Thapelo Mokoena: Crafting a New Chapter at 40 Through Film, Family and Farm Roots

by | May 14, 2024 | Life

With age, comes wisdom. And with the right ingredients: some serious confidence. Turning 40 has been a landmark moment for Thapelo Mokoena who is getting ready to reap the real rewards of more than 20 years in the industry. Here’s how farm life, fatherhood and the film industry have helped him build a new legacy.

The Intersection of Fitness and Acting

What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Thapelo Mokoena asks. His relaxed demeanour has shifted, he’s sitting upright and his eyes brim with a fierce energy. Up until now, he’s been reclining on the couch at the luxury hotel, sipping on a cappuccino as he takes me on a crash course of how he’s developed his craft. Fortunately, I haven’t pissed him off—it’s Exhibit A of the type of powerful performance he’s capable of delivering in front of the camera—but that quick flick of the switch, a vanishing act where the cool, calm and collected Mokoena is replaced by a tough, grizzled, no-nonsense villain is suddenly disconcerting.

He smiles, breaking character and I feel at ease. “I feel like I can draw that energy from my core,” he says.“Having a powerful core, an engine to draw from lets me inject something extra into my performance.” It’s only recently that he’s had an epiphany about the connection between his reps and his acting. He’s always been a committed gym goer, fitting in gruelling sessions after 10 to 14 hours on set— even now at the age of 40. 

Thapelo Mokoena
Thapelo Mokoena

“Fitness teaches you about your core,” he says. “That’s where all your strength comes from, right here,” he stops to tap his mid-section, “It determines how you carry yourself, how you stand and so I’ve sort of linked this physicality to everything I do in the arts.” He’s down in Cape Town staying at the luxury hotel while he shoots a series destined for the streaming monolith that is Netflix.

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Around us, the hotel’s affluent clientele toasts the end of the workday with sweating, garnished cocktails. The lounge is built around an indoor pool and gym area, and it’s where he’s put in plenty of hours to keep that core firing on all cylinders. But it’s not just about power, it’s about breathing: “Fitness teaches you that, too… how to breathe properly,” he says. “You become a smarter actor when you breathe better because a lot of the strength of your performance is in those pauses, in drawing into those moments of tension.” 

Embracing Complexity in Acting Roles

Fine-tuning his approach to acting is a constant obsession for Mokoena. While he has more than 20 years of experience working in the industry, he’s always looking for ways to build on his craft—especially at a time when he has his sights set on more complex, challenging roles.

“For a long time, I was the good guy, you know, the one who gets the girl at the end of the movie,” he says. “But that’s not all I want to do.” Mokoena has an extensive CV, one that includes roles in Trackers, an adaptation of SA author Deon Meyer’s best-selling novel of the same name. He also had a part in Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom playing anti-Apartheid activist Elias Motsoaledi. Great parts, but they all fell on the “morally good” side of the compass. With his spot in Season 3 of the massive UK series Bulletproof, the gears started to shift towards something darker. “Now I’m excited to be the villain,” says Mokoena. “I’ve got some stuff in the works where, after people watch it, they’ll be like, ‘I’m not sure I like this guy anymore’.” 

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Having established himself in the industry, he’s got the freedom to pick and choose his roles, and that means embracing the challenge of truly becoming his onscreen persona—no matter how twisted that persona might be. “Acting often feels like getting out of my own life and into the shoes of someone else,” he says. “It’s freeing, I get to embody someone else and be outside of myself. In many ways, this career path is therapy—I get paid handsomely to be introspective… really, truly interrogate myself.” When he speaks, it’s clear that there is no room for complacency. Mokoena might already be incredibly successful but in his own words: “There’s still so much I want to achieve.”

“Look, I’m 20 years deep into my career, and I consider that a warm-up,” he says. “Right now, [age 40], this is day one. I’m developing a style, a signature, my brand of performance.“When you watch a Denzel Washington film, you see it and you know that no one else could have done it like that. Ed Norton and Christian Bale are like that, too,” he adds. “I want people to watch me act, and feel the same way.”

Roots of Resilience

Mokoena’s story has humble beginnings. Growing up in Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, he was one of five brothers, and his early years were spent in township and rural surroundings. “I was a through-and-through farm boy,” he says. “The real deal.” His mother, a strict teacher who brought home the same principles of hard work, discipline and respect she expected from her students, drove her children to embody simple but ironclad values. 

Mokoena was put to work from the moment he could walk, helping take care of the household. That meant cooking, planting seeds, cleaning, slaughtering animals, harvesting, you name it. “We were always busy,” he says. “There was never a moment where you didn’t have something to do.” But his existence wasn’t all work and no play. Ultimately, Mokoena revelled in the lifestyle, turning his chores into opportunities for adventure. There was also the TV which, now that we’ve witnessed Mokoena’s long list of acting accolades, had a profound impact during his formative years.  

“Me and my brothers would act out the stuff we saw on TV,” he says. That meant putting on their versions of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies, each brother taking on roles in the pair’s memorable action-comedy capers. Before long, their house had its own “studio”, something which his mother made sure to nurture and support. “I still don’t think they were prepared for the moment when I told them I wanted to be an actor,” says Mokoena, laughing. His parents were supportive, but also steadfast that their children should learn to carve their paths. After his first trip abroad, Mokoena arrived home to find his car had been sold and his father handed him a portion of the proceeds: “He said to me, ‘This is a deposit for whatever you do next,’” says Mokoena. “I was cast out in the world. It was time for some adulting.”

