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Petronella Tshuma on her big screen debut on The Tokoloshe

2018-10-12 16:21
Petronella Tshuma
Petronella Tshuma (PHOTO: Drum)

Cape Town - The mere mention of its name is enough to make wayward kids behave and rumours of the creature’s evil deeds have been fodder for countless tabloid headlines for decades.

Across Mzansi people raise their beds on bricks to ensure they’re safe from the tiny hairy creature as it goes about sowing madness and mayhem with malevolent abandon. But brace yourselves, people: the tokoloshe is here! Well, maybe not here-here – but soon the ominous presence of the notorious troublemaker will leap onto the big screen in a movie every bit as terrifying as the maniacal menace itself.

The Tokoloshe revolves around Busi, a destitute young woman who lands a job as a cleaner at a rundown hospital in Joburg where she has to deal with an abusive manager. Her problems get worse when she meets an abandoned girl who believes she’s being tormented by the tokoloshe, forcing Busi to face the demons from her past to protect the child and herself from the relentless supernatural monster.

It’s scary stuff – but today the woman who plays Busi, Petronella Tshuma, is as serene as they come. Cradling her baby bump, the star of such shows as Scandal, 90 Plein Street and Rhythm City says she knew from the start she wanted to be part of the project. “When I got the script I read it and then I put it down,” she says.

“I let Busi come to me and we ‘spoke’. I had to let her introduce herself to me and tell me what she wants. I wasn’t about to read it and impose my own ideas about the person she was.” The most difficult aspect of the role was being enveloped in Busi’s sadness, she adds. She had only two weeks to prepare for the role but she threw herself into it.

“I had to make sure I delivered, not only for myself but to show the people who believed in me they were not wrong in doing so.”

Joburg-based director Jerome Pikwane saw something special in Petronella (28) when he was searching for his Busi. Jerome, who co-wrote the script with author Richard Kunzmann, took 10 years to complete the film in between other projects and wanted to make a horror movie similar to 1960s cult classic Rosemary’s Baby. It was essential that his leading lady brought something deep to the movie.

 “Originally we were going to do a straight-out horror film, you know, blood and guts. But we realised there was more to be said – we had to tell a richer story. The Tokoloshe “examines how we as a society create monsters and how men can be the ultimate monsters towards the most vulnerable in society – women and children,” he says.

“When I became a father I changed and grew as a man. With the horrific things happening to women the world over, I had to make a film with a message.” Petronella’s performance and Jerome’s tight direction helped the film be selected for screening at prestigious global film festivals, including the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea and the Durban International Film Festival. It’s also set to be screened at the London FrightFest Film Festival before it premieres in local cinemas in October.

Petronella believes South Africans are ready for movies inspired by African myths and legends, no matter how disturbing the subject matter may be.

“In fact, I think we are more than ready. And especially this story, it hits home. We need to be telling more stories for our people and ourselves.”

One of the reasons Jerome cast Petronella is because she’s known as a TV actress and not a big-screen star. She’s appeared in the films iNumber Number and Of Good Report but “she doesn’t have a lot of baggage from other roles”, he says. “I wanted audiences to see the film for what it is, not because it’s so-and-so from so-and-so. Petronella was perfect. I wanted an actor who would take the role seriously and push back when I pushed them. And she did exactly that.” Fair praise for a fine actress – but there was a time when teenage pregnancy threatened to cut her dreams short. Petronella was living with her father, Raymond Tshuma, in the UK where he was working as a chef when she became pregnant at the age of 17. She was about to go to university when she discovered she was expecting but packed her bags and returned to SA, where she had support from her extended family.

When her son, Sipho, was two she decided it was time to get her life back on track and took part in SABC1’s talent search show Class Act – and her career took off. Now she’s pregnant again – although don’t ask her who the baby daddy is. All she’ll say is, “I’m in love and at peace.” She was hoping for a little girl this time so she could “do girly things with her”, but it’s another boy. Not that this means she isn’t grateful to be bringing another life into the world. “I’m enjoying this pregnancy a lot more because I’m not as sick as I was with the first one,” she says.

 “And I’m a bit older, so I’m at peace. I used to hate when people said, ‘She’s a child with a child.’ That really annoyed me. But now I’m so much happier. “Besides, I’m a young mother to a 10-year-old boy who’s almost as tall as me – and I’m a hot mom at that! You should see when I go pick him up from school, the teachers and other moms stare at me. When he’s 18 I’ll be 36 and I’ll be looking my best – I mean, come on,” she says with a grin.

The soon-to-be mom of two is determined to continue being a working mother who’s in control of her home life and her career. “Children are a beautiful blessing from God. We can’t use them as an excuse to stop following our calling and fulfilling our God-given purpose.”

Moving on from the horror of The Tokoloshe, Petronella hopes she can star in a witty romcom that tells “a nice South African story”. “I want it to be realistic to South African audiences. Let’s be real, when I’ve gone through a heartbreak I don’t go to a spa with a friend. We may have coffee, but not spa vibes. So let’s tell stories our people can relate to.” Something tells us The Tokoloshe is going to hit that spot – terrifying though it promises to be.