Two-time SAFTA winning Sivuyile “Siv” Ngesi is one of SA’s most dynamic performers, whose diverse talents have seen him making waves in the South African entertainment industry. He is a sought after comedian, popular television presenter, prolific actor, MC, and Producer, and a social media sensation.
Siv began performing at the age of nine, as “Gavrosh” in “Les Miserables”. Not only did he tour Asia with the show, but he was also invited to sing a piece from the musical at Nelson Mandela’s birthday party. Since then, his love of performing has taken him from local to international arenas, with him featuring in films such as “World Unseen”, “Zenon Z3”, “Albert Schweitzer”, Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” and alongside Edris Elba in “Long Walk To Freedom”. Not even to mention his television presence.
As an adventurous presenter on the magazine programme “Man Cave”, charming cooking show host on “Jou Ma se Chef” and traveling around the world on “Wingin’ It” .. as host of corporate events and conferences from Durban to Dubai, and online social commentator, he brings his unique Siv brand to all he does. As a multi-award-winning comedian, Siv truly comes into his own. He has performed at every venue, and to every audience possible in South Africa, as well as to rave reviews in the Arab Emirates, the UK, and the USA.
Over and above from performing in his own “One Man” comedy shows, Siv has also produced numerous others. These have won prestigious awards and played to sold-out audiences and standing ovations. Not content with capturing just one market, Siv’s newly formed company, “Our Company” also co-produces the local SABC 3 cooking show, “Jou Ma se Chef”. “Our Company” is currently in pre-production on a number of projects, including a hilarious local feature film, set in Orania, with Siv as the lead.
Apart from his substantial talent to entertain, Siv uses his voice to make people aware of irregularities in our society. Driven by a desire to be the very best he was born to be, Siv Ngesi is a proudly South African star on the rise, and a blaze to watch out for.
Welcome to TV Series Hub, having been awarded IMDB’s Top 10 best working South African overseas actors award, you are an internationally recognized actor. Tell me something about you that people don’t know?
I love musicals, a lot of people don’t know I act, it is quite funny and interesting. A lot of people see me in “Still Breathing” and they are like “What?”. At the moment I have a film on the big screen where I am singing in Hindi and doing Bollywood dancing, another film I am speaking isiXhosa in, Bhai’s cafe where I am pretty somber, an Afrikaan’s film coming out in September and a Nigerian film. I am versatile as f***.
You have a wide range of roles, comedian, actor, voice-over artist, MC, and presenter. How do you juggle this many roles? What inspired you to join the industry?
It is the industry that we are in South Africa if you do one thing you will starve. I am used to a certain quality of life and I refuse to live otherwise. If I just acted it would be quite difficult – there are always slow times even though I have been working for the last 2 years non-stop. I like to challenge myself, I don’t like being told I can’t do something and when I do fail I want to improve at it and that is what I have been doing.
When I was 6/7 in grade 1, the first week the teacher said: “he is disruptive, loud and hyperactive! Put him on Ritalin”. My mother was a principal thank God, not of the school but another one said: “I won’t put my son on Ritalin, I will put him in sports and drama” and that changed. At 9 years old, some black kid lied and said he could swim but couldn’t, jumped into the water and didn’t come out. I was to swimming practice, my friend’s mother, Shelley Major’s mom, saw me walking home topless with my swimming clothes and said: “Oh sherbert, you can swim?” The next day I was shooting a kool-aid commercial, and then a week later the agency was like: “We have a space in our car for one person, it is an audition for “Les Miserables”, it is your first time so I am sure you won’t get past the first round” – I ended up traveling the world with Les Mis. I don’t know how to take no for an answer.
What has been the most interesting experience you have had in your career so far?
Performing for Nelson Mandela for his birthday when I was 9 – because he couldn’t make the opening night for Le Mis – pretty incredible. But doing the travel show around the world called “Winging It” changed my life. I did about 28 countries around the world, being to places that I never imagined, traveling abroad for MNet, got nominations for SAFTA nomination and won Best Presenter. I think every experience I learn from, sometimes it is uncomfortable, but nothing grows in the comfort zone.
Moving into your acting career, you have two recent projects – “Bhai’s Cafe” and “Knuckle City”. How would you describe each movie?
I think all of the films on the circuit are very different. One I play a rich boy that is trying to get people to move out of their houses and he has a love for Bollywood – so I had to learn how to speak Hindi and do Bollywood dancing. Another one is an egotistical boxer, who thinks he is better than everyone and doesn’t care about anyone else. Many people say the character is similar to me, but I am not – I am cocky, not egotistical and he is just a dick.
It has been an incredible experience, people are enjoying the films, I just want people to see the craft I have created.
