Julia Anastasopoulos is an artist, illustrator, designer and actress. In 2014, she launched her “bite-sized do-it-yourself” web series, Suzelle DIY, which instantly took South Africa by storm. During the course of her career, Julia’s work has spanned several artistic mediums including a successful career as a stage actress, theatrical set and costume designer and illustrator. Her work has been exhibited locally and abroad and has included a series of large illustrated print murals for the City of Cape Town Micity Bus stations. She is a twice-published author and is also the creative director of Sketchbook Studios, which she co-founded with her husband Ari Kruger. But it’s Julia’s latest project, Tali’s Wedding Diary, that has everyone buzzing. We sat down with her at Sketchbook Studios to chat all about creating these iconic characters.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would definitely say my parents. They were very supportive of that side of me and my creativity was always nurtured. I think, as a result, there was really no other way. There was no other direction which felt true to me.
You decided to pursue Theatre and Performance through UCT. What was your time there like?
It was amazing. At first it was very daunting. I think when you leave high school you sort of have this idea of what you think drama school is going to be like, it’s going to be fun and you are going to be acting but I quickly realized that it was a lot of really hard work and that it was technical. It was tough but at the same time it really pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me things beyond drama that I’ll always be grateful for and that have really formed me as a person. It was an amazing experience. I loved it.
You seem to be naturally gifted and inclined towards creating. When you were studying acting, did you feel as though you were still able to nurture those other artistic abilities?
Definitely. I think they go hand in hand for me. It’s always that the one has balanced the other out. When I finished drama school, for example, it was quite hard to find acting work. I always had this other side of me and I was illustrating and I was drawing. I almost had two careers that ran alongside each other and that complimented each other in many ways. I’m really grateful to have both and I’ll always be able to fall between them. The performance side nurtures my very extroverted, creative self and the drawing and the art is much more insular and intimate and me in my own world. They do balance each other out.
When I was researching for this, I was so surprised to find out about all the epic stage roles that you’ve gotten to perform. I don’t know if a lot of people know about that.
It is quite amazing when I think back. I don’t do that anymore, unfortunately. I just don’t have enough time but theatre is such a passion of mine. There is nothing like it. That was very much my training and we did a lot of Shakespeare and you really go deep at drama school. I’ve since found my niche and I love doing comedy but I don’t think a lot of people know about the more serious roles that I have done. Those have also been amazing opportunities and exercises that have really challenged me as a person and as an actress and I hope that I will have the opportunity to play different roles and do a bit of theatre in the future. I always threaten that I’m going to do a one-woman show which I really want to do. I just don’t know when but I’ll get there hopefully.
Speaking of your passion for theatre, you also had this great career as a set designer.
Oh yes! After drama school, I still remained in the theatre world but I did a lot of set design and costume design which was an amazing bridge between performance and my design work and it also really geared me up for lots of projects that have happened now, even Suzelle in many ways. It was amazing to be able to work in that field. I don’t know that I’ll do any more theatre design but it is the most amazing medium and it’s tough and you have to do things with a small budget. It really taught me a lot about design and theatre and in a lot of ways it’s definitely inspired Suzelle, just our whole design aesthetic, how we build things, how we make things, it’s very much a part of me.
Jumping into the Suzelle stuff, what was the catalyst that created that character?
It was a mixture of things. At that point in my career I was very design focused. I was doing a lot of illustration. I was finding the acting work a bit frustrating. It’s a tough industry and Ari and I wanted to do something that was for ourselves that would nurture that side of ourselves without the pressure, without waiting for the greenlight of some production company to say, “Ok, you can go make something.” It was just us. It was me and Ari’s camera in our flat. We moved the bed away from the wall. We started experimenting with this character and it was purely for fun. It was like, “Let’s develop this character. Let’s see where it takes us.” That is really how Suzelle DIY was born. We had no idea that it would be as big as it became. It’s an example of a passion project turning into a career which is absolutely amazing and I feel so lucky that is the direction that my career took at the time. I think Suzelle has opened a lot of doors for us. If I look back, there is no way I could have imagined where we would be today from just that little thing that we made. It completely took over our lives.
