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PopEntertainment.com > Oscar Nominees > Feature Interviews - Actors > Feature Interviews A to E > Presley Chweneyagae

PRESLEY CHWENEYAGAE

BREAKS OUT FROM TOWNSHIP KID TO OSCAR NOMINEE

 by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 11, 2006.

For Presley Chweneyagae, making Tsotsi was more than just a job or a spotlight; it was an act of redemption for a kid from a small poor town from the northwest province of Mafikeng who made the transition from local actor to international star of an Oscar-nominated film. Thanks to South African director Gavin Hood, this young guy from a tough neighborhood was able to construct the life of a mentally deranged thug ('tsotsi") and criminal gang leader, showing his human side both because of that experience and in spite of it as well.

Were you surprised at how brutal you became when you saw yourself on screen?

Yes, definitely. It was like asking myself, "Are you capable of doing that?” [laughs]

Except for Butcher, the gang member who shanked the people, you were a pretty nasty guy.

Yes, I was a pretty nasty, but it's probably because I grew up around guys like him, so it was easy to relate to. Plus, it was just a lot of cut and paste [laughs] of all these people.

You grew up around killers?

Yes. It was tough. There were people stabbing each like in the daylight and stuff like that.

You grew up pretty much after apartheid. How old are you now?

Yeah, pretty much. I'm 21, sir.

Apartheid was more than 10 years ago? [The first democratic election was in 1994; the system was coming apart around 1990.]

I was born in a northwest province in 1984.

So you pretty much missed it. Was it interesting to talk to people who experienced it?

Definitely. Because I've read books about apartheid, I kind of learned a lot [about it] but people look at me funny because I don't really understand it. I guess that's what you say, like when you go out or someone just calls you a "kafir" [a derogatory word originally meaning non-believer but in connotation meaning the N-word] you think "Oh so what." It doesn't really get to me the way it does to a person who experienced the whole thing.

What attracted you to this project?

I read Athol Fugard's plays like Blood Knot so I had an interest in the beginning. But to realize that the book, Tsotsi, the real novel, was written by Athol Fugard, I had to read the script twice then I got an interest. I said, "I can play this part. I can find this kind of element in me," if you know what I mean. So it was really that reason, and that I've always had a passion for films, even though I did a lot of theater, because I watched a lot. In that first meeting with Gavin, I realized that he was really passionate about his work and meeting a director like that... what more do you need? I had already prepared a scene for that interview so in the little time we had together I got a gist of what he wanted from his actors, and then I auditioned after that. I said I wanted to read for them both. And he said, "Ok come back and do them both."

Were you familiar with Athol Fugard's work?

I had read a lot of his work at school, just before they kicked me out. It was a technical because I was working and was away for three months. So I read his plays and I've seen his work performed. I've always heard of this good playwright named Athol Fugard when I was growing up. So it was an honor for me to be in his work.

What did you learn from reading his work?

I always like to get that experience. All along when I've read about Athol Fugard and guys like writer/director Barney Simon [founder of The Company, a non-racial theater group, and the Market Theatre] I realized there were more opportunities for black brothers in terms of theatres. They use to do these plays at the Market Theatre [in Johannesburg]. Just after 1994, when I started to get involved in the arts, I used to watch these protest plays, and protest theatre. That kind of theatre didn't really interest me at the time. Then I was interested in Shakespeare, I guess, because I just didn't grow up in that generation so it was hard to relate to it. That's why I don't get bothered when someone just swears at me and he's white. I just say, "Fuck it." I don't really understand the whole thing about apartheid and stuff. But I know there was apartheid and I know there has been controversy and all that but I'm just not there. My mind frame is somewhere else. It's not in the past.

What in your experience helped to do this movie?

I was able to do this because I started acting a long time ago. In 1996, I started doing plays like Jack in the Box but it was my mom [who encouraged me] because I grew up in a rough town. So my mom didn't want me to end up like most of the guys I knew, she wanted me to do drama. I did plays like Red Ball and later on I did Shakespeare – Hamlet and King Lear – and when I was doing Hamlet at The State Theater [in the capital city of Pretoria where had had moved when he got this role], an agent saw me there. I was still doing my matric and she said to me, finish your matric first and then we can talk.

Matriculation classes are at the end of high school?

Yeah, that's when I got the script and had a meeting with Gavin. So I asked him if I could do it [the part of] Tsotsi. But initially I auditioned for Butcher. 

When you two were working together, did you turn to him and get a sense on how to see and experience things?

Yes I felt that experience I had was enough to make me welcome my character. He told me the story about his mother being robbed and jacked twice. So we did have that but we didn't want to focus on the past. What we focused on was the story in the present. How the history has affected us but we can still do something with it instead of be all pissed off and angry at the world.

How about the transition, was it instinctual because you were trained in theater?

It was Gavin's direction and it was a whole lot of inspired acting and drawing deeply into myself. And I did not think about my character. I wasn't really thinking that the character has to change. I was just following the path. Like where the character goes. I followed the character. It wasn't really something that I thought about.

Were you nervous making a film since you're a theater actor?

[Laughs] When I'm working I don't really think. I just think the character so I don't really. You think about it after and when you look at it, it's like, [making a sound like "a-a-y"] I fucked up. Oh I'm sorry...

It's okay, In America we say fuck a lot. When you saw yourself on screen were you surprised at your transition?

When they first showed the clips, I walked out. I couldn't look at myself acting because I was feeling like that all over again. So it took sometime before I got used to seeing myself on screen. But still when I look at the screen I don't look at the movie to judge myself or judge other people's performances. In a different eye, but there's nothing I could have said like I should have done that but… I don't know what to say. I can't really say, ok now I can see I'm changing. I can't really think.

Was part of the secret about the making of this film in building a community with the other actors?

