121111_107_largeOne recent Friday afternoon HeyUGuys had the privilege to round off our week in conversation with Vincent Ebrahim, star of South African comedy Material.

Vincent discussed with us the inspirational moments that led him on the path to acting, the role and influence of poetry, stepping out of his comfort zone, returning to work in South Africa and looking ahead to taking up the pen.

Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?

There was not necessarily one inspirational moment, but rather a series of moments. When I was at school and considering a career I was originally planning to be a marine engineer. Then in high school I lost track of that ambition, and being good at English I became more interested in the drama society. So I began my performing life reading poetry in a poetry group. Then with marine engineering having gone out of the window, when I finished high school I decided to audition for the local drama school. It started a creative process that became more and more important to me – this was all in Cape Town in South Africa.

I had various influences – my dad was a teacher but he was also an amateur actor as well as a theatre director. He would direct amateur productions of Shakespeare during the school holidays, and he would tour the country. On one of these occasions when I was eleven or twelve, I tagged along, and so I had a feel for it. Also when I was very young my family moved to Coventry, England for a few years, where my father worked as an assistant stage manager at Coventry’s Belgrade theatre. On one or two weekends he would take us along, and we’d sit in the lighting box watching the Saturday afternoon matinee. So I guess I was bitten by some bug, but it was only in my late teens when I was in my second year at drama school that it really began to feel comfortable.

Speaking with actors who have a background in dance and music, they often talk about how they incorporate those artistic disciplines to inform and influence their approach to acting. Is poetry integral or intertwined with your own approach to performance?

It initiated a love of using language, and when I became involved in plays it was kind of a natural extension of the poetry readings. Although my high school had a drama society, it was more about going to the theatre, which I enjoyed from an audience point of view. But I am also talking about South Africa in a very different era. Theatres were segregated in those days, and the university theatre was the only non-racial theatre that opened its doors to everybody. It became a hobby as much as a social occasion or a cultural event that I would look forward to. But poetry began to initiate the rhythm of using language which I still enjoy to this day.

Bringing the conversation around to Material, what was the appeal of the project and the character when you first read the script?

When I first read the early draft of the script I thought it was an interesting and tender little story set in South Africa. I had been living in the UK for thirty-eight years, and I’d often looked for an opportunity to go and work in South Africa. So the fact that it was a good script and with it an opportunity arose to go and work there made it more and more attractive.

It started a process where Craig and I collaborated, and because collaboration was something that he encouraged, I had the opportunity to contribute a lot towards the evolution of my character.

In the initial script I thought that the character needed a bit more grounding or backstory as they say. Craig was very open to me sending him ideas which we did via e-mail because at the time he was working in Johannesburg, and I was here in London working on other projects. Also I was about to go to America with a Tricycle theatre production that was set to tour for four or five months. So Craig and I communicated by a flurry of e-mails, and he would take on board my suggestions, listen to my criticisms and then I would carefully monitor the new drafts as they came in. So slowly the character evolved, but what was also growing was a collaborative relationship between the two of us. So by the time I agreed to do the movie and on the first day of the shoot in Johannesburg I was already under the skin of the character.

Film is one of the great collaborative art forms that brings together a group of individuals to share in that one vision. As an actor how invaluable is it to have a director who gives you an opportunity to help shape the character at such an early stage of the process?

You can’t put a price on it. It’s valuable because it begins a creative relationship that is about trust and confidence, so when you come to put it up on its feet in front of the camera you’re well on the way to having a strong and instinctive understanding with the director. That doesn’t happen every day, and I would say Material was unique in that way. The more I worked with Craig the more I realised that this was his way of working. He offered actors all kinds of opportunities to be as spontaneous as possible so that we would not be caught in a very rigid stick to the script kind of process. It was a much more organic piece, and the characters grew in and around as we were shooting.

Having said that, I am one of those actors who loves having a script to work from. I’m not so comfortable with improvising on the spot, though Craig’s way of working on Material offered all of those opportunities. When you are confident enough to jump in and grab the bull by the horns it sometimes works well, whilst other times it does not. It depends on knowing the script and hopefully in the moment you can lose yourself in the character.

I imagine comedy to be well served by improvisation and spontaneity.

Definitely, although I hasten to say that my forte as an actor is not comedy. Having been involved with The Kumars at No. 42, it was about playing the character, and the way I approached it was that it was a character. I took the same approach with Material, and we didn’t set out to create Ebrahim as a comic character; far from it. Riaad Moosa who plays my son in the film, his forte as a performer is stand-up comedy, and so it came very naturally to him. Some of the scenes that we improvised were certainly his responsibility, as I was much keener to keep the truth of the character. If comedy arose out of it which it often did, then that was a bonus.

Material touches upon the sensitive subjects of tradition and family, and it shows how comedy can allow for a discussion of such subjects.

Absolutely, and through humour you are able to reach a much wider audience because it makes the piece much more accessible. Looking for the drama of a situation can sometimes be heavy handed, and in Material there are deep relationships and traditions particularly because it deals with the Muslim community in South Africa. There could have been some sensitive toes trodden on, but I believe Material successfully negotiates all of those issues and obstacles.

Looking back on the opportunity Material afforded you to return to South Africa, how would you reflect on the experience?

My mother still lives in Cape Town, and I have a brother and a sister there, so it was not as if South Africa was completely strange to me. What was new or what was regained was the fact that I had not worked there for thirty-eight years, and that was a revelation. I enjoyed it tremendously. As I said earlier, I had been looking for an opportunity to do that, and Material provided me with a unique possibility. It was a good meaty part to get my teeth into, and it opened my eyes to other creative possibilities in South Africa yet to be realised. I would quite like to try my hand at writing because it is always useful to have another creative string to your bow.

How much of a resource will your time in front of the camera be in helping to guide you on the next stage of your creative journey?

It is very important, because to change horses in mid-stream when it is late in the day…. I’m not a young actor with lots of opportunity and possibilities in front of me. But I do think I have a lot to offer, and to be able to use my experiences as an actor would at least give me an experienced eye if I were to tackle writing a script. I’d know from an actor’s point of view what I was looking for. I’m yet to give it a good go, but I’ve dabbled along with a friend, and I have attempted to write a treatment of a novel which we were both interested in. It’s an ongoing work, but I am yet to have a go at actually writing a script. I’m sure all those experiences in front of camera will be invaluable, although my most extensive experiences are working as an actor in the theatre.

Talking with actors, a shared belief seems to be that theatre offers the best training.

Yes it does, although I have to adapt my performance skills as a theatre actor when I step in front of a camera. The disciplines and the medium are different. In front of a camera you have to be far more subtle. You are looking to restrain your physical performance, because as a theatre actor you project, and that can sometimes be too much for the camera.

Of course the script you start out with is not necessarily the film you end up with. Films or stories habitually evolve throughout the process. Did Material evolve dramatically from script to final film?

The script in a way provides a set of guidelines; if I may use that metaphor. But then it is down to the chemistry between the actors to convincingly create or establish as was the case in Material, a family that people would recognise as possibly their own. If a film is telling its story well then it potentially has that magical quality where it can perhaps hint at something an audience will bring their own personal experiences to. I believe Material does this in abundance, and it allows an audience into its heart. It is a film with an emotion, and a very strong sense of character, offering a set of characters who have a very tender story to tell.

Material is available on iTunes now.