Blink and you’d have missed Nonhle Thema’s entrance as Cleo on Gomora, but that doesn’t mean that Cleo isn’t one to be remembered.
Here’s Nonhle’s take on her character, why Cleo targeted people she knew and why she’s a great con-woman.
Why does Cleo make a quick buck off two or three suckers before moving on? Why doesn’t she bleed everyone dry?
Wasn’t she worried about conning the wrong person – like Thathi or Mam’Sonto? Or was she big enough to handle them?
Cleo’s character is confidant and powerful. She doesn’t fear much. She is experienced, she has seen a lot of suffering around her. She’s been in relationships with men who are powerful. That’s how she has developed her con. She’s established and she is extremely street smart.
Didn’t she feel bad about stealing from her people, people she grew up with?
Ja no, she doesn’t really care. Let’s be honest – Cleo doesn’t care at all about anyone besides herself. She’s about survival. Her family lost everything when she was growing up. She’s now surviving and she’s building up to get out there into the world. She learned the art of making quick money. She’s got no feelings of guilt.
Was the role written for you or were you asked to audition?
I’d love to say that was a serendipity moment for me, that it was just a beautiful coming together and nothing was planned. The production team at Gomora had this character and they asked me to audition. I was excited and I’d never want to disappoint any team.
I was actually a little nervous. I didn’t know if I still had the chops to do this. I haven’t been acting for a while. I was honoured that they wanted me to audition. I sent through a tape to my casting manager, we discussed it, back and forth between the team and they liked how I portrayed the character.
What attracted you to Cleo? Did you know about her wardrobe beforehand (that she’s designer label head to toe)?
Oh man, I loved Cleo. When I was sent the scripts and synopsis for the audition, I immediately fell in love with her. I immediately got the feel for her, the look and kind of girl she is.
The wardrobe is one of the best parts of Cleo. I actually sent the production team a WhatsApp saying, “The clothes are insane!” Cleo wears suits, glitter, sparkles, diamantes, bling, designer stuff – I could relate with her because I’m such a girl too!
What didn’t viewers know about her? She’s obviously flashy on the outside, but what was she hiding inside that you wouldn’t know by looking at her?
Obviously, she’s flashy on the outside because she’s got to have this flashy persona because she’s got to get the people to invest. But deep down she’s broken. She’s like everyone and I think everyone can relate to her.
She’s trying to survive, she’s trying to hide her feelings under the designer clothes, the cars, the money. She masquerades in this perfection, but she’s broken – her family was torn apart, she’s been kicked down repeatedly, evicted. She’s had to step up and take care of things and be independent. She’s got a lot of layers. There’s a reason she scams, a brokenness, and I would’ve liked to explore that if there was more time.
Who did you know when you arrived on set from previous work?
I was so excited to work with people like Sannah (Zodwa) and Khaya (Sbonga) and the new people who’re doing amazing work and winning all these awards. Obviously, I knew Zolisa (Melusi) because I worked with him on Zabalaza. I really wish Cleo and Melusi had scenes together. But the team are amazing!
You get to change one thing about Cleo – what is it?
She’s perfect as she is! I loved her the way she is and the viewers love her the way she is.
What element of yourself did you add to the character?
When I first got the script, she was described as a Xhosa girl and I was a bit nervous, thinking to myself, “How am I going to play her?” because I’m a Zulu girl and I can’t speak Xhosa.
I sat with my partner and created her (Cleo) as a kasi girl. Nonhle is a kasi girl, a girl from the township, I know how to speak the lingo. I created her to be more Tsotsi, that’s how I put kasi flavour into her. The lingo she throws up, it’s very lokshin, very streetwise so I used the streetwise vernac way – a lot of people don’t realise that I’m street smart. They think I’m snobby or English-prone.