Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe, Producer/Writer: Felicia Naiwa Sithebe, Concept by: Lihle Ngubo & Karabo Mokoena, Photographer: Mlungisi Mlungwana, Production: JohnOtto Phike, Rainy Nthangeni & Tshepo Marema, Interns: Ross Hlongwane & Bongani Mayisela, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo, Location: The Bioscope.
You know that build up of a suspense movie, there’s a faint whispering wind, a not so clear sky because you know something is about to happen… cue the Cello, the intrigue builds and he walks in, tall, looks into the camera… his name is Arnold, Arnold Vosloo.
Felicia Naiwa Sithebe: As a South African, what did you have to do in preparation for leaving South Africa in terms of performance visas, registering with SAG-AFTRA. The process of formally getting yourself equipped and ready.
Arnold Vosloo: I was very lucky in that the first time I went to the States was with a Market Theatre production, so I was asked to go do a play there with the late Barney Simon so they arranged all the temporary work permits that were needed while doing the play for six, seven months and one of the cool things while we were doing the play, an agent saw me from The William Morris Agency and they asked to represent me, I then went for an audition during this time and that ended me up in the movie Hard Target, so it all just fell into place, it was luckily a happy accident. I know people struggle with visas and work permits but I got lucky with the way everything was arranged for me, I went right into a job and got my green card. They say you make your own luck but I simply got lucky.
Felicia: A case of the perfect place at the right time with the right people.
Arnold: Yes. Right time, right place, right people. It was just the perfect storm and the difficult paperwork that could trip you up, came easily.
Felicia: It is said that an actor prepares, an actor should always be ready, and as you say that you were seen and people wanted to represent you, what do you think it was that you had in you that they saw to want to sign you.
Arnold: I have thought about it but I do not know what it was. I think probably my South African enthusiasm, here I was in states working and wanting to work more and it was all a dream come true so it must have been that I was positive and enthusiastic, also my accent because in America when you have an accent like mine, invariably they will ask you to play bad guys so when they heard me they thought I would make for a bad guy so lets sign him. I was always enthusiastic, everytime I met a director or anybody like that I made a point of letting them know I was keen and happy to be present and do the work towards better films.
Felicia: What processes did you undertake to adjust to the American entertainment industry as a South African actor, especially in relation to accents. You spoke briefly about it now but there are cultural references as well so how did you adjust to this new world?
Arnold: It was difficult. At the time I was 28 years old so I missed South Africa, my friends and family and that was tough. In terms of the accents and technical aspect of being that side, it was not as hard. Whenever I got hired to play Dutch, French or German, I just did the homework and went from there. In all of the years I have been there, only twice was I asked to do an American accent and that was harder for me to do because to this day when I do an American accent it just does not sound right to me, I suppose because I grew up seeing all of these American movies so in my own mouth it sounds fake however the Dutch, French, German or Russian accents come easily for me.
Felicia: What was the learning process with the accent work…A Lot of us watch television like American thrillers then attempt to take on and re-enact what we saw and heard in front of a mirror. You always want to give an authentic performance so what was taking on these various accents like for you.
Arnold: I try to find an individual that truly speaks the language in that accent and have them read the lines as I record on my phone and I will then listen to these recordings during morning walks on the beach or in an uber ride, to constantly listen until I feel ready enough on my own. It takes a couple of weeks to listen to the music of the accent in order to incorporate it.
Felicia: The music of the accent, I like that.
Arnold: Yes, it’s definitely music. Last year I had to do a German accent and actually speak the language too so I had to listen to it like music so I could form certain notes to be able to do it.
Felicia: Most people would assume your race is universal, you are white therefore you can fit in, which makes it easy to assimilate within the western world. What was your perspective on that transition as an Afrikaans South African actor
Arnold: It’s interesting because you would think as a white person I would assimilate easier in the states but much to my surprise I realised that I may be white but I am an African and it took a long while, even now I do not feel as comfortable there as I do here. Weirdly enough when I have worked that side with black cast members and technicians I feel more comfortable, as crazy as it sounds that is just the way it is. A lot of my white American actor friends would wonder why I would not sit with them at lunch time, so it was interesting and you acknowledge quickly that you are not an American. I am an African, end of story.
