Tsotsi’s Presley Chweneyagae

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I didn’t always know I wanted to be an actor. I think it started in 1996. I started doing plays. I grew up in a rough township and my mom didn’t want me to end up like most of the guys I know. So she wanted me to do drama. Later on I did Shakespeare. I did Hamlet. When I finished my matrixal (High School), that’s when I got the script.

Oscar-nominated Tsotsi director Gavin Hood and the film’s star Presley Chweneyagae spoke with The Black Star News’s Tonisha Johnson about the inner workings of the film. Both compliment each other in such a way that it can only described as peaceful and positive friendship, both personal and professional.

BSN: What came first? Did you decide you wanted to be an actor? Or was this your first experience with a movie?
PC:  I didn’t always know I wanted to be an actor. I think it started in 1996. I started doing plays. I grew up in a rough township and my mom didn’t want me to end up like most of the guys I know. So she wanted me to do drama. Later on I did Shakespeare. I did Hamlet. When I finished my matrixal (High School), that’s when I got the script.
GH: Actually, he read for Butcher.
PC: Gavin said to me, he asked me, I want you to read for Tsotsi. But I had originally auditioned for butcher.
GH: Initially, we had an older group. When I say older I mean like 25 to 35. And the fear with the younger group, which felt right, would we find the emotional maturity with what the character had to go through. We thought we’d have to cast an older actor. But the problem with the older actor is, would you believe from someone who has seen more of life? We were hoping to find a young person who can handle the range that Presley pulls off. He (Presley) came in and we loved him. But I’m not sure if he was even convinced that he could pull this off.
 
BSN: When you were watching yourself on screen, where you surprised at how hard you had become?
PC: Definitely. I was asking myself…are you capable of doing that kind of acting?

BSN: Except for the guy who ran around shanking other people, you were a pretty nasty guy.
PC: I was a pretty nasty guy. I grew up around guys like him. It was easy to relate. Just do a little cut and past.

BSN: What is the attraction for both of you for this project?
PC: I read the author’s books. And when I read the script twice I got an interest of it more. I can play this part. I can find that kind of element in me. I always had a passion for films even though I did a lot of theatre. When I met Gavin, I realized that Gavin was very passionate about his work and when you deal with a director like that what more do you need? So I really prepared a scene in that interview. In that little time we had together, I got a gist of what he wanted from his actors. And then I auditioned afterwards.
GH: The way I like to work with actors is…it’s not really fair on actor that some do this, or get two scenes or whatever. When you’re looking for the very best actor for the role, you want to give them the very best chance so I tend to send out the entire script to anyone who might be right. But not just anyone; the casting is unique and limited some how. But you have to trust some sort of eye for what you’re doing. The scripts go out to a list of potential actors. They read the entire script and then I’d like to have a meeting. They come in and get to ask me about the script. We get to have an interaction. But Presley, not being used to that process, came in with the scene fully prepared. He thought he was going to have to do it then. So, initially the thought is he would play Butcher. And then, we get some discussion on which actor is relating to the material, we thought it would be nice but we’re not really sure, so why bother having them back. But when you get that kind of passion from Presley and that kind of innate understanding of the character and the ability to articulate that journey…then you can’t wait till next week till when we have proper auditions. And then give the actor the chance to prepare. So Presley and some other actors went away. And when I auditioned, it was in a small studio with video camera and some lights, just to get in there behind the eyes and then it worked. And then the first thing he did was auditioned for Butcher and he was brilliant. And he got Butcher. Actually he didn’t go quite like that. We were sitting together and you [Presley] said you wanted to do Tsotsi and I said come back and do both.

BSN: Did you have anyone else in mind for Tsotsi?
GH: Yes. In fact, the chap who played Fela (Zola), the slick gangster; the music in the film is his music. He’s a pretty big star.

BSN: Had he acted before?
GH: Yes. But he is a big star in Kwaito music and he was a big star before that because he did a very successful TV series. He’s an experienced actor as well as a musician. And even though we don’t have a lot of movie stars and he wasn’t huge in the world but he was huge at home…it was very attractive to use him. Should you use a name actor or not? Of course you should use a name actor, but only if they’re right for the role. Cause who wants to go through marketing hell? But if they’re not right, and you’re contriving to make that right, then the audience can smell that also. He did a great audition. The difference between him (Zola) and Presley, was just the issue of age. When he has that mental breakdown at the end of the movie, the older guy, you just don’t buy it. You’re like dude, you should have got your shit together by now. The vulnerability feels forced. When you got a 19 year old, who’s out of control and doesn’t know… I said to myself, it really is a coming of age story. Therefore the age matters. And so the age really helps us in some sense he’s more frightening because he’s young. It’s more frightening and more believable.

BSN: In the areas where you shot the film, you made it look really expansive.
GH: We did go many places. We went into Shanty Town and the rail road station, which was like 8 miles away. And actually the house, which was close to the shanty town, and then the neighbors were like we’re not having all that film crew, the lights, my dog will bark…and they stopped us.

BSN: Were you nervous about doing the part?
PC: When I work I really don’t think. I just think the character. I think afterwards. When you look at it its like hey…I fucked it up.

BSN: How do you guys feel about the recognition? You guys are going to the Oscars.
PC: For me it’s a bit overwhelming. Three or four years ago I didn’t think I’d be sitting with you guys talking about this movie. I didn’t think I’d be in this movie winning all these prestigious awards. It’s every actors dream to be at the Oscars.
GH: I’m just relieved that a lot of people are happy. In a film like this, even though it’s a low budget move, still its $3 Million dollars. We got money from people who don’t want to lose it. They took a big gamble on it. There’s an industry that’s growing but it’s not huge, so every project is done with kind of a responsibility. Every actor and director in South Africa feels a responsibility in some way not to screw it up. And we didn’t screw up. Thank God.

BSN: The depiction of Africa, which is still evident today, shows a country of people with no opportunities. How does one in these poor poverty stricken townships get access to great schools and acting classes?
PC:  I think maybe, like using poverty, you motivate yourself for bigger things. And some times it works out very well. Sometimes you look at other people, who are poor and say I’m not going to be like him, I want to be someone better. It’s just about doing something better with your life. Some kids live in nice houses and still mess up.

BSN: What is the great need or desire that filmmakers have for these redemptive films?
GH: Well, my mothers been car jacked twice. The first time it’s my mom. The second time she’s car jacked with my dad. The three of them, they’re kids, surround the car, they’re out of control. They rip my mom’s necklace off. The fourth guy is sitting in the getaway car. They’re getting out of their electronic gate just like you see in the movie. And suddenly boom they’re at the window. And my dad’s going to my mom ‘just give them what they want.’ My mom is trying to engage in a conversation. She’s going, ‘don’t really want to be doing…what would your mother say?’ So, why a redemptive film? I think there is a need in all of us to forgive and understand. We don’t want to feel, mainly, that the world is all bad. Because that is really depressing. And even when we live in an environment, when we see bad things happen, we want to believe that it’s not always going to be bad and that there are stories that end happily. And when you watch the news, it’s doom and gloom but the stories that people stick to are somehow the stories that are going to work out, you know. So nobody wants the miners to come out the mine shaft dead. They want the miners to somehow find a way to get out. So what is that need? The need for redemption? It’s a deep human need. That need to be forgiven. And I think that everyone of us, at some level, wants a need to be forgiven for something. I think we all have the need to be forgiven. And I think in South Africa and especially as a white guy, feeling the shame of what white people did. 

Copyright 2006 Tonisha Johnson

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