Pearl Thusi: ‘I was tired of Africans feeling like they had been done a favour’

As eagerly-awaited South African crime drama Queen Sono arrives on Netflix, Queen Sono herself – actress Pearl Thusi – tells Sophie Goddard about the role that’s changing history…

This month marks the launch of Queen Sono, Netflix’s first ever African Netflix Original series. The action-packed show centres around Queen Sono, a fearless spy in a South African agency about to undertake her most dangerous mission yet. South African actress Pearl Thusi plays Queen Sono (best-known for her roles in comedy The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, thriller Quantico and romantic drama Catching Feelings) alongside an all-African cast and crew. Thusi’s involvement began early on, she says, after a conversation with her Catching Feelings co-star Kagiso Lediga, the now-director of Queen Sono. Chatting to him in 2018, Pearl showed her friend footage of the impressive stunts and gruelling training she’d undertaken the year before in a bid to convince him she was the woman for the show he was creating. It resulted in not just Lediga agreeing, but the idea getting the go-ahead from Netflix, too. “It’s been very exciting, dreamy almost, how it came about,” she admits. Here, Thusi explains what the project means to her….

How does it feel knowing everybody’s about to watch Queen Sono?

I’m actually feeling very emotional and excited. For me, it’s a great achievement when you think of something and speak on it, and find the right people to do it with you – it can lead to this. I’m just so grateful.

It must feel like a real ‘moment’?

Yeah. I choose to be honest with who I am and what I believe in, and sometimes you get in trouble for that. For me, I’ve always chosen to be that girl and to be a much bigger, exaggerated version of that, in the same way that I’ve been able to with Queen. So it’s an amazing moment – it’s like God’s way of saying ‘Thank you for doing that, that’s why we can trust you with this moment’.

As the mother of girls, how important is it to play a strong female character like Queen?

Definitely important. I’ve even bought the box set of stories for rebel girls [Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls]. We’ve got to teach our kids different types of lessons. My daughter came home upset one day and said kids had been calling her a lesbian. First I was like, ‘They can’t call you names’ then I told her there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a lesbian – if you’re a lesbian, it’s OK. If you’re not a lesbian, it’s OK! I’ve got to raise a girl who’s going to change the status quo and be a leader and be stronger than the rest. Or at least help others to be stronger.

How awesome to have a mum like that!

My aim is to have my kids never wish Beyoncé was their mum – I can’t have them thinking there’s someone out there cooler than me!

How physically demanding was filming?

Extremely – even just dealing with the elements alone. I recently found out we shot in 37 locations! We were in some longer than others but each came with its own problems and we had to adapt as a team, it wasn’t easy. We were shooting in the middle of winter in the night. That was pretty tough, but we made it through and I’m very proud of us.

Did you have to step up your fitness regime?

Yeah, 100%. I started doing weight training. I’d gone on a cleanse and they asked me to eat more protein so I ate a lot of protein and plants, and educated myself. I learned a lot about my body. There was a lot of boxing – seven hours a day for two weeks – which was pretty hectic. Even our stunt coordinator was saying that usually there’s a lot more time supposed to be invested in the stunts, but by the time the ball started rolling, that was all the time we had.

How did it feel working with an all-African crew and cast?

It was very exciting because I worked in New York for a year and while I was there I realised that people back home [South Africa] can do this. We have our problems, but if we can solve those problems we have just as much talent. So I came back home to try and push that agenda. I did some work and started spreading that rhetoric and started visualising what I wanted to do. I think when they talk about the power of visualisation, this is definitely a testimony of that.

Pearl Thusi as Queen Somo in the Netflix drama (Credit: Netflix)

How do you hope it’s received?

There’s a lot of ground we still have to cover, in terms of the skills people need to learn and the type of technology they need access to – this is what we were able to do with what we had. Going forward, I hope every show that comes out after this, on this continent and around the world, challenges us and tries to be better than us. Because that means the industry is going to grow in every aspect of filmmaking.

That’s an interesting perspective, and a generous way of looking at it. 

This is bigger than me and bigger than the show – it’s what I hope is a turning point for the African entertainment industry. Now, the challenge is on for local broadcasters in different countries and on this continent, to production companies – are you gonna step your game up or not? Showing people what’s possible – that’s how you convince them that they are also capable.

Knowing you’ve played such a pivotal part in bringing African stories to a huge platform like Netflix must feel monumental?

I’m feeling so rewarded you said that, because I’d never thought of it that way and I never think of the magnitude. But yes, it does. All I wanted was for our industry here in Africa to one day negotiate as equals with other entertainment industries. I was tired of Africans feeling like they had been done a favour. I was tired of Africa always being on the open-handed side of the table – not being the one offering the money or making productions like this. I was tired of having Americans play Nelson Mandela. It was time for us to take ownership. Luckily, Netflix gave us that creative freedom and for that, I am extremely proud.

We’ve spoken about your character being a role model, but who are your own role models?

For me, the greatest inspiration for the role has been the women close to my life, whether they’re here anymore or not. In fact, every woman on this continent and in the world – for me, women are role models. Like you, and every woman that gets to read this and watch the show – I hope they see a reflection of themselves, whether it’s in my character or any of the other characters because most of them are heroes in different ways. Other than that, whenever I think of women like Meryl Streep and Viola Davis and the possibility – even the idea – of meeting them, it makes me tear up. They have been a huge influence to me.

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