interview by Joe Vaz
Issue 19 (Mar 2012)
Many, many years ago Brandon Auret and I spent most of our days studying drama at Pretoria University of Technology, and most of our nights either rehearsing for plays, performing them or playing guitar and singing covers in bars and restaurants all over Pretoria, sometimes getting paid in pizzas and beer. Hey, what else did we need?
Initially our careers were pretty closely matched; we both had our first professional break in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor® Dreamcoat, we both made our television debuts as costumed characters in children’s shows and we even shared the stage in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story in 1998/99.
But that’s where our paths parted. Brandon went on to make his name as the fan-favourite character Leon du Plessis, in the South African television daily drama Isidingo, and I went to London to starve to death.
For eight years Brandon graced our television screens before moving on to bigger things.
A brief appearance in District 9 lead to a friendship with director Neill Blomkamp, which has led to him being cast in Blomkamp’s new movie, Elysium, currently in post-production.
Brandon’s latest film, Rancid, is set to open in the US on 200 screens – not bad for a low-budget South African movie.
Your latest movie, Rancid, is apparently getting a 200-screen theatrical release in the States. Is that right?
The director told us two weeks ago that he’d signed a deal with an overseas distributor and that they’d like us to go over there and be part of the publicity tour for 200 cinemas. It’ll be a six-week tour.
That’s amazing. So you’ll be doing premieres and red-carpets and all that?
Oh, I hope so.
[laughs]Let’s face it, it is the only glamorous part of this job, isn’t it?
I want to know if it’s worth it. I want to walk down there and just go, “Oh, so this is what those okes experience. Awesome.”
Tell us a bit about Rancid.
The story is about a company that’s busy designing some kind of wonder drug and they have these participants come in who all have different diseases and different personality disorders. They all sign their lives away for the next four days, take these tablets and wake up four days later, alone in a hospital. There are these creatures running around and they are, slowly but surely, turning into something of the sorts. That’s what the story is about, and yeah – there’s a nice little twist at the end as well.
Sounds like a 28 Days Later, that takes place inside the hospital.
Pretty much like that, that’s a very good way to describe it. It was also shot on a Canon 7D and the director and the DOP… Just they way they shot it, because it was a very small crew, there was only one cameraman, and one focus-puller and the cameraman did his own lighting. But because it’s such a small camera they were able to get some really, really interesting shots in the movie, you know it’s shot really beautifully and it’s edited really cleverly.
I’ve watched the trailer, and it looks fantastic. It also looks extremely messy.
Yeah, there’s a lot of blood and guts in it. A lot, a lot. And you know what, it’s amazing, this is how small the crew was – the girl who did the make-up was also the girl who did special effects and also did special effects make-up and did costume and did food and everything like that.
[laughs] It really was a skeleton crew that we worked with. But you know it was all about the end product, and the end product looks amazing. I think that’s why the Americans bought into it, because I don’t think they believed that Alastair [Orr] was able to shoot a movie of that quality on that budget, if you know what I mean. In our terms, I think it was a R380 000 movie. Which is low, low, low budget, but for the Americans it works out to about $70 000, which is ridiculous, I mean, that’s not even the budget for a pilot.
That’s like a student film budget.
Ja. So for them to realise that they can make their money back by distributing this film all over the world, flight it in 200 cinemas, invite some of the actors over there for six weeks and do, what I suppose at the end of the day we want all our movies to achieve, and that is have the appreciation of the people that go to watch it.
Which brings me to my next point. That’s the problem in this country [South Africa]. The problem is not our filmmakers or our films; the problem is our filmgoers. And it’s a cultural thing, it’s easy for them to go and watch a Leon Schuster movie or a Bakgat or whatever, but the minute you label something South African, they’re like, “Hmm, we don’t really know about it, we’ll wait for it to go to DVD.” But the minute something in South Africa gets international approval then all of a sudden their ears get perked and they’re like, “What? So it’s a South African movie, and it’s good? Wow.”
We’ve been saying the same thing about South African books. There has been a wonderful bout of local genre fiction writers…
They’re not writing movies for the South African market, which is the way to go. Screw the South African market if they’re not going to support us, we know that the rest of the world does. Because to the rest of the world, South Africa is a honey pot.
