Ezra Mabengeza on his most gruelling role yet: ‘It reminded me of initiation school’

2019-07-12 17:48
Ezra Mabengeza

Cape Town - He spent two years preparing for the role, throwing himself into a gruelling fitness regime to make sure he was in tip-top shape to play the lead role in the hit action-adventure epic. And it was worth it, Ezra Mabengeza says – because Sew the Winter to My Skin walked off with the gong for best feature film at the Saftas, the cherry on top for the cast and crew.

Ezra played John Kepe in the movie, which was SA’s entry to be considered in the best foreign language film category at the Oscars. While it didn’t make the shortlist, it made waves locally and internationally.

Based on a true story, it tells the tale of the chase and capture of outlaw John Kepe in 1950s rural South Africa. New York-based Ezra believes it’s one of the most authentic stories ever told and he’s thrilled to have been a part of it. He had to break his body through training, he tells DRUM, to do justice to his character.

“I was ready to give myself wholeheartedly to this. I realised it was the first time I had dedicated mind, body and soul to anything, which was all the more reason to push harder.” His schedule included doing 10 sprints each of 400m, 200m and 100m every day along with push-ups, pull-ups and various other exercises. “The first year I broke my body physically as it wasn’t used to that level of conditioning,” he says.

“I had conversations with my body and said, ‘I know we’re not used to this but please work with me’, even though I was hurting.” The story of John Kepe is told without much dialogue, which means Ezra had to use his body to do the talking. And for that he needed to be in shape. The rigorous preparation reminded him of the time he went through initiation school, he says.

“My heritage is Xhosa where you get initiated and you hurt. It was weird that the context of my training took me back there, remembering that there was this process I went through. “But once I pushed through the hurt there were all these rewards when I got back home and I was received as a man.” Ezrastars alongside Zolisa Xaluva and Mandisa Nduna in the movie, which is set in the Great Karoo. Kepe was seen as the Robin Hood of his time as he managed to outwit colonial settlers by stealing livestock from them to distribute to the impoverished.

He wouldn’t call what Kepe did stealing, Ezra tells DRUM.

“I’m just taking back what’s mine – that’s how I saw it. I might have to be crafty as I can’t just overtly go to the farms and say, ‘This is what I want’, but I still did what I needed to do.” Besides making sure he was physically and spiritually ready for the role, Ezra wanted to make sure the Kepe family approved of his portrayal. So he “talked to” Kepe’s ancestors who gave him instructions on how to get into the right mindset. “I spoke to his people and humbly thanked them for choosing me. I asked, ‘Let me embrace the blanket of your people even though I’m not your people’ and they gave me instructions, saying I just had to be clean. “They said I’d know what that meant.

“So I thought, cool, I guess for me it means no alcohol, no women an d also a separation from the general public, a sort of isolation where I’d get to recreate the life this person was living up there in the mountains.” In other words: to play John Kepe, he became John Kepe.

Ezra was born and raised in Port Elizabeth, the son of Gerald Mabengeza, a former political prisoner, and Isabella Mabengeza, a social activist who’s now a retired matron. Ezra moved to New York in 2001 on a modelling contract and has been based there since. He’s been in various movies and series, including 419 and Miracle at St Anna. He’s been out of the spotlight since 2012 though, he tells DRUM, after going through an emotional divorce from his ex-wife, Nicole Crawford.

After playing Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in the play A Season in the Congo, he needed time to “find, understand and love myself , he says. He’s now single and would love to get married again to “a woman who is authentic, understands herself and loves herself ”.

“It took me 10 years to get through my divorce. A lot of the things had to do with me, how I communicate and what has affected my life, like apartheid and the situations my family were in.” Also, the person he was moulded to be by the private schools his parents sent him to and the person he really is are different, he says.

“It was a kind of brainwashing from those schools because I realised a lot of my behaviour was based on how I was socially conditioned, who was grossly different from the authentic me.” Now his social circles have changed and he can’t be around materialistic people anymore, he says. “When I look in the mirror now, I love the person I see and no longer try to change myself.” He makes an example of how they were often told not to speak isiXhosa at school. Language was a major part of finding his true self and he fell in love with his mother tongue again.

He’s comfortable and happy in his own skin now, “even though people call me intense”. Sew the Winter to My Skin came at the perfect time, when he was ready to step out in the spotlight again. He was ready to “tell the honest story of a black man”. “And there are no words that can express my gratitude at being entrusted to tell such a story

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