Felicia: Proudly African.
Arnold: Yes, absolutely.
Felicia: Arnold, being a SAG-AFTRA actor yourself, what are your opinions on the current strike? Do you hope it could have an impact on entertainment industries worldwide?
Arnold: I tend to think that the Genie is already out of the bottle because this artificial intelligence thing is happening so quickly now. A friend of mine who shot a film last year called me to let me know that his director needed a shot of him acting like he’s opening a door or window in editing and he was already on another movie so he could not and they proceeded to ask his permission to do it with artificial intelligence and he said yes because he could not come back and they digitally altered his face from previous shots and it’s just the way it is. Now, should we get paid for that, yes. Use us and do what it is you would like digitally but pay us for that privilege.
Felicia: I suppose there is a comfortable balance?
Arnold:It is there and definitely another tool that filmmakers will use from their toolbox, it’s just that right now they do not want to pay the screen actors for doing that but hopefully they will make a deal and it will all be good.
Felicia: We look forward to a positive outcome. Now you are back home for a long span, after 33 years, one of the reasons being that you always carried home in your heart. What are the memories of home that kept you connected and motivated in continuing your journey in Hollywood?
Arnold: There are so many things about this place that you carry with you and I never thought I would remember things as deeply as I did when I was in the States. I remember doing a play in New York and I was so homesick at the time and kept thinking about Hardy dahs (hadeda ibis) with that screeching sound they make and I was nostalgic for that, for sunsets and remembering riding my bicycle as a kid while listening to the black ladies coming from work speaking in their mother tongues as they bantered and teased each other and those are the sights and sounds that form part of the fabric of this place and once you are gone those are things you miss. There was a beautiful sunset during a shoot once and I remember thinking the sunset in South Africa is way better, if only we could shoot there.
Felicia: You describe it so beautifully and detailedly that when I hear an actor speak the way you do it reminds me of the importance of seeing life in textures as an actor. For an aspiring actor that will be listening and reading up about you and this interview, what would you say is the importance of seeing life in those details for your job as an actor.?
Arnold: It’s very important. Of cause we have to get hired to work as actors, but one of the important things is to constantly observe your surroundings, look at the way that guy is dressed or the shoes that girl is wearing, imagine where they come from, how much money they make, how do they see the world, what do you think their politics are so you can constantly work in the space of firing up your imagination if you do not have a paying gig. Keep observing people, wonder about them, make up imaginary stories which will fuel your imaginations so when you get a script and get to read a character you are asked to play, you have this pool of information you can then apply.
Felicia: Almost like having met the person you are about to play…
Arnold: Yes and you can use fragments, it does not have to be a whole person, like saying this particular person comes from money but likes to wear old, broken shoes. Sometimes as actors we think we need to have a gig in order to act and that part is true but I remember as a young actor I would walk into a coffee shop and just pretend to be somebody else, to put on an accent to see if I could be successful in that moment, it’s always been a fun thing for me to do.
Felicia: What are the industry differences between South Africa and Hollywood in terms of industry culture?
Arnold: The biggest difference is that people here in the crew are definitely more excited and generous because they are working and want to give to the project. A lot of the time in the States I find that it’s much more of a business thing. Another big difference is that in the states you get paid more and in dollars.
Felicia: What are some of the unique career advantages that being South African has offered you over the years?
Arnold: Definitely my accent and that nine times out of ten I am going to get asked to play a bad guy in the States. The disadvantage is rarely being asked to play a leading man but that is okay it is the deal you make, at least you get to work and if you specialize in bad guys then so be it.
Felicia: When we compare productions in Hollywood, you do find a selected few Actors that are cast for specific characters and I like when you say specialize in that. So for our actors in South Africa who feel they may dislike being seen in one particular way, what would you say on that note to specialize in it?
