Rising star Tongayi Chirisa is best known for his roles in Palm Springs, iZombie and American Horror Story. In a conversation with QG, Chirisa shares some of his experiences in the early stages of his acting career, his journey from South Africa to Hollywood and remaining humble through it all. He provides unique insight into the creative differences between the film industries in South Africa and the US. He also shares a few tidbits about the upcoming movie, Antebellum, which is slated for release on August 21st.
At what moment did you realize that you wanted to become an actor?
The moment I realized I wanted to become an actor was when my drama teacher in high school cast me in the school play, Pirates of Penzance, where I played the Pirate King. I had never been in a musical. I don’t think I even knew that plays with music were called musicals but you live and you learn, right!
I was 16 at the time and was all about singing and sports, but somehow my drama teacher remembered me from smaller class plays I participated in, between the ages of 13 and 15, that she cast me off of a cold read one afternoon. It was such an exhilarating experience being on stage and seeing how my schoolmates responded to me as the Pirate King, I think on that stage at that moment, I said, “Yeah, I can do this!"
What was winning Best Film and Television Actor for the Zimbabwean soapy Studio 263 at the Zimbabwean National Merit Awards like for you?
It felt like the Oscars! In my head, at least! I was young in the industry and only been out of school for about five years, so to be in a room with some of Zimbabwe's premier artists was a very wild and humbling experience. I was going up against some very strong veterans in the game, and there was no way I thought that I would win the coveted prize.
I remember sitting with a friend at our table and cackling all night, about how we were the youngest people in the room, he was up for an award for Best Dance Group, and he won! So when they were announcing the names for our category, I remember I fell quiet and said a silent prayer, cause deep down, I wanted it!
But no matter how much you prepare for something like that, hearing your name being called as the winner is always going to be so surreal. I understand why people are speechless when they stand on those podiums. You don’t think it can happen to you!
Can you share a bit about how you made the transition from South Africa film to establishing a film career in the US?
My transition was nothing short of a miracle. Some call it the universe aligning things for you, I call him Jesus! It was as if the road before me was already laid out and all I had to do was accept the mission!
Transition is never easy, moving from Zimbabwe to South Africa was in and of itself challenging enough. New environment, new culture and language. I was very fortunate that the South African Film Industry took to me and opened me up to a whole new canvas of opportunities that my native country couldn’t do. I believe Zimbabwe gave me the passion to do what I love doing, but South Africa gave me the direction.
With the success I had in South Africa, the opportunity came for me to move to America after I was a co-lead on an NBC show called Crusoe. That is where it all began for me. I will say this, again, that transition is never easy, and my story, like many in the industry, is filled with doing the odd jobs just to stay afloat. I was a valet parking attendant for almost two and a half years before I drove Uber and Lyft for almost three years.
I certainly wasn’t an overnight success, but in the Hollywood lingo, I fit the bill when they say, “It takes about ten years to be an overnight success..."
Establishing a career in Hollywood is truly a great achievement. For any actor to get to the point where they support themselves solely from the craft – it takes hard work, commitment to never giving up on yourself, on your dream, and to take it one day at a time and by taking care of the little things along the way.
What are some of the distinct differences between the two in regards to creative approaches?
Hollywood is all about, go big or go home! There is nothing that isn't laid out when it comes to making the wildest vision become a reality. Creatives here have the canvas to explore and give audiences experience, and there is the backing from major studios that support those creative visions.
The same is true for film-making in South Africa but not nearly the same amount of clout and worldwide influence that Hollywood has.
The one thing that I appreciate about the creative approach with some of the creatives in South Africa is that most of the time, from my experience and my general observation, is that the actors that get the job get it based on the merit of their talent. This is why when you look at South African film and television, the image portrayed is very diverse on what beauty looks like, as it mirrors the reality of what they see every day. Whereas, in Hollywood, I feel sometimes the image/look is fed to maintain a certain status quo, which at times doesn’t represent the everyday life we encounter.
Can you share a bit about the upcoming movie Antebellum?
I am very excited about this film. It is a film about a successful author, Veronica Henley, played by the lovely Janelle Monae. She finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality she doesn’t want to be in and must find a way to break free of the horrors at hand.
Can you share a bit about your current project Palm Springs as well as your role in this film?
Palm Springs is a wonderful spin on the premise of Groundhogs Day that keeps you entertained and laughing as you engage with the leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, who find themselves at their wit's end. They find themselves unable to escape this precarious reality. I play Jerry, one of the groomsmen who comforts Niles (Andy Samberg) when his world seemingly is crashing all around him.
What is your favorite role or film project to date?
Wow. There are too many to mention because all projects have been special and unique unto themselves but collectively have allowed me the platform that I find myself on today. In regards to what is happening in the country right now, Antebellum makes this project my favorite because it is now, more than ever, a necessary tool to educate, remind, and reveal truths about ourselves as a nation, corporately and individually. This is what makes this film for me, a favorite, and a highlight in my career thus far.
What are some of your career plans for the future?
Career plans for the future, keep creating. Keep working. There is so much for me to explore and experience. I have just arrived at the party, and they are serving food, buffet style. I think I will take my time and try out all that's on the table. My future looks exciting, and I am here for it!