For the last 25 years, Jo da Silva has had an extensive career in TV, film, radio and theatre. After a decade long hiatus from theatre, she makes her much-anticipated return to the stage juggling two roles in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter presented at Theatre on the Bay before jumping into Fatal Attraction which will play Theatre on the Bay and Pieter Toerien’s Monte Casino Theatre in Johannesburg. We sat down with her to chat about the show, her career and surving portraying the “most hated woman in the history of South African television.”
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
According to family legend, I was three when I announced that I would be an actress and I would have to say at that stage it was Winnie the Pooh. My mother had taken me to a production of Winnie the Pooh at a children’s theatre and at some point Winnie the Pooh asked for help so I got on stage, helped him out and then refused to leave and spent the rest of the entire show from the stage. When she finally got me back at the end of the show, I apparently said to her, “That’s it. I’m going to be an actor.” And she went, “Why didn’t you get off the stage?” And I said, “Well, he needed me.” I decided that was it. The honest answer would have to be Winnie the Pooh. Of course several actresses have inspired me since then but when I was three it was down to Winnie the Pooh.
Present Laughter marks your return the stage after quite some time. What was it that attracted you to this production?
Noël Coward has always had a special place in my heart. Pieter Toerien Productions has got a special place in my heart. Theatre on the Bay is very dear to me. It’s where I began. I was wanting to get back on stage after what feels like a lifetime in front of the cameras being one particular character for many years. It’s horribly entrenched in the collective consciousness of the average South African so I’m not easily allowed to be seen as someone else. That has been a tricky road to get the public to see me as something other than that particular character from that particular show. I was very determined and very clear that when I focused on acting again, it would be [theatre] and because it’s been a 10-year break, I wanted it to be something very small and awfully good fun. I didn’t want there to be a lot of stress and angst involved because the woman I played for the last 10 years was as angsty as it gets. I wanted something light and fun and where I could just practice the craft again.
How have rehearsals been going?
They’ve been great fun. I’ve got two hugely, vastly different characters that I am playing and I’m having great fun with them. I’m feeling a little schizophrenic at times but I’m having great fun with them. While this is on, I’ll be rehearsing Fatal Attraction so I’ll be juggling three characters. It’s going to be keeping me on my toes. I’ve got to try to remember when I am being a Swedish housekeeper as opposed to a terribly upper-class British lady and I’m convinced I’m going to walk on stage at some point in the wrong costume or as the wrong character but we’ll deal with it on the night.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to performing this show?
At this point, I’m just hoping I remember who I am when. It’s Noël Coward’s most famous comedy of manners. So everyone is doing delightful work, this crazy, insane, over the top work and I’m enjoying everyone’s work. I’m looking forward to the audience response because you think you have a laugh but it might not be. The audience will tell us.
You mentioned the difficulty you’ve experienced with people’s perceptions of you. I’ve seen in previous interviews where you’ve joked about the interactions you’ve had with fans but as a person, how did you navigate that?
There were good days and bad days. I think it also depends on whether you personally are having a good day or a bad day. What makes it tricky is that when you have been in the public’s lounge every night, five days a week for almost 10 years, there is much truth to that saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Because you are in their lounge, they do feel like they have access to you. They talk about you every night while you are on screen and you don’t hear them, so they can do the same thing in real life, surely? We wouldn’t exist without the fans. We understand that is the psychology that happens, that they then feel like they have as much access to you in real life as they do in their lounge. The difficulty comes when people stop treating you like a stranger and forgetting that you are in fact a stranger. They feel as though they have the freedom to say things to you that most normal people wouldn’t think twice of saying to another human being they’ve only just met but that’s the problem, they don’t think they’ve only just met you. They are quite convinced they know you and of course they don’t. She was just a character I played. You don’t know me because you recognise my character. Then you put that into play with the fact that if the public has that perception of you, that you are also the character that you play, that also seems to be a huge misconception that, “Well she’s a villain so obviously she is a bitch in real life.” There is no room in that understanding that you are a real human being having maybe a bad day of your own. There are obviously bad days where people are just rude and obnoxious. I’ve been slapped and spat on and pushed and shoved and sworn at but for me, it became most difficult to deal with if it involved my mother or my daughter. That is where I started to draw a line. When my daughter was very little, I wouldn’t allow people to photograph me if she was with me. That was our time and it didn’t belong to that aspect of the industry. There was an incident, more than one unfortunately when my mom was in hospital. I was rather concerned and emotional and literally at her bedside [and] people would sneak into her room. They’d recognise me while they were walking past. I was sitting at her bedside while she was recovering and more than one person just walked into my mother’s room and would interrupt me and ask me for an autograph or a photograph. I found that shocking and rude and invasive. When I tried to say, “This is really not a good time.” I got sworn at with the immortal, “Oh, so you really are a bitch.” That day stands out. Those moments were very difficult to make sense of but for the most part, the fans are lovely. It’s just the small handful that are quite convinced that you really are Gita in real life. As I say, spat on, punched, shouted, sworn at but that you have to take with a pinch of salt but you are not always in a great place, personally, every day. Sometimes you are having a bad day and then if you are having a bad day and a member of the public does choose to be rude to you, it’s very hard to be gracious back because you are very human. Other days, if you are in a good place or a strong place, it’s fine. You take it with a pinch of salt. It comes with the territory.
