A Q&A with the stand-up comedian, actor and director telling new African stories
Illustrations by Thulisizwe Mamba
The Johannesburg-based comedian, actor and director Kagiso Lediga recently went worldwide when his film Catching Feelings was picked up by Netflix and caught on with an international audience.
With cult classics like the Pure Monate Show, Bunny Chow, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola and a cameo in Die Antwoord's music video for 'Fatty Boom Boom' where he removes a parktown prawn from Lady Gaga's vagina, Lediga has always been someone on the peripheries but never quite gone mainstream. With Catching Feelings he has done just that, using a dark romantic comedy (did Kagiso just invent a new genre?) to tackle issues like racism, gentrification, appropriation, the middle-class, masculinity, and relationships, from the viewpoint of older millennials living in post-apartheid South Africa.
We got in touch with Kagiso for a chat, the transcription of which you can read below.
For those unfamiliar with the Pure Monate Show what made it so special and if released today, in a time of social media and internet streaming, do you think it would have a better chance of finding a wider audience and ultimately success?
PMS was, woah, yoh, the timing was right, kinda post-apartheid and the first time there were standup comedians in South Africa who weren't all old white guys. Having all those guys come together, these brand-new voices, saying stuff on TV that people were only saying in the comedy clubs, that was so cool and challenging. It was like the perfect storm. And it did well because everyone thought it was their show. It was the most crossover thing we've ever done.
In Bunny Chow you cheated on Kim Engelbrecht and in Catching Feelings you cheated on Pearl Thusi, have you typecast yourself as the guy who is unfaithful to women who are out of his league?
That is hilarious. I don't even know how to answer that question? In Bunny Chow it was a John Barker script, that wasn't me. In Catching Feelings it's a guy who is very insecure in himself, really. The guy from Bunny Chow was the opposite, proper Alpha Male, even though it was me with my old teeth, that guy was a woman slayer in the universe of the movie.
How did standup comedy prepare you for acting, writing and directing?
I actually went to drama school so I'm what they call 'classically trained' – a classically trained theatre dropout. But yah, standup prepared me for that naturalism, and writing. I dunno, I think the answer is in that question. It just did, because I have to now write and perform, although I don't have sex with people on stage. I didn't have sex with Pearl Thusi on screen by the way. I don't think I'd be able to do that. I think I'd need to go do some more theatre and acting training for that first.
Tell us about your production company Diprente and why it's important that you turn your creativity into a business?
Things like movies and television are big budget things. There's no way someone is going to be like, 'Yo, just give that comedian 20 million rand and let him do something, man. Yo, let's just do that!' And also, I'm not so fiscally responsible that I could turn out those productions in that way. For instance, Pure Monate Show, which was purely my production, I ended up owing the tax man 2.1 million at the age of 25 or something, so yah, there it goes.
The Obamas recently signed a deal to produce content for Netflix, why do you think they'd want to get involved here?
I think the Obamas have things to say, their story is one of the great stories of our time and it would be a shame not to share that. Netflix is looking for content, the Obamas have great content, and now they need money for rent, you know? After you move out of the White House you realize, 'Ah man, stuff is expensive!' Travelling in private jets is not cheap. That created a perfect storm. Again, more storms.
Mzansi Magic announced that they'll be making a series based on Shaka Zulu's life, how important is it that we tell our stories from our own perspective?
On a scale of 1-10 it's ten important that we tell our stories from our own perspective. It's just the way it's gotta be. Because if other people tell your story then afterwards everyone gets upset because they didn't respect or realize what's important in telling that story, etc. etc. you know how it is...
There's also rumours that Yizo Yizo will become a feature film. Given the opportunity to go back and retell a pivotal South African story, which would you choose and why?
The Afrikaans way of making movies is so good. It's amazing! I'm surprised they don't make these Oscar worthy movies every year. I don't know why they always do these weird ones where they run off to rural areas where there's no black people and have these weird romances. It's like nostalgia. Afrikaans nostalgia. But a story that I would want to tell, or I would want to see, is a HF Verwoerd biopic because that was a very interesting individual. Very interesting.
Catching Feelings does a great job of capturing present day Joburg, is it important to tell South African stories from a modern perspective and not always look back at our troubled past?
