Many people worldwide come to California for their spot in the entertainment industry. Some have hit the ground running to become significant players in acting, directing, writing, modeling, and anything that would make them a household. Denise Khumalo is one of those massively talented individuals making herself known in Hollywood.

Denise Khumalo was born in Zimbabwe, Southeast Africa. The writer, director, actress, and model was born to a military father and mother who had made a name for herself as a radio DJ and TV personality in their native land. Khumalo described her childhood experiences as the best she’s ever had while being raised alongside her sister and brother. Though her father was strict in the household, he was one of the major factors that pushed Khumalo into a filmmaking career.

We spoke with the artist about her upbringing, original career goals, art, and how she keeps expanding her multitalented skills.

 

I read in an article about you where you said that your parents pretty much said that you were the most creative in telling stories at an early age. Is that correct?

— So, since my mom was in the entertainment industry, we’re always surrounded by entertainment in some way or form. So for example, one of my earliest childhood memories is I have a little sister who’s two years younger. We were playing with our toys underneath a table, and my mom would say, “Ssshh keep quiet when you hear them say ‘rolling’; you have to keep quiet and don’t make any noise.” Now that I’m an adult, I realize it’s because we were actually in the TV studio; they were recording live.

Oh wow.

— Yeah, she would have my sister and me playing underneath the table as they were recording because they recorded waist up. So we had those experiences, and then they were shows where you could perform. And so we performed as the spice girls—we had a little routine. So I was always involved in that but not realizing what it was when I was a child. They told me that when I was little, I always came up with the most entertaining stories they’ve ever heard. So, you know, kids have a very wild imagination.

But they always said that mine was like the Crème de la crème (laughs). If I went to go and buy sweets or something, I’d come back and have this beautiful, detailed story about what happened in my one-minute walk to the corner. So they just said they always saw the vision in me and the creativity because of the stories I told them.

You’re a director, a writer, and you also do documentaries. Was that always going to be your career goal? Or was there anything else you thought, “Well, maybe I’ll tap into this instead?”

— The truth is I wanted to study sociology. I wanted to do that because I genuinely love being around people. I’m a huge people person. And so, growing up, I actually studied biology, sociology, chemistry, and physics. I took that in high school. And so when I took sociology, I was like, “Oh, I’m so interested.” And I realized it was more of anthropology and different sections within it. I forgot the name of the one focused on people, but that’s the one I wanted—the study of humans. So that’s what I wanted to do because I was really into that—just thinking about how people function, think, and do certain things sparked my interest.

So I said to myself, “Oh yeah. When I go to college, I’m definitely going to do sociology.” And then, I took up anthropology in my first year of college. I wanted to attend college in Africa, but my parents said, “No, you have to go to a first-world country.” And so I was a teenager and wasn’t really listening to my parents. So I told them, “I’m not leaving. You can decide what you want to do because I’m not going.” So they picked the school—that’s the truth.

Oh wow. Your parents were really determined.

— Yeah. They picked the school, the major, and everything because I said, “I’m not going, so you can do as you like cause I’m not going. So I actually didn’t pick film because I always saw myself in anthropology, sociology, or something else. But I got to the university, and it’s four years—then you have to take your prerequisites. You can always change it.

I think the first year you can always change it after that. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Communication, TV, and film—I’ll do it.” But I know that in the future, I was going to change it to something else.

The more I did it, the more I loved it because it tapped into my creative side. As I mentioned, it was communications, TV, and film. So we worked in TV studios and then we worked on documentaries. We worked on scripts. And all that creativity resonated with something that I liked. I ended up falling in love with it. After four years, I didn’t change. I had the opportunity to change. My minor was actually in; I think it was International Business or international something.

I always had something else that I could look back to. But honestly, I just fell in love with it. The creativity of starting an idea and seeing it to completion is beautiful and then seeing it on the screen. I fell in love with the medium of storytelling. I realized that I fell in love with storytelling, which goes back to how my parents saw it in me.

