Hungani Ndlovu is a 22 year old Actor, Dancer and founder of Sans Group, well known for his role as Romeo from on one of South Africa’s leading soapies ‘Scandal’. I sat down with him at Industrial lounge in the artistic scenery of Maboneng Precinct to talk to him about his upbringing, relocating to the United States at 18 and coming back home to start from the bottom.
Lillian Tshabalala: Can you tell me a little bit about who Hungani is?
Hungani Ndlovu: I come from a Tsonga family of four and I grew up in Bushbuckridge in Nelspruit. My name means breeze and my last name means elephant. I’m an introvert but I have moments where I come out of my shell. I’m a perfectionist and love things done a certain way which I know is not always a good thing! I am a passionate person and I love what I do. If I feel like I have the potential to do something, I’d rather try it and fail than not try at all. I’ve taken quite a few risks in my life and not all have been successful but those that have got me this far so I’m grateful.
LT: You say you’ve taken quite a few risks in your life can you tell us about a few of them?
HN: Sure, it was in grade eleven when I decide that I would do entertainment instead of civil engineering, but once I had chosen my life direction I started slacking in my school work because I began focusing more on my dancing… thankfully I passed! That for me was a major risk because everything I was training for would have subsided anyway if I had failed. Starting my Sans group business was also a major risk!
LT: What is Sans group?
HN: Sans Group is a training facility for the performing arts, I started this in 2015 with the intention to train people who are looking to get into the entertainment industry. we train dancers,actors,presenters and models to understand their craft and how the business works.
LT: Can you tell me about your training?
HN: I trained particularly in acting for film for 2 years at an Academy in the United States, this was directly after high school when I moved to Los Angeles at 18 years old, I have chosen to refrain from mentioning the name of the school I went to in interviews for personal reasons. It was quite tough and not an easy experience, there were a lot of international people in my class and sometimes language was a barrier because some of them were not very good at speaking English. I guess that was also part of a learning curve for me, it definitely gave me more patience because I’m a person who prefers seeing results fast! For my dance training I went to a lot of open classes held by highly acclaimed choreographers in LA then I also went on to Flii Academy which is run by Chris Browns choreographer (FliiStylz) for three months, this was amazing! We got taught routines from Usher and Chris Brown. We got tour level training where you learnt how to dance around an artist and help them look good without shining on their shine. I also went to a lot of drop in acting classes and that’s what inspired me to start Sans Group, because people don’t always have the time or money to go study at big institutions.
LT: Do you feel like you had to grow up fast once you were in the States considering how young you were relocated?
HN: I definitely did but even before that I have always been a mature human being because of how my parents raised me, I’m not into partying or clubbing and some people say I act as though I’m over thirty but it’s mostly because of how I was raised. I learnt to be conscious in the way I use my money from a very young age! When I got to LA I needed to make sure my bills were paid, my parents would send me the money but I had to organize everything and be responsible for myself. The fact that I was alone on the other side of the world meant that I could not just pick up the phone and ask my mom to fix a situation. It was a very challenging experience but I needed it because it taught me about priorities and the things that matter most in life.
LT: What do you do for fun?
HN: I like to do things in places that are not crowded, for example my girlfriend and I recently went to a park where there was a hiking trail and that was the most fun I’ve had in a while. In order for me to have fun I just have to spend time with the people that are closest to me. I think the less money I have to spend to have fun the more fun it is for me. Growing up; we were very fortunate to have had my dad who worked hard for the family so we were wealthy. As time went by situations changed and our wealth would fluctuate so I learnt that you can’t keep up a certain lifestyle just because people know you that way. You have to be true to yourself and know that you’ll have good times and bad times but you can prepare for the bad times during your good times! I’m often called a cheapskate by my parents because even when I go shopping for clothes I’ll start by window shopping at a thousand places to compare prices before making my final decision.
LT: Would you say that moving to the States gave you a different perspective on the entertainment industry and how to navigate through it?
HN: My time there gave me a different work ethic because there are millions of people gunning for the same thing and there are less people back here at home. When you’re there you need to do much more in order to stand out especially if you’re a foreigner. The downside is that when you come back home it’s too different,the way auditions are held, the casting directors, agencies, totally different! I feel like since South Africa is working towards getting to Hollywood standards we should be willing to translate everything they do into our industry not just a few things. People here are not as hungry or as driven as people in the States. What helped me was that when I got back I kept their mindset,I spent my last six months in New York so I kept that ‘vibrant, always busy, need to get somewhere’ New York mentality which is why by the time I got back here I already had interviews scheduled with five agencies.
