Tongayi Chirisa

17 August 2020

Photography Amber McKee
Style Edit Nathan Henry
Interview Amy-Jo Breach
Grooming Jen Nguyen

“We all strive for something; we all have desires and passions for what we want to do but it’s the journey that makes it exciting. It’s the bumps, the bruises, the lessons that you learn.”

An engulfing heat examines skin and soul as the sun sinks into the horizon, radiating golden light across heavenly plains. It is here, resilient, withstanding the pressures and fever beating down, that we find Antebellum actor Tongayi Chirisa. Stretching wide, agile arms infiltrate hot air. Bare feet embrace dry earth. An inner stillness reverberates all around, daring noise to challenge divine serenity.

Tongayi becomes a part of the alluring idyll around him. An experienced performer, Tongayi is adept at adapting to different scenes. Blending seamlessly into numerous unique roles, he adjusts to any world and fits flawlessly, accepting any challenge presented to him. With a disposition to grow and an eagerness to learn, Tongayi revels in the journey rather than the destination. Moments are the root of happiness for this explorer of life and honesty flows from his fingertips like a saint. Working towards becoming a better man and helping others are the pillars of Tongayi’s being as he strives for a better world.

Far, far away from the jostling glamour of the city, photographer Amber McKee captures the multi-talented Tongayi bathing in the warmth of tranquillity. Open and exposed, Tongayi connects with the earth to feel the freedom feeding his spirit. He carries this centredness with him always, whether relaxing at home or in the midst of commotion on set. Kicking his 2020 up a level - despite navigating global turmoil - Tongayi keeps the fire inside blazing as he experiences back-to-back releases of two major Hollywood productions this year. Released on 10th July, Tongayi appeared as fun-loving Jerry in the highly anticipated comedy Palm Springs; whilst flipping the script for upcoming thriller Antebellum he stars opposite Janelle Monáe, debuting in September under the same producers that brought us Get Out and BlacKkKlansman. Demonstrating his diverse range and experienced acting skills, the Zimbabwean actor adds to his impressive list of credentials as he makes us laugh in one moment, whilst contributing to the powerful cultural movements calling for change in the next.

How would you describe yourself? Who is Tongayi?
Oh my gosh. That’s a very good question. I think you’ve got to ask me in terms of the facets of my life. There’s the working Tongayi, there’s the loner, there’s the one that hangs with his friends, there’s the philosophical one, there’s the spiritual one, and then there’s the romantic. All of those play a part at different times in my life. Right now, it’s the loner, and I am having the time of my life! This quarantine is so good for me. I’m having fun. It hasn’t really affected me as much as others because I’m used to being on the road, so if I’m not on set, I’m in the hotel. It’s no different. I’m just a dude that’s trying to figure life out and have fun while I’m doing it. There’s a saying in my language which means “Grow up and find out”. When we were kids, we couldn’t wait to grow up and get out of the house but now we’re out, we’re like ‘OH MY GOSH! I WANT TO GO BACK!’. It’s like no, it’s too late! You’re out! Live life! Figure things out! I am a joyful explorer of life. That’s the only way I can describe myself. Whatever comes, comes. It’s a lesson, it’s an experience, it’s a moment. I’m constantly wanting to learn. I’m constantly wanting to understand and to be better.

How are you keeping yourself busy during quarantine?
I do a couple of things. I work out. I’ve got my own little set up in my apartment. I do a lot of running, I do a lot of reading, and then there’s a lot of phone calls. There’s been a lot of praying because I think this isolation has given all of us enough time to have a self-introspection - to finally look in the mirror and realise ‘oh, I don’t like this version of me. I’ve got to figure this out and fix this’. There’s been a lot of that introspection which has been great for me because it’s a time to reflect. It’s a time to heal, a time to grow, a time to change and shift mindsets so that when we finally start coming out, we’re far better off than how we went in.