But I just didn’t believe them at the time because they’re your parents. They told me, but I just didn’t take them seriously. But once I started filmmaking and storytelling, I realized, “Oh, okay, wait, they’re actually right. I do know how to do this.” So, I started pursuing it full-time.

After my bachelor’s, I decided this was what I wanted to do. I did my master’s in filmmaking specifically because in my last year for my thesis, for my undergrad, is where I did a documentary. I directed it and said, “I know exactly what I want to do. I want to direct documentaries.” That’s why I took filmmaking at New York Film Academy in Burbank.

That’s funny because you had the exact opposite experience where others want to get into the creative field, whether writing, singing, or art, and their parents are adamant about that idea. So I think it’s interesting how your parents pushed you to be creative and even laid the path for you.

— And that’s very odd because I’m African; everyone knows that the African story is that you have to be a doctor or a lawyer. Those are the only things you can be to make your parents proud. I was a teenager. I didn’t realize at the time that I was so blessed and fortunate that they were so supportive.

Still, I think it’s definitely because my mom came from entertainment. Even though my dad came from the military, it’s not his area of expertise, but I think he just supported what my mom saw in me and what he saw in me. They never pushed me to learn anything else. I mean, my grades were pretty obvious too. I wasn’t fantastic in math.

So, that did help a bit. I think they just saw my creative side, and that’s fine because my brother is a computer engineer. So he’s very smart and is an app developer. And then my sister was going to be a lawyer. So I think they’re like, “Okay, at least we’ll have one child doing it. One child goes to Silicon Valley, the other child will be a lawyer, and then we’ll have a filmmaker.” So I think they were content with that.

You mentioned that you went to the New York Film Academy in Burbank, correct?

— Yes.

How was your experience at that school?

— Honestly, it was the best experience I’ve ever had. I can honestly say my career is because I went to New York Film Academy (NFA). My undergrad was a great experience, but NFA threw me into the deep end of filming. When I left Zimbabwe, university in the states was easy for me because Africa’s education system is much higher. Especially Zimbabwe. It’s much more difficult.

So I was doing college master’s classes when I was an undergrad. No—when I was doing my high school, I was basically doing college classes. And so when I got to my undergrad, honestly, it was easy. I was like, “What? This is not that hard.” So I thought my master’s wouldn’t be as hard. And NFA was hard.

 

Denise was able to meet the academic challenges of college life we ease. Still, the educational structure at New York Film Academy was a whole different ordeal. However, the artist felt it was a great learning experience for the real world of filmmaking.

— Then, literally, we got there. NFA said, “Okay, so on your first day, we’re going to go to universal studios, and we’re going to shoot some content at one of the lots.” And I said, “We just got here.” I mean, some of us flew from out of the country. I’m like, “What do you mean? We’re going straight into shooting?”

I thought they were going to give us some time or a buffer or something, but they just threw us into the “deep end.” I learned so much from that because it made me who I am today. I can handle being on set because that’s what it is like in real life. Sometimes you don’t have any time to prep, and you’re expected to bring your A-game every time, and that’s what I do.

Another thing that NFA did is that they taught us every film position on set—they rotated us.

That can be extremely helpful.

— One day, you’re a gaffer. The next day, you’re an editor. The next day, you’re a grip. The next day, you’re an AC. They taught us everything so that you can do everything on set. So, of course, we had the book saying, “Oh, this is the title of what they do.” But the teachers said, “But the only way you’ll learn is if you actually do it because you’ll never forget it.” And that’s absolutely true.

So now I know what a scripty is and all these other positions because I did them, and I will never confuse them. I’ll never forget them. And so NFA played a huge part in my life and the connections and quality of their products. They have the best camera packages at any film school. And obviously, they’re not paying me to say this, but they had a lot of good equipment and good connections.

So there’s no way you can leave NFA without having achieved a certain goal because they definitely give it to you.

Yeah. I’ve been studying film since high school through movies and books and stuff like that. And then, one day, I finally went to get my formal education on it. I learned much more just through the experience and being thrown into the “deep end.” That’s how movie sets are. From the moment you step onto a set, you must keep going until you’re done for the day.

