At the very first audition she attended, Terry Pheto booked the job. Though elated, her joy was short-lived: the filmmakers decided to take a different direction and axed the then 20-year old from the production. Her first rejection, it cut deep. The aspiring actress was ready to pack her bags and return home to her family – until an unexpectedly riveting script fell into her hands.
That script was for Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi. A standout audition secured Terry the leading role and, two years later, she found herself seated amongst the who’s who of the international film industry, cheering as her director took to the stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film – a first for any South African feature. “We started our celebration right there and then,” she laughs, recounting how she, Hood and co-star Presley Chweneyagae met outside the foyer to revel in their win and, beset with excitement, never made it back inside the auditorium.
Today she sits in the audience of Cape Town’s Artscape Centre – a far cry from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Still, it’s a familiar setting for Terry, more evocative of her early days performing with a Soweto-based theatre group. Raised in the township of Evaton, she and her family admittedly had very little, and theatre spaces like these became a refuge for her big dreams. “That was what made me want more,” she says. “Because I knew I had nothing to lose.” With nothing to lose, there was no reason for her not to aim for the stars.
Following Tsotsi’s Oscar win in 2005, Terry’s career took off and she quickly began landing roles in international feature films and scoring endorsement contracts with huge brands. Ten years after her breakthrough performance, she remains South Africa’s preeminent film actor and has started her own production company – one aimed at highlighting and empowering women working in the film industry. “I’ve always known there was something magical and special about me,” she says. “I was always hungry for more, always wanting to be the best that I could be.
Standing before the camera – a black tuxedo rather than a ball gown encasing her curves – Terry’s presence is magnetic. Taking direction with immense ease, each glance at the lens confirms her star power. Her charisma is commanding, her beauty arresting. “I’ve never felt like a man,” she says, smiling slyly. Exuding the authority of a woman who is both self-aware and effacing, she runs a hand trough her hair before straightening the collar on her white shirt. “Today I felt like a man – in a very good way.”