Who do you want to be when quarantine is over?
I want to continue to be open and transparent. I realised that for me to carry things within is a heavy burden that I do not need. The more authentic I can become; the more truth is reflected when people see me. I always give this example: when you meet someone for the first time, they say to put your best foot forward, right? Which means there are certain pieces of you that you haven’t quite revealed, whether you’re ashamed of them or you don’t want people to know. But, are you showing your authentic self when you first meet somebody? When I’m coming with my 100 and you’ve got your 60, if I start to respond to your 60, I’m at a disadvantage because when the next 40 reveals itself, it’s like, why were you holding that back from me? As I learn to become a better man I can only do this for me because at the end of the day it’s my happiness. It’s my peace of mind that’s most important. How the world responds to that is only a reflection of what they need to do or what they need to improve on. We’re all on a journey and that’s all I can ask of myself - just to be the best man possible. Whether it’s in a relationship, at work, with friends, or by myself.

What makes you happy?
Moments make me happy. I’m very joyful because I think happiness is very conditional. When you have a state of joy where you’ve made peace and are at peace within, the happy moments are happy moments like this, where I’m like ‘oh my god I’m doing an interview!’. I get happy! It’s very easy for me to be happy. I get happy about silly things: food, getting my first interview – I got all giddy! I have moments because I’m constantly in a place of joy and a place of gratitude and thankfulness. It’s like ‘wow, this is happening!’. I’m cool when I’m excited and I’m cool when things aren’t going well because there’s a centredness within me to know that this thing won’t last forever, so in the moment make the smart, intellectual, wise decisions, and you can weather the storms.

It sounds like you are excited about life!
I am! I really am! Life is full of surprises and twists and turns but it’s the adventure of figuring things out rather than the destination. We all strive for something; we all have desires and passions for what we want to do but it’s the journey that makes it exciting. It’s the bumps, the bruises, the lessons that you learn. The things that we did five years ago when we look back like ‘What was I thinking?!’ - it only tells us that we’re growing as human beings. What I did five years ago, I’m not doing it now, and if one is continually on that journey, you can’t help but evolve to be a better person.

You grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe, and attended acting school in South Africa, acting there for a while before making the jump to Hollywood. Can you tell us about the highs and lows of your journey?
I’ll start with the lows. The lows were definitely leaving home, but it was also a high for me because it was an answer to prayer. Getting to South Africa - that alone is a major testimony. The day I got my visa to travel was the same day I traveled to South Africa. I told my parents that day, and my dad was at the farm at the time, so I didn’t get to see him before I left but I spoke to him on the phone. My mum was at our house in the city, so I got to see her, packed a couple of my belongings and shipped off - of course with my mum’s blessing! The lows were points of teaching for me. Moving to a new country is always very strenuous and different and difficult. I was going there as a student and I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know how I was going to get to South Africa, but I was like ‘I’m leaving today’. After I got my visa, on my way to go catch a bus home, a friend pulls up and I walked up to him and said ‘dude, I got my visa to go to film school in South Africa, I need money to pay for a bus’. He takes out his wallet, pulls out 300 Rand and gave it to me. I immediately go and pay for a bus ticket and I left that afternoon. It’s crazy but those moments of struggle and uncertainty were building blocks for me being very aware of how to take care of myself and how to manage the little resources I had. They taught me how to be patient. They stretched me. I won’t ever take that away. Same thing when I finally moved to the States - but in America, I actually made it pretty well, other than driving on the wrong side of the road!

