All Robert Whitehead has ever wanted to do was act – and he’s stuck to his passion for the craft since he graduated from The Drama Studio in 1974.
Best known for portraying villain Barker Haines on SABC3’s Isidingo, Robert has taken great strides throughout his career since his performance in the popular 1986 TV series Shaka Zulu. This included working with renowned British actor Idris Elba in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
YOU had the opportunity to chat with Robert about life after Isidingo.
“It took time to find Barker’s character but I made it work. And fortunately it worked – I was there for 13 years.
“What I liked about Isidingo and why I always wanted to be a part of it was that it was filmed in a different style than the other soap operas. It was to a degree a real history of what was going on [in the world] at the time. I was sorry that sort of fell away.”
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Speaking about his former co-star Michelle Botes, who portrayed his on-screen love interest, Cherel de Villiers Haines, Robert says he learnt a lot working with her.
“Michelle was always wonderful to work with. She’d been on the show for a good while when I joined and she was very helpful,” he says.
Apart from being able to live out his dream on a show he held in high regard, he says one thing he’ll miss about the show was the stability it gave him financially, as he’s now back to freelancing.
“It was also 13 years of [earning] a salary, since then I’ve been a freelance artist. It’s very much always been feast or famine. The time on Isidingo, which I loved personally in my heart, was that there was so much stability. When you’re a freelancer there’s always tension, there’s a tension of, ‘Will I get it, won’t I get it? How much is it? How long will it be?’ ”
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Although Robert knows only too well that freelance acting doesn’t provide stability, there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. He says he’s willing to work forever if that’s what it takes to keep food on the table – because it’s his passion.
“There are no huge reserves of anything. We managed to do this because we had a lifetime to achieve it, now that we’re elderly, we’re sitting here with all this lovely stuff.
“I don’t have a retirement plan or a pension or anything. We have to work. It’s the only way to keep life and everything going,” he says.
The 66-year-old actor went on to talk about the challenges of being a freelance actor.
“Most times, you don’t get it. You’re letting yourself in for a lifetime of rejection and humiliation with every audition. And that never stops, even if the one key person of the production wants you in the production, they’ve got to get you past this one and that one,” Robert explains about how tough the industry is.
After Isidingo the actor also tried his hand at directing – working with the legendary John Khani, no less.
“I’ve directed a one-man play. It was a whimsical experience. One thing I like about being a director in theatre is that you’re involved right from the beginning, from the moment you’re handed the script.
“I love the whole process of it. The work is much harder than just being an actor and you have a whole other set of responsibilities.
“I’m an actor and that’s what I do, and a director and that’s what I do. I don’t have a production company, a music company, a lighting company, and all the other things that every 20-year-old seems to have nowadays. You can’t just be one thing or another. I used to do an enormous amount of voice work,” Robert says.
Although he’s waiting on his next call, he’s grateful to have the company of actress Vanessa Cooke during lockdown, in a home with lots of windows and doors – to allow sunshine in – to get through these uncertain times.