Prison dramas: how does the constrained environment of the context heighten or concentrate the emotion of a more traditional soap opera-style series? Does that require a change in your acting style; something less natural?
It’s always good to know what genre you’re in, because they have different styles and different audience expectations. In theatre, for example, my style would change from a Molière to a Checkov, or from a Tennessee Williams to a Neil LaBute. With Lockdown, I feel there is a specific acting style: it is quite heightened and different from a sitcom or a soapie. Sue can be very large and dramatic, so it’s fun to have that license. But with every style you do, it always has to be truthful.
Sue is an eccentric. Does that make her easier or more difficult to play – convincing viewers that a character is serious or focused is not necessarily simpler.
I wanted her to be eccentric. I play her with as many contradictions as possible. She’s a killer, but she’s also funny and vulnerable. She’s crazy and yet she’s completely and utterly sane. She fits in with everyone in Lockdown and yet she doesn’t. As an actress, I play her in that way so that I can move through all the different groups: she can be friends with Tyson one day and hate her the next. If you’re a clever actor, you do that so your character can survive – that’s how I got to Season 5…
Do you have input on Sue’s tics and curiosities, or is it all in the script?
At the first auditions for Lockdown, there wasn’t a character in it for me, for my age range. There was Vicky, who’s in her twenties, and then there was this character called Tannie, in her seventies. But I just thought: I’m not going to let that stop me. So I pushed my way into the auditions. I think Black Brain [the production house behind the series] thought I was crazy but luckily Mandla [Ngcongwane], the director, was there. I thought I wouldn’t hear back from them and then I got the call that they wanted me.
The way that Mandla works is very free. He’s been an actor himself and he’s incredibly creative – at a genius level. He likes to see what you as the actor can bring, so I’ve had a lot of freedom with my character from Season 1. I’ll read all the episodes and see where they’re going, but I’ll also know where I want to take her, where I want her to fit in, and bring my own ideas of what I want her to do. There’s a lot of improvisation with Mandla. For example, in Season 4, Sue was never in the cult in the script, but then Mandla was saying, “You’re not in it enough… We’re changing the narrative to put Sue in the cult. Let’s put a blanket on her head.” It was a few minutes before the scene, then it was “Let’s go, improv.” It’s scary but also great. I never know how she’ll come out but I can trust Mandla utterly. He has such a good eye and he always takes care of me in the edit.
Sue provides both comic relief and notes of warning to other characters; a sort of off-kilter Greek chorus. That might give her more influence on proceedings than her time on screen suggests – is that fair?
She definitely does cross boundaries with everyone because she can: she can say the most provocative things because she’s crazy and not crazy. I’m largely not working off a script, so it’s a fine line to balance as an actor.
Much of the series is shot in Constitution Hill. How was working in a museum, a place where so much of historical importance went down (and goes down, in the Constitutional Court)? Where there practical or technical differences because of the (presumed) need to tread carefully in that location?
They’re very gracious to us. It’s such fun now – like spending time with your family in a place you know. But Constitution Hill is obviously haunted and can be very scary. A lot of awful things happened there and a lot of strange things have happened to actors there. There are certain places where none of us will walk alone at night. Constitution Hill is open to the public while we shoot – they don’t let us close the sets – so there’s always somebody watching you, but we’re used to it. The show has a heavy energy that can be taxing, especially because we’re often trying to hurt each other and there’s a lot of sorrow. In Season 1, I tried hang myself, and then I strangled to death the person who tried to help me. So that can be quite oppressive.
As is the case with many prison-based series, there is not much suggestion in Lockdown that anyone is actually getting rehabilitated. If anything, inmates are likely to have extra problems after being jailed. Of course, this series is not a documentary, but your thoughts on that phenomenon? Is there any point to placing people in such brutal conditions and expecting them to improve in some way?
In Lockdown, there is so much corruption. Even when my character was sent to the psych ward after she killed a woman, there was no real sense of counselling, so those are themes in the show. But obviously we’re playing a violent, high-intensity drama, and I’m just an actor, so I can’t really comment on correctional services. I do know that when people watch Lockdown, often you will see them posting on social media, “Please God, don’t let me ever go to prison. I won’t drink or drive; please don’t let me land in a cell with Sue or Tyson or Slenda.” So I think that’s positive.