Any standout high points?
Absolutely! I had an amazing time in film school. I was very fortunate in that I was a very hard-working student and any time opportunities would arise in the industry where I had to go away from school for months on end, I was given the blessing by the school to go fulfill certain work obligations. That kind of trust from the lecturers and for the school to say “You’re capable” was incredible. I still had to maintain my grades and do my work which was a done deal! From a career point of view, working on my first major Hollywood production blew me away! I remember being driven to set and my eyes were plastered to the window. I’m looking at these big white vans – things I dreamt about in Zimbabwe like ‘one day I’m going to be on a film set!’. When you see it, it’s like ‘oh my gosh! This is real! This is really happening!’. I’m a busybody, I want to see and speak to everybody! They say “Here’s your trailer” like ‘I GOT A TRAILER? OH MY GOSH, I GOT A TRAILER!!’. They say “There are caterers” and I’m like ‘THERE ARE CATERERS? THERE’S FREE FOOD! I CAN EAT THIS?!’. I vividly remember a scene where the lead actor is coming and he’s looking for his daughter and I come out holding my neck and he thinks that I’m a villain but when I remove my hand, I’m wearing a clerical collar because I’m a priest. I remember that day, seeing the lights being rigged, seeing the extras, and working with Sam Neill. In my head, I was like ‘I can’t believe this is really happening’. For me, that will always be etched in my memory as my first Hollywood production. To this day I still get goosebumps when I travel. I trip out over the size of my trailer. When the negotiator says, “You’re going to get a triple-decker”, I’m like ‘A TRIPLE DECKER?!’. I’m never going to feel like I’ve arrived because I know the passions and the dreams that I’ve had, and the fact that I can sit in a movie theatre and be excited about the opening credits, it’s like ‘oh my God!’ – goosebumps! That will always be a part of me. Career defining moments are alters of remembrance for me. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about that.

2020 is a big year for you. One highly anticipated feature film you’re appearing in is the upcoming thriller Antebellum, which releases on-demand on 18th September. Can you tell us about the film and your role in it?
Antebellum follows a young, black, successful woman by the name of Veronica Henley, played by the unconquerable Janelle Monáe. She finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and has to figure out how to get out of it. It’s a beautiful thriller. I can’t say too much about the plot or my character because I might give spoilers. You will find that my character is extremely important, and I think you will gravitate to what he is portraying. I’m very excited about the opportunity that Christopher Renz and Gerard Bush gave me with this film. Just as much as I’m excited about this, I’m excited about their future as directors. What they were able to do with this film and in the time that it came and how it really connected to what’s going on in America right now – it’s more than a film now. It has become a very pivotal monument in all the racial division and the Black Lives Matter movement and the systemic issues that people are talking about. This is exactly what Antebellum is uncovering. It’s not coincidental – right time, right moment. To be a part of a movement like that is incredible for me.

How do you think films like Antebellum contribute to the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement?
With a lot of the conversations that are happening right now, it’s like okay, how do we learn? How do we understand? We have different voices. Do your research. Read these books. Take a look at history. But I know that for a lot of people, visually seeing something in the context of a story might give them a better understanding of the fight on the ground. Antebellum is a visual book, a visual narrative of what the struggle is about, and I would encourage anybody that wants to learn, to have a change of heart, to have a change of mind, and to see a better America within the system where everybody is treated equally, to watch it. This will be a great starting point because it speaks to the systems right now. It’s like when you’re having an argument with your mum or your dad and they tell you the same thing over and over again but then you have that one friend that says exactly the same thing that your parents said and suddenly it clicks. Hopefully, this is what this film will do.

What sets Antebellum apart from other movies?
I have to say it’s the eye of the directors. They’re affectionately known as “film activists” because of the stories that they tell. Some of the films I’ve seen them do visually tell a narrative that is specific to the pulse of what’s happening in society at that very moment. They have this unique ability to be ahead of the curve with what’s going on in America; they’re so connected to everyday life. I feel like they’re the modern-day prophets of filmmaking. It’s such a surreal, intriguing time that this film is coming out in - the release moved from April to September and some things are unexplainable. Nobody knew this unfortunate George Floyd situation would spark up all this - and then to have our film pushed back before any of this happens. Somebody was saying it was all planned - no it wasn’t. Corona hit and we wanted the film to be seen by as many people as possible, so we pushed it back - but then the protests happened?! It’s more than a film now.

