RADIANT: up there on the billboards with beyonce. Picture: TOTAL EXPOSURE
Chatting to Terry Pheto, I find truth in the words of American writer Orison Swett Marden, who wrote: “The golden opportunity you are seeking is in yourself. It is not in your environment, it’s not in luck or chance or the help of others. It is in you alone.”
Her unwavering will to succeed and reach greater heights is a thrilling reminder that the sky is truly not the limit. Her new movie, How to Steal 2 Million, has just been released in cinemas across the country.
“I think I need a PA just to help me out every now and then. I don’t think I can afford to keep one full-time because I never know what will happen in my career, especially in the long term, but someone to help out with admin from time to time wouldn’t hurt. I’ll take my time to think about it,” she said.
Back in the country after shooting scenes for her much anticipated cameo in The Bold and The Beautiful. Terry is as radiant in person as her L’Oréal adverts suggest.
You’d never guess that her world is a cobweb of media interviews, appearances and more hustling for new opportunities. To onlookers her life reads like a fairy tale but Terry’s no airhead – her achievements are a product of her sheer will and determination to make it work.
“Moitheri is the name my mother gave me at birth but growing up my family used to shorten it and call me Terry. I found that Terry works better for showbiz, so I kept it. When I go home I become Moitheri, I don’t get much special treatment and I still do house chores because at the end of the day I’m still a simple girl from De Deur.”
Surprisingly, after high school Terry enrolled for an engineering course at the then Vaal Triangle Technikon, now Vaal University of Technology (VUT).
“Part of my subject package in high school included maths and science, so engineering made perfect sense. There was no money for me to go to your more affluent and recognised institutions like Wits or the University of Johannesburg. Unfortunately, I only lasted two semesters before dropping out due to financial difficulties.
“In my heart I always knew I’d end up a storyteller, even when I was studying engineering. As a result, I didn’t feel particularly bad about having to drop out of my studies – I just saw it as another opportunity to pursue this other dream.”
And pursue it, she did.
Soon after, Terry went in search of opportunities in the theatre world. On a random visit to the Market Theatre that felt more like a wild goose chase than anything else, she ended up joining a community theatre group called the Soweto Youth Drama Society and decided to share a backroom with a friend in Soweto where the group was based.
“For me going to live in Soweto was an important part of my journey. Until then, I’d hardly seen anything outside of the Vaal.”
Thanks to the contract work her theatre group managed to nab, at 23 Terry could finally pay for her own bills and not have to call home for money to get by. She didn’t have much – she was still living in the backwaters of Soweto but maintains that she was content. She was doing what she loved and for the time being, that was enough.
“While our group was performing one day we were joined by talent scout Moonyeen Lee who was scouting for a movie. After our performance she called me aside and asked if I had any agency representation.
“She wanted to find out what exactly it was that I wanted to do with my career. After working on me for a while, taking me to various auditions I finally landed the part of Mariam in Tsotsi.”
After Tsotsi won an Oscar in the best foreign language category, Terry continued to work even harder to get more industry recognition and prove she had staying power.
“When your first movie wins an Oscar, the industry becomes more challenging. No one had foreseen the success that Tsotsi would go on to achieve – for us it was just another job. There’s obviously always the pressure to try and maintain some consistency in the work you produce – it’s almost as if your choices become smaller.
“I’m very picky and always try to choose roles that I play very carefully. I’ve really been lucky to have played the characters that I have, because they’ve all contributed to my steady growth as an actress.”
In the seven years that she’s been in the industry, we’ve seen Terry play a range of characters from all walks of life. Her flexibility as an actress is perhaps the one constant in her career.
“The greatest blessing an actor can ever have is the ability to be a chameleon. This is why I refer to myself as an actor rather than an actress. The term actress itself is already confining as it constricts you to playing just female roles. I try to think out of the box and like studying different characters. Even when I visit a coffee shop, for example, I like to sit and just watch how different individuals conduct themselves and respond to different situations. I feel that this enriches me and my craft.
“I could play Mariam in Tsotsi because I felt like I knew her. She was this kind-hearted woman who had nothing, but still gave so much of herself. I, too, have lived in a squatter camp. I guess, somehow, the role was therapeutic for me – it brought me face to face with some issues that I went through in my own life.”
She speaks highly of the Bomb production team that&r