Both movies tackle important issues in South Africa. What is the take away from both movies?
I think “Bhai’s cafe”, communities should fight back and fight the big man and not give up. At the end of the day to conquer evil is love. “Knuckle City” is about how so many men are so disciplined and loving their sisters, mothers, and women closer to them, but as soon as they pass that they treat women badly. I think we got to find the middle ground just treating women the way they need to be treated. It is basic human rights.
“Knuckle City” went on to be recognized internationally in film festivals. It was South Africa’s entry to the 2020 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. How exciting was it?
We didn’t make it because the people that won were “Parasite” which was in the same category as us. This year “Best International Film” was stacked, we made somewhere at the Top 10, “Les Miserables” was there, some incredible international films were there. This year was the first year where it was changed from “Best Foreign Film” to “Best International Film”, it didn’t have to necessarily be in a foreign language. I think any other year, we could have made it into the Top 5. This year, we deservedly didn’t make it to the Top 5 and I don’t feel bad about it, but it opened in Toronto Film Festival and it was a hit.
You will get it in 2021!
Yup, we coming for it.
“Knuckle City” is also going to be screening internationally. Why should people watch it?
People shouldn’t watch it because it is South Africa, I refuse you to watch a film because it is South African. You should watch a film because it is quality South African film making, I don’t believe in it, the same way as you shouldn’t support because they are black – I believe you should support them because they are quality and black. I am more for quality and I have no time for people coming to watch a film because it is South African – I will push for that. “Knuckle City” is one of the best films out there internationally and vice-versa. It is a certain kind of rhetoric that it is putting it out there and a tone that a lot of films around the world don’t have – it is gritty, grimy, raw, authentic and real. Don’t watch it because it is a local film, watch it because it is a quality South African film.
On television, you star in a show called “Still Breathing”, the South African equivalent of “This is Us”, how does a South African setting change the whole game for viewers?
“Still Breathing” has blown peoples’ minds. People are raving, and it has crossed over racial boundaries I thought wasn’t possible. I thought just the white market would be interested, but everyone is loving it, the feedback has been incredible and overwhelming, reviews are just ridiculous, I think it is going to change the game, it has changed the game. I spoke to the director and producer who are married and said: “Start writing, I will free my time up.” It is a quality production, I am very proud of the work I put forward, it is usually quite difficult to watch myself perform, but I feel like this is one of the best performances I have given. It is only the tip of the iceberg of what I have to give and can give.
Why is it hard to watch yourself perform?
Because sportsmen will never be happy, you can’t be happy or too content with things. You always try to improve and push the boundaries of comfortability because there is no growth in the comfort zone – there is only growth in un-comfortability. When your teeth grow it hurts, when you grow taller there are growing pains, when you break a bone it gets stronger by breaking it – that is what I believe in. I will never be fully happy with the performance I give till the day I die.
A lot of your work has touched on the challenges in South Africa. How does it differ from watching a Hollywood production?
I think a lot of Hollywood stores are clean-cut. We have grown up watching Hollywood. A lot of people don’t know this, but America is 11-12% black, a minority (we are a black majority), so a lot of stories are still being discovered and the black voice hasn’t been given the chance to be heard. There are interesting things like white guilt, identity. I think South Africa has great stories that haven’t been told yet as we have told too many Apartheid stories and it is starting to evolve. “Still Breathing” is about grief, what goes, it is just a f***ing well-written script. A lot of people don’t know this, but “Still Breathing” had 1 to 2 takes in all scenes. The material was so authentic and real, easy to learn, one of the times we would only see it before we start shooting. We could always tell this script is really great when you read it and it comes off the page.
An interesting part of “Still Breathing” is that it is an English series, which is not a common theme in South Africa. How is English series changing the game in South Africa?
I did a tv series 10-12 years ago called “League of Glory” which was one of the last official English ones. I think the English market is ready and keen to get content. The English market is used to quality, we are competing against the Americans. The Afrikaans market is competing against the Afrikaans market and the same with the isiXhosa market. I think we are against an uphill battle and we will continue to fight – the same when you climb Everest or Kilimanjaro, you climb up you take a few steps down to be able to get to the very top. We are willing to fail to get to the top.
Do you think using English as the language means tackling a whole new age group? For example, those that watch Hollywood series will now watch South African series or those that lost the language?
I think the language helps, I think “Still Breathing” is just authentic performance, great music, simple cinematography and handheld like you are. As for the South African international market, my American friends who were down here absolutely loved it.
You also have your own One Man comedy shows which you star in. How do you create content? How do you decide what to tackle?
