For more than 25 years, Clementine Mosimane has been a well-known South African Television actress and is best known for her role in the SABC1 production Soul City, starring in the show from 1994 to 2003. Clementine starred in the M-Net soap opera The Wild as Mama Rose Tladi. She has also guest-starred in a number of Television series including Yizo Yizo, Rhythm City, Onder Draai Die Duiwel Rond and Stash. Recently, Clementine has taken on the recurring role of Aunt Thembi in the soap opera series Zabalaza, and also starred in the eTV telenovela Gold Diggers. Now, Clementine has lent her extraordinary talent to starring as Poppie Nongena in Christiaan Olwagen’s screen adaptation of Elsa Joubert’s novel, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. With the film releasing nationwide on January 31st, Clementine has already been awarded the 2019 Silwerskerm award for Best Actress in a Feature Film for her performance in Poppie Nongena.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
When I was younger, I wanted to become a doctor. When SABC was putting together programmes, they had people who were coming to our schools and they would have people be audiences for music or whatever. There were two gentlemen who befriended me at the time and they said, “There is an audition coming up, we are looking for an anchor for a talk show.” I decided to give it a try. It was a youth programme and by the grace of God, I got that role. I was still at school, so we were doing the recordings on Saturdays. I never went to drama school, I was still in high school and I thought, “This is interesting. I meet different people of different calibres and get to interview them. This is something new.” That’s how I fell in love with this industry. From that show, I got an audition to be a presenter on a children’s show. When I went, instead of being the presenter, I ended up being the chicken voice because the desk that was made for the person playing the chicken was small and she was big. I was very petite. The producer said to me, “Clemy, you are so small and the box is so small. Will you please play the chicken?” I said, “Ok.” For me, it was an advantage because I knew nothing about puppeteering and I had to change my voice into a chicken voice. I did that for five solid years. I thought like a chicken, I behaved like a chicken and it was nice! From then, I went on an audition for a Tswana drama. I got a role in it and I played that for six or seven years and that’s how my career started in this industry.
When you were first starting out, did you ever think that it would turn into a 25-year long career?
Never. Because it wasn’t only acting, I was also doing dubbing, translations, language advising. I never thought that one day, I’d be a lead in a film and a true South African film telling a truly South African story. I never dreamt of it. I just never thought of it. Even when I went to the auditions, I remember I couldn’t make the initial audition and I said to my agent, “Will you please ask them to give me a day when I can come when they are still auditioning? Maybe when they are doing callbacks?” They gave me a date and I went and I took my mom’s old outfits and I went to the audition. Karin [van der Laag] was auditioning it and I did the phone scene where Poppie is talking to her mother.
At least it wasn’t any of the really emotionally demanding scenes.
Yes, but then the emotion had to be right. I didn’t know what they were looking for. After three weeks, they gave my agent a call and asked me to come to Cape Town for a callback. I got to Cape Town and got to meet Christiaan [Olwagen] for the first time and he started asking me about my background, where I grew up, my religion. We just started to talk. Then he said, “Let’s go into the studio.” I get there and it’s only me and Chris Gxalaba who was playing Stone. There was no one else. I thought, “What kind of callbacks are these?” I said to Chris, “Did they tell you this was a callback?” He said yes and I said, “It doesn’t look like a callback.” We went into the studio and they told us it was a screen test and they wanted to see if we were compatible. It was my first time working with Chris. I’ve always admired his work and I was like, “This is ours! We are taking it!”
How familiar were you with the original source material? Had you read the novel or seen the play?
I had seen the play. Nomsa Nene was playing Poppie for something like seven years. I had seen one of her performances, then I got to read the book back then, forgot about it and then here comes Poppie Nongena again. I went back to the book and after a few weeks, Christiaan phoned me and goes, “Clemy, I want to let you know that you will be playing Poppie and I wanted you to hear it from me.” I was so excited. I was in a shopping mall and was like, “YES!” I got the script, went through it and to be honest, as I was reading the script, even though I had read the book, I was asking myself, “Will I be able to play this character?” As much as I wanted to play her, would I be able to? As I was home, going through the script, I was also rehearsing her character and her mood and I said, “The director is there to guide me.” That’s how it happened.
Because you are stepping into the shoes of such an iconic character, did your process have to change at all? Do you have a traditional process when you approach material?
I deal with every character differently. You can’t use the same format. You can’t use the same material because people are different and have different emotions. Our lives are different. I had to approach her in a different way, as realistic as she was. Christiaan would always say to me, “You are not going to play this woman like any other woman that you’ve seen before. We are just going to play her.” I trusted him. When you act, you cannot see yourself. Your director is sitting there, watching you or watching the monitor and can tell you best if you are on the right track or not.
In terms of this movie, you are in every single scene and it is an incredibly emotionally taxing performance. How were you able to manage that?
I shocked myself at times. I don’t know how I do it. Only God knows how I do it. I go to that emotion and if I had to do a crying scene, Christiaan would give me the levels. There were times where he said, “I want it from the core.” Remember, it’s not only one take. Sometimes it’s 17 takes and I would have to say, “Give me time, let me go back to that space.” And then it just happens. Somebody last night said for us to do this movie is about timing. I think, just from heaven, God decided that this was the timing. It was me who was going to play this role, it was Christiaan who was going to direct it and that was it. Just the timing of it, that’s how it happened for us.
During this year’s Silwerskerm Festival, there have been so many discussions surrounding who should be telling who’s story and why? Why do you think that Christiaan was the perfect person to helm this project?
