Riaad’s break-out role

2013-11-27 11:00

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He took off his comedy hat and upped his acting game to play struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. And it turned out to be a life-changing experience for Riaad Moosa.

‘Ahmed Kathrada told me he fell asleep in my movie Material.

I thought, that’s okay, he’s been through so much, it probably takes a lot to interest him. Then he told me he never misses an episode of Isidingo. Don’t feel so good about my movie any more…’

This is Riaad Moosa’s lament on Facebook and, this being Riaad Moosa, you presume he’s being funny. But it’s true, he says: politician Ahmed Kathrada – or ‘Kathy’ as he’s better known – is an Isidingo nut.

He never misses an episode. He even had a cameo role on the soapie once and he’s so proud of it he mentions it whenever he can.

‘Ahmed Kathrada – struggle icon, Rivonia treason trialist, Robben island prisoner… Isidingo cameo,’ Riaad says, chuckling.

He speaks with obvious fondness about the 84-year-old anti-apartheid activist he plays in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the eagerly awaited movie version of Madiba’s autobiography that opens on Thursday.

He uses many words to describe Kathrada: inspiring, brave, deep, a sensitive man who would use humour to hide his turmoil.

He needed some form of self-defence, Riaad reasons – you can’t survive more than two decades behind bars, deprived of everything you love, without some form of coping mechanism.

Riaad’s involvement in the film made him realise how all-consuming the loss of freedom must have been.

‘Freedom is like air – you don’t realise how much it means to you until it’s gone.’

The 36-year-old wearer of many hats – stand-up comedian, TV star, doctor, moviemaker, actor – was handpicked by producer Anant Singh for the part of Kathrada after a long and fruitless search.

Singh had been working on a film about Madiba for years – in fact, Riaad says, Singh wrote to Mandela about the possibility of making a movie about his life while the statesman was still in Victor Verster Prison.

As the project took shape – helped hugely by Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography – Singh started scouting around for actors both locally and abroad to play the parts of the central characters. But no one fitted the Kathrada bill.

Then Singh saw Material, Riaad’s semi-autobiographical movie about a Muslim son who defies his father by wanting to become a stand-up comedian instead of running the family fabric shop.

‘Anant approached me and said they were having trouble casting the role of Kathy. Nothing was working; would I consider it? I delayed answering him because the task seemed so daunting. I don’t really see myself as an actor. With Material I did everything – edited, acted, directed… It was a labour of love; a story inspired by personal experience. I didn’t think I’d be acting in other people’s movies.’

He also had projects lined up that would keep him busy for a year. In the end he said he’d do it.

And so began a journey that would leave him enriched by history and touched by the tales of a troubled time told by a remarkable political veteran.

Riaad sips A skinny decaf cappuccino in a coffee shop at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. His walk through the mall was halted twice by people who wanted a ‘Hey, I know you!’ handshake and a ‘one to show the kids’ picture.

He obliged but said he was glad his wife, Farzanah, wasn’t here. She doesn’t like the public recognition. She finds it intrusive, he says, especially when they’re with their children.

He takes out his phone and shows a picture of his son Zameer, 5, bearing a set of costume vampire teeth. A swipe of the screen and there’s his little girl, Hanaa, 4.

Both kids are glossy haired and slight – like their dad, who fizzes with energy.

A half hour ago Riaad was shimmying up a wall at the seafront during the photo shoot, unbidden by the photographer. The rest of the time he grinned for the camera and goofed around.

He’s witty, of course, and great with accents. He breaks into a British one when he recalls how members of the production team from England asked him if he could say, ‘Hello, my name is Ahmed Kathrada,’ in a ‘less South African way’.

He laughs and shakes his head. It made him more determined than ever to sound like a Muslim man from South Africa, he says. From the former Transvaal, in fact.

But in the next breath he says he can understand the motivation – the movie is made for international audiences and ‘our accents sound very different to foreign ears’.

He was there when Long Walk, directed by Britain’s Justin Chadwick, was screened in Toronto, Canada. He’s not surprised it was so well received: it’s a good movie – beautiful, even – and the cast is great.

But it’s not without flaw. ‘I’m pretty sure it will be controversial in South Africa,’ Riaad says. Short cuts were taken and facts were manipulated for the sake of commercial traction.

Inevitable, he adds, when you have to condense decades of history into two-and-a-half hours.

He’s proud of his involvement with the film and was thrilled to hear President Barack Obama hosted the screening at the White House.

‘The Mandela brand is huge. Obama was inspired by Mandela – our guy inspired Barack Obama! He changed the course of history in more ways than one. Zenani and Zindzi [the daughters of Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela] went to the White House screening, as did Anant.’