I wish I could go back to the day I started comedy and just wrote everything that I learned. I would rather a round of applause than a laugh, as old as I get. South Africa is full of content, gaps and if you are not talking about the things that need to be talked about you have failed. I talk about pads, periods, rape and stuff that needs to be talked about. I look forward to next year’s show which is called “Siv-ilized” that will be coming out and has a lot of things that I want to talk about.
Any sneak-peak for “Siv-ilized”?
No, because I don’t know what I will be doing.
How is comedy different from others as a tool for you to use?
Comedy and drama are a lot closer than people think. If somebody is crying, you don’t believe that they are crying, you won’t feel sh*t. If someone tells a joke and it is not believable you won’t feel sh*t. It is a fine line between comedy and drama – that line is truth.
You have your own production company “Our Company”, what do you hope to accomplish?
I have a few production companies – “Our company” is the one my best friend Ashley and I created, we create content and different kind of things, “Prince of Orania” is one of them. I also have “Siv Ngesi Productions” which does stage stuff. All I want to do is create content, while in the process if I make 5 pieces of work, I only need 1 to work or even half of one to work. So continuously, I do not place anything on any other content, I am going to create content continuously and a few of them will bite. Same as a fish with a grenade, sometimes you might catch a fish, sometimes you might catch 50.
So how will you empower South Africans to get an opportunity to get out there?
First of all, it is 2020, everyone has a f***ing cellphone that can record something. You have no excuse to open a door for yourself. The second type of people are making excuses for opening the industry, I agree with you, people should get opportunities, definitely feel like you should record sh*t on your phone and try things like youtube. Second of all, anyone that contacts me and wants my advice, I am an ambassador of City Varsity, I try to help as many students as possible, hire students who need work, invest my time. I am willing to donate my time, hire people, I am willing to give people a chance, but there is no excuse why you can’t get everything yourself with 2020 f***ing phones yourself, there is youtube, social media, there is no excuse not to be creating content.
So how do people get in touch with you?
Your future project is called “Prince of Orania”. What should your fans be expecting in this movie where you star as the lead?
In “Prince of Orania”, I am playing a character Prince, he is a guy who does witness protection, he sees a criminal activity and is hidden in Orania. Orania is a place where no black people are allowed. A script a few of my friends wrote, we are still putting it together, trying to get funding, it will blow peoples’ minds.
Off the screen, you are an activist, would you consider yourself an activist?
I don’t like the word feminist, activist. You know when you stop at a zebra crossing and people say thank you, it blows my mind, I didn’t stop because want to, I stopped because I have to. We have to treat better, fight for people’s rights – if it is an injustice we should fight and speak up. What I do, I feel like should be a norm. I refuse to put any titles to anything I do. I refuse to be called a philanthropist, a feminist, I refuse to be called any of those names. I want to be called a person. What I do should be every day, any person who succeeds without giving back has failed in my eyes.
How do you think the industry can help with this? Other than awareness.
I think most importantly we need male role models to speak out and say enough. We need to create content that is for example, when is the last time you watched a show with a sex scene where someone is ripping a condom open? Or in porn? My point is, we have got to make treating women, old people, kids in the content we are creating. We have to push these things in the content we are creating. For example, yesterday I was doing a film, and a character passes a beer to a pregnant woman. The director was like “Hold on, we can’t do that, it looks like he is passing alcohol to a pregnant woman” – you can’t do that. Those small things, we have to be consciously aware of what we are putting out there. The industry owes it to the community. For example, the other day two kids were passing here smoking, I ran out and was like: “What the f*** are you doing? Why you smoking?”, people attacked me saying: “Why did you do that?” – but it starts small, nip that sh*t in the bud early. I am not an activist I am just a person.
You also give back to the community a lot with several charity initiatives. What drives you to give back? Why should others follow suit?
If you are succeeding at life, you don’t give back, you are a f***-up, you have failed.
What is your own motto? What drives you every day?
What drives me every day is “Why?”. A simple why – why am I getting up? Why should anyone back me? Why should anyone give me their money? Why should anyone book me?. I ask myself those simple questions every day and I want to change lives with everything I do. Change one person at a time continuously – it’s cliche, I know.
Thank you for joining me, with so much under your belt at such an age, what advice would you give to other aspiring actors and actresses trying to get into the industry?
This is not a hobby, this is a professional industry. Treat it like a doctor does, treat it like marketing. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you can’t sell your talents why f***ing bother? Many people are out there more talented than me, millions, but I can tell you one thing – I can sell myself my fewer talents better than they can sell their incredible talents. It is all about marketing – I call myself an actor-preneur. I am an entrepreneur and a performer, I continuously sell my talents and that is my job to advertise what I have and what I can do.
“Still Breathing” airs on Thursdays at 20:10 (GMT+2) on M-Net Channel 101
Photos provide by: CBD Marketing