I think that because he is young his ideas are young, his style is different and it’s because he takes pride in what he does. He wanted to do the best in executing this film. When we were rehearsing with Christiaan, he knew everybody’s dialogue. I would listen to his conversations when he spoke to the crew. He has had meetings with the art department and wardrobe. Come the day of the fitting, Christiaan is there and he knew exactly the colours he wanted for when Poppie goes out, for when she’s with the Swanepoel’s, for when she is walking. He knew exactly. Come to being on set, he knew exactly what colour paint he wanted on the wall, what kind of table cloth he was looking for. If a flower didn’t work, he’d say, “Get rid of it.” He knew exactly. That is what humbled me about it. This guy is taking so much pride in what he does. He isn’t just doing it for the sake of doing it. He wants to tell a story. I looked at it and everything was just blending with the story. It was amazing.
This film is also quite unique in the sense that your character speaks three different languages during the course of the film. What was it like to work within that context?
It was fun. I think that’s how I speak even in life. My advantage is that I grew up in Soweto and my Ouma, my mom’s mom, was born and bred in Cape Town. She spoke fluent Afrikaans. I went to a Tswana school and in Soweto, we are so inter-mixed. Your neighbour is Xhosa, the next one is Zulu, the back one is Tswana. As children, we grew up playing together and learning each other’s languages. I just find languages easy and I love languages. I really do. I think it’s an advantage for an actor to have that advantage of speaking different languages.
At the Q&A after the film’s screening, you mentioned that the relationship between the two women, Poppie and Mrs Swanepoel, lies at the heart of the film…
What I was saying was that as much as South Africa has a history of its Apartheid system, people of our age, we were not responsible for the bi-laws that was written down whether we are black or we are white. At the end of the day, those bi-laws have caused so much division but I feel that if you didn’t take the pen and make that decision, you don’t have to carry the blame. You look at Anna-Mart [van der Merwe’s] character, Mevrou Swanepoel, she actually took the time to say, “I am going to walk this road with you and fight this battle with you. I am going to try and make a difference.” But whatever she did, she hit a wall. The colour didn’t work for her, what was worse was that she was female. She took the time to sit down with Poppie and say, “Let’s talk. What is going on? How can I help? I can see now that this is where you are. Let me try my best.” It was not a political thing. It had nothing to do with colour but it had to do with, “We are women and I can feel what you are feeling. I can see that something is going on and I want to reach out and know.” That scene where she broke down, it’s women purely talking. That’s how it felt to me.
What has playing this role taught you? What did you take away from this experience?
This experience has taught me more humility, more humbleness, to embrace, to love, to be patient. Look at Poppie. She was carrying so much but she still kept her composure. Even when she left home knowing that things weren’t fine in the township or with her family, she still goes into work, doing her work diligently, singing to Chrissie, brushing her hair. She fills her space with a presence of Chrissie. She fills her space with her work. That has taught me that whatever you are going through, carry whatever you are carrying with pride and dignity.
It’s interesting that you mention the word dignity because that’s what a lot of people were saying about your performance and that you portrayed her with such dignity. Was that something specifically that you wanted to portray in this film or did it happen organically?
Organically I think it just kind of happened but also, I have seen a lot of… When you are a woman, and you come from a domestic violence home or an abusive relationship, when you walk in the street, nobody can tell until you open your mouth and decide to speak. That is how I see every woman in South Africa, irrespective of colour. We are carrying so much but when we go to our different places of work, nobody can tell. Nobody can see the scars until you decide to undress and go, “These are the scars that I have on my back.”
The majority of your career has been spent working on TV series. What is it that you enjoy about working within that medium?
I love acting. I love telling stories. I love bringing characters to life but doing a true film and an authentic film like Poppie was challenging in a way because I had to tell a story of someone who was real. It was not made up, it was not fiction. Having a director like Christiaan who went to meet Elsa Joubert, who read the book and who wanted to know, “If I get stuck here, where am I going to?” Because he started the story in the middle of it and towards the end. Not at the beginning where she had a vibrant family and when she was young. When you tell such a story, you have to be on point. You can’t break rules. You have to be on point.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
My wish is for people to know what we, as women, what our mothers have gone through in the past, in this present time and in the future and for people to respect each other. And for women especially to respect each other as women and not pull each other down, not criticise each other or be judgemental towards each other. It is easy to be judgemental when I don’t know what you are going through but if you can be like Mrs Swanepoel who takes time to go, “Poppie, what is going on?” And learn to open up because some of us don’t open up, we just learn to keep secrets forever. I think that is one thing that damages us as people. Let us just embrace each other’s problems and be there for one another and walk the road together. Anger doesn’t help. Poppie had her own way of dealing with her own anger. We are quick at seeing those faults in people and those differences in people because you are outspoken. I don’t care how outspoken you are but let me make it my pain and my effort to understand where you are coming from.
In the context of your career, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received was, “Love your work, remain humble and respect your fellow actors.”
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
I think there is much more coming. We have a channel that is coming and it is going to be different from the channels that we have now. I think it will be a channel that is telling stories with dignity and not just making stories for the sake of making stories.
Who or some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’ve loved Anna-Mart from the time I saw her on TV and theatre stages. I love her performance. I love her. I’ve had people like Nomhle Nkonyeni, who has passed on. I’ve had people like Thoko Ntshinga. People like Katinka Heyns. Those are the people I look up to because they have walked the walk and they’ve come before me. There was a lady I used to like in Egoli, Brümilda van Rensburg. I loved to watch her!
Poppie Nongena will release in cinemas nationwide on January 31st 2020.
You can follow Clementine on Instagram.
Special thanks to Jenny Griesel.
All photos were taken on August 24th 2019 at The Bay Hotel.
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