Tatenda Mbudzi sure has come a long way.
Twenty years ago, he was a young boy who delighted in watching even the tiniest bit of American cartoons from his home in Zimbabwe. Today, he is a UCLA master’s student in the School of Theater, Film and Television’s (TFT) highly competitive Producer’s Program and will be rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in Hollywood as he takes to the stage Sunday at the 85th annual Academy Awards.
It’s a dream come true for Mbudzi, who is one of six winners of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and MTVu’s inaugural Oscar Experience College Search, a contest announced by this year’s show host, Seth MacFarlane, during a surprise visit to UCLA last November as part of MTV’s StandIn series.
Tatenda Mbudzi prepares for Sunday night's big event during reheasals held Feb. 20 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
The top prize for Mbudzi and the other winners? A week of film industry experiences, topped by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be on stage to hand off the coveted Oscars to the presenters in each category.
"I am very, very excited," said Mbudzi, just an hour before the car service was to arrive at his apartment to whisk him away for a week to meet the other winners and visit the Academy Library’s renowned memorabilia collections, take studio tours, meet and greet with this year's Academy Award nominees in the short film category; and, of course, participate in rigorous rehearsals in the Dolby Theatre. "It’s definitely starting to sink in," he admitted.
The contest, which received more than 1,000 applications, required students to submit short videos answering the question: How will you contribute to the future of movies? In his video submission, Mbudzi, 25, speaks of being a foreigner and knowing how it feels to be an outsider. He also said he wants to be the kind of filmmaker who makes people believe in themselves and in humanity.
"Overall, my interest is to tell stories about underdogs and coming-of-age stories. That’s my main storytelling thrust," he said. "The interesting thing about being a foreigner is that it’s a very universal experience because at any point in time everyone feels like they’re an outsider or that they don’t belong."
In addition to their gig at the Academy Awards, Mbudzi and the other winners, who represent schools in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas, will be chronicling their behind-the-scenes experiences through video, which will be available for viewing on Oscar.com and Samsung Galaxy social media sites.
"I want to just do a really good job with this privilege. It’s a responsibility and an honor," he said.
Motion pictures and television have long played an important part in Mbudzi’s life. Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mbudzi and his parents moved to London, England, when he was 3. While there, he fell in love with cartoons. It was something that he missed greatly when the family returned to their homeland three years later.
Acclaimed comedy writer and producer Seth MacFarlane will host with 85th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24.
"There was only 15 minutes of cartoons a day, if that, and then one hour of news, so my entertainment was my grandmother telling me stories. She used to tell this story of a rabbit and a baboon, in which the rabbit outwits the baboon."
Television programming in Zimbabwe gradually expanded to include the animated tales of a clever American-bred rabbit known for his own personal brand of high jinks.
"I saw Bugs Bunny, and in my mind that sparked a connection with my grandmother’s rabbit story, and I just fell in love with cartoons. It was my first storytelling ‘drug’," he said, adding that he used to draw cut–out characters whenever the cartoons were on. "Eventually we got more programming and satellite television when I was a teenager, and I just fell in love with it."
As he got older, he became interested in theater and film. He also found his voice through public speaking, which more recently has morphed into stand-up comedy. (He performs from time to time at an improv space on Gayley Avenue near the UCLA campus.)
Following high school, Mbudzi came to the United States to pursue undergraduate film studies at Ithaca College. He became hooked on the City of Angeles when he participated in the school’s Los Angeles study program. From then on, he dreamed of the opportunities that the city — and UCLA — could one day offer.
"UCLA is a world-class institution with some great alumni," he said. "The Producer’s Program at UCLA is very entrepreneurial, and it takes into account all the elements of the media that are out there. It offers a truly holistic worldview of entertainment. It’s a great place to test out ideas, and it’s a great community," said Mbudzi. He was one of four recipients of the 2012 Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship, named after the longtime host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which aired for more than 30 years. The scholarship encourages undergraduate and graduate students to pursue careers in children’s media and to advance the values and principles of Rogers’ work.
Mbudzi said that Sunday night will be a culmination of sorts — his interests and aspirations funneling together as one — and further igniting his commitment to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.
"I’ve been interested in filmmaking and storytelling for a very long time, so this helps me feel focused and determined to do the best that I can, and to think big. It’s very inspiring."
Among the nearly 40 million people expected to be watching will be one ecstatic group. "My family is just overjoyed," said Mbudzi, noting that his mother, two brothers and two sisters will be watching the awards show from three different countries (Zimbabwe, Australia and Canada) on three different continents. His sister in Australia, in fact, helped him record parts of his video while visiting him in Los Angeles after not seeing him for several years. "My phone is vibrating constantly with them texting me messages."
He also knows that his father, who passed away in 2009, would have been incredibly proud to see his son shining on one of Hollywood’s biggest nights. "I’m sure he’ll be watching from somewhere."
UCLA student Tatenda Mbudzi, far right, with the other winners of the Oscar Experience College Search and the stage manager. Winners were selected out of a pool of more than 1,000 candidates.
Barbara Boyle, TFT’s associate dean for entrepreneurship and initiatives, is impressed by the academy’s recent efforts to engage college students in their work and inspire the next generation of talented and diverse filmmakers.
"This is a great opportunity that the academy has made for students across the country," she said. "To be around artists of the caliber that are nominated and honored, and to see how they put on the show, I’ve got to believe that in that atmosphere, something is transmitted. My advice to all of the students is to just enjoy it and to follow directions."