For 13 years, actress and producer Diaan Lawrenson charmed South African audiences by starring on 7de Laan. Since leaving the series, she has gone on to star in critically acclaimed films such as Raaiselkind, Sink and her latest film Susters which is now playing in select theatres. An accomplished theatre actress, she is also the co-founder of Jester Productions, a multimedia production company that she founded alongside her husband, and fellow actor, Jody Abrahams, which focuses on facilitating, developing and producing original South African concepts.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I didn’t really grow up in a very arty house, but my grandmother has an injury on her back, she had to lie down a lot and because of that, we used to spend time with her on her bed and she would record us on an old little tape recorder and we would have to tell her stories. I remember enjoying the process of either making up stories or trying to entertain her while she was lying down. In primary school, my best friend was one of seven sisters and they were quite a musical family, so when you went to visit her the one was singing and the other one was playing piano. It was a strange little magical house to enter because it was busy and all the sisters used to entertain each other. Maybe that’s why they played music, because you had to entertain all seven sisters. But like I say, when I was young, I loved the moments where we had to make up stories and dramatize them but I didn’t grow up in a house where my mom or my dad was in the industry. I would say it was mainly inspired by my grandparents and by influences outside of my house.
I read that you did most of your acting training at AFDA. What was your time like there?
It was lovely. Because we were the first couple of years at AFDA, and this was very long ago, we were like a trial period where I suppose the owners and lecturers at AFDA were still trying to figure out how they were going to teach and what AFDA was going to be all about. Now it’s a lot more established. It was wonderful. We worked very hard and I remember Deon [Opperman] used to train us in everything. He wanted us to be able to rig a theatre, do the lights, do the sound, take down the lights [and] pack it away. We had to be able to write and act and produce and direct and do all of it and I think his mentoring was very instrumental in my understanding of the industry. I had a really great time there. I think it was quite a magical time in terms of the beginning stages of film and theatre and how they kind of very informally mix the two up and how we had to do all the films. I loved it.
What was it that attracted you to Susters?
Initially, it’s probably the people who were associated with the project and who were mentioned when Jenny [Griesel], the producer, and I sat down and started speaking about it. I really wanted to work with Corne [van Rooyen] who is the director of the film and then Sandra [Vaughn] and Corine [du Toit] who wrote it, I worked on projects of theirs that they wrote before and I really respect them as writers. And then obviously the other actors. I haven’t worked with Quanita before so that was a highlight for me. It was really just the people who were going to work on it that got me interested and then. after reading the script, it’s probably one of my favourite genres. I love slice of life stuff and I know its being billed as a chick flick, [but] I hope its more than that. It is for women, mainly, but there is more to it. The idea of working on a story where the main characters are female [and] the writers are female, it was nice. I don’t think it happens often where we are creating local stories that are driven by female characters.
What was your experience working on a film that had so many women at the helm?
It was amazing and I think everyone’s input was really valuable. It was a process of contribution. I enjoy those processes, even if you argue and fight or don’t agree [but] its being allowed to contribute to the process. On Raaiselkind I worked with a female DOP and then this was also a female DOP and they just have a different way of working. I’m not saying it’s better or worse or anything but it is definitely a differently approach and I really enjoyed working with Sunel [Hassbroek], the DOP of Susters, as I feel her voice as a female DOP was very important for the movie. I think the aesthetics and how it was shot is what she contributed to the story. That was a big thing for me on set. We were obviously quite a few females… I sometimes felt quite sorry for Sean-Marco [Vorster] and Corne that it was so female driven. It was lovely. I enjoyed it.
What is something you learned or took away from working on this film?
I think after so many years in the industry, what’s become more valuable for me is the actual process. For me, it’s the overall experience, what we take away learning from people. There were people on set with different approaches to working and finding authentic performances in moments feeling quite scared of the approach and the way that it was but retrospectively, I am so grateful for that opportunity because I think in a certain sense, traveling with the actors and staying with the actors and your key crew builds relationships beyond what the characters are. I think its important for a story where people are essentially family. I learned a lot. I learned what you expect as an actor isn’t always going to be what you get as an actor or anything in our industry and that it doesn’t diminish it actually. If you open yourself up to the moment and the process, you will always walk away gaining something from it.
