2010-01-24 11:49

IT might not have taken home any Golden Globe gongs in the three

­categories it was nominated for, but ­Invictus has not disappeared from the

entertainment radar. With the Academy Awards nominee announcement scheduled for

next week, there is still hope that the Clint Eastwood-directed flick will get

the thumbs up. We speak to rugby legend Francois Pienaar and his movie avatar

Matt Damon.

The first meeting

Matt Damon : My first vision of Francois? That of a giant filling

the doorway of his house with an apron tied around his waist!

Francois Pienaar: When I learnt that Matt would play my role, I

­accepted the privilege without ­restriction. I raised neither the question of

similarity of appearance nor of size.

MD: Even though there is a difference of 13cm to add to the

problems of age – I am 10 years older than Francois was at the time – and of

­accent, which I worked on with a trainer until I deformed my jaw?.?.?. Happily,

it was easier to understand his natural leadership qualities. The evening wasn’t

over and Francois had convinced me to enter a charity bicycle race: 110km around

the Cape. I called my brother, we decided on a tandem and we won.

FP: Matt wanted to know everything. The way I move, express

­myself, react.

MD: For his part, Francois understood the need to pare down to the

bone. In the middle of the film, my script called for a long motivational speech

– useless in (Francois’s) opinion: “For me,” he said, “setting an example was

always more important than talking”. Clint cut down the scene and used

(Francois’s) comment word for word in the scene where he tells ­Nelson Mandela

about his idea of leadership.

A sport unlike any other

MD: Nothing could have convinced me to think of this sport as

anything but a clash between two barbarian hordes in a hurry to drink a few

beers at the end. It was only after watching the video of a match in its

entirety that I understood the sport.

FP: I was concerned about the credibility of the rugby scenes. But

then Chester Williams was responsible for plays and recruiting (in the movie). I

became confident. The 60 players were pros or former pros.

MD: Rugby is crazy. It never stops. The film is the same. The final

­sequence lasts 18 minutes! Clint let us play without any interruptions!

FP: We may not have been the most attractive team but physically,

we were at the top.

MD: I have always played sports. Lots of soccer and baseball. I

even cracked a rib rehearsing my role as a golfer just before shooting The

Legend of Bagger Vance! For Invictus, I worked even harder. Being an actor is

also about mastering one’s body. Normally, I weigh about 80kg. For the film

Courage ­Under Fire I lost 18. For The Informant! I gained 20. By playing rugby

I simply got back in shape.

African reality

FP: I come from a typical Afrikaner family. For a long time, the

only blacks I saw were our nannies. They treated us as “klein baas” (little

bosses). Segregation was everywhere. But I did not question it.

MD: I came to South Africa for the first time in 2006 with the

association, which I co-founded. The reality of the past few years is

nothing like that shown in the film. In 1995, hope prevailed – above all in the

figure of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s intuition

FP: When Mandela was ­released in 1990, I believed that things

would change. I think my parents had much greater anxiety. Our first meeting

dates back to June 17 1994. I was incredibly stressed out and wondered what he

wanted from me.

As soon as I entered his office, Mandela came up to me and in a

booming voice, said: “Ah Francois, it was so good of you to come!” We talked

about the Barcelona Olympic Games that he had attended two years earlier, about

boxing, about his village, but not about the Rugby World Cup. I left telling

myself that South Africa was in good hands.

MD: I met Mandela for the first time in New York in 2005.

­Immediately, he took my daughter Lucy on his knee. The man is a charmer.

FP: One day we met before a gala dinner. I said to him: “Sometime

during the party, I would like to introduce you to ­Nerine, my fiancee.” At the

end of the meal, he came up to her, took her hand and said: ­“Nerine, would it

bother you if I ­invited myself to your wedding?”

MD: Working on this film only confirmed the opinion that I had of

Mandela. The basis of his philosophy is forgiveness – to create greater

understanding and sharing. In my mind, he is the “man of the future”. A man who

gave up all his prejudices to act and behave better.

More than a sports victory

FP: I never saw the 1995 final against the All

Blacks again, or any match from that World Cup. Probably because I did not want

to upset the memories of a period that marked me like a hot iron. It is

impossible to imagine a better script: a country that in the space of six weeks

moves from anguish to hope solely because of a sports event.

MD: Mandela and Francois are at the heart of this

story, but there are all the others, Mandela’s staff and the players. Asking the

players to go to Robben Island the day before the final – what a brilliant


FP: It was Morne du Plessis, our delegation head,

who had that idea. He insisted that our wives accompany us. I had never been to

Robben Island. When I saw the film for the first time tears rolled down some

cheeks. The emotion is still there.

A film as an example

MD: Undoubtedly this is a feel-good story. But it

doesn’t lie.

FP: The spirit is there. The scene where I incite my

teammates to learn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika focuses on their reluctance. At the

time, ­only two players – Mark ­Andrews and Hennie le Roux – spoke Xhosa.

Memorising the words was complicated. In the film, Matt sings like the others.

And yet I did not open my mouth. I couldn’t. A quarter of an hour earlier,

­Mandela came to speak to us in the locker room. He had put on a Springbok

jersey. My jersey. I almost fainted. And rather than singing the national

anthem, I bit my lip – so hard that I could feel the blood ­dripping down my


The important thing was to emphasise the fact

that Francois was not a militant. But he changed little by little, like everyone

whom Mandela wanted to convince.

And now?

FP: Let’s be honest: It will still be a long time before all South

Africans hold rugby in their hearts the way they do soccer.

MD: It is important to be positive: I cannot deny South Africa’s

60% unemployment rate, or the problems with crime and Aids. But why neglect the

foundations of Mandela’s speech?

© 2010 Benoit Heimermann?/L’Equipe Magazine (distributed by The

New York Times Syndicate)

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