Cape Town - "I went to South Africa when I was about 20," British actor Ed Stoppard tells me during our 15-minute Skype conversation.
"I was on my way to Zimbabwe and Malawi, and I flew into Joburg," he adds.
It's early on a Thursday morning, and he's sitting in a what looks like a study in his home in London while I'm in the glass meeting room near the kitchen in our office overlooking the harbour. Behind Ed, the grey wall is neatly covered in art. He's relaxed and friendly as he strokes the stubble of his beard while we chat. His perfect hair looks big screen-ready in the most effortless of ways.
"I've wanted to come to Cape Town for like 20 years. It really didn't disappoint," the 45-year-old actor says of his seven-week trip to SA where he filmed scenes for M-Net's hit new crime drama, Trackers.
In Trackers, based on the book by best-selling author Deon Meyer, Ed takes on the role of Lucas Becker an ex-US Navy lieutenant and Middle Eastern archaeological expert. Lucas is part of an artefact smuggling syndicate operating out of Iraq and other Middle Eastern war zones.
Ed, who you might recognise from his role as Henryk Szpilman in the war drama The Pianist alongside Adrien Brody, enjoyed his time in South Africa so much that he's already making plans to come back as soon as possible; "I'm starting to do a play in a couple of weeks that will take me into June, but when I'm finished I can see myself saying to my agent: 'Listen, if there's a job shooting in South Africa put it on top of the list.' So, yeah, I'd love to come back."
Trackers tells the story of a diverse group of people whose lives are brought together due to circumstances beyond their control and is filled with mystery and intrigue. "I was fortunate in that my character's entire storyline took place in-and-around Cape Town," Ed explains, before adding: "There was no need for me to go to the Karoo or any other location. The way that Trackers is put together – there are all these different storylines that kind of interweave but they also stand-alone. So, I kind of flew in and flew out. I mean I was there for a little longer than I thought I'd be, but it was very efficiently figured out schedule."
Filming for the big-budget show - which is a collaboration between M-Net, Germany's public broadcaster ZDF and HBO's sister-network Cinemax – took place early in 2019 in Swartwater, Limpopo, Loxton in the Karoo, and in-and-around Cape Town. Ed's scenes specifically were filmed just as winter kicked off in Mzansi, but for the Brit, the colder weather was pure heaven: "I was walking around Cape Town in June thinking this is the meteorological sweet spot. It's like 22 degrees; the sun was shining. I was lightly dressed; it was pleasantly warm without being too hot. It was wonderful. I loved it. Cape Town in June. That's my ideal now."
I ask Ed what it was that drew him to the role of Lucas and why he decided to take it on. "He's not the kind of character that I often get to play. Well, that's only half-true. Anyway. I mean, he's very front-footed. Which I quite like it when a role forces me out of my comfort zone. I really don't like playing myself – whatever that might be. I much prefer it when my character is some kind of distance away, and I have to sort of travel to get there. I find it helps me."
He adds: "I also just love the kind of relentless thriller aspect of the story. I read Deon Meyer's book when I was offered the job and just thought: 'Wow this guy is a great writer', and I thought the script did a really sympathetic job of transposing Deon's story to the screen. I really liked Lukas' relationship with Milla.
"I just thought that was going to be interesting to play. Just how that relationship evolves, and I had some strong instincts as to how I thought we should approach it and how we should film it, depict it, and I thought that would be nice to explore and play around with."
The role of Milla Strachan is portrayed by the talented local star, Rolanda Marais. She plays a homemaker who escapes her abusive marriage and battles to move on. When she finally takes on a new job, she finds herself embroiled in some seriously shady business when she crosses paths with Lucas.
On working with Rolanda, Ed says: "I've seen a couple of her films, and she's just such a fantastic actress. But what people may not know is that she's also a wonderful person. Very generous, very self-effacing, very collaborative. She's just kind of one of those people who makes you want to bring your best work. Because she clearly is so committed and is working so hard but without any airs and graces. She just does it with such generosity and kindness.
He adds: "So, really quickly I thought I am really lucky and grateful because 90% of my work was with her. If that relationship had been tricky, the job could have become a real kind of grind. But it was completely the opposite. She made it as easy as it could possibly be. So, yeah, I got really lucky."
To prepare for his role as Lucas, Ed had not only to shed his British accent but also had to embody an American soldier. "I watched a series called Generation Kill, which I think was maybe shot in South Africa, about US Marines in the Middle East. Because Lucas had been a Marine, I rewatched Generation Kill just to kind of get a feel for that kind comradery, the kind of cadence of the language. I also worked on the accent. I went to see a dialect coach in the UK a few times just to sort of nail down a few problem words and stuff. I sort of mapped out a kind of bio for him, which is something I do for each character. So that I know where he's coming from."
It's Ed's metaphor about preparing for a role that perhaps best encapsulates his approach to acting. He explains: "However there comes a point where you just have to put all of that stuff aside, this is what I do anyway, and just kind of trust. It's a little bit like if I could use the analogy of jumping out of an aeroplane with a parachute – not that it's that dangerous of course – but stay with me…you pack your chute; you prepare, you don't just randomly pick up a bag and assume there's a parachute in it. You pack your chute, your da-da-da, you clip your stuff on, you do your checks, but at some point, you just have to jump out of the plane and trust that the chute is going to open.
"So, it's kind of that really. The packing of the chute bit is an important part of it for me. There comes a point pretty early on where you just got to kind of go with it. Rolanda was terrific. Jyri (Kahonon), the director was open to ideas, so we kind of got to establish the framework and the colour of that relationship pretty quickly and pretty easily."
Ed's hard work and preparation paid off and what he's created on-screen is magical and adds a very unique element to the proudly South African production. As we say our goodbyes and the video call comes to an end, I count myself lucky that I get to not only watch these great local TV shows but also get to meet and talk to the stars about the work they put into creating the magic on screen.
Trackers in an unmissable TV experience that shows off the best that South Africa has to offer. Tune in Sunday nights on M-Net (DStv 101) at 20:00 to watch the latest episode. The show is also available for streaming on Showmax.