I think the timing was also crucial. I think we had never seen anything like that, really, and the whole YouTube culture was picking up in South Africa at the time. I think a blog had picked it up and from there it just went viral. Well, for South African standards it went viral and I couldn’t believe it. We were looking at Facebook and I was like, “But I don’t even know that person who is commenting on this!” Looking back, it is just so crazy but amazing.
What was it like to have to suddenly navigate that success?
It was tough because we didn’t have anyone else that we could ask about it. It was very new territory for us, it was very new territory for everyone especially with brands that wanted to come on board. We were sort of bombarded with that. It sort of became a business overnight. It was quite scary and quite daunting. We eventually navigated our way through it and figured out what would work and what wouldn’t work and what it came down to, and the way that we made it work, is that we remained very true to the character. If there was an opportunity to work with a brand, we would always say, “Is this something that works for Suzelle? Is this something that Suzelle would do?” We’ve kept that and in so doing, we’ve kept true to the character and I think lead to the success of the character that she feels real to all of us. It was a crazy time but now we’ve sort of figured it out and have an amazing team and we are supported and can manage it much better.
In addition to all of that, you’ve gone on to become a published author with the children’s book you illustrated as well as the Suzelle DIY book. What was the creation process of the Suzelle DIY book like?
It was very different medium. We are used to making videos and all of a sudden we were writing a lot and we had to test all the hacks and then make all the hacks. It was a very daunting project but it was an amazing extension of the Suzelle DIY brand. The book did really well and it was so much fun. Now we have this amazing, beautiful book and it’s almost like its history. It’s history for the character and history for the business and I love that we’ve documented all those DIY’s. It was an amazing opportunity and an amazing experience. We are actually going to do another book soon, hopefully.
Do you feel as though the Suzelle character has helped your career and the stories you want to tell or do you feel like it’s possibly put a huge expectation and hinderance on that?
I think overall, Suzelle has opened amazing doors for me as an actress, certainly. On the other hand, I see what you are saying. Because she is so loved and she is such a strong character, I do see how that could hinder me in terms of being typecast as a certain kind of actress. Even the expectation of, because Suzelle was so successful, whatever we do next, there is a lot of pressure. I certainly felt that with the new character. We didn’t know how people were going to respond. I thought, “Oh gosh, people love Suzelle. They are absolutely going to hate the next character.” There was a lot of pressure and I certainly felt a lot of pressure. And also, I’m very loyal to Suzelle in many ways. Overall I think Suzelle has helped me in so many ways and on so many levels, as an actress, as an entrepreneur, as a business woman. It’s been an amazing journey and amazing opportunity.
And it’s now led to the latest character, Tali…
Absolutely. We were able to leverage off Suzelle and say, “Ok well look what else we’ve got in store and look what else we can do and look at these other stories we can tell.” It’s been absolutely amazing. The response to the new character has blown me away. I was so worried about it but luckily people have enjoyed it and that’s great.
I absolutely loved the show. I feel like it’s because I know so many Tali’s.
I think that’s been one of the successes, is that a lot of people can identify with the character. I personally think there’s a Tali Babes in all of us. We encounter these people. I think there are so many people like Tali, even if they are not a Jewish kugel from Sandton. We all know a Tali Babes and I think that’s been one of the successes of the character as well is that we can relate. She’s a kugel from Joburg but she does have a very human side and she does have vulnerabilities. She is insecure which makes her behave the way she does. So hopefully, although we kind of hate her, we love to hate her and we do want to know about the story and hopefully I’ve done the character enough justice to show that different side of her so that she is not just a one-sided stereotypical Sandton kugel.
The series is a first for South Africa and is the very first orignally scripted Showmax series. What was it like once you had the go ahead to start creating the show?
