Nicole Fortuin is the true definition of an artist. As an accomplished actress, dancer, photographer and director, Nicole has managed to take the film, theatre and television industry by storm since graduating from UCT only three years ago. Impressive credits aside, Nicole has made it a priority to use her platform as a young creative to bring awareness to the causes that she believes in. We sat down to talk about her success, staying grounded and navigating the world of social media.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I started off as a dancer and I was definitely influenced by my mom and my gran. My gran was a ballerina and so was my uncle. One of my coping mechanisms through life has always been to understand people and that coupled with the performer in me, I just started falling in love with storytelling and understanding people and characters and why they do the things they do. I think that is the major driving force because what I’ve learned from the transition of dancing to acting was how are you going to make this last for yourself? How are you going to get some form of longevity? I realized I had always been curious about people. I love to people-watch, I love to ask questions and really understand what is happening and why people are doing what they are doing. I think that coupled with my background of always being more right-brained inevitably resulted in me becoming an actor.
It’s always fascinating how dancers end up becoming incredible actors.
I’ve also noticed that pattern. I think, at least from my experience, once you are a dancer, you have a very good understanding of telling a story with your body. When I was studying acting at UCT, I realized my voice had actually not caught up to my body yet. It was fascinating but it was also very scary for me. Then I started doing lots of voice work and I also really enjoyed looking like different people and finding all these different characters within me. Being a dancer and travelling when I was younger alienated me a lot from the kids in my high school. I had travelled to Greece and Russia and Los Angeles before I was even in Grade 10. I already had seen a lot more than people my age and was really very creative and very different. I felt alienated. I’ve always been very aware of the extremes and how different people do different things. And while it is alienating and does make you feel alone very often, it gives you such insight into people and characters.
Why did you choose to go to UCT and how did you feel about your time there?
UCT had always been a dream of mine but initially, I thought I was going to be a dancer. I auditioned at dance school and at drama school and at art school and then I got into all three and I thought, “What now?” On a whim, I had never been in a play before or anything, I decided perhaps drama school was the better option because I would probably be able to act and dance and sing and direct and learn about behind the scenes and stagecraft and all of that. That is what led to drama school. Nowadays I consider myself more of an actress than a dancer overall. It’s the idea that I could do more with a theatre degree than a dancing degree because people obviously like to limit you to what they think you are capable of or what you are represented as.
UCT focuses mainly on acting for the stage and while you did have a huge stage presence when you were there, you have segued into film relatively easily. What was that transition like?
It did feel quite natural to be honest. I think it stems from why I perform. When I was younger, my personality was more extroverted and as I grew older and thought more intellectually about things, I realized the truth of the character or the smaller they are, the more real they feel for me. Then I just had to discern between theatre and screen and what makes them different. I wasn’t expecting for the transition to be so easy but I think I realized very early on that even though I love theatre and I have major dreams within the theatre world overall, screen work gives you an edge and it gives you a way of staying in it. I really love film. I love containing performances. It comes back to unpacking people and really just zooming into someone and seeing who they are and why they do what they do. With film, you often get to really investigate that. I really started thinking about how the two are so different, acting for screen and acting for theatre and how I can just be the best within those kind of realms. Early on, I would do work as an extra because at UCT you aren’t allowed to do outside work. I would sneak out and I would go be an extra on sets or do small cameo roles and I learned so much from doing that, that now I feel like I haven’t done theatre in such a long time. I am actually quite excited and nervous to get back on stage because it’s been such a long time. Ultimately, what made the transition to screen easier for me was my personality which is smaller and introverted and close to home.
You’ve only been out of school for three years which makes all this success all the more unbelievable. The characters I’ve seen you play are all so completely different and when an actor is starting out, people immediately want to typecast you and box you in. Do you consciously choose to fight against that or has it just worked out that way?
I definitely think it’s been a conscious decision. The first role I was offered after drama school was a dancer and for years I had fought against that and after that role, I was offered another role as a dancer and I said, “No.” It has definitely been very conscious, so much so that it feels like it’s on a day-to-day basis for me. I’ll wear my hair curly today and tomorrow I’ll wear a short wig and I’ll do this so that I don’t get boxed into parts, even for myself. I am really proud that I am conscious about it and I think it pays off because the roles that are coming up are so different. That is exciting. That is what you want. I speak to a lot of my friends who are creatives as well and I think a lot of people share this thing of not wanting to be boxed. I am finding that because people have a tendency to box you because it makes things easier and it just makes sense a lot of the time, I get that. I’ve decided that my box for now is the actor box but that is the only box that I am willing to accept. Within that, I am going to play all the characters and really transform and find the artistry in the actor box and then I’ll gradually branch out. When I started out, I was very scared of it especially because I started doing a lot of work in Afrikaans, which is great. I love the Afrikaans community. Afrikaans film is booming but I also wanted to work in English. So then I started saying, “Hang on” to Afrikaans work and let me see if I can get some English work. I just did. I got something really exciting that is shooting for five months in Johannesburg and it’s in English. I am super excited about that.
As a young actress, you really seem to have things figured out in the sense of not only being a professional but also having an incredibly active social media platform. You’ve curated this image which I feel like must take a lot of additional work.
