Shannon Esra

Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up by Phumzile Mhlongo |Dressed and styled by Ernest Mahomane
Profile by: Mathunzi MacDonald |


Some may not have imagined that Johannesburg born, athletic and imaginative Shannon Esra would grow up to make history as the first caucasian woman to take on a lead role in a Bollywood film. Her enormous and gregarious personality hits you at hello. Sharing in the task of making coffee, she jumps into conversation about the work I do, leading us to a conversation about her own love for music and singing. By the time we finally sit down for the official interview, I have learnt of Shannon’s belief in the human exchange of efficacious energies and how she carries this to sets and stages: a respect for each person and their craft, irrespective of how it may be perceived as minuscule by the masses. Infectious smile, accents and animated gestures in hand, i sit intently to listen to her story.

Mathunzi: You grew up in Johannesburg. Are you an only child? Tell me about your family setup.

Shannon: I was born and bred in Johannesburg. I have a younger brother, he is two and a half years younger. He got married last year, that was really lovely. It was honestly one of the most special weddings I’ve ever been to and Im not just saying this because he is my brother. The energy of love was so palpable. My parents live in the North Coast of KZN, they retired there.

M: As a little girl, what are Shannon’s days and dreams made of?

S: As a little girl I totally lived outside. I was completely obsessed with Tarzan and monkeys and chimpanzees. I’m a huge animal lover, always have been.

I’d force my brother to be the mommy monkey and I’d re-enact scenes from Tarzan where the mother monkey dies and I would try and save her. I think I was a lot of work because I just had such a crazy imagination. I don’t really remember being inside. When I was inside I was drawing or painting or playing with my he-man and my brother. It was such a freeing, wonderful time. And I always wanted to be an actor, from the minute that I could go ‘boo’ I wanted to be an actor. It was always there and what’s interesting is that in my past life I was definitely an actor and so it carried through prevalently into my younger years. It was something that was completely ‘the master of me’. From the earliest time, my best friend who is now an art director and I would construct a play, she would decorate the play and I would perform it. Childhood is so much about imagination and about the ‘what if’ and the magic of see with your mind and play.

M: As a now experienced actress, is an acting career something you would genuinely recommended a child or youth born in South Africa to pursue?

S: It’s funny because my immediate response is absolutely yes and then the next thing that I want to say is, with the right kind of technical training. Not training the mind, not narrowing down the imagination but broadening the imagination and then getting the right kind of skills to hone the craft. And then the etiquette to be in this industry. Something I’ve noticed is, there is a total lack of respect for the older actors and people that worked really hard. Even the makeup artists and wardrobe department. There’s a real lack of integrity when it comes to the people that put it all together. Yes, you can be an actor but you have to see acting not as a selfish pursuit to satisfy your ego. Acting is about realizing a dream, realizing a story that takes a lot of components to bring it together. We do not act in isolation. So for me yes she/he must, but she must come in there with knowledge that will make her powerful and knowledge that will make her grateful. And knowledge that will make her humble because those are qualities that I find very inspiring.


M: Do you feel you were well prepared at 16 for this industry as you broke into it with your first professional role?

S: I knew absolutely nothing. I didn’t even know the cameras were on me when they were on me. All I knew is that they said action and I had to do what I needed to do and I was not aware of the camera. In a way I think it was fine, it was better because then you are not self conscious. But I think when you know what that lens is, that is a wide, you know that is a close, you know where to gage your performance. I wasn’t even aware that I felt unprepared. As you get older you know the constructs.

M: Which actor/actress have you looked up to since your career began and still do to date?

S: Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep certainly. And I will tell who’s also one if my firm favourites and always has been. Her film career started much later in her life and that is Dame Judi Dench. I love her. For my matric final I did Amy’s View which had just come off the West End with Dame Judi as the lead. So I as playing a 65 year old woman as a 17 year old, I mean what? That can only fly in high school

M: What is the most tedious job you have had to do?

S: I worked in a diner for two years and some cater waiter at the Chateau Marmont for the awards parties and GQ parties. That was hard. I think ignorance is really tedious and you get that a lot when you are a foreigner in another place.

M: What is the most challenging role you’ve taken on?

S: I would say my most challenging role was probably my second year at university. We did a black box production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. That was by far the most challenging role because firstly the play is my favourite theatre which is expressionistic. Our director Jessica van Onselen who was doing her 4th year directorial black box, she just had wonderful vision and a wonderful eye and the script was so bare but Sarah Kane’s work is very troubled, very dark and so the content of it was very dark and there were a lot of things that I had to do that were hard. That was a very big growth moment. I got outside of myself a lot which was wonderful.

M: Theatre, Film or Television?

S: I love all of them. It always depends on the content. You’ve got to read something. It either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Don’t just work because you need the work.

M: Industry pet peeve?

S: A lack of etiquette. There’s also a strange throwing of weight that’s happening now. And I don’t understand it because we are all in the same boat together. We all want the same thing, we all want this show to be fabulous. I feel like that kind of energy can really tip the ship.


M: You are in a room with aspiring actors, what do you say to them? You have 60 seconds.

S: Do you want to be great or do you want to make an impact? Because if you want to be great, you can leave. If you want to make an impact here’s what I am going to tell you; Operate only from a place of truth. Don’t worry about making something feel real, if it doesn’t feel real then this is not the part for you. Don’t just take something because you need it. Casting is the most important aspect of anything; if you get the casting right that is 85% of anyone’s job done. You are not going to be right for everything and that is okay. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard, but not everything is for you. That is it.


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