Chit Chat: Moonnyeen Lee

2011-03-04 10:12

What motivated you to follow this particular career path?
I became interested in the industry 37 years ago while making back and forth trips between London and South Africa with my mother, who was an actress.

Back then, the local television industry hadn’t picked up yet.

So when I eventually returned (to South Africa) for good, I realised there was a need for someone to help develop local talent.

Does that mean you studied it?
I didn’t but I grew up surrounded by people in the acting industry.

 So in order to learn the ropes, I invited James “Jimmy” Fraser who was then head of Fraser and Dunlop, London’s top talent agency, to teach me everything I needed to learn about being an agent like drawing up contracts, reading scripts and more. All this was done in three weeks.

How has the local television , film and theatre industry chan ged in the 37 years since you started?
When I started, the industry wasn’t as developed. We had to fight for many things, including the rights of black actors.

There were times when I couldn’t go to Soweto to see plays and scout for actors. I had to get a permit in order to do that.

Another problem we had was the fact that most international producers who wanted to shoot in South Africa preferred to use international actors. So I spent most of my time travelling to LA (Los Angeles) to campaign for local actors.

We also had to shoot most of the movies about South African political violence in Zimbabwe, like A Dry White Season with Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland.

I also helped cast Winston Ntshona in the same movie.

What big screen producti ons have you worked on?
I have been involved as a casting director or agent in productions like Tsotsi, Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, Max and Mona, Goodbye Bafana, Jump the Gun, Hopeville, the first Yizo Yizo, The Lab, Zone 14, Jacob’s Cross, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and many others.

What does it take to be successful at spotting talent and casting an actor in the right roles?
Definitely sleepless nights and the passion for developing talent. There’s a lot that goes into the job, such as learning how to properly read and study the script so that you know the kind of actors the client is looking for.

You also have to consider the parameters; if the script is about a family, you have to make sure the actors look like a family.

If it’s about relationships, you have to put the two actors in one room to audition opposite each other, to see whether there’s magic.

Who are your stand-out actors?
There are just so many of them that have been phenomenal like John Kani and Winston (Ntshona) who (both) have done so much to develop the local acting industry.

There are also people like Vusi Kunene, whom I remember seeing for the first time in a play at Wits more than 20 years ago.

I just knew immediately that he was an immensely talented character.

There are also others who have made it their life’s work to help their communities like Lillian Dube and Israel Makoe, who gives acting classes to children in Alexandra township. Those are the phenomenal things that stand out for me.

What is the one thing you look for when you cast actors in roles?
Talent. However, it’s one thing to find talent and another to develop it.

There are young actors like Terry Pheto, who I noticed among a group of 30 young people and immediately cast for Tsotsi.

A few years down the line, she has done wonderful things for her career and she continues to grow.

What motivates you to continue doing this ?
I make it a point to try and give an opportunity to those who don’t have access to normal channels of acting.

When we were filming Life Above All in Groblersdal (a farming town in Limpopo), we auditioned about 400 children from the area.

Eventually, we found the two children who ended up becoming the leads.

One of them, 13-year-old Khomotso Manyaka, won a best film actress award at the Saftas.

What was it like receiving a lifetime achievement award?
That was an emotional moment for me – to be in the same room with all the people that I have worked with and fought for day in and day out.

It’s very satisfying and wonderful to know that even after all the fights, nobody hates you.

What are your future plans?
I’d love to take a holiday – which I haven’t done in 12 years – but it’s very difficult because there is still so much work to be done for this industry to grow.

I want to see the local industry produce 20 to 25 successful films a year; and we’re getting there.

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