Arnold: Embrace it. If they always want you to play a certain character that is always jolly, I say stay like that, take their money, keep working and be great at that thing that they see in you, embrace it, specialize in it, make it work for you and make them pay you.
Felicia: South Africans are making a name for themselves more and more in Hollywood which is exciting. What advice would you give to a South African actor wanting to begin their careers in Hollywood?
Arnold: Counterintuitively I would say, do not go to hollywood if you want to make it in hollywood. The whole world has changed now with the streamers so do authentic work here and if you shine in the work here until it gets an opportunity to be screened abroad, you will be picked out and let them call you from that point then you go. When I went over 30 years ago it was rare that a film from here would get a chance that side so I was kind of forced to go there and seek it out but now if I were 20 years old I would embrace all the work here and hope someone on the other side notices me and just let my South Africanness shine here and let the doors open.
Felicia: That is beautiful advice, that wherever you are in the world, make the best with what you have.
Arnold: That’s it.
Felicia: As an actor, what were some things you had to relearn in order to portray South African characters from the South African gaze?
Arnold: When I left here at 28 I was already formed and knew who I was so when I was asked to play South Africans that side I still think of myself as fully South African so I never embraced the American thing. Yes I had a friend who would come over that side and within three months they were speaking in an American accent and I did not get it so I have never really had to search for South African in me, it was just always there.
Felicia: Considering that the South African entertainment industry is not unionized, what advantages and disadvantages does this present for you as you settle back home for the next 8 months? How does that make you feel about the kind of work you will be doing?
Arnold: Interestingly, I have never used the union. I have never had an operation or had to use their medical care so it’s weird because you get all of these benefits as a member which I have never used in the states but it is important and it helps people. Now how it will affect the industry here if and when we unionize I do not know. Will it mean the same amount of work, will people still come and shoot here, will it make it more expensive here, I do not know. I know with the current strike that the residuals have benefited me in that I still get cheques from movies I made 30 years ago, so that part is nice and can sustain you when waiting for the next gig, so, will those benefits be as generous if and when we unionize here, I do not know. We will have to wait and see.
Felicia: Why the 8 month time frame?
Arnold: I keep saying that I want to spend eight months of the year here and the only reason is I do not like being cold so come May 25th then I fly to the northern hemisphere. June, July, and August are cold here in Joburg so I will go somewhere that is nice and warm, whether it’s Santa Monica or Spain. I will be there for three or four months then come back to South Africa when it’s nice and toasty. Also, I am not a Cape Town guy, I love Joburg, unfortunately it can get bloody cold so I will come back on the 1st of September.
Felicia: You have been quoted saying that if the writing is good, you show up. What do you look for in a story when offered a role?
Arnold: Exactly that. It is the writing, not just the role. When I read the script the first time I do not only read it with the part I have been offered in mind, I read the script to see if I like the story, the idea, and if I fall in love with that then I show up. It’s a tough thing because writing is a primary art and it’s a difficult thing to get those words down on a page but when you read it and it sings, you want to be part of it.
Felicia: You talk about looking at something and loving it and we often forget about falling inlove with the work when things get busy and there is a buzz in the industry. What would you say is so important about taking something, analysing it and loving it. What does it open you up too, what are the advantages around that?
Arnold: The advantages to that is that you want to be there, its not just another gig. I can honestly say that every time I have worked I have really wanted to be there whether I am on set for an hour that day or its a 14 hour day. Whether I am in one scene or twenty scenes, whenever you embrace it, it calms the mind, the spirit, you know why you are there and nothing else matters. That is the best feeling.
Felicia: In this digital era Brand positioning and affiliation is a BIG thing, as a seasoned Actor what are your thoughts around Actors being associated with brands that will not be at the detriment of their first call, which is acting?
