Beyond the River tells the true story of two men from vastly different backgrounds who came together to lift gold in the world-famous Dusi Canoe Marathon in 2014.
One of its supporting stars is South Africa’s favourite bad guy, the artist formerly known as Israel Makoe, now called Israel Sipho Matseke Zulu. He plays Oupa, a respected mentor in the community who encourages youngster Duma (Lemogang Tsipa) to keep aiming higher. Duma must learn the canoeing ropes from Steve (Grant Swanby) to take on one of the world’s most gruelling river marathons.
Last week, #Trending hooked up with Zulu to chat about his latest film.
First of all, what brought about the name change?
When I was a boy, I used the surname Matseke, which is my mother’s surname. Then my mother was traditionally married to Mr Mokoe, who was my stepfather. It affected me a lot because I could not take my father’s surname.
As black people, it affects us. Zulu was my father’s surname. According to African culture, you cannot use your father’s surname if he’s not married to your mother. I decided to use both their surnames because I love them both and they are both my parents.
Your role in Beyond the River is a far cry from playing gangsters in films such as Tsotsi, iNumber Number and Hard to Get …
Working on Beyond the River was like playing my real-life character because I play a mentor in the movie and I’m a mentor to young people in real life. I was happy to be able to relate to this role on a personal level. I found something that I can believe in, which inspired me to create something that other people can also believe in.
What does acting mean to you?
I find acting to be an outlet for a lot of things, which I try to teach the kids in my academy. It’s called the Israel Acting Academy, which I started when I was in prison. I wanted to be able to overcome that time in my life, and I proved that I could make it while I was behind bars. So that’s what I try to teach the kids in my academy, because they come from poor backgrounds and they don’t get exposed to many opportunities. The academy gives them a chance to build their confidence and helps them to develop into functioning members of society.
What are their biggest needs?
A lot of the kids I know don’t have father figures in their lives. There’s no such thing as going to a mountain and being taught how to go from being a boy to a man.
I try to give them some guidance and, by mentoring, we are building a nation. If each one teaches one … teach one and you teach all.
So there are lots of parallels between your life and the movie?
The movie brings across important points such as overcoming hardships. You don’t have to look for power on the outside – power is in our hands and within each of us. Each individual must and should participate in building the nation. It closes the gap between black and white, and it brings two people together. It teaches us to consider one another as human beings, rather than ‘black’ and ‘white’. It brings people together to understand one another’s story and background. It’s important for society to be able to progress – we can’t have constant criticism towards one another.
Did you have to train for your role?
This was a great experience because, even though I can swim, I had to learn how to paddle a canoe, which I had not done before.
On the first day, when I got into the canoe, I fell into the water. I realised that it was not as easy as it looked and I had to learn the different paddling techniques.
I always focus and put 100% into whatever role I am playing. This includes reading and rereading the script and understanding how my character fits into the story. I had to visualise, use my imagination, train and be focused to carry out my role to the best of my ability. I also helped to mentor younger actors such as Lemo, who plays Duma.