Absolutely. We have the worst view of ourselves than anyone in the world. If you tell someone you’re South African people go, “Wow, that’s awesome,” but we’re embarrassed to say that.
And the enlightenment comes, and you’ve experienced it yourself: when you go overseas and work on an international movie, your race, country, religion, or wherever your loyalties are, doesn’t really make a difference. You’re seen as ‘the talent’ and you’re treated as such. You’re not a worse talent because you’re South African, you know, you’re as important as the next talent.
Absolutely. Cast is cast – you’re all there doing the same job.
Exactly. It’s important to them and I think in this country that’s the biggest problem – that we do undersell ourselves and accept mediocrity, and I think that’s where the bullshit lies and we’ve gotta stop that. At some point it has to stop because somebody has got to realise that there is a real business out there. Somebody needs to sort it out, because who ever is running our film industry and our distribution industry, really don’t have any idea what they’re doing.
But let’s get back to Rancid. You play a character called William Hunter, is that correct?
And are you one of the test subjects?
Yeah, he is. You get introduced to the test subjects one –by –one. There are four of them, and, once again, I think that’s my calling, I kind of offset everybody’s worst nightmares. But you know, with it being a horror genre, things always, without giving too much away, they don’t always turn out to be what you think they are. But maybe it is.
It’s a very well-written script. And that’s the problem, a lot of times people see “low-budget” and they don’t go and audition for it. But it was a really well-written script and it unfolds beautifully on screen. He’s an interesting character, I enjoyed playing him. He has a lot of anger, a lot of anger issues.
Yeah, there’s a shot in the trailer of you chucking a bunk bed against a wall.
[laughs] I won’t explain why.
So when does Rancid release?
It releases in the US in May.
You started out on Isidingo? Was that was your first gig?
No. Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor® Dreamcoat.
Aah, but that was on stage. You did Joseph? When did you do Joseph?
With Mark Sykes, at the Theatre on the Track.
Oh, so six months after me. Right, that was ’94.
Yeah, Philip Godawa was the director. That was my first gig.
But you really came to the public eye in Isidingo as the character Leon du Plessis (Dup).
Well I did a lot of stage and a lot of musicals. I didn’t really get on TV until ’97. Up until that point I’d done basically musicals, stage shows, rockumentaries and tribute shows, stuff like that. But I knew what I wanted to do, which was get into film. I kind of left it in destiny’s hand, but, as actors do, we do what we need to survive.
Absolutely, especially here. How long were you on Isidingo?
Long time, eight years.
You played a single character for eight years, and obviously you got to know the other cast members, so it must’ve been a bit of a family there. So what was it like leaving that and going back out on your own again?
I think the choice was easy, but dealing with the aftermath of leaving was hard. The reason I left was because I’d only played one character for eight years. I was getting tired of it and it was becoming mundane and boring and my artistic integrity was taking a bit of a dive because it became like a sausage factory, you know what I mean? It became a job.
But the problem is you get stuck on a TV programme that long, you kind of carry that label with you. I’ve been out of it now for almost eight years and people still call me Dup, you know.
And that’s, I don’t know, I see it as a compliment, because it means somewhere down the line my character embedded himself into the viewers minds, but the problem is that directors and producers and big companies that are busy getting their ads cast, they see that and they go, “You know you’d be great for this ad, but you’re Dup.”Or: “We’d like to cast you in this TV series, Brandon, but… you’re Dup.”
[laughs] I did Angel’s Song, and I did One Way after that, but then for about three years I, phew, hey dude – I can’t even remember how I survived. Thank God for my credit card, it kind of got me through some hard times, because people were just not… they were not seeing past the Dup character. So I went on a massive diet, lost a shitload of weight, cut my hair all off, and then I landed my first movie role, which was minor, in an international movie, Catch a Fire.
That’s with Tim Robbins, right?
Yeah, directed by Phillip Noyce.
And what was it like transitioning from a daily television show to a film set?
It was like starting all over again. It was like walking onto a totally new environment but it felt good, it felt right. It felt like, “yeah man, this is what it’s all been [about], all I’ve been through up until this point has been worth it because of this moment.”
And I kind of knew then that things were going to start happening. I didn’t quite know how but I kind of knew that this was right.
