Ugly Betty with a Stelio twist

2007-07-17 14:48

Cape Town - South Africans have been waiting a long time to see the award-winning television sitcom Ugly Betty, which has taken the world by storm and turned actress America Ferrera into an international star.

But how many know that the show, which premieres on M-Net this Tuesday at 19:30, also stars South African born actor Stelio Savante?

Savante - who is slowly becoming an international name, working with stars such as Uma Thurman, Russell Crowe, Susan Sarandon and John Turturro - told News24 more about his Ugly Betty experience and life as a Hollywood actor.

1) It must have been amazing to work with producer Salma Hayek on Ugly Betty. Please tell us more about your role, as well as your experience with the cast.

Salma is gorgeous, we all know that, but what most people don't realise is how good her business instincts are. She's very ambitious and incredibly intelligent.

I had a blast working with all the different cast members. Vanessa Williams and Rebecca Romijn aren't exactly difficult to look at and I've become good friends with Alan Dale, although if the Springboks don't beat the All Blacks soon the friendship might be difficult to maintain.

I play a shady underworld character, somewhat of an unpredictable informant who works for the owner of the agency that Betty works at. It's a recurring guest star role which plays into the mysterious part of the storyline.

I hope Ugly Betty is as huge a success in SA as it has been everywhere else.

2) You had to relocate from New York to Hollywood for your role in Ugly Betty. Was it hard to adjust? Will you make Los Angeles your new permanent home?

It wasn't hard at all. My wife Carla and I have wanted to move to LA for a while. It's an easier life and if you're an outdoor person, it's a haven. There's mountain biking, hiking in the canyons, running on the beach, swimming, literally any and every outdoor adrenalin induced activity. I'm very active so it suits me perfectly.

3) What was it like to be back in South Africa for the first time in eleven years? What have you missed most?

It was very emotional. I had knots in my stomach and tears in my eyes when the plane landed in Cape Town.

Filming on home grown local soil was very liberating for me. Not having been home for so long and to come home with a decent role in a fun project (Starship Troopers Marauder) was unquestionably rewarding.

Having my parents come on set for the first time had always been one of my dreams and it was a great day for all of us.

I've missed the simple things like looking at Table Mountain every morning, the sunsets, the landscape.

4) Tell us more about the filming of Starship Troopers Marauder and your supporting lead role as Bull Brittles. What was it like to act opposite Casper van Dien?

I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of taking on a new genre (sci-fi action). It was very physical, a lot of running up dunes, carrying a backpack and a weapon. I had to learn to fire an AK47 and a grenade launcher which became quite addictive.

Being in the outdoors was exciting. Some of the sunrises on Atlantis dunes and on Silverstroom beach (both locations for different planets in the film) were the best I've ever seen.

My character Bull is a battle hardened, rough around the edges patriotic trooper, but he has his sensitive side and he falls for the good girl.

I'm in a different part of the storyline than Casper van Dien, but I got to know him fairly well. He's one of the good guys, a real family oriented person.

5) Rumour has it that you'll be back in South Africa for a role in A Million Colours that is scheduled to shoot in Johannesburg soon. Please tell us more.

Yes, that's true. But unfortunately I'm not allowed to say anything more at this point. However, I can tell you that it is a brilliant script and the leads will all do the film and the writing justice.

6) You've come a long way since leaving South Africa on a tennis scholarship and dreaming of Wimbledon. Do you still wonder sometimes how it happened that you ended up succeeding on stage instead of on the tennis court?

I just had this conversation with my mom the other day. It's funny the way we're dead set on doing something in our lives, something we've dreamed about and then life takes you on an incredibly different journey in the total opposite direction. But this is a dream I never would have imagined, what an awesome time I've had the last few years.

7) What role would you consider your big break in acting? Do you feel you have "arrived" in Hollywood?

There were two roles that really opened up doors for me. When I played Bolivar Arellano in 110 Stories opposite Susan Sarandon at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in front of huge audiences and then as Milan Zergin in Law & Order SVU.

Both were very high profile in different mediums and since the Law & Order role, it's been a domino effect in terms of work for me.

I've certainly arrived as a working actor. Working actor status is so hard to achieve because it means that you're making a decent living solely as an actor which entails beating out hundreds of other actors for every role you end up playing.

8) Is there a producer or actor that you would very much like to work with?

I'd love to work with the kind of directors that allow actors to have their moments - actor's directors, like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Alejandro González Inarritu, Tom Tykwer, and several others.

I also would like to work with several South Africans like Athol Fugard whom I consider to be the greatest playwright of his generation. And directors like Darrell Roodt and Gavin Hood of course.

9) You seem to be very versatile. Apart from acting in films, you seem equally at home on stage, and you write plays/scripts. What do you prefer most?

Film is certainly my preferred acting medium because I'm still discovering so much. I love theatre and will always go back to it but challenging film roles are what appeal to me most right now.

However, I try to do at least one play a year. Last year I had the lead role in the NY/Off Broadway premiere of Arabian Night which was easily the most difficult material I've ever worked on. All the dialogue/monologue was played directly to the audience, it broke the 4th wall and was incredibly terrifying, certainly no safety net under that tight rope.

I was also in the Off Broadway premiere of Dan Gordon's Murder In The First and we enjoyed a very successful run.

I will not miss stage acting that much because I'm in class at least once a week and my coach Bill Alderson who taught with Sandy Meisner has you go on stage twice or three times per class so it keeps you sharp.

I do enjoy writing but it's more of a hobby and I'm too busy with acting and fatherhood to go back to writing, at least in the immediate future. I'm also in the process of shopping my current scripts so my plate is full right now.

10) What do you think of the South African film industry? Do you see any potential?

To be quite honest I don't really see a strong local film industry. Currently it seems to be more about overseas productions that are shooting in SA and providing work for locals and local production companies are facilitating these productions, mostly American, German and English.

I think everything is in place to cultivate a strong local film industry but that means less soapies and more dramatic, cutting edge material.

It's going to take a strong collaboration between local producers, writers, and directors and actors to start the ball rolling, but once it does it should flourish because there is already so much raw talent in place.

11) What advice do you have for other actors who'd like to work in Hollywood?

Be prepared to stay in it for the long haul, it's all about relationships over the course of the time. And make sure you keep studying as much as possible. I've met far too many South African actors who refuse to study the craft of acting and therefore limit themselves of their own potential.

12) Have you met any of the other South African actors in the US eg Embeth Davidtz, Charlize Theron, Arnold Vosloo?

Not Charlize, but Embeth and Arnold are in the process of reading one of my scripts. Hopefully I'll have the opportunity to work with both of them.

I'm also very good friends with former Egoli actress, Christel Smith and I was also close friends with Brad Morris (American Kickboxer & Steel Dawn) for a while but we've lost touch.

13) And finally, what did it feel like to be voted as one of Elle Magazine's Hot 40, for a second year in a row?

It was obviously very flattering, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing right but as any tennis coach would say: "Why change a winning game?"