Bonko Khoza on playing a serial killer in Red Ink

Having won a SAFTA and becoming a household name as Mqhele in The Wife, Bonko Khoza is back on Showmax as Napoleon Dingiswayo, aka The Butcher, in Showmax drama series Red Ink, adapted from Angela Makholwa-Moabelo’s bestselling novel.

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The eight-part thriller, of which new episodes land every Tuesday, tells the story of journalist turned publicist Lucy Khambule (SAFTA nominee Nqobile Nunu Khumalo), who is approached by Napoleon, an imprisoned serial killer who wants her to tell his story.

Red Ink is a partnership between Makholwa-Moabelo’s Britespark Films and Bomb Productions. This marks the first Showmax Original from Bomb, who made DStv’s most-watched drama series, Shaka Ilembe, as well as classics such as Venice winner Yizo Yizo, Oscar nominee Mandela, Sundance winner Amandla: A Revolution In Four-Part Harmony, and SAFTA winners like Isibaya. SAFTA winnersZeno Petersen and Adze Ugah (both directors on Shaka Ilembe) direct Red Ink, which is executive produced by Makholwa-Moabelo, Oscar nominee Angus Gibson, and Emmy nominee Desiree Markgraaff. 

Xabiso Ngqabe caught up with Bonko to ask how he brought a killer to life.

Tell us about your character, Napoleon.

He’s a convicted serial killer and rapist who had this massive body count back in 2010. He’s killed so many women and severed their heads.

I hope audiences resonate with the humanity that I’ve tried to wrap him in. He is vulnerable, gullible, and capable of love and compassion.

How did you approach your audition? 

Angus Gibson has quite a fluid casting process. I’ve known him for a while, but we’ve never got the opportunity to work together. 

I tried to craft something that would be in a different direction from what South Africa has seen me as.

Books have followings and people who have read them, so when it comes to doing justice to an adapted character, it’s really about being specific to the book and the existing text.

What conversations did you and Angela Makholwa-Moabelo have regarding the story?

Angela really gave me the freedom to interpret the character and create something special. Most days we were just chatting away and laughing. I’d like to think we’ve become friends. She’s an amazing author but an even more amazing person with the kindest heart. Honestly, we hardly spoke about the story – everything I needed was already in the book.

What has playing Napoleon taught you about the mind of a serial killer?

There’s a show called I Am A Killer, which talks about this person’s past and what led to them being like this. In the beginning it’s told through his point of view, and he talks about his background. Then, in the other half of the show, his victims give accounts of what happened.

I’ve got a child now and when I see her, she’s an angel. It would be crazy for anyone to intentionally raise a killer like Napoleon. Nobody is born evil. Every serial killer was once a child with a dream. It’s the world that changes us.

Did you have to go through physical and mental training to fully embody this character?

I Am A Killer has six seasons and my wife would tell you I’ve watched every season. Psychologically I was able to take on the job.

Physically, we had to make choices about his weight. He’s in prison for 13 years so what does that look like? I lost around 15 kilograms. I hardly ate on set. 

And we started creating things that are unique to him; these facial and neck twitches. So I had to get used to that and timing those in the performance.

What was the most challenging thing about playing this character?

It’s the idea of how people will wonder how I’m so comfortable playing this. For some people, even crew members, it got too real and I just wonder what they think of me. “Is he also crazy?”.

How did you leave Napoleon behind at work each day?

I’m able to pack the character away and bring him out when I need to because I create him so far from me. Me and Napoleon are worlds apart. Napoleon is easy – you put on overalls and some glasses. You switch on to the things you switch on.

But my life at the moment is so hectic that it was hard to switch Bonko away from the work. I’ve just had a kid, I just moved houses, so I have a lot on my mind. It’s just exhaustion, something I can’t run away from. How are my eyes going to look white when I haven’t slept (more than) four hours?

What did you do to get the chemistry with the actors you worked with?

Napoleon is a very isolated character so I didn’t really have to build chemistry with anyone; I was no one’s love interest and nobody’s best friend.

But in the beginning [with Nqobile Nunu Khumalo as Lucy] we had a lot of big setups to create a foundation. It was really about getting to know each other, sharing a bit about our personal lives and our process, just trying to make sure she feels safe in terms of the work environment, respected and appreciated.

How was it reconnecting with Kwenzo Ngcobo and Abdul Khoza (both from The Wife) on the show?

It’s beautiful. Kwenzo is one of my best friends. We see each other all the time.

Then Abdul, our past four jobs have been together sinceThe Wife and we still have more work together on the way. He brings out the best in me and I also try to push him to a place where he can see the best in himself.

Whenever I’m on a call sheet with them, I know I gotta bring my A-game.

Who should watch Red Ink?

People who love crime thrillers and have an appetite for a thriller/horror series, will definitely enjoy the show. 

I think humanising the characters in their situation is what’s going to set this show apart. Get into the mind of a killer!

I also hope it just shines a light on issues of gender-based violence. 

Watch the trailer:

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