Thank you for answering that. I’m sorry you had to go through that.
It’s behind me now. I don’t think it will ever go away. She was so iconic and I know from colleges who played similar roles in the past, that it never goes away. It just lessens. The amount of people who recognise you and want to comment on it lessen. Certainly things like growing my hair and no longer making eye contact in public helps enormously.
It must be so challenging to deal with that but then also realise that, as a performer, you’ve clearly done your job and done it exceptionally well if people respond like that.
Yes, that’s the other side of the coin that everyone always says to me, “Well if you weren’t so fabulous at being awful, people wouldn’t hate you so much.” She was a superb role. I have no regrets in playing her so I’m delighted that she was cause for so much conversation in homes and nunneries. I had entire churches praying for my soul! I’m very glad that I got people talking if nothing else.
As an actor, being on the same show for almost 10 years, what did you have to do to ensure that you still felt challenged?
That’s easy. There is a big difference between doing something like The Mousetrap for 27 years and nothing changes and doing something like 7de Laan every year because you are constantly working with new actors who are coming in and you are constantly having new stories to tell. The challenge for me creatively was in not making her a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out of a villainess and Danie Odendaal had been very clear in the beginning when we first started talking about her that she not be a Cruella de Vil. He wanted her to have as many dimensions as possible. That gave me a lot of freedom, artistically, to bring a lot more depth to her than I think was originally planned. That was with Danie’s blessing. Yes, she is the bad guy because you need a bad guy in every story. Light doesn’t exist without dark so there was no question of never not having a villain, it was, how villainess do we make her and when and even that out with moments and stories where she is vulnerable and where she is scared and where she is human and where she is penitent and remorseful and all those other human emotions. It was very important that she was never pure evil. I always played her from a place of absolute fear that she would lose everything that she created and that if anything threatened those golden cages that she had created for herself or threatened to undermine the safe pedestal she had put herself on, they would land up in her crosshairs. She very seldom was mean just for the sake of being mean. She always reacted badly but she always reacted because she felt threatened in one way or the other. The choices she then made from there were appalling but it wasn’t just because she was bored today and felt like causing mayhem.
You have a huge following on Facebook which you use to bring awareness to the various organisations and issues that you are passionate about. Why is that something that’s important to you?
I think it’s very important to me because when I moved completely into television as I did, I was ready to create Gita McGregor and I was ready to do something challenging and different with her. It was obviously exciting for me to work in Afrikaans, it’s clearly not my home language. That was the next challenge for me as an actress but I had woefully underestimated the demographic of 7de Laan’s fan base and I had just horribly, naively underestimated the impact of what being in a daily soap would do to a person’s profile. I had spent 17 years working very hard as an actress, building a solid reputation and building my craft and working with people I loved and respected. For me, I just chose to do a different character in a different medium and you suddenly explode into a level of celebrity that you actually don’t have much control over. That was a big shock for me, as a working actress, to suddenly be on a celebrity level for doing intrinsically the same work. What happened with 7de Laan was monumental in its footprint. In many ways it was also quite shattering because I realised I had lost anonymity. Even as a reasonably well-known actress, I still got away with an awful lot of doing what I wanted when I wanted and how I wanted. Suddenly, when you are under that much of a microscope and you are on the cover of magazines every second or third month and you are in everyone’s lounges every day, you can’t avoid this celebrity thing that happens. It became incredibly important to me that that be used for something worthwhile because otherwise it is Kardashian stupid. I also realised that, for me, it would be a very grave mistake to believe any of it. It is transient and it is meaningless and it’ll go away as soon as you leave a show. If everyone is stopping to hear what you say, best you are saying something worthwhile. Children and animals have always been what I am going to pay attention to first. I think that how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, as Gandhi said, is an indicator of who we are as a society and if we are going to use that equation then we are failing miserably right now. We are really doing a terrible job of looking after the weaker members of our society. Obviously people want to know about your life and they want to stay in touch with you and I’ll accept that as part of the territory but then I am going to speak about things that I care about.
