Film production in South Africa creates a boon and a dilemma for local actors

by Gideon Brower and Darby Maloney

Drive along South Africa’s N2 highway near Cape Town and you may spy in the distance a huge wooden sailing ship stranded in the middle of an open field. It’s a prop – one of two boats built as sets for “Black Sails,” a pirate adventure show produced for the U.S. cable network Starz. But that warship is also part of a larger invasion force — of foreign film and TV productions shooting in South Africa.

Denis Lillie, CEO of the Cape Film Commission says, “In 10 years time I think we are going to be catching up with a lot of the bigger cities, like London and L.A., for film production.”

Patrick Walton, a longtime actor, stuntman and producer in Cape Town, has seen the boom develop. “I think we’ve grown from having three features a year to excess of forty,” he says. Ever since the 2006 film, “Blood Diamond,” and the Clint Eastwood movie, “Invictus,” foreign productions have been flooding into South Africa from the U.S., Europe, Australia and India. They’re drawn by production rebates and a favorable exchange rate. And one more thing.

“People started to recognize that South Africa could match basically almost every location in the world,” says Walton, “except for where you need a lot of snow.”

The result is that many of the productions shot there are actually set elsewhere. “Black Sails” takes place in the Bahamas. A short-lived successor to the TV show “Baywatch” used a local beach to stand in for Malibu. “Homeland” shot an entire season here, doubling Cape Town for Islamabad. Walton says he played a sheriff in a series that took place in Arizona, “out in the desert. I think all the production needed to do was just place a few cactuses here and there.”

It turns out that physically recreating Arizona or Malibu on the other side of the world isn’t that hard. The bigger challenge is populating these fake Americas with fake Americans.

“Before you come out of drama school, you’ve got to be able to do a really good American accent and a really good British accent,” says Emma Ress, a talent agent who represents actors in Cape Town. Foreign productions cast her clients in a variety of small roles, as characters who are rarely South African.

Ress points out that when she was in drama school, students “would have to go the library” and “listen to tapes” to perfect their American accents. But these days, Cape Town actors look to people like Robyn Scott, an actor and voice coach, and to shows like the U.S. soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which airs in South Africa.

Scott says that “every actor in that soap opera is doing the correct accent. And because it’s a soap opera, you know, everything’s slow. They speak quite slowly.”

Talent agent Ress says if the production boom in South Africa continues, she’d like to see local actors being offered more than just bit parts. “Black Sails,” for instance, has one or two South African co-stars, but most local actors play cannon fodder, which Ress says is unfortunate: “It just seems a pity that they’re not being afforded the opportunity to audition for the supporting leads at least.”

And not only are they getting small roles, but the parts that are available to South Africans in international productions tend to be for white men. And Ress also points out that South African actors have often been paid much less than their foreign counterparts.

“We’re trying to get on top of that now,” she says. “And there seems to be a big complaint that our actors have become very expensive. But I think that we are finding our feet in what actors are paid around the world.”

Accent coach Scott is confident that as more South Africans master the nuanced dialect of “The Bold of the Beautiful,” they’ll land bigger and more diverse roles in U.S. and other foreign productions. Scott notes that she and some of her students were recently cast in a Warner Bros straight-to-DVD project, a modern-day Cinderella film shot in Cape Town.

“When I looked at the cast list,” she says,  [I saw] South African, South African, South African, South African, South Africans. And they all had to do an American accent. A lot of them came to me and we just checked up on everything before auditions, but I was just so proud. So, yes, it’s shifting.

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