Arnold: Thats a difficult one. I have seen people in commercials then you see them in a film or a piece of theatre and in a weird kind of way it does take away from it. Maybe I am old school in that sense. I personally have never done a commercial, I am probably going to get offered a commercial right after this interview now that I have slandered actors that do a lot of commercials but its a tricky one because you can get known for the brand and not for your work and that is a deal you have to make with yourself or with God. I personally am not on any social media, I am an old man who does not understand all of that stuff. I understand acting and I understand action and that is where I apply myself, I understand that with the branding thing you have to do it, that selling yourself does help, but when it interferes and takes precedence over the purity of the performance work then I believe it is much more difficult.
Felicia: You’ve worked on incredible productions playing roles that many can only dream off. What has been the greatest highlight of your career?
Arnold: Theatrically, I did a play in New York with Al Pacino and that was an incredible experience, not to just perform the play on broadway but working with him and rehearsing for the two months before we performed because it really opened my eyes as to what it means to Al Pacino to be an actor and thats where Iearnt from him that thing of love and wanting to be there. He made you feel that he did not want to be anywhere else, that he was just solely interested in that and selfishly. Weirdly enough the highlight was about three or four years ago when I was asked to come back and work here in Afrikaans for the first time on a movie called Griekwastad and that experience was extraordinary because I had been away for 30 years, worked on big productions and blockbusters then suddenly I was back here. We were somewhere in the cape and we had no money, there were no trailers, there were no chairs, there was nothing but a camera, five actors and a director and that experience was a highlight because once again it was about the purity of the work, just about telling the story and the fact that it won a SAFTA for best film a year or two later was the cherry on top.
Felicia: How do you take care of yourself as an actor?
Arnold: In my case I live simply. I always say to people there are financial constraints, sure you will get paid well for a gig then you might not work for a year and a half so I say pay yourself after you pay your agents, pay yourself 10 percentage and put that money away, do not touch it so when you do not have a gig, you have some money to fall back on. Its sort of the old cliche of you, your body, your voice and essentially everything being your instrument so take care of it. Go and have a nice walk every now and then, feed yourself through reading beautiful books, then there is literature, music, art, nature, whatever inspires you, let that stuff feed you so when the opportunity comes and somebody hires you for a gig that you are a rounded person with an opinion, you have lived a little, you know what you like and do not like then you take it from there.
Felicia: Out of sight, out of mind. What is the first thing you wake up to and the last thing you go to bed to that inspires you as an actor.
Arnold: When I was a youngster I knew I was going to be an actor so I cannot imagine my life without the industry, having said that I constantly say I am going to retire before I am seventy, at some point I am going to stop working so it will be interesting to see if I still think of myself as an actor when I have stopped but it has been a great journey, everything has been a gift, I have always been grateful. When I go to bed at night whether on a movie set or my home in Santa Monica or here in South Africa, I am grateful for everything that has come my way, when I wake up in the morning I am enthusiastic and happy to see what the day is going to bring. It’s been good – so gratitude.
Felicia:You are one of our treasures here in South Africa, have you thought of ways to impart your industry knowledge with us – what does that look like?
Arnold: I haven’t. I am always happy to speak to younger actors and where there are workshops. I am happy to talk to people about technical aspects of filmmaking like the little things of getting up from a chair during a close up, don’t get up how you normally would, if you get up too fast the camera cannot follow you so get up slowly even if it feels artificial, the little technical things like that you can impart to people. Then there is the other side of the business, just financially, take care of your money, if you have two or three good years do not blow that money because you will have two or three bad years where you will not work a lot, spread it out, so there is that part. Normally young actors come and seek me out on set and ask me those questions however there is no formal setting where I impart that and I would not be presumptuous to talk about these things if people did not ask me, but if people ask then I am happy to talk about those things. I hope to work in South Africa more now as it has been such a good experience so far with Griekwastad, Ludik and Silverton Siege, I have loved those productions with South African crews and actors so we will see the next few years as I work here more.
Felicia: Thank you so much Arnold for such a genuine conversation.
Arnold: Thank you.
Arnold Vosloo is reprented by MLA