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Published: Bonnie Mbuli talks Traffic!, Rockville and industry matters

From the rough and tumble of Traffic!, Bonnie Mbuli slips effortlessly into the glamour of Rockville. Buhle Mbonambi chatted to her

Bonnie Mbuli as Lungi Mlaba in Traffic! 
Traffic! (on eKasi+ and e.tv, Wednesdays at 9.35pm) tells the story of Lungi Mlaba, a brilliant detective who is in a race to catch a murderer. 
Bonnie Mbuli (Backstage, Drum, Catch a Fire, Rhythm City, Invictus) stars as Lungi, who in the course of a murder investigation, finds her own integrity severely put to the test. Not only does she have to solve this case, but she has to protect both her sister and her child from her ex-boyfriend. 
She balances dealing with issues of social standing in solving crime, finding the murderer… and time for family life.
How much time did you spend in the gym preparing for this role? 
(Laughs) Not that much. I’m gym obsessed. From yoga and weights, I’m always at the gym. It’s a mindset I adopted when I lived in LA in 2009. In Hollywood, gym is a way of life because you always have to prepare for your next role. 
You can’t just sit and wait for your agent to call you up about a role. You need to be ready and look good all the time. What I realised is that they have to treat their bodies well because for them it’s their instrument. They need their body to act. 
It’s like with accents – you need to practise various accents all the time so you are ready for whatever role you are going to get next. 
Was getting into the role taxing? It is action, plus a whole lot of emotions?
It was daunting. First there’s the pressure of being the lead, so I had to carry the whole series and in a way the tone of the show. I am in almost every scene, so I couldn’t be slack and have an off day. I had to be on my|A-game at all times. It’s awesome, but it’s exhausting too. The action scenes are hectic – there’s one episode where I’m doing a chase and I basically ran, non-stop for three hours. They had to shoot it from different angles. That’s just how intense it was. 
And then you have the emotional aspect of the show, where you have to be compassionate and sometimes the waterworks. It’s the most challenging role I’ve ever undertaken.
How did you prepare for the role emotionally? 
I don’t think you can. You have to assume the character, become them and see things from their perspective. One thing I’ve noticed in cop dramas is that the characters have big personalities. They all have that one different thing about them, which is important. With this role, I had to speak a whole lot of Xhosa, as it’s set in Cape Town, something I haven’t done in a while. That was challenging.
Do you have a place that you tap into when you need to be emotional for the story?
Sjoe! That’s an interesting question. This is my 23rd year in the industry and I’ve learnt to never ever refer back to bad experiences in my life. It wasn’t helping digging up stuff I had already dealt with just so I could cry on set. It’s all technique. If you need to, you have to create a scenario where you know the needed emotion will suffice for the character and the particular scene. I dissect the role and determine how much emotion is needed for it. I focus on that emotion. Like in one scene, there’s a kidnapping that hits close to Lungi. I wondered how I would feel if my children  got kidnapped. I believe in putting yourself in the characters’ shoes and how you would feel if whatever happened to them happened to you. 
Did you do a lot of research for the role? 
I did and luckily we also had cops on set. Some scenes have real cops and we used real police stations. I also watched a lot of CSI and similar shows to get the feel of how cases are solved.
What makes Traffic! different from other cop dramas?
It’s the first time that the lead in a local cop drama is a woman. So that already gives it something different and an edge over the others. She’s a mother, so that comes into play and she has an interesting relationship with her partner, Songezo (played by Bongo Mbutuma). She’s very physical and she dresses differently from other cops. As you can see in the pictures, she’s like Lara Croft. 
Do you now have a new found respect for the police? 
I do. It’s a dark, scary world and they have to live it every day. It takes guts to do that. What I realised is that in South Africa, we don’t have enough cop shows that show them in a good light. 
Bongo Mbutuma and Bonnie as Songezo and Lungi in Traffic!
I don’t even know how many cop shows there are in the US and they are always the good guys. I think we need that here and we need to look at them in a new light – a positive light. Most of them are generally good people and why can’t we have dramas that show a good side of the police? 
What attracted you to Lungi? 
I love strong female characters. But what happened was the producer (Kaye Williams) called and told me that she had written a role around me and if I would mind being on the show. She told me more about the premise of the show and I liked it. It’s such an overwhelming feeling being told that a role was written especially for you. I felt like after so many years, finally some affirmation. Finally I got the feeling that someone has been watching my work and even with the pressure of having to carry the whole series, it felt damn good. 
How’s her relationship with her partner, Songezo?
Songezo and Lungi are very close. She gets the sense he likes her, but she doesn’t know what to do about it. There’s a nice tension between them. Sometimes it’s great, at times uncomfortable. But they are a good team. Bongo Mbutuma is so good, so underrated and it was amazing to work with him.  And he’s such a hottie. 
How did you juggle Traffic! and Rockville?
It was a tough call. My agent (Moonyeen Lee) helped me out with this. I literally wrapped Traffic! and had to fly to Joburg and start shooting Rockville (Mzansi Magic, Sundays at 8pm) the next day. Imagine moving from cop to society woman, complete with fancy clothes and a weave? (Laughs).
Luckily with Rockville I had already set the tone with my character, Dudu. Now I had to add more depth to her and the changes she had to go through after the revelations of the first season. It’s really so exciting and the best thing is that the producers and director gave me free rein to do what I want with Dudu. 
Bonnie as the glamorous Dudu Bogatsu in Rockville
What do you make of the local TV industry right now?
I feel like actors are now taking the industry seriously. The roles they pick to play and the shows they do – they put some serious thought in them because they’ve realised that the audience is not dumb and has become more critical. It’s great to see that. 
An audience involved in the show and telling you what they think of the storylines. Another great thing is actors are now speaking out about issues that we face and are now finding out more about our rights in the industry. 
The biggest issue for me is why aren’t the arts protected by the government and the law? If they were, it would be difficult to exploit actors. We needs laws put in place to protect us from being exploited. 
Do you believe that the shows we have on our screens right now are quality? 
The thing about this is that the people who make the decisions on the shows being commissioned, are not people who have anything to do with TV. They are not experienced producers, directors or even actors. 
It’s all so political and those who are connected get to decide what’s on our channels. TV is so political in South Africa. 
That needs to change. We have some quality shows, but we can do so much better. We need writers to step up to the plate and I can guarantee that the actors will do so too.

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