Between Greenaway and making history, we felt privileged to have an opportunity to discuss with Savante his career to date, which apparently all began thanks to some good looking girls. In an interview mixed with seriousness and humour he spoke of discovering cinema in his native South Africa, the difference between cinema in American and South African culture, working with J.J. Abrams, and the rewards of collaboration.
Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Getting paid to do something that I’m passionate about… how could I refuse that? Performing plays in university… I got the bug, it bite hard, and so a journey was born. Who am I kidding? There were good looking girls in the theatre department and that was all the inspiration I needed.
Growing up in South Africa, how did it contrast to your experience of America?
I grew up and lived there for twenty years of my life but the country had already started the political course of long overdue change. It felt like the land of struggle and limitation, especially for people of colour. America on the other hand was the land of opportunity and dreams. One country was striving and dying for freedom and equality whilst the other offered it with open arms on a golden plate.
America is one of cinema’s superpowers (if I can use that term). How would you compare the cultural emphasis on cinema between America and South Africa?
South Africa is very young in its native cinema journey, so I don’t feel there’s a cultural emphasis on it yet. Sport still seems to dominate culture back home with all races, and it brings people together. But I think that South African cinema is on its way with many directors who are setting the tone and making tremendous strides. Blomkamp, Hood and my personal favourites are Wayne Kramer and Rudolf Buitendach. I fear that American cinema culture is currently largely identified by its box office now which is sad. The years of cultural emphasis for cinema in the US were the 70s. The greatest films in US history were made in that era, and its greatest icons: Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, Nicholson, Duvall, Streep were all discovered, and have become inspirational to so many. We’re almost reaching back for those glory days because the world of indies and smaller films seems to be falling by the way side. They can’t even get cinema/theatrical releases anymore.
Were you a fan of movies growing up?
YES! They were the great escape. The Godfather was my favourite. The era, genre and danger fascinated me. They took me out of my mundane life of homework, mowing the lawn or working at my father’s garage. I would obsessively watch as many movies as possible, and then try to act some of the scenes out.
You have just wrapped filming on Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato. How familiar were you with Greenaway’s work prior to the project?
I made certain that I was as familiar as possible, and I was very attracted to his unconventional style. My favourites are The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Belly of an Architect.
Eisenstein is a towering presence in cinema. Were you familiar with his work before the project, and how has the film impacted your perception of this iconic filmmaker?
I had heard of Battleship Potemkin, and I knew that he was credited with inventing montage as well as being one of the pioneers of editing. Learning more about him helped me appreciate his struggles, conflicts and accomplishments. He was dealing with the same issues that filmmakers are today: financing, recognition, respect, and seeking a platform to showcase his films on a global level.
If Greenaway is a stalwart of British cinema, then it is quite the contrast to star opposite Jim Caviezel in J.J. Abrams’ Person of interest. One could almost say it is where the old meets the new?
Precisely, and working with Peter was fascinating. Actors or cast almost feel like props and are secondary to his visual splendour, and style of storytelling. He and his gifted Director of Photograher Reinier van Brummelen literally completed each other’s sentences. It was slow and deliberate filmmaking for the cinema audience. I’ve worked on several J.J Abrams series, and his keen sense of sci-fi, action thrillers and fast paced projects could not be more different. He is far more conventional and he’s conquering both television and film while telling stories for a much broader audience. Both are phenomenal, but just very different from each other. Caviezel was a gentleman, a class act and one of the most disciplined and committed actors I’ve worked with.
During your career you have had the opportunity to work with celebrated actors. Film is one of the great, if not the greatest of the collaborative art forms. How invaluable have your experiences been working with other actors during your career?
They have indeed been priceless. I have learned that work ethic, preparedness, discipline in the craft, and a great respect for writers, directors and fellow cast who are the compass by which one has to guide their careers. No two actors are identical in their process, and on the job training is therefore continuous and evolving. I’m grateful for each and every single experience. The ones that have stood out and influenced me the most are: John Hawke’s laid back truth telling style, he simply never forces anything. Eddie Izzard’s lightening paced improvised reactions, Diane Venora’s mental preparation process prior to performances, and Melissa Leo’s openness and vulnerability, and the pure intensity and raw presence of Russell Crowe, Jeremy Piven, and James Gandolfini. Also Cynthia Nixon’s attention to detail and Susan Sarandon’s sexiness and charm.
