through a very South African lens. We get to see a lot more and a different side of Cape Town. We get to see it very much within the South African context with the languages and the characters," she explains further.

Mabalane didn't think she would get the role when she auditioned.

"I remember auditioning for Zenzi, and in my mind… I wouldn't say I've been typecast, but there have definitely been similarities to the characters I've played before. This was a completely different character, something that I'd never done before. And I think even to a degree thought, 'I'm probably not going to get it'."

Days later, she got the call back that the role was hers, which she described as exciting and challenging.

"This is my second Netflix show. I was excited about how different it was from the Thandeka character I play on Blood & Water."

Gail Mabalane as Zenzi and Mothusi Magano as Lufon
Gail Mabalane as Zenzi and Mothusi Magano as Lufono.

Becoming Zenzi

The character Zenzi is complex and layered. She is an average person who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances as she unknowingly gets involved in the seedy underworld of criminal kingpins.

When Mabalane started researching to prepare for the role, she discovered that she had encountered "Zenzi" so many times from a young age in a community where many women are unseen or feel unseen. It was easy for her to tap into that world because she came from it.

The second part of her preparation was to uncover all the layers of Zenzi - a mother, a wife, and a sister, with a background full of baggage. Mabalane says she had to emotionally put herself in those positions daily to embody the character.

"I shot in Cape Town. My family was in Joburg, which I think was helpful. And they came up, and I came down where there was an opportunity. I could throw myself into her shoes, feel every single experience, and then go home. Before I leave set, I would take off the costume, leave her there, and go, 'Okay, there you go, Zenzi. I'll see you in the morning'."

To bring this character to life was a journey that I needed to go on. What's been incredible about playing Zenzi is that it allowed me to go emotionally where I've never been before as an actor.

With the show being a thriller, Mabalane had both physical and emotional challenges.

Unseen was filmed in Cape Town in the heart of winter, with many scenes shot in the middle of the night.

"We had a lot of night shoots, 17:00 to 05:00 or 18:00 to 06:00 shoots. So, by 03:00, you're like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm on this boat in the middle of winter'. And it's freezing. That was the one thing; just the cold was one thing. Emotionally, some of the scenes were the hardest."

Mabalane explains that Zenzi is in a dark place throughout the six episodes, "so the whole show was hard to film". The only time the character experiences lighter moments is in flashbacks with her husband and son. One of the scenes that were particularly hard to film was with her co-star, Abduragman Adams, who plays her landlord. She finds herself in harm's way as she tries to secure a place to live.

"It was hard because it's a reality for many. It was challenging; it forced me to put myself in the shoes of women who have been taken advantage of and the work they needed to do post that. The trauma and all the emotions that you go through. And we fight that daily as women. It was very real, and it was tough. If I had to think about it, that was one of the hardest scenes I had to film."

It wasn't all doom and gloom on set; Mabalane says she made some lovely memories with the "incredible" cast and crew.

"We probably shot about 70 days, and I was on 65 of those 70 days. It was amazing how everyone just rallied around me and each other to make sure that we told the story in the most amazing and authentic way possible. I couldn't have done it without my cast members and the crew. It was just a desire from everybody to give 110% and stay true to the story, which has been awesome."

Mabalane recalls co-stars Shimmy Isaacs and Dineo Langa giving her massages and Hein de Vries bringing sweets.

"He would just always have a bag of sweets. And sometimes I'd chow on these sweets at night to get some energy or stay awake."

Vuyo Dabula as Max and Gail Mabalane as Zenzi.
Vuyo Dabula as Max and Gail Mabalane as Zenzi.

A mirror to society

One of the major themes throughout the season is Zenzi's "invisibility" because she is seen as "just a cleaner". In a scene, one of the characters reflects that while helpers know everything about our lives, we don't know anything about them. The series asks viewers to confront how we view people doing these jobs.

"It's not just people who do these types of jobs. As a society, we have the little bubbles we operate in, and we often don't allow ourselves to step out of those bubbles. Even within our circles, you could see somebody on the street taking a taxi. You might not necessarily know what kind of job they're doing, but they're not in your bubble. So, they can be 'unseen'," says Mabalane.

"You can stop at a traffic light, and someone's asking for money, and we've gotten to a point where we don't even see those people. We don't even acknowledge them. We face ahead. We listen to our music. We listen to the news.

"Some of them feel like they're not even being acknowledged. And I think the show has helped me start being intentional about acknowledging people; you could be at a robot, but you might not have anything to give them. But sometimes, all they need is a smile, an acknowledgement. I see you," she continues.

It's been a journey of being intentional about stepping out of our little bubbles and going into the worlds we won't normally go into; otherwise, what's the point of being in a community if all you know is your little bubble? I hope that the audience gets that when they watch it. Part of it is to be bold and brave, to step out of our little bubbles and step into this world that we don't bother getting into.

Mabalane says that while the show is fictional, we get into characters that reflect our society and world. It has many truths that viewers can take from it.

"There's a great opportunity for us to go on this journey, but also start asking hard questions about how we treat the 'invisible people' in our lives. It's a great opportunity for us to hold a mirror up to ourselves, our country, our justice system, our men, and employers to take something from the story beyond just this cleaning lady who goes on a killing spree mission."

Gail Mabalane as Zenzi.
Gail Mabalane as Zenzi.

From South Africa to the world

Unseen is the second project Mabalane has done with Gambit Films and her second Netflix show.

"It's great that Netflix gives the opportunity for stories to be told authentically and for us to be able to tell our stories authentically to the world, to a global audience - 231 million subscribers is no child's play. And then you have a production company like Gambit who's just done some incredible work, on and off Netflix and tells stories in a way that I think South Africans and the world can always relate to," says Mabalane.

I'm grateful to be part of a show and a production that makes room for us to tell those stories authentically and to be able to tap into ourselves without feeling like our stories are not worthy or without feeling like we need to adjust who we are so that we are just a little bit more global.

Non-English shows and English shows from Africa on the streaming service consistently make the Global Top 10 list. Blood & Water season 3 spent one week on the Global Top 10 TV (English) list and made the Top 10 TV list in 19 countries. The drama series Savage Beauty spent 2 weeks in the Global Top 10 TV (English) and made the Top 10 TV list in 14 countries, while Ludik, Netflix's first-ever Afrikaans show, spent 1 week in the Global Top 10 TV (Non-English) list and made the Top 10 TV list in 5 countries. There is a global appetite for South African content.

On why she thinks audiences are resonating with shows from South Africa, Mabalane says: "I think that South Africa hasn't always had the opportunity for our stories to be told, especially as people of colour, our stories are finally being told authentically. And I think that hasn't been seen before, seeing parts of us being told globally. I think the audience is just eating that up."

'It's taken me 10 years to get to this place'

The actor is looking forward to 29 March when the show premieres on Netflix: "That's the biggest thing for me."

She continues: 

I just want to take that moment and then really pause and reflect and celebrate myself and the team around me that's put it together.

"I'm forcing myself just to take this moment. I've been in the industry for 10 years, and this is the first lead character I've played. So, I'm taking it all in and I'm taking in the fact that I'm going to be on such a global platform telling this incredible story. And I'm taking in that it's really taken me 10 years to get to this place," she says.

Gail Mabalane as Zenzi in Unseen.
Gail Mabalane as Zenzi in Unseen.

Unseen launches on Netflix 29 March.

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