And now you are teaching at AFDA while also attaining your master’s degree. How is that going?
I love my kids. I am missing them right now. As much as I am loving rehearsals, I am very aware that term one is happening and it’s such a fundamental term in terms of scaffolded learning and everything else that we are aiming for. It’s such an exciting team. I work with Lara Bye and Chris Weare and Liz Mills. It’s the dream team. It’s very exciting. We are very committed to the talent and the energy that we see coming through there. It’s wonderful for me to finally be putting 26 years of experience to good use. It’s great. The kids excite me. Their energy excites me. They are always doing or saying something unexpected and wonderful. I’m not too sure who is teaching who most of the time but I love it.
And your masters?
It’s a little daunting to head back into academia now. My daughter is going to be doing her masters in a year’s time so it’s quite fun. We are planning on finishing our masters together. She’ll have hers in marine biology and I’ll have mine in the arts. I don’t quite know how the arts gave birth to marine biology but anyway. That is kind of one of the reasons. Obviously, if you want any future in academia, you need to have your masters, not just an honours. It’s been tickling at the back of my mind and then knowing that Caity’s masters is around the corner, I just thought how inspiring? I’m not sure who is inspiring who, if it’s going to be inspiring for her to have her mother doing her masters at the same time or if it’s actually going to be more inspiring for me to have my daughter doing her masters because then we are going to egg each other on.
What question do you wish you were asked more?
I wish I was asked more about taking care of my mind and my body in an industry that is so very focused on just the external. I wish that I had better role models who spoke about it. It’s not the lack of role models, it’s the fact that it wasn’t spoken about 25 years ago or even 15 years ago. We are now at an age where the focus is shifted very much from the skinny body to the healthy body. We do have a lot more focus on health now as women. We are finally starting to fight back. We have plus-sized models which would not have been acceptable even 10 years ago, I don’t think. There are far more healthy examples out there of being women and what that means but I do wish that we had a lot more of those conversations. Because every time you are on stage or in front of a camera you are representing women, a certain kind of woman maybe but you are still representing that woman and you have to understand that people are looking up to you one way or another and how are you going to honour that? I think women have got a lot more power than they realise. Also when we were starting out, women power wasn’t a thing so people weren’t interested in asking women the relevant questions.
I started this because I found that people still aren’t asking those questions. We are getting there but it’s taking a long time.
Is anyone getting there though? We won’t mention the W-word but you look at a country like America which is apparently so progressive and yet they are in the middle of one of the biggest scandals to rock Hollywood and it’s not just about inappropriate behaviour and women who have been victims, it’s also about equal pay. When it is being broadcast internationally that women are getting paid a third or less of what their male counterpart is earning in a film, when actresses are having to go to bat for actresses of colour to earn the same salary as them, when men are having to go to bat to get women to earn the same as them, obviously there is still a lot wrong.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Janie du Plessis, Fiona Ramsay. There are so many. I am working with two of them right now. You’ve got Michele Maxwell and Kate Normington upstairs. It’s just such fun to come to work and to watch. Jennifer Steyn, Lara Foot. The list goes on. There is always someone doing something fabulous that you end up watching and going, “Why didn’t I think of that? She’s so fabulous in that.” We’ve got an enormous wealth. Nthati Moshesh, she is brilliant. You just watch these ladies and you learn everything you can.
You can follow Jo via her official Facebook page.
Special thanks to Jesse Kramer and Dean Roberts.