Since 2001 you have produced and performed the 9/11 play 110 Stories, and you have been recognised for your contributions to the arts in the wake of 9/11. My question is two-fold. Looking back how important was the arts for Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, and has the way in which the arts were embraced then had a lasting impact on the American connection to them?
Artists are very sensitive souls, and they always want to feel like they’re doing something important to improve other people’s lives. The arts were crucial, a very strong part of the healing and cathartic process that gave many people closure. It was the chance to express each other’s anger, shock, pain, and overcome denial. These are key elements in healing. It’s very difficult to say regarding the lasting impact. There have been many films, plays, themes in television series that have dealt with this subject matter, and they have drawn in audiences that might not normally watch them in the first place. I know that 110 Stories has most certainly had a very powerful impact on those who have experienced it, and it has helped those audience members connect to their own pain of that day. They identify with several characters in the play and it lives on for them. Some of America and South Africa’s finest moments in the arts have come from these kinds of events in human history. Whether it’s Athol Fugard using Apartheid to tell incredible stories that have been seen the world over, or a long list of iconic Vietnam era films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. These historical moments like 9/11 inspire the artistic mind.
What is it that makes the arts so important to you personally, and what makes creativity and storytelling such an enduring and compelling force?
Well, I’ll speak to ‘acting’ only. I just know that I’m very moved and inspired by good/great material. It connects me to others when I’m performing. Roles that provoke, taunt, enlighten, and help others to perhaps see themselves or grow in their own lives. It helps us remember those who have come before us. I consider it a privilege to be able to tell stories, and hopefully entertain. Storytelling is basic, yet magical and has endured since the beginning of time. It is compelling because it unites us on so many different levels. It brings together people from different cultures, ethnicities, races, religions, financial and social statuses, and that will always endure.
Working in television, film, and theatre, how would you compare these three mediums?
Stage/Theatre is all about that live audience, the one ‘take’, and the one moment that is live on a wire. Having a long run in a play also means having to find new ways to keep something fresh for weeks, sometimes even months. It’s always done chronologically or performed in the order that the play is written. Film usually allows one some creative license and contribution. It is far more personal, real and conversational, but it is often shot out of sequence compared to how it’s written and viewed. Television is far more formatted, limited and shot on much tighter schedules than film, and so the artist is a little more limited. Although cable television has for all intent and purposes become the new cinema.
In A Million Colours you are dealing with Apartheid South Africa and in Selling Isobel the sex trade. Along with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit you have worked on projects that tackle intensely dark subject matter. What is it about performance and storytelling that makes it an interesting means to explore the darker side of life and human nature?
I love knowing how far I can take something; really taking it to the limits. It sometimes creates a huge arc for a comeback or redemption, and also makes a character feel more real. Or perhaps it’s the fascination of not allowing the audience to ever get comfortable. Not letting them feel like they know what’s coming next. No person is all good, or all bad, and with dark subject matter, one can visit places as an artist that are not typically touched on in our real lives. I enjoy characters and themes where the stakes are high, and one is forced to make difficult decisions. Couple that with human nature and the unexpected, and you’re well on your way to catching lightening in a bottle.
You are part of an historic moment in cinema. Where the Road Runs Out is the first film to be shot in Equatorial Guinea. Your thoughts on being part of this “First” moment?
I think it’s a wonderful and important step forward for African film, specifically in EG if they can capitalize on it. The film has just been offered distribution here in the US, and hopefully that injects confidence into the artists in EG, and the producers that might want to use it as a location. I personally only shot in Rotterdam and Cape Town (I had no scenes in the EG part of the shoot).
Looking ahead, you have produced Selling Isobel. Are there any plans to move behind the camera to write, direct or produce in order to further explore your creativity?
I have so much more to learn and discover as an actor, and so many goals to achieve that acting will remain the main focus. I am however producing some of the projects I’m in like 110 Stories. In the very near future, my own script/film is being shot as a feature. I’ve added some wonderful artists in the form of a director and fellow talent, and the film is in development through the Gersh agency here in Los Angeles. I’m also producing it, so therefore I am involved in three different disciplines… We shall see where the road leads.
Image source: Daniel Sumpter.