— Yeah, and that’s the truth. Some stuff you can learn, but being an artist—some people like books. But honestly, for me personally, I learned the most by being hands-on; they’re extremely hands-on, and that is why I like them. I went there for the filmmaking department, but they have other departments—I can’t speak for those. But we had fantastic teachers who were in the industry who were in it or had worked in it.

So they have that experience, and they would share it with you. They even had a business class for filmmakers, which not a lot of people don’t have. They teach you how to make a film, but [elsewhere] they don’t teach you the finance side. Then, of course, there’s producing, but they taught you how to crowdfund. “This is how you raise money for this.” So they just taught you a lot that a lot of places didn’t. So it definitely prepared me for real life.

Now, you studied sociology and all these other topics and had an idea of a career you would take. It seems like you’ve studied fashion as well. Do you ever incorporate that into your projects? And if so, how often do you do so?

— Yeah, my first love was fashion. I think I was 13, and in my high school, we had three classes you could take. It was Fashion and Fabrics, Food and Nutrition, and the last one was something to do with Agriculture. I can’t remember the name. So, I picked Fashion and Fabrics because I’ve always loved fashion since I was a kid. That’s what I wanted to do, but that’s when my dad said, “Oh no, my child will not sew dresses for a living.” So he shut it down.

Oh wow, okay.

— Yeah. So that was, honestly, where I wanted to go, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, and I’ve always loved fashion and styling so much. Now in my films, I make sure I do a little bit of production design and then model and act. I style myself for all of my red carpet events and all of my shoots. So, I am a stylist as well. I’m keeping it alive by being a stylist and not a designer this time.

I’ve seen some of your videos for Culture Exchange, and I’ve checked out your website and seen your fashion and modeling skills. I noticed that the camera gravitates toward you, and your personality translates through the lens. This reminds me of what you said about your mother being a DJ and a TV personality. Is there anything that would make you pursue a career as a TV personality out here in America? 

— Oh, first of all, I’d like to thank you for that. Yeah, I mean, I would be open to it. I wanted to start hosting just being a host because I can talk naturally and organically with people and people gravitate to me very easily. And so yeah, I could see definitely myself sitting and being in a whole, you know, [like] Oprah. That I could, a hundred percent, do unscripted. So, yes. I have thought about that; it’s just I’m juggling so many things. I cannot add “host” right now, but it’s something I would like to do in the future.

With that being said, the Culture Exchange show, where did that idea come from?

— Culture Exchange came up because I was talking with my friends and a lot of my international friends, and we were just talking about our dating experiences. I realized, “Why don’t I capture this and share it with others?” Because I date interracially and many of my friends do, no one really talks about the specifics that go into dating different races and cultures.

That sparked something for me, and I’m known for my documentary films and wanted to show that I’m diverse and can do other things. So I picked the Culture Exchange talk show. I have people from different backgrounds, races, and cultures coming together and talking about their dating experiences here in America.

I’m multiracial and have dated different races. I think it’s fascinating when somebody makes a show about international dating, multi-racially dating. People have this preconceived notion of a black person dating a white person: “This is why they’re dating.” So it’s good to showcase a frank conversation, and it’s just regular people. It’s just regular dating.

— Regular people, regular dating. And that’s the thing you said you’re multiracial. That’s another thing. Having multiple races within one person is something that we need to talk about. I’ve dated biracial and multiracial people and seen that it impacts their dating experiences. That’s something I want the world to see and know. That’s why I create the content that I create. It’s because I want to share my experiences with the world and share stories that people talk about a lot but you don’t really see on TV. So that’s why I wanted to have the talk show and have a candid environment and safe place for everyone to share their experiences without feeling judged.

Your documentary, Unconventional, why did you want to do that kind of documentary?

— So, Unconventional, I came up with it because it had been a while since I had made a documentary, and I wanted to make a feel-good documentary. They always say, “Write what you know.” And at that time, being an independent artist is extremely hard. It’s hard; it’s expensive, it’s tiring. There’s no blueprint of how to do it. I wanted to inspire people like myself and those beginning their journey. Or wherever they are, to know to believe in yourself and continue following your dreams and you can achieve anything.

