Queen Sono star Pearl Thusi on telling an African story and the spy drama's season finale
Queen got her answers in the end, but it was quite the heartbreaking resolution for the South African spy.
While she finally got to the bottom of her mother’s murder (it was a government-backed assassination), Queen took a few big losses at the end of the first season of Netflix’s first African original series. Her fractured relationship with her best friend William deteriorated further (albeit in an effort to keep him safe from the dangerous life of a spy), and season villain Ekatarina, killed Mazet, Queen’s grandmother. Now, she must mourn the grandmother she loved and come to terms with more complicated feelings about her mother’s legacy while planning her revenge.
We spoke to Queen Sono star Pearl Thusi about what telling this story means to her as an African artist, what her character feels about her ex Shando’s working with Ekatareina, where the drama can go next, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How early on were you involved in Queen Sono and in what capacity?
PEARL THUSI: I always say that I kind of thought brought a seed and Kagiso Lediga, who is the showrunner, basically fleshed it out, built on that and made it what it is today with the help of the entire team, of course. I went to his house one day and said, “Hey, this is what I want to do.”
I’ve always said I want to be the “African Tomb Raider,” that particular vibe. I love the empowered nature of the character and movie; I also really love Angelina Jolie. Being part of something of that nature has always been a dream, and I showed him a video of some stunt training for a movie called ‘The Scorpion King: Book of Souls’ and he was really impressed.
Can you explain the importance and meaning of African people actually having narrative control?
I reached the point in my career after doing shows like Quantico and a few movies, where I didn’t want reverence and respect for my career to come from American validation. I'm trying to push, on my personal level and even using my career, that Africans need to be proud of Africans while they are still in Africa. I look up to and really have a lot of respect for the Nigerian culture, they really have a lot of pride and a strong spirit of self-belief. They have a really strong entertainment industry, whereas specifically in South Africa and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, people want validation from first-world properties and industries.
For example, Black Coffee does a song with Drake and all of a sudden, he's more popular than what he was before. That is very important, however, we can be superstars right here at home, like Davido and Burna Boy, who have spread their wings throughout the world, but the core of their music and identity is Nigerian.
Queen is an interesting spy, different than her co-workers, a rule breaker. Given your work on Queen Sono and Quantico, how do you think she compares to other spies on TV and in film?
With Queen, she’s kind of an anti-hero. She’s trying to live according to her own rules, so she bends the rules where she can and lives on the edge. She enjoys that. Queen is the type of spy you’ve really never seen before. First of all, she’s a black woman, of which there are very few, working amongst many men and taking a leading role in terms of creating the plans and thinking on her feet. Also, on a third world continent where things look different, for example the technology, even the roads and buildings.
For me, it wasn’t initially part of the plan, but the amount of depth in her character is very powerful and I hope that makes all of the difference.
How much of the fight scenes do you do yourself? What were shooting those scenes like?
I'll say like 90 or 95 percent of it is me because I really enjoy it, but there’s stuff they just won’t allow me to do. That’s when our incredible stunt team comes in, but there isn't anything apart from Queen falling on the glass table – I did everything except that if I remember correctly. It was very empowering and pretty cool to have the entire team believe in me the way that they did.
There are many amazing touches on the show, the clothes, the languages, but I want to focus on the music, given your work covering African artists and making music. How do you think the music from the continent harness the essence of the series?
The story is driven a lot by the music because the sounds, like the story, is something people have never heard before. African music all over the continent is very unique, very strong because of the type of messaging African music has – even when it's playful or fun – there's usually an underlying incredibly strong message about life in there that also helps us drive the story. There are so many languages in Africa, over 400 in Nigeria alone. So, I will never understand every song, but you can always feel the music with the drums, with the base, the core parts of our music that really help build the tempos, or slow down the pace sometimes.
And for me, the way that the score was done is really pivotal and important. I watched the show, it was a completely different experience for me as well, even though I was a part of it.
In many ways, we see how her mother Safiya’s legacy impacts Queen. By the end of the season, how do you think she has come to terms with what that legacy means to her?
I think discovering the truth is only the beginning. Coming to terms with the truth is an entirely different journey. There were some truths I discovered after my mother died, come to think of it, that took me years to deal with, so I think it echoes that type of truth. There’s definitely a renewed sense of loss, and not only because Mazet has passed on, but because Queen is dealing with a different understanding of her own mother’s death. The truth is only the beginning, it’s how Queen deals with it and how to continue a legacy something that we can continue to explore.
With Shandu’s collaboration with Ekaterina, how do you think his relationship with Queen will change in the wake of Mazet’s death?
That depends on when whether she believes him when he says he wasn’t a part of it, but the power of association should never be underestimated. It’s going to be really intense because Queen is out for blood and the trust is broken. In my opinion, Shandu would need to pick a side – not between Queen and Ekatarina, but between his movement and Queen’s revenge. He’ll have to choose between love and his purpose, not the two women.
Of all Queen’s relationships, the one with her grandmother Mazet stands out, and not simply because of her death. How was building that dynamic with Abigail Kubeka?
To work with somebody of that caliber, professionalism, and kindness, on and off set, was a very powerful experience for me as an actress and young woman. She’s an icon here.
Our scenes in the car are one of my favorites as well as the prostitute scene because it’s really funny, but my favorite scene is the one where she’s doing my hair because it reminds me of my mom and my grandmother. She’s doing my hair and I’m giving her attitude, so I’m in trouble – I haven’t been scolded in years, so it felt good to feel like a child again in that scene.
What was your reaction to the reappearance of Queen’s father in the finale?
It was crazy! I found out at the cast screening and I’d only met the actor playing Queen’s dad between scenes for a quick shoot for set dressing. To be honest I have no clue what the writers are/were cooking up for him. I’d be very excited to explore that.
It’s very early and we have no word on Season 2, but I want to ask how do you think the events of season 1 have changed Queen?
I think I underestimated her, especially emotionally because I didn’t realize the gravity of what she was going to become when I went to the first reading. But a lot of what I expected became even better, including my performance. I learnt a lot about my capabilities. So, going forward, I'm expecting things to get even more tough and emotional. If we get another season, if we go forward, I'm expecting things to be a lot more difficult for her than ever before. I think this is just the beginning. It was just the preparation.
How do you think Queen Sono, given that its on Netflix as well, can expand the worldview of Africa?
Controlling the narrative is really important because we're tired of seeing particularly just struggle stories. There is a middle-class Africa that deserves recognition. There is as a part of Africa that is sometimes dark but doesn't only include poverty.
Because of the layers and the specific window people have chosen to look through to view the African continent, the same message is being sent over and over again. It’s been entertaining, I'm sure, and beautiful sometimes, but it has not been very empowering for African people. It's about empowerment, not only of the people who are already doing this type of work, but empowerment for the little girls, little boys who are watching, who want to act, direct or write one day. And for me, that is very, very important. The legacy that we leave.
Queen Sono is out on Netflix now.