LT: How did you end up landing your role on scandal?
HN: I auditioned December 2015. I remember I got there very early and I was one of the first people to audition. When I received the brief from my agent I felt like this is so right for me, I could literally knock it off the park! I went there and auditioned and the casting director said ‘cool thank you so much for coming’ after only one take. In my head I thought that I had messed up so bad because she never gave me direction or let me do another take after that…I even called my agent and told her thanks for this but I don’t think it’s gonna come through. In three to four days I got sent in for a call back, I prepared another piece and they gave me one take again and I left there thinking that these people are really playing games with me! I forgot about it, then one day I was sitting in a restaurant with my cousin and I got a call from my agent saying ‘listen you got Scandal’. I literally didn’t believe it until they sent the wardrobe dates and I had to go and see the place and get my script, that was when I thought ‘ok now I really need to pull my socks up because I’ll be working with legendary actors like Sello Maake ka Ncube and all these big names and people who have been in the industry for a long time’.
LT: How did you prepare for the role?
HN: I knew that I needed to make this character very believable so I spent a lot of time trying to understand why he would be the way he is, the fact that he doesn’t have a dad came to play and translates into why he has anger issues and why he’s so harsh. He never turns the other cheek and always has to retaliate. As an actor I had to first understand how it would be executed and why it would make sense for it to be done that way. It took me about two weeks to decide the what,who,why and how.
LT: How was your first day on set?
HN: I was sweating so badly even the makeup artist asked me to calm down because she kept powdering me but I kept sweating. Ntate Sello pulled me aside and had a little chat with me, and that chat gave me life! He told me that this opportunity is for me and I am here for a reason, so I don’t have to stress about anything and that he is there should I need anything or have any questions. It really put me at ease and we had a good time,I think that moment is also the reason why we had such great chemistry on screen. It was very humbling for him to step down from the pedestal I had put him on and I’m very grateful for that.
LT: Has being on Scandal helped you grow as an actor?
HN: I’ve definitely grown as an actor because I was used to shooting with one camera and getting takes from different angles but now on set there are three cameras. So I need to be able to play for all of them and still be believable, I’m still learning how to move with the cameras and make it look seamless. I also learnt about the role that an actor has on set; you need to come on prepared all the time and know what you’re doing because everyone else from the camera men to the sound guys to the director all prep as you also do before shooting, so you can’t come in and not be ready because you’ll be putting pressure on all the other departments. I’ve also learnt to be flexible because when you get your script with directions on them; you prepare and visualize the outcome but when the director comes on set he may have a different vision and tell you to forget about the directions on your script. Soapie acting is also very different from Film and because I trained in film; when I get to set I have to forget about all that experience and focus on the work at hand…but I also don’t want to get too comfortable in Soapie acting.
LT: What adjustments did you have to make when joining a Soapie?
HN: Soapie reactions are very dramatic especially before the add break or at the end of the episode because you need that hook to get the viewer to watch again the next day. I had only done short films before this so with film it’s more like reality and no over extended looks. I’m still trying to understand Soapie acting, it’s more melodramatic compared to film and theatre.
LT: Who was Hungani Ndlovu before this big break?
HN: I was and still am a driven young man who wants to tell stories, I’ve had dark times in my life and I love telling stories because I love making people forget about their problems. Before any of this I was a ‘struggling artist’. I did short films where I would work for free to try and get exposure.
LT: Would you say you’re a dancer or an actor first?
HN: I was a dancer first and I can say that actually got into acting through dancing, but right now my dancing has taken a back seat because I put so much work into acting, this year I’d like to divide my energy and focus on both.
LT: What kind of dance styles do you perform?
HN: I’m a hip hop dancer and South African house commonly known as Sbujwa dancer, if you’ve seen any of my videos I actually fuse them together. I have quite a few videos up on Instagram and Facebook.
LT: What advice would you give to people as young as you who are trying to break into the industry?
HN: You cannot be desperate because when you’re desperate you do desperate things. There are a lot of agencies out there that aren’t legit and if you’re desperate and they approach you; it’s like being tempted by the devil. You also have to know the reason why you want to get into this industry because a lot of people don’t!
LT: What’s the ultimate dream?
HN: The dream is for me to be a globally established Actor, Dancer and founder of Sans group. I want to be able to tell stories from all over the world because we all have common stories and I’d like to shed light on the fact that we are not all that different so there’s no need for us to behave like we are. I am not an activist but I do feel that we need to realize that we are one in the same thing! A lot of times people live for the flesh when there’s so much more in the soul and spirit.