It's important to tell many stories. It's important to tell all facets. Because what's kak is when we only tell apartheid stories. And what's kak is the way we tell those apartheid stories as well. Always with that (choral singing) you know that song (choral singing) when the car's driving there and the guy's got the fist out the window and the people are crying… But I feel, like, why can't we tell an apartheid story from the perspective of the guy who was pimping hookers, huh? The apartheid hooker pimp? Everything's illegal! He's this black guy! He's a pimp! Man, that's an apartheid story, and it's an interesting one.
What are the South African films that you're most proud of and why?
Olivier Schmidt's Mapantsula. I think it really captures a time. It was happening during apartheid and is about this smalltime crook whose got a girlfriend who is a maid, it's a cool story, and for me that type of storytelling is timeless.
How did you get Catching Feelings onto Netflix?
Catching Feelings premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and from there the sales agents for the film, because that's what happens at festivals, they said they'd try get us a sale, which they did, showed it to many people, including Netflix, and Netflix made the best offer, and thus the film is on Netflix now.
What will internet platforms like Netflix do to the gatekeepers at the SABC and DSTV?
Internet platforms are changing the game, man. Obviously all over the world these type of places like SABC and DSTV have to shape up or ship out. We already know that DSTV lost 100 000 subscribers last year. And we know that SABC, because of DSTV, has lost a whole lot of things. They lost their dignity, their pride, they lost everything... So with this evolution DSTV, because they have a more serious profit motive, need to make plans with their platforms like ShowMax. They need to become competitive. Otherwise a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. Because the taxman can't bail them out.
How differently did your movie perform at the box office and over at Netflix?
Well, with Catching Feelings at cinemas I was always meeting people who were, like, 'Oh man, is it still out? I need to catch your movie. When is it coming out again?' This would be like five weeks after it came out. 'Yeah, I need to check it out. How's it doing by the way?' Whereas on Netflix I have everyone saying, 'Wow, I caught it man, what a great movie. Wow.' So it's crazy to see how effective this platform is, and not just here, but all over the world people calling in to say what a great movie and blah blah blah...
Your next film Matwetwe is quite a change of pace. Can you tell us a bit more about this project, and why it's going to be another coup for both you and South African film?
I don't even know where to start. It's like a superstar. You know how some children are born and people say, 'This guy is going to go far.' So that film was not traditionally produced, we did it with the least amount of time and the most amount of talent. I mean if you watch the trailer, you'll see, people have been blown away by the freshness and the way it's made, it's a very unconventional film and with Black Coffee now involved, it's just cool, I don't know what else to say, from the way it was made, to the way it was financed, the way it's going to get distributed, it's the most grass roots type of project that has the most exciting commercial attributes.
How did you get Black Coffee on board?
Black Coffee, I called him, the phone rang three times, and then I said, 'Yo man, Innocent Maphumlulo...' That's his name, Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, and I always find people with the name Innocent funny, it's such a funny name, and I've used it for characters in TV shows and such, so I said 'Innocent Maphumulo, can you come check out this movie?' This being who he is, being an international superstar, he said, 'Well I'm not in town tomorrow, can I come on Friday?' And then we have this relationship with this company, Beyond Sound, who has this state of the art cinema, so Black Coffee came with his wife, they watched the movie and then we said cool can we partner, we need some money to finish, and he was in.
Oh, and by three times I mean the phone rang three times, like "drtt-drtt, drtt-drtt, drtt-drtt" not that I called him three times.
What's your advice to young creatives who are starting out on their career?
It's going to be a cliché, or at least sound like it, but it's just keep at the thing. Keep doing it. it's like digging a hole. If you start digging in different parts you're going to have little bumps and little holes, but if you focus on one spot you're going to have the biggest hole and can bury yourself in it. Which is not a good idea. But you know what I mean. Focus on the thing and you'll get far. Some people have multiple talents and energy, but for most of us if you pick a thing, believe in yourself. The kak things happen, people say no, but that's good because it makes you work harder. I think Shakespeare, or someone on a boat, said if you don't see the star because it's behind a cloud it doesn't mean that the star isn't there.