And there were some really good movies after that, and some really shit ones, you know. A lot of the times in this country we don’t get paid for a movie. I think Hansie is a very, very good movie, I think it’s a beautifully shot movie, but they didn’t pay me for it. They paid me [a couple of days pay] and then they said to me, “No, no, we don’t have any more money,” and this was after the big theatre release and all this shit and I’m like “Whatever, dude.”
But I’m glad that I did it anyway, you know, it’s the same with the Race-ist; I’m glad I experienced it. It’s a crap movie, but they didn’t pay us for it. But then you get the gems, you get the Night Drives and the District 9s, you get the Rancids, where they do pay you. It’s not a lot of money but you’re working with amazing people and you learn so much in that kind of environment when you’re around people who are backing you up 100% in whatever it is that you’re doing.
So I did like a movie a year, and in between I had to go and do other stuff like Barnyard [Theatre] stuff and corporate functions and this and that.
But I really want to get involved in the film industry in our country. I’ve got a company called A Breed Apart Pictures now and it’s time to take our stories to the rest of the world.
I really believe we can. We’ve just got to somehow, I don’t know, get finances behind it, people that believe in the industry and know that it’s not going to happen overnight, and invest in it.
I think it’s more to do with the marketing than the financing, to be honest, because over the years we have become extremely good at shooting excellent product for very little money, but then that product just gets buried. No one watches it.
Ja, ja, you’re 100 percent right there, Joe, it’s the marketing and distribution. We only have Ster-Kinekor and NuMetro and they rip the companies off because they take 60% off the tickets, just right off the top, and nobody is going to make money unless you are Leon Schuster and you’ve been offered 94 cinemas as opposed to a movie like Night Drive, which was only offered twelve.
Yeah, I wanted to see it, I had seen the trailer, I knew it was coming and then it was gone already and I didn’t even know it had been released. It just disappeared.
But that’s my point, again. A movie that didn’t do really well in this country, is doing well overseas. Its opening weekend in China was unbelievable, you know.
Well, it’s a terrifying movie, I mean, just from the trailer. It is fucking terrifying.
[laughs]You know that M-NET [SA Cable network] said no to it? “It’s just not something we can show,” and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
Whatever, but it was a really good movie. That really made me fall in love with acting again, because I worked with a director who really pushed the limits and was more obsessed about the characters than the storyline, you know.
Of course you worked with your old Isidingo partner, Chris Beasley.
Yes, and he’s amazing in the movie. He’s wasted on Isidingo, and you can quote me on that.
To be honest, I think most actors are wasted on Isidingo; you and I studied with most of them and we know they’re all fucking phenomenal actors.
Ja, but you know dude, it’s lekker, you get caught up in it.
Sure, it’s a steady paycheque.
I’m not gonna lie, dude, it was the most comfortable eight years of my life. It was a salary every month, it wasn’t an amazing salary but believe me when you have a salary every month your problems become less. Suddenly banks take you seriously: “Can we have six months worth of statements?”
“Yes, you can. Here are my payslips.”
[laughs]You know what? I have no idea what you’re talking about. I have never had six months worth of payslips.
[laughs] It’s a relief, hey, it’s an amazing feeling, but you get caught up in it. And that becomes your reason for [losing] any kind of momentum. Which for some people, I suppose, is cool, but people like us, who need to go and explore, and go and have an adventure in somebody else’s life for a minute, it’s not lekker, you know what I mean? It’s what we do.
Ja. Now, you were in District 9. Did you have any idea when you were shooting that film that it was going to be the most successful South African movie of all time?
You know Joe, I’ve got a story for you, my broer. We had no idea what Neill [Blomkamp] was doing. I mean Neill had me running through Soweto dressed up in old South African Defence Force browns, with full gear on, chasing after a black dude, calling him the K-word, telling him I’m going to put a bullet through his head if he doesn’t stop… I’m scheming, “My broer, why am I doing this in the middle of Soweto? Somewhere along the line someone is going to jump out and go, ‘Hey, you’re on Candid Camera.’” But it wasn’t.
It was callback, after callback, after callback. I think it was about three or four callbacks and then I was up for one of the leads, for the part of Kobus.
David James’s part.
Ja, and it came down to a decision between Peter Jackson and Neill, and because Peter Jackson had the final say he kind of went with David James, but in saying that, Neill came up to me afterwards and he said, “Look, do you still want to be in the movie?”