What is your experience as a Zimbabwean actor in Hollywood?
It’s a dream come true! I remember growing up with my brothers and sisters, back in the day where we still had to go to a video house to get videos. Those were the days where they had those 10-15 minute trailers with the guy who would speak over: “He was a man…”. Every time we would watch those, as he was saying the main characters names, I would throw my name in there and say ‘one day I’m going to be in Hollywood! One day!’. My brothers and sisters would be like “Yeah, yeah. You’re not even on TV in Zimbabwe, what makes you think you’re going to Hollywood?”. But as a kid, dreaming that, and now I’m living in Los Angeles - I’m not far from where the Oscars happen - I still pinch myself every day. I don’t think it’ll ever grow old because I’m always learning and experiencing new things. This is my first major studio picture, so I’m like a kid in a candy store. I want to try everything, I want to do everything, I want to meet everybody, I want to work, work, work! So, if this fire dies, please come and slap me! Just come and say “Stop it! You know where you’ve come from!”. The dream keeps getting better and better.

What’s your favourite thing about acting? Why do you love it?
It’s the freedom to be somebody else. It’s such a joy. It’s tenacious in preparing for a role and figuring out the building blocks of this new character and world that you’re creating, but the payoff is just as good, if not better. Being able to express yourself in the multiplicity of characters and worlds is a joy. How often can I play a brain surgeon when in reality I failed science and biology? The ability to make believe and touch all kinds of lives and experiences in a very safe way - because at the end of the day it’s still make believe. To live, to explore, and to have fun while doing it, that’s what really matters.

When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
That’s an interesting thing. I remember in junior school, I was part of a drama presentation at school at our assembly, and I was playing a king - I remember because the crown was too small for my big ‘ole head! I remember trying to fit it in and it tore at the side and I was like ‘Ah man! Whatever. Let’s just work with this’. Afterwards, my teacher said, “You’re really good at this!”, but at the time I was like ‘yeah, whatever, it was fun’. Throughout my junior school and high school, every time I did these little drama pieces, I would keep hearing the same thing: “You’re really good at this. This is something that you need to explore”. When I was 16 years old in choir practice, the drama teacher walks in and announces that she would like us to be a part of the musical she’s doing. I didn’t know what a musical was! I just heard ‘music’ so I assumed that there would be singing and drama. Henceforth my introduction to musicals! And she pointed at me in the host of the students and said, “I want to see you afterwards”. So, I go and she hands me a piece of paper and says “Read this”. There were two other students there, but I read mine - I saw something about pirates so immediately my head went to ‘Arrr arrr arrr!’. I had this little thing going on and she gives me the role right off the bat, and it was The Pirates of Penzance. When that happened, suddenly my eyes were opened, and I knew from there; this is what I wanted to do. So, at 16 years old, that’s when it finally dawned on me what everybody else was talking about.

You also have a film in post-production called Trees of Peace set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. What are the key themes? Why are these important in 2020?
They are very important because they’re themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity. Especially with the movements of female empowerment and looking past differences and coming together as females for the betterment of each other. They’re very powerful because when you hear these stories about Rwanda, there’s a very strong element of forgiving the people that were responsible for the deaths of millions and living in harmony with them, and the prosperity and peace that the nation is now thriving under. Rwanda is one of the leading four most developing nations on the African continent, so it was a beautiful opportunity to be a part of that. Alanna Brown, the director/writer of this film, has done a great job of intertwining the story of these four unknown ladies who come from different backgrounds, and are confined in a very small room for 80 plus days. These very individual characters form a bond that’s stronger than sisterhood because they need to depend upon each other to survive. It’s a beautiful story about what the true human experience can be when you’re faced in very extreme circumstances. Wouldn’t it be a wonder if we could get there without atrocities of war and hate and ravaging? For us to realise that we can actually do this when things are good and going well? Let’s build to be better individuals. It’s a wonderful project and the ladies did a phenomenal job.