That’s why I made Unconventional. It’s for people like myself who don’t have conventional jobs; we do not have nine to five. So I wanted to show them love and say, “Hey, you are not alone. We’re all in this together.” As long as we help and support each other, that keeps us going and finding our tribe—that keeps us comfortable. So when we’re having those bad days, you have someone that you could literally call and ask for help. So that’s why I made it. I just wanted a feel-good documentary about people who are in the industry.

Yeah. I think it’s a great idea because many people have this stereotypical idea of others coming into this country and wanting to build a life. They’ll be maids or drivers or get the lowest minimum wage job to survive. So I think it’s really great that you’re showcasing that these people are actually in the entertainment industry. They want to be the next Barry Jenkins, the next Christopher Nolan, the next big music producer.

— That’s why I wanted to do it. I said, “If a woman from Zimbabwe can come to America by herself and make it in the film industry right now, then you can do it too.” I also wanted to be an example to people who looked like me. Zimbabwean people don’t even know where Zimbabwe is. So I tried to put Zimbabwe on the map and then just share it with people from other countries that star in the documentary.

I have someone from Nigeria, and then I have someone who’s from—where is she from? She’s from Russia. It wasn’t even about race. I just wanted it to be different immigrants. And then I had some people from LA, but they’re multiracial. I just wanted to have actual and real diversity and showcase that.

I had people in the documentary who are in different stages of their lives; those who are just beginning their journeys and those who are intermediate. And then those who’ve made it so that they can share with up-and-coming artists what they had to do to get there. Because giving someone advice could really help them and boost them into their career. You just never know who’s listening. So that’s why we make films and show them because even if it just touches one, that will make me feel good to share my experience.

I feel you on that, and I totally support that idea. So, what’s the status of Unconventional? I see that you won an award for Inspirational Film at the Culture and Diversity Film Festival. Is there any news of maybe a bigger distribution or any streaming service picking it up?

— Yeah, the good news is I have a sales and distribution agent now. They’re actually shopping it around to potential distribution places. I’m waiting to hear back because a lot of people ask me, “Where is it?” So I don’t know yet, but once I find a home, I’ll let you know.

Alright, so last question. What is your creative process? You seem to have an idea of where you want to go creatively.

— You’re far too kind. My process is not having a process.

Denise and I had a collective laugh at that comment.

— That’s the truth. I mean, it honestly just comes to me. I know people say, “Don’t say that.” But, I mean, it’s true. What happens is I work in production, and then once I have free time and savings, I’ll sit down and say, “Okay, what project am I doing for the year? Okay. I did a documentary. Great. I want to do something else.”

That’s why I did the talk show. I’ve done two seasons of Cultural Exchange. And then I was like, “Okay, I have a talk show. You need to go back to documentary.” So that’s when I went to Unconventional. Then I just wrapped on one other documentary, and it’s called Quarantine Chronicles. It’s a short documentary about the pandemic and how LA artists handled it on their end. So that’s what I’ve done for this year for 2022.

I’m now working on writing and doing pilot scripts for some scripted content. It allows me to work from home. I don’t have to leave the house so that I can have projects for 2023. So, honestly, it just comes to me. What story do I want to convey, and how do you want to do it? Do you want it to be scripted? Do you want it to be unscripted? And then I just take it from there. But honestly, the ideas come to me.

My friends, we were talking about Culture Exchange; we’re just talking about dating. And I was like, “Yeah, that would actually be great.” So it literally just came to me, and even Unconventional. So that’s how I felt at the time, and needed it to pick me up. And so making films is my therapy, and I said, “I want to make a feel-good movie because I needed the inspiration, and it can inspire people as well. And then I did it. So that’s the method to the madness.

 

Denise Khumalo understands the importance of representation in entertainment, and the artist is still hard at work with that mind. You can find her documentary, Khayalami (My home), currently available to rent or buy on Amazon, and her episodes of Cultural Exchange on YouTube.