And that’s how I ended up being in the movie. Normally, you know what it’s like, you audition you don’t get the part and you never hear from them again. [laughs]
So I had a small little part in District 9 and then at the after-party Neill put his arm around me and he said, “You know, don’t worry about it (?),” because he’s a dude, you know, he’s not caught up in the whole la-dee-da-ness of movie making, he’s an oke, you know, and he says, “Dude, we’ll make a movie together one day.” And ja… I got the call, hey.
He came through.
He came through; he said to me he’s got a part for me in Elysium, would I be interested?
[laughs] I was like, “Ja, let me think about it…”
Let me check my calendar.
I had to send through an audition tape. They do things professionally, they had to go and show the producers, and I ended up working with… and I wish I had got to know him better in District 9, because he’s actually an incredible actor but he’s just a very complex person, is old Sharlto Copely. Because I didn’t spend a lot of time with him on District 9, we had no scenes together.
Ja, you’re on opposite ends of the storyline.
And in this movie we end up doing just about every scene that we have together. We end up playing these… um, you know, without giving away too much, we are a specialised unit that operates in the black-ops kind of regime and we are told to go and kill somebody for something.
[laughs] Right. And of course you got to work with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and one of my absolute favourite frikken actors, William Fichtner.
Ja dude, I didn’t even get to see him, man. He did a lot of his scenes in Mexico City. I had one day with Jodie Foster and… dude, you must understand, I hate to box actors, but she’s like one of my top five, you know what I mean?
Ja. Didn’t you play Bugsy Malone at some point?
[laughs] Listen dude, don’t even joke, you know what happened? [American accent] “Oh hey, how’s it going, you’re the guy playing Drake.” And of all the things I could’ve said to her, I went, “Hey, I’ve loved your work ever since Bugsy Malone.”
[laughs] She was like, “Really, Bugsy Malone?” And I am like, “Just keep walking, just keep walking.”
I could’ve said to her, “Hey, the first show I ever did as an actor was Bugsy, and I played Bugsy,” but no, I had already put both my feet in my mouth, so…
[laughs] So you’ve got a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, you’re an actor, you’re a singer, you’re a producer. How do you manage to juggle your time across all these things?
Um, it’s called survival.
[laughs] You know, it’s amazing – I tell people, “I’m not a singer”, I never have been, I’ve been able to kind of bullshit my way across all that. You know, at the end of the day I’m an actor. That’s one thing I’ve never been able to lie about, and I wish I could spend more time acting, but I can’t, because there’s just not that opportunity, so I’ve had to ‘act’ as a singer and ‘act’ as a this and ‘act’ as a that to try and make sure that, should something come along, like Elysium, or Rancid, that I have that time available to myself that I can say, yes, you know. So that’s why I do it. I keep myself busy for that one call, or for that one audition that we can go to and get that lekker part.
And now, I’m a dad as well, she’s going to be one-years-old next month. That’s the real reason, bro – I was doing so much just to feed my own ego, but right now it’s not about that, it’s about making money and making sure my daughter never has to go through what I went through.
You and I have the same background, I also started in musical theatre and all that, but I love the permanence of film. I love that my daughter, regardless of whatever happens to me, can see what I have done.
Isn’t that the best thing?
Of course, the movies that you and I do, our kids won’t be able to watch for another eighteen years. But it’s just that knowledge, and it’s silly, but I feel like I have left my mark in the world for her.
Ja, no matter how small it is, no matter how silly it is.
Exactly what it is, broer.
So, what’s next for you? Anything lined up, other than a six-week tour?
Right now I’m waiting to go on the publicity tour for Rancid, and then it’s back to what I’ve been doing for the last three years, producing and trying to raise funds for scripts that I’ve been given. I’ve got two really, really good scripts that have been written by Justin Head and I want to produce them and I want to get them done in this country and I want take those films to the rest of the world. It’s business time now; I’ve got to take the Brandon actor suit off and put on the Brandon corporate suit on and go and convince people that putting their money into this movie is a good idea.
We wish you all the best for the future. Thanks a lot for talking to us, Brandon, and congratulations on everything.
Thank you, and thanks for this opportunity. I wish you guys all the best as well.
Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.