You have also joined Netflix’s star-studded Another Life for season two as Richard Ncube. What are his prominent character traits? How does he contribute to the survival of the human race?
Richard Ncube is all about the mission. It’s not about ego or favouritism, it’s about ‘I need to do what I need to do to get the job done’. If you happen to be an ally but something happens, it’s like ‘hey, you would do the same if you were in my situation because the mission comes first’. I think it’s definitely going to have people question his motives and critique why he does certain things. But understand that at his core, he’s a soldier first. And his decisions are based solely on that. I think with his actions and all that, it will definitely be up to the audience to decide if he’s a good guy or if he plays for the other team.

You’re an experienced artist in theatre, film, and television, and even sing too! Do you have a favourite medium to perform in?
All four of them have different strengths and qualities that are all appealing. It’s safe for me to say that as long as I am acting, and I am having fun with the character that I believe in and I am fully committed to, the genre really does not matter. Whether it’s film, tv, theatre, or music, as long as I’m portraying the story truthfully, that’s all that really matters. But this is my first rodeo, so I’m excited to explore what film looks like and what tv looks like, especially in the genres of drama and sci-fi. I think sci-fi encapsulates all these other genres - you have your comedy, your dramatic moments, your deadpan, and so on. Sci-fi brings everything into one and I’m really grateful that this is an opportunity I’ve been given to really explore and to kick aliens’ asses! How badass is that? You’re back in that wonderworld of being a kid like ‘yeah, I got a big ass gun! I’m shooting aliens and floating through space!’. The imagination runs wild. It’s beautiful.

You have an impressive list of credits including starring in NBC’s Crusoe and The Jim Gaffigan Show, as well as appearing in American Horror Story, N.C.I.S., Hawaii 5-0, The Guest List, and iZombie. What do you think is your most unique role to date?
I’ll have to say, at this point, it’s definitely in Antebellum. It’s unique for so many reasons. It’s my first major studio picture and I’m in a film with one of the biggest pop stars in the world! With that being said, every single one of these projects has been very unique because they vary from comedy to drama. That’s credit to the fact that I started in South Africa, where there are 11 official languages and I speak none of them except English. Going to auditions, I learned quickly to adapt to whatever they sent me out for - I had to learn. So, from comedy to drama, I didn’t have time to pick and choose like ‘oh I’m comfortable with drama only’, because if I didn’t go for the auditions for comedy, I probably wouldn’t eat. That prepared me a lot for what you see now.

I’m still learning. It was a wonderful opportunity to discover and understand how people move in those spaces. Every film is different, and you have to figure out what that looks like and how that feels and can my brand of comedy or drama fit in with this? Especially with The Jim Gaffigan Show, that contemporary type of comedy, I’d never done it before, so every scene was really interesting where I was like ‘oh okay, this is how I move in this’. Thanks to the guidance of Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan and their vision, they really helped tailor that brand, so I really learned something that was interesting.

Do you have a favourite genre to act in and a favourite to watch?
I can do everything! I have been watching a lot more sci-fi. I’m into the Marvel superheroes and high-end concept shows like Westworld - sci-fi but it’s very high end in the way they create these worlds. I think I have an appetite for that because of Another Life. As I’m watching, I’m learning the genre and how to be a natural fit without looking like a sore thumb. Hopefully my track record will show people that I’m not just a one-sided type of actor, and I can do everything. If opportunities come, hopefully they will look at me and say, “We can put you in spandex or we can give you this gory thriller or drama to give us life”. That for me will be a dream. You don’t know what I’m coming out with next because I’m a chameleon. Keep them guessing! I’m going to flip it on you! I think it’s beautiful that I have two films back-to-back that are two completely different genres so when people see that, I pray, I hope that they see an artist. If you can see two different characters from Palm Springs and Antebellum then I’ve done my job.

You starred in Zimbabwean radio drama Mopani Junction in 2004 that was taken off air at the height of political turmoil in Zimbabwe. For those who might not know, could you let us know the current situation in Zimbabwe?
It is dire economically. We are still reeling from the effects of the Mugabe regime and I think our new president is trying to harness the rampart corruption from within as well as from outside. We still have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, there’s inflation, and the unemployment rate is as high as 89% or 90% I think, it could be more, so that is not good. As we speak, with the lockdown, they’re dealing with economic pressures of poverty and hunger. It’s still a beautiful country, but for some reason we just don’t have the answers or solutions and people are not doing what they are supposed to do to bring down the few individuals that have brought Zimbabwe to its knees. But there’s still hope. Everybody dreams for a better Zimbabwe and I think with the conscious waking up to reality, hopefully we can fight together to bring that turnaround.

What was it like growing up in Zimbabwe?
It was amazing! It was beautiful! We had everything. Dreams were achieved. What you see in the Western world is what we had back home. It was a beautiful time growing up. Like any child, we played to our heart’s content. We had dreams and we would see friends and brothers go and grow up and do what every normal teenager did.

My dad had a couple of job offers in Europe at one time because he worked in the banking sector and he was like “Nah, I’m good!”. That’s how good Zimbabwe was! He was turning down job offers overseas because he had a good job. We had a great life. I was very fortunate that all my siblings went to private schools and we had everything we needed. We own a farm now but while we were growing up, we lived in a city while dad was still working in the banking sector. Now he’s got a little farm where he grows maize, tobacco, and soybeans. We were city kids but we had this massive yard. My dad has green fingers, so even in the city he had this little plot in our yard where he grew his maize. There was this other beautiful section that looked like a little paradise where there was a fountain and palm trees all around. It was gorgeous. You could be outside for hours and nobody would know where you are because the land was so big. Once my dad retired, he buggered off to a farm and continued his farming because that’s what keeps him young! He is continually very active because my dad is something else! 77 years old now but he still wakes up every morning and he’s at it! Let me have that work ethic in this environment in this industry.

How would you define masculinity as a Zimbabwean man?
For me, it’s a state of mind. It’s about how best can you empower and equip the lesser? Not less as a person, but less in terms of physicality and strength. How best can I use my strengths to empower, to uplift, to encourage, to strengthen, to make it better, without using my power to dehumanise, to destroy, to belittle? I think we’ve lost that because people have taken advantage of their positions of power. I think the same mentality can be said about the Western world because we still see the same where when we get into a position of power, you manipulate, you push people into very uncomfortable positions to do things or say things that they would not necessarily say if they were in the right frame of mind. I think masculinity is having the ability to know the strength that you have but not use it for harm. Instead, empower, lift, and strengthen because at the end of the day, that’s what it is to have masculinity energy. It’s not about domination. It’s about cooperation.

The world is slowly opening up again, what are your hopes for the ‘new’ normal?
Let’s have a deeper acknowledgment that we are all flawed. If we’re doing the work that we need to do for ourselves, we won’t be so quick to judge others because we are in the same boat. Fix yourself before you think you have the right to fix somebody else. I’m so glad growing up the way I grew up in Zimbabwe, I was not affected by media and how the entertainment world is, because it’s such a different beast. We don’t have an industry in Zimbabwe, so I grew up learning “wants” versus “needs”. I can be truthful with my experience because if you ask me my truth, I’ll share my truth. If you deny my truth or my experience, you deny me or my existence. I’m going to tell you what I’ve been through to get to where I’m at, be it my faith, be it my walk, my experiences - it’s a part of me. It’s not to condemn or judge anybody but it’s like ‘hey, this is what got me here, if you want to know my story, this is what it is’. Plain and simple. That’s how everybody should be. You be the judge whether what I say matches with what I’ve done and what I’m doing. What I say today is not going to change ten years from now because it didn’t change from ten years ago.

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