By BRUCE DENNILL
The Riviera is an SABC2 dramedy that explores the complexities of growing up in Cape Town during the 1980s. The series is set in the year 1989 and examines the experiences of a 12-year-old Muslim girl, Riana Isaacs, growing up on the Cape Flats. While the country and the world are in dramatic upheaval, Riana innocently sets out to achieve her own personal milestones. Chantal Herman plays Liz Isaacs, Riana’s mother.
Can you distil what it is that you love about film or television acting particularly – over other types of performance such as theatre?
It’s the weirdest thing. I absolutely love the immediacy, the physicality and the connection with the audience in musical theatre, but I can walk onto a set at five in the morning in the fifth week of shooting and I still feel like there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I’ve learned so much on a set – most of all, to let go of perfectionism. Television is a fast-shooting, time-is-money space and the challenge is always to nail the script, the “marks” and the emotional integrity and intensity that I want, along with the technical aspects being just right to “get the shot”. Sometimes I may not hit it the way I want, but everything else worked and in knowing that that is what will make it to the final edit … I have to be okay with that. It’s a humbling experience, and an exhilarating one, because you have to be physically and psychologically ready to ride the moment with all the elements, whether they are in your favour or not – and then just hope to God that magic happens. It is an awesome exercise in trust in yourself, your fellow actors, the crew, and even the weather! There’s nothing like it! Having said that, I prefer television to film because I don’t know how to pace my energy on film sets, where everything is incredibly slow-moving.
Are there aspects of the craft of acting that are different in front of a camera than when performing for a live audience?
The truth of the character remains the same – the motivations, the subtext, the backstory. The only difference is how you portray that character in space. How you physicalise on a stage for your performance to reach the back row of a 2000-seater auditorium is very different from how your character, embodying their history and pathologies, fills a 30cm area around their face with their intentions, voiced or otherwise. It’s a skill I am still learning and loving. Theatre scripts tend to have many words to expose character while TV and film scripts have less and less respectively because the unspoken words live in your face that could eventually, be anything from 13 inches to 13 metres wide.
Film and television can involve an enormously lengthy creative process, with months or even years passing between coming on board via auditions and the premiere of the piece. What’s that like emotionally as a performer – investing heavily in something and then having to wait?
I’ve been lucky in most of my lead castings where I audition and I’m on set by the following week! But I’ve learned to do a casting and shut it out of my head until I get a positive call. If I don’t get it I’m not too gutted. I usually only relax into a part and know I have it when I’m on set and someone yells “Action”! The Riviera was the most nerve-wracking, however, because the story was so special and familiar. I just had to be a part of the project. I knew the producers and Quanita Adams, the creator, really wanted me to get the part but from auditioning to SABC2 finally giving their blessing, was seven months and again, I started shooting a week later! And after shooting, we waited another nine months till it aired! By that time I’d forgotten many details so I’m just there to enjoy the final product with the rest of the audience. I love it!
How important is a message for you in terms of the types of stories you prefer to get involved with? Are you part activist, and if so, for what causes? Do you want something that primarily presses artistic buttons, or is it a matter of simply working first and foremost? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all three…
The story is the most important thing. My work is to bring a character to life and move the audience with me through the story to a personal change – whether that’s an emotional or mindset change in the audience. Stories change hearts. That’s the revolution for me, whether the piece has a particular cause or not. Artistic challenges excite me, as well as working with people whom I admire because I know I’ll come out better at my craft.The Riviera did not have a big budget, but it showed the fall of apartheid through the eyes of a normal, happy family on the Cape Flats, a story that has never been told on television, about a time that affected the community deeply. It was immediately a project I knew I wanted to be a part of. I must admit, my decisions are rarely about the money, unless it’s disrespectfully low, and if I get a script and it doesn’t spark me in some way, I usually give it a miss – regardless of the money. If I don’t think I can add to what people have created then I won’t disrespect them by using them for money.
What do you need from a director? Conversely, what won’t you put up with from a director?
For me, a set is a necessary hierarchy that works like cogs in a tight, oiled wheel. But the work ethic I have is one of teamwork with each department where the art, props, wardrobe, makeup departments, the script, the director, and I create the character together. I have very little time for directors who play with their actors like they are their personal puppets – with only one way of playing a scene running in their heads. It results in a creatively stifling environment and I am, defiantly, a person who creates through joy. If you don’t know joy or are unable to take responsibility for your own mood and energy on set, I don’t want to work with you.
Does the way a film or show is distributed make a difference to you – the impact of the big screen and epic sound in a cinema versus a film or series being watched on a laptop or phone? Please answer as both a performer and a fan.
As a fan of big-budget, epic movies including superhero films, I must have the full four-storey experience with all the overpriced snacks, drinks, and the surround sound. The art of stories with epic themes has cinematographers for a reason – to be appreciated in a cinema. I can’t imagine experiencing 1917 on a small screen as my first viewing. It’s almost disrespectful to the director and actors who are embedded in the sweeping landscapes and the key, emotional role they play. If a film I am in is meant for the big screen, thematically speaking, I would feel pretty insulted if a friend says they’ll download it sometime. Family dramas and comedies are fine for the small screen though. But I do miss the bonding and fun that happens with group viewings of your favourite comedy. Weekly episodes used to be a social event. I miss that aspect. Nothing beats it.
In The Riviera, who is your character and why were they satisfying to play?
The show is loosely based on the life of Quanita Adams, the uber-talented creator, and her experiences growing up in the 1980s in the apartheid era. She is incredibly fun to play because I’ve based her on so many women I encountered in Heathfield, where I grew up, as well as my own mom. I was actually allowed to wear some of my mom’s authentic 1980s clothing that added an extra touch of authenticity as well as connecting me to my mom, who passed away 10 years ago, in a profound and poignant way. I loved being able to dive into the attitudes, however prejudicial, blinkered or fearful, of the community at the time and understand them from a different perspective. It was healing in many ways. Also, my co-star Keenan Arrison and I felt we really wanted to show the love and affection as we portrayed a normal, happy family unit on the Cape Flats – something that is rarely seen, shared, or portrayed on national television. I think we achieved our goal and I am satisfied with that.