At the Joburg premiere in Rosebank, Riaad sat with Winnie. She was very emotional afterwards, he says. ‘You see her in a different light in the film.

You have preconceptions of her because of what’s happened in the past but she suffered too – she really suffered. She was ripped away from her children, put in solitary confinement for 16 months and tortured. Some scenes are extremely difficult to watch.’

South Africans with knowledge of the Rivonia Trial will notice deviations from the truth.

Nelson Mandela’s iconic speech from the dock included the three words ‘if needs be’, which saved him from the gallows.

They were contained in the last sentence: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which

I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

It was George Bizos, Mandela’s lawyer and friend, who advised he include those three words as they would stop Madiba looking as if he were seeking martyrdom.

‘But in the movie Bram [Fischer, another defence advocate] tells Mandela to include them,’ Riaad says. ‘Things like that… well, they may irritate some people.’ Mostly, however, it is about Nelson and Winnie and ‘it tells an important story in history’.

Riaad met Ahmed Kathrada for the first time on the Robben Island set recreated at the Cape Town Film Studios. ‘Kathy had just come from Robben Island. He’d been showing a visiting Indian dignitary around. The set was so incredible he felt like he hadn’t left the island.’

Kathrada gave up a lot for the struggle.

The youngest of the Rivonia trialists, he was just 34 when he stood in the dock with Mandela and the others. He was over 60 when he was released from jail and never got the chance to have children.

Being deprived not only of fathering kids but even of seeing children affected Kathrada and his fellow Robben Island inmates deeply.

‘Kathy told me how they longed to hear the cry of a child, their laughter, their voices. If he piled all his blankets really high and stood on tiptoe he could sometimes just see the guards at their compound with their families. Later, when he was in Pollsmoor Prison, his lawyer came to see him and brought his five-year-old daughter with him because it was Eid. They had important issues to discuss but he forgot about all of them and spoke only to the little girl. When I heard this I was so moved I couldn’t stop crying.’

Riaad has some of the lighter scenes in the movie and it’s fitting, he says, because Kathy is a very funny guy.

‘When I asked him how he felt when he heard he was going to be freed, he said he was told the prison had received a fax instructing him to be released. Then he said, “My first question was, what’s a fax?”’

Riaad spent as much time with Kathrada as possible, getting to know him, watching his mannerisms and learning about life in those dark, dangerous times.

The best thing about Long Walk? It changed his life, Riaad says.

‘You grow up in this country and you hear the story of the Struggle over and over again and it’s easy to feel detached. This film helped me realise the enormous sacrifice people made for this country’s future.’

So what’s next for Riaad? Well, there’s his TV show, Doctor’s Orders (SABC 3, Fridays at 3:45pm), his stand-up comedy show that’s touring the country, and a new movie project in the pipeline.

And he’s doing it all again this time – acting, directing, editing, writing, producing. Just the way he likes it.

For more about Riaad’s comedy shows, visit Riaadmoosa.com

‘The major difference between Long Walk and my movie Material is I had my own trailer to get dressed in, with a TV and a bed. And a toilet! When we were shooting Material I had to use a Portaloo and wait for the guy with tattoos to finish in there first…’

Long Walk in numbers

13: The age restriction – there is some sex, violence and bad language

15 million: The number of copies of Mandela’s autobiography sold

1994: The year the book was published R280 million, the movie’s budget 2 million. The number of people expected to watch the film in SA cinemas

The icon and the comic

He chuckles when asked how he felt when he heard Riaad Moosa was going to play him in the movie. ‘A comic playing me … It was kind of like when Tutu heard someone in Canada wanted a picture of him. He was honoured until he discovered they wanted it so they could make a cartoon of him!’

Ahmed Kathrada during the Rivonia treason trial.

But the comedian did a fine job, Ahmed Kathrada concedes, and he enjoyed the film very much. ‘It was as close to Nelson Mandela’s book as it’s possible to be,’ he adds.

Modest to the end, he says his ‘role’ in the book and the film was a small one. But his contribution to the struggle was far from it.

Politically active from a young age, he was arrested for the first time at the age of 17.

He spent 26 years in jail – 18 on Robben Island – and earned four degrees during his time behind bars.

Riaad says one of the first things ‘Kathy’ said when he met him was, ‘I can’t tell you how to make a film but I can tell you what happened.’ He tried hard to do the man justice but now thinks he ‘overprepared’ for the part.

‘Especially after having seen the final product,’ he says.

‘There I was in the background, doing all his mannerisms, and the focus wasn’t even there, or it was on a wide angle. But it was a very good experience.’

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