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The message was clear: sink or swim, the outcome is on you. Mokoena said that a constant message of discipline and tapping into a relentless work ethic has been invaluable to his career. He’s never shied away from the tough stuff, embracing the challenges of the film industry—which as anyone knee-deep in the swamp of the world of movies can attest is brutal and unforgiving. “But I wasn’t always calm about it, I was hard on myself in the beginning,” he admits. If he could go back and tell 20-something-year-old Thapelo anything, it would be to relax, not to sweat the small stuff, the “best of” lists, the Red Carpet invites and scathing reviews.

Thapelo Mokoena
Thapelo Mokoena

But hindsight is 20-20, and his situation has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Firstly, he’s found the type of success he dreamed about as a kid. Secondly, he’s married to Lesego-Tshepang—the go-getting and hyper-successful entrepreneur who has been his rock and guiding compass since the pair got hitched in 2012. And finally, he’s become a father: “And now life is much bigger than just self, self, self. It’s now about them, them, them.”

Building a New Legacy

Thapelo’s father Mike Mokoena was a legendary figure. The patriarch worked his way up from a blue-collar start to become one of the country’s most successful businessmen. Not only did he run multiple companies, but he was a founding member of the National Soccer League (you’ll know it as the PSL) and a chairman on the board of the Free State Stars. He died in 2020 after a long battle with cancer, passing away on his son’s birthday. Pursuing countless business ventures, Mike was rarely at home. 

However, his father’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t skip a generation; despite his passion for acting, Thapelo has been eager to diversify his contributions and build on his interests. The actor/film producer is one half of the duo behind Nero Wines at the Bosman Family Vineyards, creating a vino that leverages changing conditions in the Cape Winelands to cultivate a varietal that can not only grow but thrive in this shifting landscape.

He also has his grooming line in the form of Bakoena Beard Care, creating products that draw inspiration from his hometown by using ingredients native to the rural area. “We’ve got aloe, sage and wormwood, the plants that were around me all the time when I was growing up,” says Mokoena. “My products will take you on a journey through Africa, a place that I will always feel connected to.” While the actor is grateful for the values his father instilled in him, it’s clear that his relationship with the patriarch could often be one-dimensional. “[My father] left a good message on how work and commitment can help you achieve anything,” says Mokoena. 

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Embracing the Zen of a Multifaceted Life

“But as a dad now, I want to be someone who is a hundred times more refined… Fathers can sometimes be the most flawed characters, they can come with a helluva lot of baggage,” he adds. “It’s that not-so-fun stuff, that not-so-nice stuff.” Mokoena has two children, young boys with the full journey of life ahead of them. He’s excited about the potential of giving them everything he was missing in his formative years; namely, the love, affirmation and attention he craved when he was growing up. “They’re going to get hugs every day,” he says, smiling. “That’s the way it could’ve been when I was growing up, but now I have an opportunity to fix things, to invest in these unbroken children. 

I want to prove that we don’t have to be shattered to have growth, we can grow from a place of love.” Mokoena credits the birth of his first child as a truly centering moment. It marked a distinct point where his surface worries washed away, and the meaning of life began to emerge like a sapling poking through the rich soil at his grandmother’s farmhouse in Ladysmith. “You become grounded,” he says. “You start to appreciate the journey, whatever the destination.”

Thapelo Mokoena

Getting older? Embrace it. Arriving in his forties, Mokoena is ready for his Golden Years. Yes, life is good, but there are still challenges. Just recently, CBS Studios axed its production of the TV show King Shaka—a multi-million-dollar project that Mokoena had signed on for multiple seasons. Shooting came to a sudden end just 12 days before they were all set to wrap. “Everyone was in shock,” says the actor. “But I wasn’t too shaken.” Age and experience have armed Mokoena with the resilience to weather the twists and turns of the film industry. But he saw a bit of his youthful self in the young actors walking around slumped and downtrodden after the news was announced. 

For most of them, these were breakthrough roles—a chance to get a foot in the door of a world where that door is seemingly always closing. “I said to them, ‘Where in the world will you get paid top dollar for an entire year to meet, interact and be in a room with these names, with these giants, like Antoine Fuqua, who writes and directs for Denzel Washington?

Where will you get everything you need and be paid handsomely simply to be you?’,” he says.“It was sad that the show was cancelled, but the opportunity to just be there was rewarding.” Mokoena knows even bigger things lie ahead. Why? He’s got belief in his talents, his work ethic and his disciplined approach. He’s building on an old legacy to create a new heritage, and it’s the labour that excites him; never the outcome. As a father, actor, film producer and entrepreneur, his life has taken on multiple dimensions. 

Outside the hotel, Cape Town’s sky has darkened from orange hues into a black canvas speckled with glimmering stars. Mokoena is back on set tomorrow, shooting at 5 am. He says that he might squeeze in a quick gym session before heading to bed. His schedule is packed, but he’s unfazed: “I’ve got all the quality ingredients of a Zen life,” he says. “It keeps me okay, it keeps me happy, it keeps me ready for whatever comes next.”

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Catch Thapelo Mokoena in his latest role on the new Netflix thriller series Fatal Seduction. The show was filmed in and around Cape Town and sees the actor starring opposite Lunathi Mampofu and Kgomotso Christopher. The streaming service described the show as a “dark, intriguing series that tells a tale of unwavering passion and desire, unravelling in a dark story built around a web of lies and deceit”. That’s exactly the type of twisted subject matter Mokoena has been seeking out in his journey to truly challenge himself as an actor.

This article initially appeared in the July/August 2023 edition of ‘Fit at Any Age’. The latest 2024 issue of ‘Fit at Any Age’ is now available both in stores and digitally here.

Photography: Garreth Barclay
Styling: Thobeka Mbane
Grooming: Khaya Mhleli

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