SA actress in plum role

2009-08-01 00:00

IT took nearly a year and several auditions before Jessica Haines got the nod to play the role of Lucy Lurie in the big-screen adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel, Disgrace.

In doing so, she beat Hollywood heavyweights like Cate Blanchett to perform opposite iconic actor John Malkovich, who plays her father, David.

There were no hysterics when she heard the news. “As an actress you get used to failure, and I never believe anything is real until I’m actually on set working, so I didn’t worry when I hadn’t heard from the producers.

“And when they phoned me, I was quite calm and just said ‘Thank you’. They were like, ‘Do you understand what we’re saying?’, and I said ‘Yes, thank you’.”

Speaking to me during a promotional tour for Disgrace, which is being screened at Cinema Nouveau Gateway at 6 pm tonight as part of the 2009 Durban International Film Festival (Diff), Haines said it has been an honour to play such a strong female role.

The actress, whose parents, Felicity and Anthony, live in Hilton, was well-acquainted with the 1999 Booker prizewinning novel, having studied it at Epworth, but she re-read it in preparation for the film, which was shot in Cape Town and Grahamstown.

Asked to describe the character of Lucy, a lesbian who is brutally raped and left pregnant by her attacker, she said: “She’s a phenomenal woman, especially in respect of the choices she makes. In portraying her, I wanted to show her strength, but also her vulnerability and femininity. I wanted people to sense her internal struggle. There are so many victims of rape in this country and I think it is very important to emphasise the significant effect it has on women.”

To ensure that she was able to portray the effects of the rape accurately, the actress spoke at length with professionals who work with lesbian victims of rape.

There has in recent months been an increase in attacks on such women by men who believe their actions will “cure” them of their sexual orientation, according to the international NGO, ActionAid.

She also has nothing but praise for the generosity Malkovich (whose screen credits include Being John Malkovich, Of Mice and Men, Dangerous Liaisons, Empire of the Sun and The Killing Fields) showed her as an actor.

“The thought of sharing the screen with such an icon, with someone who has such massive presence, was very daunting.

“He seems so severe, but actually he’s very approachable, open and warm. He made my job so much easier,” she said.

Away from the stage and camera, she lives a quiet — if somewhat nomadic life — with her husband, Richard Walker, an economist with the African Development Bank.

“Their home is in Tunisia, but a move to Kenya may be on the cards later this year.

“We both love Africa and we tend to move around a lot … but, as an actress I think that travelling will be more valuable to my career. It’s certainly better than waiting for casting calls in Johannesburg or Los Angeles.”

Disgrace goes on national release on August 14.




• Born and grew up in the Eastern Cape and then moved to Pietermaritzburg to attend Epworth School.

• Graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Social Anthropology.

• Has appeared in Home Affairs, Gazlam and Isidingo.

• Will be appearing in the remake of the 1960s British television series The Prisoner with Sir Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel, and is playing Ally, Kevin Carter’s lover, in The Bang Bang Club, opposite Ryan Phillipe.

• Is thinking about writing a children’s book and wants to learn French.

DISGRACE tells the story of David Lurie, a divorced professor of romantic poetry, in post-apartheid South Africa, who is fired for having an affair with a student. He retreats to the farm of his daughter, Lucy, where he helps to harvest flowers and volunteers at an animal welfare clinic.

This peaceful way of life is shattered when three strangers violently attack Lurie and rape Lucy. She later discovers she is pregnant and decides to keep the child and to share her land with Petrus, a black landowner, in return for his protection.

Her decisions push Lurie to his limits as a father and a man, but eventually he learns to accept his daughter and the changing country.

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