Interview by Lolwetu Pakati, Images courtesy Netflix
In the vibrant world of South African cinema, there are few names as illustrious as that of Israel Matseke-Zulu. With a career spanning decades and a repertoire of iconic roles under his belt, Matseke-Zulu has captivated audiences with his undeniable talent and powerful on-screen presence. HYPE had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with this acting veteran to discuss his involvement in the highly anticipated Netflix reboot, iNumber Number: Jozi Gold, where he assumes the role of associate producer.
Israel Matseke-Zulu’s passion for acting blossomed in his early years in Alexandra, a neighbourhood brimming with artistic inspiration. Exposed to the stories of cinema legends like Bruce Lee and Robert De Niro, and fuelled by his mother’s captivating tales and live band performances, he developed a profound love for the art form. Throughout his remarkable career, Matseke-Zulu has left an indelible mark on the South African film industry. Renowned for his roles in ground-breaking productions such as Yizo Yizo, iNumber Number, Four Corners and Tsotsi, he has displayed a deep connection to characters rooted in the harsh realities of South African society, shedding light on the issues of crime, drugs and gangsterism.
What inspired you to get into the profession of acting?
Growing up, our only entertainment was the bioscope, hostels and youth clubs. I grew up influenced by the arts in Alexandra. Alexandra is very rich artistically. I grew up seeing live bands. Our parents would tell us stories about the bioscope; they would talk about Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro. My mother would often discuss films during our family quality time, which is how my love for the art form developed.
You are a South African acting veteran, and you’ve played many iconic roles in productions such as Yizo Yizo (1999), iNumber Number (2013), Four Corners (2013) and Tsotsi (2005). Most of your chosen roles centre around the villain trope. Why do you gravitate towards those characters?
Those characters are inspired by the society in which I grew up. It’s a national issue – all our communities face problems related to crime, drugs and gangsters. I presented myself as a gangster because I wanted to eradicate criminal behaviour. I tried to teach the younger generation about things they may not know but will encounter, such as crime, prison and drugs. The reason I am drawn to these characters is because I grew up under that influence. I believe that is what inspires these characters you are asking about.
In the original airing of iNumber Number, you played the character of Skroef, a harsh gangster who did everything from a high moral standpoint. What compelled you to take on this role in the production?
That’s an interesting one, because I actually got that role because I lost out on receiving an award (Best Supporting Actor). Unfortunately, my name was never announced as the winner. Before, the presenters were joking and saying, “Who do you think will take the award?” Then everybody said, “Israel.” However, because I know how the system works, I was prepared for the disappointment. Then, a woman just stood up. She was actually angry. Before she left the award ceremony, she came to me and said, “We’re going to work with you; somebody will call you.” The next day, I received a call, and that’s when I met Donovan, the first director of the production. He told me about this 10-year-old script that wasn’t originally called iNumber Number. That’s when I became very involved and started doing things beyond just my role. I got involved in script development, casting, dialogue translation and location scouting. I was also part of the casting directors who selected the characters I would work with. Then I decided to play Skroef. I was the one who gave him that name.
What many people might not know is that you are the associate producer of the Netflix reboot iNumber Number: Jozi Gold. What has the experience been like, going from being in front of the camera during the original production to being exclusively behind the lens this time around?
Whenever I work on any production, I somehow showcase this side of me that many people don’t know about. I’m also a writer and I’m capable of directing. It almost felt natural for me to take on the role of associate producer and step back from acting in the reboot. I was surrounded by good people who recognised my dedication, discipline and commitment to my work of art. They provided me with a platform to become an associate producer. I believe the team I worked with is excellent. They are not jealous people; they see the potential. It wasn’t easy; I have worked with people who underestimated my intelligence. It is rewarding to perform tasks within this role behind the scenes, such as being the music supervisor. I ensure that the music of the film also strengthens the production’s message. It’s another level. I’ve seen myself growing, even though it took time.
Working on an international streaming platform like Netflix opens up the opportunity for the visibility of South African cinema on a global scale. One thing about the projects you’ve been involved in is that they have received international acclaim and recognition. How do you think international audiences are going to receive this reboot?
I believe the show is going to be received very well because we had an excellent team putting the whole production together. I also believe in my vision as an associate producer to be able to create a piece of work that transcends the borders of this country. It’s so important for us to get the support, the backing and the funding from such platforms in order for SA film to reach wider audiences. We want to rebuild the foundation of our industry so that you’ll now see foreign actors – maybe from places like the US – come to South Africa to pursue their acting careers, instead of our local actors constantly leaving our industry.
What is your opinion on the current state of the South African film and television industry?
We have very talented actors. We always have had, but the way the industry is now lacks support. From the government, to actors not supporting one another, to funding – there is not enough support. It’s sad because there are a lot of opportunities that can be explored. Everyone wants to be an actor, only to find that there are a lot of avenues in the industry. We’ve got catering; we’ve got departments of make-up, set design and music scoring. People just know the industry as going to auditions, getting work, becoming a star, buying a car, living in a suburb and that’s it – they’ve achieved. And it’s more than that. I remember when I entered the industry, people were not getting paid. People were acting for the love of it. People could not afford houses; people never had cars. There was a generation of performers who had nothing. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to become one of them, so what did we do? We changed that. I think the solution we need is personal strategy; personal development. It will never be solved collectively because they don’t listen to us when we complain about the mistreatment the industry receives. We can’t go to the government or Department of Arts and Culture. We hear too many stories about budgets being allocated and then the money disappears or is only given to one production company. It’s a chain. It’s a spiderweb that has been created. If you are not part of that system, then you need to make it on your own.
What advice would you give aspiring actors and filmmakers if they want to break through in the industry?
People must be self-made. I believe in doing things for myself. The money that you get from hustling – save it. Go and buy a camera. Go and shoot something that has meaning. First focus on the things that are not expensive to get, such as talent. Use that talent and showcase it as much as possible. It’s not an easy sector to enter. There are many resources that you must have consideration for. I just want to put it straight. I don’t want to go left and right – greed kills the spirit of the industry; so many people will try to discourage you.
What is up next for you? Do you have any other projects that we can expect from you in the near future?
In the near future… Sometimes, I like to hide what I’m doing because of the society that I come from. But I’m not scared. I’m a filmmaker. More films to come. As long as I’m still alive, I’m not getting old sooner. I believe I’m still fresh. I will also be releasing a book, which will be adapted into a screen production. I see myself running a school – a school of art that will also teach the technical side of the industry. Not only the performance, but the production as well. Yeah, that’s it. I see myself being the Tyler Perry of South Africa. I’m developing myself to be like one of those guys. I’m very inspired by the Americans and the way they hustle. That’s the way I want to hustle. Believe me, even though it’s very hard for them, it’s 100 times harder in our country. But a challenge is good. A challenge will give you the courage to follow your dreams.
You can catch iNumber Number: Jozi Gold on Netflix now.