In the beginning, I was a bit apprehensive as I’m sure a lot of people are about social media and how to navigate it and what it means and all of that. Sometimes I have this thing that I do where I go, “This thing is important for your end goal so you need to incorporate it.” Let’s say I’ve been to 15 castings this year, probably two of those have not asked me what my social media handle is. I was so saddened by that because I thought, “What are we coming to?” Those were for adverts, granted, so I guess commercially it does make sense but as an actor that is not something that I am always thinking about or wanting to think about. Luckily for me, I am a creative and I do enjoy photography and I do enjoy personally transforming myself for characters or for photographs and that is kind of my link into social media. It’s the fact that I am quite a visual person. I love drawing, I love taking photos, I love editing photos, I love finding quotes or things that are personal to me that I think pertain to other people or people who connect with me. I guess it’s just a case of realizing this is important so how does it feel authentic to me? I always find that it has to feel like it is authentic and that kind of makes sense knowing that these are the parameters that I have to work in.
You tend to use your platform to bring awareness to quite a lot of organizations, which is so great because it’s not something that is required of you. Why is that important to you?
Because I started off not knowing what exactly people want from me, and also what I am willing to share with other people and after A Cinderella Story that is when my followers really jumped. I was like, “Ok, what do I say? What is going to happen now?” I realized this small platform that I have does have the potential to reach people. I don’t associate myself with things that are not important to me on some level. I can only talk about things that are important to me. I recently did two PSA’s. One was for Brother’s For Life #RapeStopsWithMe. Everyone is aware of the violence that is happening across the world but in South Africa as well. I had always been really fascinated by what happens in people’s minds and in men’s minds especially because often I am really confused by how people operate and what makes it ok for them. I guess the throughline is my interest in other people but their campaign is about men and men making correct choices and being responsible. I was definitely on board with that because I know that we are conscious and we are making choices. That is a campaign that is ongoing but that I am very much involved in. I am really supportive of that. Marie Claire asked me to pose naked for their naked issue and choose a charity of my choice and I chose The South African Depression and Anxiety Group because I know people who suffer from depression or anxiety or who have had bouts of depression or who are going through anxiety. It was my way of saying, “This exists.” I think mental health is completely off the radar especially with artists. There are things that are happening that are not normal and people have neglected mental health. We are all in the gym and drinking smoothies and it’s great but how are you doing upstairs? Are you ok? That has been really important. I often think, “I only have 6,000 followers on Instagram and I know it’s great but it’s not 1 million. What are you doing? Why are you sharing this?” But then I’d get messages from people saying, “Thank you so much for advocating for this. This means so much to me and this is what I’m going through.” People started reaching out with their own personal experiences or feelings and then I feel like, “Wow this actually really does make a difference and I feel like it can reach people.” You don’t even know who it is going to reach. Assitej is a group that creates theatre for children. I love theatre and I really do believe that children are the future. That was a no-brainer to be an ambassador for them and create awareness for them. It’s about keeping it authentic and trying to keep things well-rounded.
How have you been able to stay so grounded?
I do feel like if I’m not grounded, I can’t be truthful in the work that I do. I know that for a fact because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen really great artists become really mediocre and boring and you realize [that] the line between real life and the work you do is thin. My commitment to being honest or emotive or touching someone else is so related to who I am and what I am doing on a spiritual level, on a financial level, whatever it is. I also think [that] being in this industry you know that nothing is guaranteed. I’ve gotten roles on film where I’m like, “I’ve got this in the bag. It’s happening.” And the next day you can’t do it because you are doing something else or they want to cast someone from the UK. It would just seem so hypocritical for me to not know who I am and where I come from. I think I’ve also been really conscious about surrounding myself with people who know me at self-doubt and success. If I ever do feel like I’m floating, I’ll just think about my family and I’ll be plucked down to earth so quickly. I think even when I get a script, I am reminded immediately what this is actually about. It’s not about me at all.
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I’d really love to just keep going like I’m going. I really found a space where I am present to what I am doing and working on myself and doing a lot of actual career work and that has been great. I just want to keep this steady pace where I feel like I am doing challenging stuff and also doing other things that might be financially rewarding and keep me creative but understanding that this is a career as well. I genuinely like the balance that I have. I would love to keep doing roles that demand more and more of me. I think in South Africa, there are very few actors that we look at that are really transformative with characters where you won’t recognize them. I love when actors transform. The more roles I can get, where I have to transform is kind of an exciting future for me. I would also love to direct film. I’ve been allowed to direct some episodes on a TV series [that] I worked on and that has been life-changing. I definitely want to direct film and theatre and create my own work. I guess it’s just an expansion on what is happening now and solidify my own voice within all the voices would be great.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Ilse Klink, Denise Newman, Kim Engelbrecht. A lot of my peers like Lynelle Kenned and Dionne Song definitely. Jill Jazz Levenberg, Jenna Bass, Lara Lipschitz, Crystal Donna Roberts, Dominique Jossie. I love Buhle Ngaba and Lesoko Seabe. Koleka Putuma and Lady Skollie. There are so many people to look up to and I draw from all the time. I think Dionne and Lynelle are not only people who I look up to and am inspired by, I talk to them all the time. I have to be inspired by them because they are there for my journey like I am there for theirs. That kind of sisterhood is priceless.
All photos were taken by Chris de Beer on October 3rd 2017.