The small screen’s newest starlet is straight out of South Africa. Masali Baduza plays the lead in the BBC’s dystopian romance drama series Noughts + Crosses – an Afrocentric reimagining of a forbidden love story.
After high school, East London-born Masali jetted off to Los Angeles to study at the New York Film Academy’s West Coast campus. ‘I was taught by lecturers who were still fully involved in the industry. We got to really know the industry before we immersed ourselves in it,’ she says. When she graduated, Masali came back home to gain some experience, get into theatre, and because she just really missed SA. She started doing mainly theatre work, landing a role in The Taming ofthe Shrew at Maynardville Open-Air Theatre — which had been given a feminist revamp with an all-female cast – and starring in a sketch production, Nasty Womxn, at the Alexander Bar & Theatre, where Masali showed her range by playing multiple characters in this social and political commentary on Greek mythology.
Noughts + Crosses Star Masali Baduza Photo Gallery
‘I love merging entertainment and performance with the social and political issues we face,’ she says. Just two years into her career, Masali was working backstage at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) when her agent called. ‘I was asked to create a self-tape audition for a BBC show,’ she says. ‘They liked my tape, so I flew back to Cape Town to meet the producer and executive producer. After that, I was flown to London to do a chemistry read with [Peaky Blinders star] Jack Rowan, who had already been cast as Callum.’ Masali was determined not to get her hopes up; in fact, she started looking for her next gig. But to her surprise, her agent eventually called to tell her that she’d landed the role of Persephone (Sephy) Hadley – the show’s lead. She plays the daughter of the prime minister of Albion, Kamal Hadley, while Jack plays a young man from a working-class family.
Sephy and Jack fall in love and fight to be together, despite the fact that their interracial relationship is illegal. To create Sephy and Callum’s world, author Malorie Blackman took inspiration from history (apartheid, US segregation laws) and the ongoing oppression of people of colour around the world. ‘I knew I was writing a book that would make some adults very uncomfortable (and it did!) because I was dealing with racism, terrorism, the class system and the artificial divides we always seem to put between ourselves and others,’ she writes. ‘But it was a risk that I was willing to take. I wanted to look at race and class dynamics through a nontraditional lens.’ The book’s message, says Malorie, is this: ‘Whatever your colour, you’ll abuse power if you have it, or try to seize it if you don’t, and that seeing beyond our differences to find love is the only way to break the cycle.’
Being South African made Masali uniquely qualified to give her co-star a few tips – and he was eager to learn. ‘Jack and I would have rehearsals where we’d just talk about our experiences living life as a black person and as a white person. We had to share those experiences with each other, since Jack and I portray characters that basically swap our own life experiences.’ Masali was very impressed by the work Jack put into his performance. ‘I learnt so much from him. He was so focused, every single day. Our chemistry was natural and everything felt so easy with him. We both knew our characters so well and where we wanted them to go.’
Playing Sephy was both challenging and liberating for Masali. ‘It was emotional filming a series about racial injustices, especially because of our South African history and what we have been through as a nation,’ she says. ‘At times, it was quite jarring, but also very therapeutic.’ But it was also an inspiring role. ‘Sephy has grown up in a world where she’s never been told she can’t do something because of the colour of her skin. She’s never been told she can’t aspire to be someone because of her status in society. It was inspiring to play this character; the world was FOR her. I loved it – to not have to deal with the oppression that black people face, even today; to not have to carry that baggage of violence — whether macro or micro aggressions — with the character.
There’s no other black character on TV and film who has got to be quite as free as Sephy. The show puts black women, especially dark-skinned black women, at the forefront of the story. [The show says] your story is worth being told, you’re beautiful, you’re desirable… it was one of the great things about it.’ Masali is in awe of the attention to detail that went into the design of the series — from the clothing. Costume designer Dihantus Engelbrecht did such an amazing job at creating this world where African culture was the norm. You can see it in every single detail of every single scene. In the clothing, in the production design — it was so Afrocentric.
A lot of black and brown people have this daydream of what our world would have looked like if we had ruled our own continent throughout history.’ The timing of the series seems uncanny. The first scene depicts a group of Noughts being brutalised by police for no particular reason. ‘It’s so important to watch this series right now,’ says Masali. ‘Especially after what’s been happening in the US after George Floyd’s murder and the ripple effect of protests around the world. People are literally being killed on camera. This is not a debate: black people shouldn’t have to say “stop killing us” and hear responses that start with “but”. George Floyd’s death reignited the flame and showed that the system we’re in is not working. We can talk about it as much as we want, but action needs to be taken now.’ Mainly, Masali hopes that the series will wake people up. ‘I hope that white people watch it and, because the people being oppressed look like them, find the urge to make changes in their own communities — in whatever way they can.’ We’re waiting for Season 2 to be confirmed, but in the meantime, catch Masali in M-Net’s adaption of Deon Meyer’s thriller Trackers.