The way Tsotsi's character is, he's kind of on an island. He isolates himself from a whole lot of people. So obviously I was nice to them. They were experiencing, you know, as actors, they have egos, you get on set and you see this little boy who's Presley. So I just stayed in my space. I talked to them when I had to talk to them and we chatted. But it wasn't a matter of going out all the time. I think with me it was quite great because we didn't know each other very well, so it was easy for me to storm up and hold back.

How did you or these kids become actors and find the way to a better education coming from such a tough world?

How does that work? I think maybe by using poverty to channel myself for bigger things. Sometimes it works out very well in terms of you look at other people and you think, "This guy, okay, they are poor where he lives and his [business is with crime] so I'm not going to be like him. I want to be someone better." So it's just about doing something better with your life. But some kids grow up in nice houses and go to good schools and still mess up. They still have millionaires in Soweto.

Were you ever attacked?

Yeah. I had been mugged.

What were your feelings about being attacked and how you reacted to it?

It was when I was doing Hamlet and that was like two days before performance. So I was with a friend of mine and we were walking to my flat and there comes these three guys who hit me with the butt of a gun. I just saw a gun and I started fighting I didn't even think that this is a fuckin' gun. So anyway like after that I'm all bleeding, because I was fighting, it was impulse and tomorrow is the premiere so I used that challenge. Luckily they just took my bag and I had a t-shirt in it that said "Stop Crime" and hopefully they got the message. So I used that trauma to channel it into the character of Hamlet.

And I would assume, for this film.

Yah, even this.

When you shot the film in the ghetto how was the crowd control?

You mean in the township there; the guys on the street were hired as extras and as runners you know?

And as security guards [laughs].

They were excited about the whole idea.

How would you address your feelings about the issue of redemption in this film?

From an actor's point of view what interested me about this redemption story is that I think me as an actor – I'm a tool to make people feel. If I can get to that level where I can make you hate me and make me love me again, I mean, it's an achievement. So that means I'm able to do different kinds of stuff and not just be this cold-blooded killer all the time. That's why I don't really think I'll be typecast after doing this.

What are you doing with this now?

I don't know what I'm going to do now but because of all the hype that I've been getting from the media and all these awards and whatever, everybody's wants you to be in their project. So me and my agent are trying to look at things clearly so as not to fall into the whole thing. But I'd like to do a film in Iraq or something.

You're going to the Oscars. How do you feel about all the recognition?

For me it's a bit overwhelming because I started a while ago, acting, theater and all that, but three or four years ago I didn't even think I'd be sitting here with you guys telling about this movie. I didn't think I'd be in this movie winning all these prestigious awards. It's every actor's dream to be at the Oscars. It's been a week or something after the announcement and I'm still [in shock].

Are there actors you think of as an influence and what would you say to them if you ran into them at the Oscars; who do you want to meet there?

If I ever meet Robert DeNiro I would tell him that I am a great admirer of his work and I've followed him for years as an actor. I look up to guys like him because I love theatre and think theater is a good base for any actor. Then again, Charlize Theron, she's a sister of mine, she's from South Africa. So I'd like to just say Hi and congratulate her on all her awards.

Was Taxi Driver an influence on you in doing Tsotsi?

No I didn't have anything in the back of my head. I just tried to sort of start my own thing. But I have watched all of DeNiro's movies as an inspiration to my acting.

Are there any African American actors you'd like to talk to?

Yes definitely. Denzel Washington. I think he's a great actor. I like him.

Are there any other urban actors or directors that intrigue you?

Obviously, Gavin likes talking about Central Station [and its director Fernando Mierelles].

Were there any other films Gavin recommended to you?

Not before we shot the film but in Gavin's interviews he always talks about Central Station. We are always compared to the Brazilian movie City of God.

Have you learned a lot from Gavin or are you sick of him by now?

Oh yes definitely, I learned a lot from Gavin. And, no I'm not getting sick of him. I'm still trying to grasp more information from him.

After this experience, are you worrying about feeling a letdown?

I don't know what to expect. With a film like this, that's doing so well, it's a pressure on me as an actor. On my next project, what am I going to do? It has to be really good. I have to keep the standard sort of. If it phases off, I’ll have to pick up myself again and do something more.

Would you ever think about moving from South Africa?

Definitely, for greener pastures.

Where would you move?

LA.

Of the films you've seen out of South Africa, which ones would you recommend as important?

Yesterday. That was nominated for the Oscar last year.

Are there any directors besides Gavin that you've learned from?

Oh yes, Jason Xenopoulos. He directed Promised Land [that came out in 2002.]

How does South African music inform you? Especially the music in the film; was it around you as you were playing the role?

Yes. Even before. I listen to everything; I listen to Bob Dylan and to a whole lot of stuff. It's an inspiration because sometimes when you're working on a character you just play music and stuff. You try to do your lines and get all crazy in the house. I listen to everything and I do listen to South African music. It was essential in our film to be there because it is music from the township. It has the energy. I think it worked out very well.

What songs would you recommend people to listen to?

"Mdlwembe," which is the opening song. It has a great township feel.

Have you seen a lot of the South African films?

Yes, definitely.

There is a maturing industry happening there.

Definitely. I think the film industry back at home is growing. Yesterday, which as I said, was also nominated for an Academy Award, and now it's Tsotsi.  Even if you're a young filmmaker, and you're not well established you get that kind of enthusiasm looking at other people doing great stuff so it's up to the next one to hold a flag up at the game next year.

There are a lot of great films coming out from South Africa that haven't gotten the recognition.

No, [you're right and] that's why we do feel very lucky. I mean let’s face it. We did set out to make the best film we could and work from the heart. But at the end of the day it might've not worked; at a certain point you get lucky.

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