South African 'Queen Sono' Is A Savvy Secret Agent — And A First For Netflix

Apr 18, 2020

Queen Sono is both a classic spy thriller and a ground-breaking entertainment endeavor. The drama is Netflix's first commissioned script-to-screen series from Africa, and the first such show to get major distribution in the U.S.

Filmed across the continent with a diverse cast featuring multiple languages, the show stars Pearl Thusi as a South African secret agent with a complicated past.

Creator and executive producer Kagiso Lediga has a background in stand up comedy and says his jump to a crime drama is "just a graduation of storytelling."

"Stand up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don't require crews and lights and cameras," he says. "It's just you, and the mic, and a spotlight."

There are a lot more moving parts now, and he acknowledges that being the first comes with some pressure.

"If you do stand up, you get into a room, you perform and you're ... representing yourself ... " he says. "People laugh? Great. People, don't laugh? You just avoid eye contact and keep it moving."

But when you're making the first Netflix original fully produced in Africa?

"Everybody's coming with this expectation," he says. "It's like what is the first African original? ... What are we going to see?"


Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to tell a spy story

I've always loved the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carré-type of spy stuff all the way to James Bond. And you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. ... You get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, that the world doesn't necessarily have like a context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there with kids that are covered in flies. And I thought: Africa's way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through a spy story where you have like this great female agent who traverses the continent?

On featuring a female protagonist

For African women and for little girls to see a woman do that — you know, punching people in the face — because [those are] the kind of roles that men generally play on this continent. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that's empowered and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for like a 15 year old, 16 year old seeing Queen Sono, you know, that's a great image. That's, I think, something empowering for them going forward. That was sort of a driving force for me.

It is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. - Kagiso Lediga, creator of 'Queen Sono'

On Queen Sono being haunted by the murder of her mother, an anti-apartheid activist

Our recent history is apartheid. And it kind of is like the ghost — it is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It's pervasive in general society. And for me, it's very important that that narrative doesn't get lost.

You know, like for young people who ... might have been born 10 years ago, for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while, you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don't sort of explain why that is, people are just gonna think that's how God intended it. ... The universe just likes it that way, you know?

And so I felt in this piece of entertainment, it's important to tell that history. ... I thought it would be like a cool thing to imbue the story with the history and see how that goes.

On creating the first Netflix original series where the whole production is centered in Africa

So you come with a spy thing and people recognize all the tropes, then they'll go: 'It's not original.' ... And then you get people who get it and they're like: 'Oh, my God, this is unbelievable to see ourselves, to hear our languages.' ...

So then at some point you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it, because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk, because you can't please everybody, but you're going to try to make something very original and fun — and I think we succeeded in that.

On how he's doing in Johannesburg, during the coronavirus pandemic

We're good. In my town, it's illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old. So walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It's winter — winter's starting. So that could also be bad news because it's when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation people are staying at home. We're doing our best.

Eliza Dennis and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's all there - the fabulous fashions, fabulous locations, fabulous fights and a cause worth fighting for featuring a hero with a complicated past. But this latest iteration of the classic spy thriller will take you places many have never been. It's called "Queen Sono," and it is the first script-to-screen commissioned by Netflix from Africa, the first such series to get major distribution in the U.S. And while that's noteworthy, the show is also distinct for its scope and feel. It's filmed across the continent with a diverse cast, featuring multiple languages.

Kagiso Lediga is the creator and executive producer of "Queen Sono," and he's with us now from Johannesburg, South Africa, to tell us more.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAGISO LEDIGA: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Do I have it right that you started out doing stand-up comedy (laughter)? This seems quite a switch. What made you turn to this genre?

LEDIGA: I - well, I was always doing that. I think I'd kind of been off the stage for a year because I had to do the show. But I also consider myself a storyteller. I always said that, you know, stand-up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don't require crews and lights and cameras. It's just you and the mic in the spotlight, you know. So, yes, I'll find - it's just the graduation of storytelling, where you can get a whole cast and, you know, production means.

MARTIN: So the main character in the series is named Queen Sono, played by Pearl Thusi. Americans will recognize her from the series "Quantico," where she played the CIA agent, so it's not her first turn as a spy. Now, she's everything you would expect from a spy. She is savvy, creative, fierce. And, of course, she's gorgeous and haunted. But how did this particular character come to you as the center of this project?