On the one hand, it was great and we felt like we had amazing freedom to do it the way we wanted to do it. On the other hand, we did feel an enormous amount of pressure just because it was the next project after Suzelle which was so successful. We also didn’t know how it would come out. You’ll shoot it and write it and you have this vision of it in your head and when it all comes together in the end, it might not be exactly what you setout to do but luckily, with the amazing talent of the cast and crew and the amazing people in the team, I think we really made something that was of a very high quality and the comedy was relatable and that a South African audience could relate to and also be proud of in many ways. I think people are very quick to go, “South African stuff is bad. The production quality is bad.” A lot of it comes down to budget and it comes down to so many things and we really set out to make something that was good and something that someone can watch in the UK or America and be like, “Oh my gosh, South Africa is cool and they know how to make funny things.” I watch programs from New Zealand or stuff like that, which is so funny and so niche. I think that’s what we should be doing as South Africans. We must use what we have. We have amazing characters in this country and resources and stories. We really need to showcase that and I think that’s what we set out to do and I hope we’ve done it successfully with Tali’s Wedding.
Was there anything that surprised you during the process of working on this project as both a creator and also starring in it?
It was a huge learning curve. We had obviously never made a TV show. We were going from very short form Suzelle videos to long form. There were a million different characters and each of them had a story arc and there was an overall story arc. It was a lot and it definitely felt very overwhelming in the beginning but as I say we had an amazing team, we had the resources and we were able to do it properly. I think the one thing that I would use going forward is that the scripting process is so important. With Suzelle, we always have a loose script and we improvise around it. We obviously had a script for the show but if we had more time to sit and develop it and write in much more detail, I think the production would have been easier just because that script is like your bible. Everything is in there. Every department relies so heavily on the scripting. I didn’t realize how much we would rely on it especially because you are shooting and it’s very condensed and you don’t have a lot of time. You just have to get through the script and if the script isn’t perfect, you are going to have regrets. Going forward, that is definitely something that we’d spend more time on.
Your cast consisted of a lot of South African theatre veterans.
The cast was so amazing. I look back and I think how brilliant each and every person was who came onto set. They all brought their own nuance to each performance. So many things were improvised. We had so much fun on set and we laughed so much. It all comes down to the amazing cast we had. We were in hysterics. Most of the material that made it into the show was the actors bringing their own improvised ideas to the table and it was awesome.
How much of the script was improvised?
Some of it is completely by the book and we’ve followed the script exactly but a lot of it, and it also depended on the day and if we had a lot more time on the day or it was a bit more relaxed, we’d be able to play around with the scene but I would say a good portion of it is improvised. It’s all obviously based on the script but there was a lot of improvised moments and those are often the funniest, realist moments and those are the ones that made it into the final cut.
Your creative journey has culminated in the formation of Sketchbook Studios. What are your hopes for this production company going forward?
It’s very exciting for us. It’s amazing to have had the opportunity to make this long form TV show. That is definitely something we want to do more of. We would love to do a Tali season 2, even just because we did season 1 and there are so many things that we learned. I just want to implement those things and just make it better. There are so many fun things we could do with Tali. We would love to do more TV. I think there are amazing stories to be told and we have such brilliant ideas. We’d love to explore that more. We’d love to make a feature film in the near future. We are really trying to make the Suzelle movie. We just can’t find the time but we just have this amazing script and can’t wait to make it. I think there are lots of things that we want to do as a production company and having the opportunity to make Tali, has really shown us that we can do it. That was very scary at first and now that we’ve done it and now that we’ve made it happen, I feel like we can do anything and it’s very exciting for us as a company and young South African filmmakers.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
So many! Kate Normington is one of them. She is just so talented and so inspiring and funny. She sings, she does theatre and film. I just find her very inspiring. Zolani Mahola from Freshly Ground. She is just so amazing. Everything about her! Not only is she talented, she is an incredible performer, business woman and mother. She’s so inspiring.