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Vermaak | Entertainment > Film > Artikels | Articles

Black Butterflies actor Grant Swanby in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Janet van Eeden - 2011-08-10

Untitled Document

Grant Swanby

Grant, you’ve been acting for many years now – on stage, on television (you became a household name playing Ryno in Isidingo for a few years) and in film. In fact, many films made in this country feature you. Could you tell the readers of LitNet about your role in Black Butterflies?

I play the part of Jan Rabie, the well-known South African writer and one of the leading minds in the movement known as the “Sestigers”. Together with his wife Marjorie Wallace and others, including Jack Cope, Uys Krige and Andre P Brink, he played an important role in the adult life of Ingrid Jonker. The film focuses mostly on the “love story” between Jack (Cope) and Ingrid, so most of the other characters were forced onto the periphery. Having said that, though, it was still very important to me to try and capture the essence of one of Afrikaans’s, and indeed South Africa’s, most influential writers. From the time that I first read Rabie’s short story “Drie kaalkoppe eet tesame” I knew that if a film was to be made about Ingrid Jonker’s life there would be only one role for me. And as they say in our business, “There are no small roles, only small actors.”

This was a German/South African co-production. Was this type of co-production very different from other films made here? If so, in what way?

Well, a co-production usually means that there is more money available than on purely local projects and that the leading actors are brought in from abroad. That was no different in this film, although most of the crew were South African, and all of the support cast. This doesn’t always happen and there is nothing stopping an international company from using only foreign actors and crew, even in a co-production. The director, Paula van der Oest, and the international actors and crew on Black Butterflies were wonderful and we all had a great shoot. Carice van Houten is a dedicated actress and warm human being and Michael Auret from Spier Films made us all feel like we were a special part of the film. In fact, everyone involved worked very well together and the process was one of my most enjoyable film experiences.

As I mentioned before, you’ve starred in innumerable stage plays, been in television soapies, and acted in many films. Which is your favourite medium to work in, and why?

I don’t really have a favourite medium, as film, television and theatre are very different from one another and necessitate vastly different skills sets. I definitely find theatre the most difficult, due to its being live, but because the response is immediate you can at least gauge the audience response; something that you do only a year later with film. Also, theatre is more of an actor’s medium, whereas in film the director’s vision is paramount. In film, maintaining emotional continuity is difficult with scenes being shot out of sequence and the speed of shooting television (especially in South Africa) is quite something to behold.

Grant Swanby and Carice on set of Black Butterflies


You mentioned to me that you’d played the role of Jack Cope in a stage play. Could you tell me more about this production and your part in it? Was it more satisfying playing the role of such an important figure in Ingrid Jonker’s life than the one you played in the film? And is the experience of playing a character in “real” time on stage more satisfying than portraying snippets of a character on film?

One of the highlights of my acting career thus far has been playing Jack Cope in the award-winning production Altyd Jonker. Written by Saartjie Botha and directed by Jaco Bouwer it was a truly moving theatrical experience. It starred a great line-up of young South African actors, including: Nicola Hanekom, Neels van Jaarsveld, Nicole Holm, Stiaan Bam, Eben Genis and stalwarts Antoinette Kellerman and Neels Coetzee. I know that those who saw it will agree that it was something of a landmark in Afrikaans theatre. Nicola’s performance as Ingrid will (to my mind) be the quintessential interpretation of the great poet and not something that will easily be matched. Black Butterflies was made to reach an international audience and therefore lacks a poignancy that the play had, and in attempting to reach a larger audience was filmed in English. Both the film and play are important interpretations in our creative landscape, but the stage play, written by an Afrikaner and starring South Africans speaking in Afrikaans, felt much more relevant and true to life. As I said in an earlier answer, roles in the two different media are so dissimilar that it is not worth comparing them from an acting perspective. Both Jack and Jan were important figures in Ingrid’s life and the challenges in portraying them were vastly different, although research is vital when playing anyone who has lived or is still living.

Being in the film and theatre industry myself, I know how incredibly hard it is to make a decent living. How have you managed to sustain yourself and your family all these years?

It is not easy, but I have been lucky in that I work relatively constantly. I can act in English and Afrikaans and also in a variety of accents, which helps. There have been times where I have been completely broke, but a belief in myself and my love of acting has pulled me through. The financial debacle at the SABC over the past two years has been a huge blow for actors in general and many (those who are not in the soaps) are in dire financial straits as we speak. I am in a relationship with Nicola Hanekom (yes, we got together when she was playing Ingrid Jonker) and being two people in the industry can make it doubly difficult. We don’t have any children, so perhaps, in a fiscal sense, we are luckier than others. We both also coach actors and Nicola is doing extremely well as a writer and director, so we are able to maintain a decent standard of living.

If you could pick the role of a lifetime, what would it be, assuming you could play any role in any medium of your choice? 

It would be to play Richard III on stage. It is a role that I have wanted to play ever since I was a student and I always find Shakespeare a huge challenge. Otherwise I would love to be the star of a detective series – maybe a cross between Inspector Morse and Columbo, with a dash of CSI – set in South Africa of course!

Are you first and foremost an actor? Have you ever harboured any other aspirations?

Yes I am, but I would love to direct films. I know it sounds like a cliché for an actor to want to direct, but I would relish the challenge. I also am enjoying my role as an acting coach. This is a relatively new concept in South Africa, but is very popular in the US. Actors need to keep growing in their craft and a coach helps them to keep rediscovering themselves and experimenting with different approaches to characters and roles with the aim of keeping their performances fresh and focused.

What is next on the cards for you?

I have just “wrapped” a local comedy feature called Copposites and am starring in another local comedy film called Skeem due out next month. An art film set on a barren farm in Namibia and starring Nicola and me (the working title is A taste of Rain) is also hopefully due for release later this year. Otherwise, there are other projects in the pipeline and, of course, helping Nicola produce the last of her trilogy of plays for KKNK next year is sure to keep me busy. Babbel is the third in the series (the others being the award-winning Betesda and Lot), and as with the first two it is site-specific and involves a huge amount of planning. I am also on the board of the actors’ union SAGA (South African Guild of Actors), which can at times be rather demanding of my time and energy.

Click on the links for more LitNet articles on Black Butterflies: