Queen of the casting scene

Moonyeenn Lee is a super-agent with SA’s best actors on her books. It’s no surprise, then, that she was involved in the movie of the moment, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

A huge Oscar statue – a replica of the trophy the movie world worships – stands at the front entrance to her home.

Behind it, in pride of place, is a poster of Tsotsi – the South African movie that was awarded a coveted Academy Award in 2005 in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Glimmering red walls, chequerboard tile floors, art-house movie posters, a fountain bubbling under a grapevine on the cool verandah... this idyllic space in Rosebank, Johannesburg, is where agent and casting director supreme Moonyeenn Lee has been running her business for decades.

It’s the picture of peace and tranquillity – but don’t be fooled.

‘In this business you have no personal life,’ she says with a sigh. ‘You’re on call 24 hours a day.

It’s fundamental to be available at all times for filmmakers. Often I’ll get a call – there’s a crisis, can you help? – and it has to happen immediately. I have to be able to react quickly.’

This legendary agent, who turns 70 in February, is celebrating 40 year in the film industry. Her time in the business has earned her a formidable reputation: she gives and expects nothing but the best and believes 100 percent in the power of local stories.

This has been driven home by her involvement in the long-awaited Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

The movie, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, will be released on 28 November.

It’s already been a hit at international film festivals and has even been shown at a special screening in the White House hosted by President Barack Obama himself.

But it isn’t only in South Africa that Moonyeenn is hailed as an entertainment guru who cares deeply for actors.

She has international clout too. She has handled the casting of movies such as The Bang Bang Club, Disgrace, Blood Diamond, Tsotsi and Hotel Rwanda, will be judging the International Television Emmy Awards for the third time this year and was awarded a SA Film and Television Academy Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago. And she’s showing little sign of slowing down.

Moonyeenn's office is a feast for the eyes: lime green walls, a fake tiger-skin rug, porcelain cats and cows, a wooden angel, movie posters.

Through the window an outside wall is a riot of painted sunflowers. The glass-top desk balances on two fat furry pillars with black polka dots. In the winter, she opens a skylight to catch the sun.

Moonyeenn strokes her first television set, a pot-bellied Telefunken from 1974. She wishes it still worked.

Another treasure is a framed print of a grand piano, signed by legendary pianist Liberace during a visit to Sun City in 1983, a gift from his manager.

She also loves her ‘awesome’ home cinema. ‘I watch everything here,’ she says. ‘I hate going to the movies these days.’

Fans still recognise Moonyeenn at airports, thanks largely to the SABC 3 talent show Class Act, which she judged – feistily – in 2010 and 2011. ‘The power of television is incredible,’ she marvels. But it’s in film that she’s really made her name.

She became involved with Long Walk to Freedom fairly late in the process, she says. ‘There was already talk about it 15 years ago.

I handled the auditions for The First Grader in Kenya for producers Anant Singh and David Thompson and in London for [British] director Justin Chadwick. After that they asked me to be involved in Long Walk.

‘Anant was determined to use local actors and I found people for every role, except Winnie Mandela, who is played by [British actress] Naomie Harris. Local actors were considered for the role of Mandela, but they’re big shoes to fill.’

She knows what she’s talking about – she had personal contact with Mandela three times.

‘After a meal at his home he walked through lines of guests in the hallway. I stood towards the back in my heels where I could see everything.

‘?“Here’s someone who doesn’t want to shake my hand,” Mandela remarked and bore down on me.

‘“I hate crowds,” I said.

‘“I know how you feel,” he smiled.’

This is the charm Moonyeenn was looking for when it came to casting for the Mandela role.

‘I remembered the excellent British actor Idris Elba; I saw him in TV series such as The Wire and Luther. His roots are clearly in Africa and he takes his work very seriously. We found all the qualities of Mandela in Idris: the unparalleled power, physical presence, charisma, charm and sex appeal that can introduce an audience worldwide to the icon.’

She didn’t go on the set of Long Walk.

‘I never go to the movie set. I feel as if I’m in everyone’s way. But I make sure I’m in contact by telephone.’

Long Walk was filmed at the Cape Town Film Studios and Moonyeenn commuted constantly between the Mother City and Joburg.

She also visited Mthatha in the Eastern Cape along with Zolani Mkiva, Mandela’s previous praise singer who appears in the movie.

‘I was looking for young boys for the initiation scene, as well as the right people who know the circumcision ceremony and rituals. There was a role of Mandela as a seven-year-old boy and I wanted to get someone from that area.

‘We headed to the hills on the other side of Mandela’s house and came upon a school where kids had never really seen white people. With Zolani as interpreter, I auditioned the children who had never left that area, and found two talented boys. It’s just a pity some of those scenes aren’t in the film anymore...’

Moonyeenn founded MLA (Moonyeenn Lee & Associates) in 1974 as an agency for actors, directors and writers.

Names such as John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Ian Roberts, Tobie Cronjé, Marius Weyers, Andrew Buckland, Mothusi Magano and many more have been on her books over the years.

Her own production company, Khulisa Productions, was founded in 1998 to develop South African films with local casting.

Promised Land, based on writer and historian Karel Schoeman’s novel, was the first film she produced.

More recently she has been involved in Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, the comedy about an Afrikaans guy falling for a Zulu girl, that won the audience popularity award at the Seattle Film Festival.

She also helped with the South African casting of the futuristic film The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift – currently being filmed in a specially built village near Cape Town.

Work may be the driving force of her life but there is a photograph in her office that tells of another side of Moonyeenn.

It’s a 1973 picture of her as a slender 29-year-old with long red hair, dressed in a short white dress and holding the hands of two toddlers in front of her first house in Parkmore, Johannesburg.

‘That was a year before I left my husband, cut my hair short and started my business!’ Moonyeenn was married to Leon Lee, a salesman, for five years. She didn’t remarry after the divorce. ‘There was never any time! My work took over.’

Her daughter Cindy, 43, is an advertising director; her son David, 42, a successful actor in Los Angeles – he recently filmed the TV series Nikita in Toronto.

Moonyeenn was born in Johannesburg and moved to England when she was seven.

‘My father was here and my mother there, so we travelled back and forth. In England I was exposed to the theatre.’

Her first moment in the limelight was in 1949, at the tender age of four, when she jumped out of a hatbox for veteran SA actress and producer Taubie Kushlick. She was on stage with Moonyeenn’s mom, actress Shirley Hepburn.

‘I never learnt to speak Afrikaans,’ Moonyeenn says. ‘I didn’t get a South African matric.’

At 17 she started working as a clerk at a knitwear company in London, often modelling outfits for clients, and studied acting in her free time.

During her career as an agent she’s helped SA exports such as Arnold Vosloo and Embeth Davidtz on their way to fame. Chariots of Fire’s Alice Krige was also one of her charges.

Her advice to Alice? ‘?“Honey, cut your hair!’ At that stage it was down to her buttocks.’

So how does she like the Hollywood glitterati? ‘I don’t,’ she says bluntly.

But she did click with Goldie Hawn, who she met when the actress was here promoting her film Private Benjamin in 1980. ‘We would chat about the men in her life, about the life of single mothers and how much we loved our children.’

Her best friends aren’t famous. They’re just people who work hard behind the scenes, which is how she describes herself. Still, on her office wall is the framed slogan ‘Queen of F***ing Everything’.

‘I saw a guy at a party wearing a T-shirt [with the slogan] and I simply loved it. He had it framed and dropped it off at my place a few days later.’

That unknown man knew the one thing we now all know: that without this humble single mom turned super-agent, South Africa’s entertainment industry would not only be a lot shallower but a lot less interesting.

The agent’s advice

Where did you get the money to start your company?

‘I worked from my dining room table. I had to sell my engagement ring and a few paintings to get capital.

I asked my butcher, grocer (in those days we still shopped at small stores on the street) and my landlord to give me six months’ credit. Later in my career, I had a wonderful bank manager who believed in what I was doing.’

What are the three greatest lessons you’ve learnt in the business?

‘Be passionate. Never lie. Know how to keep a secret.’

What advice do you have for young people who want to follow the same career path?

‘Always be honest. Forget about having a private life – be prepared to work and learn seven days a week. It’s not a popularity contest. And you constantly have to fight for your actors. Be strong.’

What’s your office set-up?

‘I have six staff members and represent more than 200 actors. I have a bookkeeper on the premises, an excellent auditor linked to an outside company, and I oversee all the finances.’

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