Pearl Thusi is no stranger to fame.
The screen goddess has enjoyed a glowing career on the big and small screens in her native South Africa and the United States, and has also thrived as a model, television host, and radio personality.
When Queen Sono debuts on Netflix across the world on February 28, Thusi sits comfortably on the throne as, unarguably, Africa’s most famous spy.
Queen Sono is Netflix’s first African original series, commissioned in 2018, and stars an ensemble cast of Africans, mostly South Africans.
The show follows Queen’s quest to keep South Africa safe, from corruption, terrorism, and neo-colonialism, while also getting to the root of the conspiracy behind her mother’s assassination when she was only five.
Thusi's first impression of Queen when she saw the finished script was that the character was going to be a lot more complex than she had initially anticipated.
"I felt like, 'Oh my God, can I really do this?'
"I did put myself under a little bit of stress but once you get on set, the magic happens," she tells Pulse during an interview.
Thusi's character is soft-hearted, disarming, spontaneous, cocky, and uncomfortably crooked in ways that shouldn't be a good mix but works just fine.
There's a brief fight scene in the show's pilot episode, titled 'I Am Queen Sono', where the character engages in hand-to-hand battle with a man in a posh office in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria.
Queen slams a laptop on the head of a bad guy. She gets hit in the face. Then she gets slammed into a wall. She throws back three quick-fire punches, but then she gets thrown into a gun case covered in glass.
Just then, she gains the upper hand with a kick that sends the bad guy to the floor. And just then, the camera pans to Queen's bloodied face, with a rifle raised, and about to finish off the bad guy. She flashes a wicked smile. And then she kills him.
It’s unmistakable in the way Queen conducts herself that Thusi is having the time of her life.
"I had a lot of fun," she admits, "there's something very liberating about learning how to use your body in ways that you never thought you really would."
In her personal life, Queen has to deal with the difficulty that comes with leading a double life as she has to keep her professional engagement away from her best friend, William (Khathu Ramabulana), and her grandmother, Mazet, played by the ultra-cool Abigail Kubeka who steals every scene.
As the show builds up to a central conflict, all of Queen’s professional battles lead down to one road - Ekaterina Gromova.
Played by the peerless Kate Liquorish, Ekaterina, a Russian neocolonialist, is the embodiment of evil, even though she’s confident that she takes tough decisions with the best of intentions for a continent where she doesn’t belong, but obsesses over milking for all it’s got.
From the moment she makes her first appearance in the show’s second episode, titled 'Dying Is Sore', Ekaterina pushes the boundaries of villainy with her every decision and becomes so unpredictably evil it’s hard to tell if she has a line she cannot cross.
With her towering frame and stern look, Liquorish has little trouble becoming one with the character; a remarkable feat because the actress will be the first to confess she’s nothing like her character.
Unlike Ekaterina, Liquorish is a people-pleaser, doesn’t wear as much makeup in real life, she admits, and her hair is curly unlike her character’s.
However, the 35-year old is fascinated with Ekaterina’s bullish attitude.
"She's driven to the point that she’ll do anything to get what she wants, and I think that's unusual for a female character because her drive is brutal, and it gets more and more brutal, and it becomes quite shocking and takes your breath away in a few scenes," Liquorish says during the interview.
The actress confesses that she feels liberated to play Ekaterina, 'to really go dark and deep into that kind of character’s mind.'
And to achieve the proper balance and ensure her character didn’t fall into the trap of being a caricature villain, Liquorish says she had to work hard to make Ekaterina a full-rounded character with motives that can, at least, be reasonably considered for discussion.
"She's not perfect. She does have moments of vulnerability, and I think that’s what makes it interesting," she says.
Despite relishing her role as Ekaterina, Liquorish doesn’t speak fondly of the physical and, more especially, mental demands.
Since Ekaterina is Russian in the show, Liquorish says she had to learn the Russian language from scratch. For the show's action set pieces, she also had to train, alongside Thusi, seven hours a day and five days a week for weeks in Cape Town.
To paint a picture of how agonising the process was, the actress admits rather cheerfully that she cried in the bath on the last day of stunt training.
"It was just so cold all the goddamn time. It was freezing. Pearl and I froze our asses off," she tells Pulse.
The result of the mental anguish of physical training undergone by both actresses is a mouth-watering clash between Ekaterina and Queen in the show’s third episode, titled 'The Devil’s Toys'.
Thusi admits that she cried after shooting the scene because of how intense and how physically and emotionally demanding it was.
If Queen Sono finds favour with viewers across the world, it’ll be for how it wraps spy craft, which has been done to the death in Hollywood, around unique African stories so that it feels fresh in focus.
Apartheid, a particularly dark period in South Africa’s history, casts a large shadow over the show; and show creator, Kagiso Lediga, also winks at other issues including xenophobia, corrupt African presidents, ageing African presidents, preying Men of God, neocolonialism, power abuse, and sexism.
This is what holds the most fascination for Liquorish who’s proud to be involved in a show that offers a more refined look into Africa.
She notes, "It absolutely is a game changer in terms of a story that’s told from within Africa looking out, rather than from out of Africa looking inward.
"People are going to see Africa in a new light; in a way that we want them to see it, not in the way they perceive it.
"We have the most amazing stories to tell. They’re bright, interesting and eclectic and Kagiso has done such a beautiful, intelligent job of creating a thriller that’s both highly entertaining and relevant."
Thusi feels the same way, noting that the show also sheds a light on topics that are almost taboo in South Africa.
"The show approaches topics that South Africans are usually not allowed to talk about or pretend didn’t happen, like the dark part of freedom fighting.
”There was a very dark side to it like infighting within the parties or groups fighting for freedom," she says.
Queen spends a lot of time in the show traumatised by her mother’s death and has trouble dealing with it even after decades.
Just like her character, Thusi similarly lost her own mother at a young age, and has been vocal about how much that hurts her.
The actress says sharing the same pain with her character was cathartic for her, as she’s learnt to channel that hurt in a healthy manner despite mistakes made in the past.
"I've learnt that as an actor you’ve got to kind of be guided and try and control it. It was cathartic for me to do that and I enjoyed it kind of being an homage to my mother and other people that I’ve lost," she says.
Thusi and Liquorish sound like lifelong friends during the interview, but Queen and Ekaterina are lifelong enemies who end up on opposite ends of the fight for Africa’s future; and the season finale ends on a shocking note that holds a lot of promise for more intrigue to come.
"I think at the end of season one, we realise that this is actually the beginning, not the end, for the characters and the story.
"Like when a comedian sets up a really good joke," Thusi notes.
Describing the project as a ‘beautiful process’ Liquorish hopes that a second season happens.
If enough of the world basks in the complex African world created by Lediga and his team, that is bound to happen.
Queen Sono starts streaming worldwide on Netflix on February 28, 2020.