Actor Tongayi Chirisa talks transitioning from South African to American film industry and roles in Netflix projects

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Photo courtesy of Persona PR

Tongayi Chirisa was always seen as someone who was made for the spotlight, even if he didn’t necessarily see it himself at first.

“As a kid growing up, teachers will often see things in you that you don’t see yourself,” said Chirisa. “When I was between 8 and 10 years old, my teachers said that I would be good at drama, and it followed me through high school.”

Chirisa grew up in Zimbabwe, and it wasn’t until he saw the film “Yellow Card,” which was produced in Zimbabwe, that acting and performing sunk in for Chirisa. 

“The film was a huge continental success. The stars were high schoolers like me, and they became the Rob Pattinson of the time,” said Chirisa. “I remember the girls were swooning for him and I thought, ‘He’s not that special, I can do this!’ For me, just to see people my age in a well-made production kicked something in me.”

Chirisa went on to attend Lomagundi College and later earned his Bachelor of Arts in Live Performance at AFDA, The School for the Creative Economy. While still in Zimbabwe, Chirisa landed his first major role in the radio series “Mopani Junction,” which was taken off the air at the height of political turmoil in Zimbabwe, and also played Detective Trevor Davies in the popular Zimbabwean soapie “Studio 263.” He also won ‘Best Film Actor’ for the Zimbabwean feature “Tanyaradzwa,” at the Zimbabwean National Merit Awards.

Chirisa ultimately broke into the South Africa market, starting at first with a KFC commercial and ultimately working up to more commercials and television work. Chirisa moved on to the American market after landing a role on “Crusoe,” which is based on the classic story “Robinson Crusoe.”

“America is the Mecca of entertainment. I think that one of the major things that anyone who aspires to be a global actor is that you have to come to Hollywood,” said Chirisa. “From a professional point, in South Africa, it’s a great industry that booming but there are things they need to overcome on the business side of things. For example, in America you get residuals — even if you are not working, they keep you afloat. In South Africa, whatever is in the contract is what you are paid. You never get a cent of what’s earned later. That’s something that needs to be rectified for the actors.”

Chirisa later landed a series regular role in the critically acclaimed “The Jim Gaffigan Show” for TV Land, and landed few starring roles in “American Horror Story,” “N.C.I.S.,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “The Guest List,” and a recurring role on the CW’s “iZombie.” Chirisa recently appeared on screens across the country in the new Netflix comedy film “Palm Springs,” starring Andy Sandberg.

Chirisa was a fan of Sandberg prior to joining the cast, who ended up being at his third audition for the film.

“I was excited because I understand his comedy and makes it easier to relate,” said Chirisa. “I walked into the audition and thought, ‘As long as I can make Andy laugh in the scene, that’s all I needed to do.’ I started the scene, and I saw andy getting really animated and into it and thought, ‘Checkmate.'”

The film debuted on Netflix in July 2020. Chirisa also joined the cast of PVOD’s “Antebellum,” which is slated to premiere on Sept. 18, 2020, opposite Janelle Monáe. The film follows Monáe’s character, author Veronica Henley, who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality during the Underground Railroad period and has to find a way to break free.

“The major difference was the concept of the subject matter. It was a little deeper,” said Chirisa. “I listened to audiobooks of Booker T. Washington’s work to prepare for the role. He was a former slave and listening to his experiences helped me get into the psyche to get into the world of what it might have been like for an African American during slavery. The grapple with the story and the film was really exhilarating, especially now with everything that has taken place in the last four months with BLM.”

Chirisa also joined the cast of Netflix’s “Another Life,” a sci-fi series starring Katee Sackhoff, Justin Chatwin, and Samuel Anderson. The series is still in production and was put on hold due to the pandemic. 

As a self-proclaimed Trekkie, joining the cast of a sci-fi show was truly a dream come true for Chirisa.

“[Sci-fi] is the one genre where you can find the rest meshed into one the perfect place to show versatility — you can create any world,” said Chirisa. “It’s the make-believe of the make-believes. I strive in that environment. Who doesn’t want to explore new worlds?”

For Chirisa, working on television is a completely different experience than working on the recent films he was in.

“Television is a machine. I’ve come to appreciate anyone that is a series reg on a show that requires fighting, physicality and heavy dialogue,” said Chirisa. “The work expenditure is different — film is a little more lax, you get time to really work out your scenes. Learning how to manage my energy on both sets has been a great asset.”

While Chirisa loves acting, he’d love to try his hand at producing films that he’s written.

“One day in the distant future to take a stab at directing, I’m currently writing these days,” said Chirisa. “Anytime I have an idea for a story I let it percolate. I would like to see scripts I’ve written to get to the big screen one day.”

For more information about Chirisa, visit tongayichirisa.com.