LEDIGA: Well, I mean, I've always - I love kind of the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carre type of spy stuff all the way to "James Bond." And, you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. If you watch, you know, things like "Homeland" and all of that, you get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, the world doesn't necessarily have a lack of context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there - the kids that are covered in flies. And I thought, Africa's way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through, like, a spy story, where you have, like this great...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LEDIGA: ...Female agent who traverses the continent?

MARTIN: And why did you decide to make her - your lead a woman?

LEDIGA: The idea - I like to have a female - you know, for African females, for women and for little girls, to see a woman do that - you know, punching people in the face...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LEDIGA: Because of the kind of role that men generally play on this continent, I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that's empowered, and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for, like, a 15-year-old, 16-year-old seeing Queen Sono, that's a great image. That's a - I think, you know, something empowering for them going forward.

MARTIN: One of the things that we do learn in the show is that Queen's mother, Safia, was an anti-apartheid activist who was murdered when Queen was a child. And this is, as we said - you know, she's haunted in the way that so many protagonists in these types of programs are. And here is Queen talking with one of her colleagues at the spy agency where she works. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUEEN SONO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) If your mother knew the [expletive] I'm having you do here, she'd cut off my bloody head.

PEARL THUSI: (As Queen Sono) Well, you don't have to worry because unlike her, I will not be dying for people I don't even know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's not something someone does in their old age.

THUSI: (As Queen Sono) Unless that someone is you, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How long can you lead a double life?

MARTIN: Her mother's presence looms large in the show. And I was just wondering, why did you decide to include this storyline? What are you hoping to explore here?

LEDIGA: As you know, it's like, you know, South Africa is - our recent history is apartheid, and it kind of is like the ghost - it's the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It's pervasive in general society.

And for me, it's very important that that narrative doesn't get lost. You know, like for young people who might be - you know, they might have been born 10 years ago - for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while the - you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don't sort of explain why that is, people are just going to think that's how God intended it or whatever it is. The universe just likes it that way, you know.

So I've learned in this piece of entertainment, it's important to tell that history. I always say to the writing room that the stuff that spies do we see on the news. And I wanted to have that kind of grand thing that they are affecting this recent history that is affecting our present and our future and so on.

MARTIN: I want to get back to the you part of this. As we mentioned, this is Netflix's first original series where the entire production is Africa-centered. What does that mean to you? You know, sometimes being the first can feel like a lot. And then sometimes, it's just...

LEDIGA: It is a lot.

MARTIN: You know...

LEDIGA: It's, like...

MARTIN: Is it?

LEDIGA: ...Crazy. It's a...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LEDIGA: ...Whole balancing act, you know. Because I'm - you know, I'm used to - you perform, it's like - even when you do stand-up, you get into a room, you perform, and you're almost representing yourself, you know. You either kill or you die. People love - great. If people don't love, you just avoid eye contact and keep it moving.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LEDIGA: But when it's like this, everybody's coming with this expectation. It's, like, what is the first African original? What is - you know, what are we going to see? So you come with a spy thing, and people recognize all the tropes. They're, like, oh, it's not original. You just do what everybody else does. And then you get people who get it, and they're, like, oh, my God. This is unbelievable - to see ourselves, to hear our languages.

So at some point, you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk because you can't please everybody. But you're going to try to make something very original and fun. And I think we succeeded in that.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything. I know it was a journey. But who would have thought that when you started this, you'd be - we'd all be sitting at home, desperate for something to watch? I did not want to gloss past that. I didn't want to lose sight of the fact that the world is going through a pandemic. So before we let you go, how are you? How is your family? And how are things where you are?

LEDIGA: We're fine. Thank you very much. We're good. In my town, it's illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old, so walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It's winter. Winter's starting, so that could also be bad news because it's when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation, people are staying at home. We're doing our best.

MARTIN: All right. Well, glad to hear. That is Kagiso Ladiga. He is the creator and executive producer of the Netflix series "Queen Sono," which is out now.

Kagiso Ladiga, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEDIGA: Thank you very much, Michel. Have a good weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.