How Vuyo Dabula Got Ripped For Queen Sono In 30 Days
Vuyo Dabula was enjoying life. At 86kg, he was a tank in a T-shirt and screen ready for his role on local mega-soapy Generations. But when Netflix gave him a call to play the agile, quick-footed spy Shandu in Queen Sono, Vuyo realised he needed to up his game – and fast.
Joining the cast of Queen Sono was a big deal. Vuyo’s work would be watched in 190 countries and the 43-year-old was determined to do the African continent proud. A month later, a shredded Vuyo stepped on set, ready to get to work. This is how he transformed in record time – and how you can, too.
“Vuyo’s character needs to show that he’s military trained,” explains the series’ stunt coordinator Grant Powell, who’s worked on the likes of Tomb Raider (2018) and The Brothers Grimsby (2016). “He has to know close-quarter combat, gun handling, marksman shooting; he is the leader, he’s got to have all of these attributes and he’s got to look like he’s been doing it forever.”
In the six-part series, Shandu is the leader of spy organisation Watu Wema. “When I read about Shandu and the more I talked about the character, I realised he’s highly skilled – it’s not so much about the science but rather the skill and technique,” says Vuyo. With a background in martial arts, doing his own stunts was familiar territory. “As a kid, I did a lot of ninjutsu– I was in my early teens – and I knew some of the concepts from there. And if I saw something as a kid on TV, I’d go and practise that with my friends.”
To prepare for the role of Shandu, Vuyo returned to the sparring mat, spending time with pro MMA fighter Nkazimulo ‘Zulu Boy’ Zulu and other EFC elites. “They shared the techniques – the takedowns, the throws, the punches, the kicking. They’re incredible guys, and that environment has been great and accommodating,” he adds.
Romanian stuntman Filip Ciprian Florian (who worked alongside Powell) says: “When training for close quarter combat on set, the wider your range of training the better. Try [disciplines such as] jiu-jitsu, boxing and Krav Maga – these will train different areas of your body and give you the tools to get the upper edge as an action star.”
Vuyo followed the same brief and by diversifying his training, he wrapped up shooting injury-free. “I did it to try and avoid injuries, and I think that worked out for me because I was able to carry my body more easily and I was able to function and do the action scenes much easier.”
Training Twice A Day
Routine was key to Vuyo’s success, but it came with a challenge: he had to train twice a day and still be on set for his everyday job on Generations.
“It’s in an actor’s best interest in their personal capacity to have a gym routine and take on combat sports,” says Powell. “It’s very physically taxing because they have to learn their lines and still be proficient in all these different disciplines, which is a lot [to take on].”
As an avid gym-goer, Vuyo knew his body well and took training into his own hands. In the mornings he would do high intensity interval training (HIIT) and in the evenings he’d focus on muscle groups. “[Working] the big muscle groups, your back and your legs, will target your calories a helluva lot more,” he says.
For the most part, he ignored his upper body, which was already powered up. “If [I trained upper body], I would take a small dumbbell and I would get into a minute of punching. The key was working my legs and abs every day,” he adds. “My strong point has always been cardio. It works on your cardiovascular system, which helped me deal with stress. And I think gym is my happy place, so it helped me destress.”
The days I’m not on set and working out, I’m prioritising my sleep.
At times, life would get too busy, and Vuyo admits that while he aimed to double-up on his workouts seven days a week, it wasn’t always possible. He paced himself, and worked harder on weekends when he had more time. However, he says that a holistic approach to training is vital. “Some days, I’d go lighter – I’d call them my rest days,” he says. “The days I’m not on set and working out, I’m prioritising my sleep.”
With a busy schedule, he kept his diet simple and focused on the basics. He didn’t have time to count calories. Instead, he was mindful about what he put in his body: cutting sugar, upping protein intake and eating low-GI carbs.
“I couldn’t do soft drinks or juices and I couldn’t do fruit too late in the evening,” he says. “What I did was, I broke it down into smaller meals.
I tried to eat less. I focused a lot more on grilled chicken breasts and fillets. If I had carbs, I made sure they were the slow-releasing kind.”
I could burn 240 calories – and that’s just my warm-up, so I have to make sure I have the energy.
He’s not nitpicky, he says – as long as he knows he’s eating healthily. “Beans and quinoa; I could live on that and it’s good protein and carbohydrates. Just on the treadmill, I could burn 240 calories – and that’s just my warm-up, so I have to make sure I have the energy.”
On-screen glory comes with added pressure for actors to look shredded. Often, that means going to extreme lengths to nail the look. Carrying unnecessary water weight – which could cause unwanted bloating and puffiness – was a concern for Vuyo. To carve out a more chiselled physique, he gradually dropped his water intake throughout the month.
“It was gradual – you get into it towards the end,” he says on decreasing his fluid intake. “It’s not a constant thing because that would break your body. For the most part, I’m re-hydrating properly, but towards the end that’s when it gets really hard.” Fortunately, us regular guys don’t have that same kind of pressure. So make sure you’re getting enough water as adequate hydration is vital to your health, and performance in the gym.
For Vuyo, it was getting faster and stronger that kept him motivated. “If I can run faster on the treadmill or have a HIIT session with fewer breaks in between or shorter times between exercises, the intensity is higher and I can challenge myself physically, then I get a kick out of that. Rather than being in shape because I’m an actor and a showpiece – that doesn’t last for me,” he says.
Working on Queen Sono has inspired more than just a physical transformation in Vuyo – he’s ready to level up in other areas of his life, too. “With Netflix, just being on set as a professional, the bar was raised quite high. For me, it has changed my mind as to where things need to be and where my mind needs to be to get things done on a high[er] level.”