Senzo Radebe on his role in Shaka Ilembe - 'It felt like it was actually written for me'

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Actor Senzo Radebe plays King Senzangakhona is the historical drama series Shaka Ilembe.
Actor Senzo Radebe plays King Senzangakhona is the historical drama series Shaka Ilembe.
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As a young personal trainer from Alexandra, Senzokuhle Radebe – who mainly goes by Senzo Radebe – couldn’t even have dreamed of some of the success he's enjoying now.

From his breakout role as Sthembiso ‘Sthe’ Gumede on the hit soap opera Muvhango to taking on the task of bringing Shaka Zulu’s father, King Senzangakhona kaJama, to life in the upcoming historical drama series Shaka Ilembe, the past few years have been a wild ride for Senzo.

Currently a staple on Mzansi’s little screens since taking on the role of the sharpshooter Zibuko alongside heavy-hitter acts like Sannah Mchunu and Siphesihle Ndaba in the third and fourth seasons of Gomora, Senzo attributes his time on Muvhango as how he got his footing in the acting world.

READ MORE | The meteoric rise of Sannah Mchunu – the life lessons she's learnt and her unexpected success on TV

We caught up with Senzo to find out more about how his life has changed since his personally curated role on Muvhango.

Translated from isiZulu, Senzo explains, “Muvhango set the foundation for my career, and I don’t think I would be where I am right now if I didn’t take up the role of Sthembiso on Muvhango. You see, it was actually fate, it wasn’t by my doing. I believe it was by the Higher Power that I got such a huge opportunity because I thought I would perhaps become a personal trainer or something like that, so my life has really, really changed, there is nothing else I could see myself doing with my life besides for this."

Catching him in between PR appearances for what is arguably the most anticipated historical pieces to come out of South African television, it’s clear that Senzo has been booked and busy.

With production wrapped for Shaka Ilembe, Senzo gives us his insight into the audition process that landed him the role of Senzangakhona.

“There’s guy by [the name of] uNhlanhla Mdake, he’s the man who helped me bring the character to life, he gave me all the information I needed about Senzangakhona but, in terms of getting it, I went through four or five call backs just like any other actor and every time I auditioned it was a different feeling. On the last call-back I felt that this is actually mine, because every time I did it, it felt like it was actually for me. You know how actors, half the time, they have to actually attack it to get into it, everything just flowed smoothly with this character.”

Although a colloquial isiZulu speaker, one of the main challenges Senzo faced when portraying Senzangakhona was staying true to the language of the time.

Speaking on the difficulties he had to overcome, Senzo says “The language – it’s not the Zulu we speak, it’s very complicated, the language is totally different to the colloquial Zulu we speak today… I had to really familiarise myself with the language, classic Zulu. I had to really read the role and make sure that I understand the language and say the words with conviction.

“[Also] working with people who really understand the Zulu culture and having the pressure of hoping I do things correctly but luckily I had people to help me, and the actors were able to help me,” he shares.

Portraying Senzangakhona alongside Nomzamo Mbatha’s character Queen Nandi – who is the mother of Shaka Zulu – Senzo recalls shooting intimate moments with her and the kind of messages he hopes to portray through their relationship.

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“My relationship with Queen Nandi is very different… firstly Nomzamo’s surname is Nxumalo so we share a surname, so I take her as my sister and our relationship is beautiful and on the other side Senzangakhona and Nandi are in a relationship, so I have to make that switch and be able to look at her as someone who loves her romantically.

“That switch has been a bit of a challenge from time to time, there are a lot of emotions, but it’s been a beautiful journey, and I’m sure the viewers will see it. Sometimes people can see where there is no love in a relationship but here they will see that there is definitely love,” Senzo reveals.

Having spent a few years rising the ranks of the entertainment industry, Senzo tells us about two key takeaways that he’s learnt to keep him grounded.

“One: there are no friends in the industry, no one is there to just help you, they all want to benefit and look after their own, everyone wants a free job and there is always competition, sometimes healthy, sometimes not.

“Secondly you have to constantly work on your skill, there are always new actors coming up who are highly skillful, you cannot become complacent, and you must work on your craft every day. People must also know the difference between people who want to act and people who want to live comfortably as I’ve met a lot of people who say they want to act but they actually just want the lifestyle.”

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