I always enjoy having the opportunity to sit down with actors who have been on soap operas. I know you spent several years on the same one and I wanted to ask you, as a creative, about how you ensured that you still felt challenged?
I think there are so many things that play a factor. I was fortunate enough to have a hand with the creator, Danie Odendaal, and the writers and I would hope to think that I have contributed to the character. Together we created a very fun, interesting and dynamic character. In the 13 years that I was there, I feel like the character grew and developed. She started out as quite a little flimsy fashionista that liked the beautiful things in life and was quite a spoilt little daddy’s girl who always got her way and developed into a mature woman who lost a baby, who had a husband, whose husband cheated on her, who got divorced, who fell in love with different people and the complexities of life. There were stages, as I was growing up, this character was growing and it was lovely that that kind of flimsy character grew and developed. It was always a lovely process for me because Danie and I spoke a lot and I argued with him and he fought with me and I was like, “You can’t do this” and, “You can’t do that” and he was like, “Yes, you can.” He very much had an open door policy with me. We exchanged thoughts on how this character should develop. I know that it’s not always like that and not everyone has that experience working on a soap. I also stayed in the industry while I was there. I still did a lot of theatre. My aim was to do two theatre shows as an actor or producer every year while I was there. I produced a lot of TV and film and mainly theatre while I was there. I remained in the industry. People don’t realise it but in the 13 years that I was there, I was probably gone for six of them, maybe even more. I was taking a sabbatical to do a film or to do a theatre show or to just go overseas or have my babies. It was very important for me to stay in the industry because it’s very easy to go out of the industry and then live in this soap-bubble exclusively. I remember every time I went back onstage and you feel nervous and scared because you are in this pond of soap actors which is a rigorous discipline to be part of but it’s not connected to the industry still. Just being part of the industry and being challenged again, acting with those great actors where you feel like you are totally out of your depth and scared and you are not good enough, I think that was instrumental in feeling like I was still challenged and I could grow.
It seems to me that since leaving that show you’ve done a complete 180 in terms of the work that you are doing. Do you feel like you were put into a mould in regards to other people’s perceptions about you and that you consciously needed to break out of it?
I didn’t feel the need to break out of it because I think it’s a box that other people put you in and that you don’t put yourself in. But there is definitely a perception. Because I was there for 13 years, I was part of a certain target audience’s daily life. They know me as someone, they perceive me as something. They still do. It’s cool. It’s not my world and it’s not my opinion, its theirs which makes that transition a lot easier. If I had to buy into what they thought I was or I started going, “Who am I really?” then it would be tricky because then you would be going, “Well now I have to redefine myself” or, “I have to figure out who I am beyond this character that I play.” But that is never the case. People put you in a mould. I do believe that there is a danger of actors starting to buy into the mould. Fortunately I never had that problem. When I left I was like, “I want to take a break and I don’t want to act.” I just wanted to but not long after, I was phoned, “Hey I’ve got this movie and we want you to audition…” and I was like, “Ugh, I’m not in the mood.” Then I read the script and it was lovely. It’s this little English movie that is coming out later this year called Table Manners and its also a little slice of life which is beautiful and female driven story. It’s about a woman’s life and I was like, “I really like this.” Then everything happened. Raaiselkind and Susters happened and then I was back in acting and it was really cool because I don’t feel like I have pressure on me. I don’t feel it. I think because people have this opinion of me, anything I do would be breaking out of that mould. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
You’ve become such a powerhouse not just in terms of the roles you are doing now but also in terms of producing and sourcing roles for yourself and other performers. Is that a natural extension of who you are or is it something that you’ve had to learn and grow in?
I think it’s a little bit of both. When we started out in the industry, my husband and I used to create theatre shows and then we had friends approaching us like Christo Davids [who] came to us and said, “I’ve got this beautiful play. Its called Bullets over Bishop Lavis.” It wasn’t beautiful then. It was all messy and then Jody and I were like, “We’ll help you make it beautiful.” A lot of it was out of necessity. The boys would just turn around and be like, “Will you take care of the finances and securing?” I have a natural leader personality. Other people call it bullying but I just call it leadership. It’s a thing of necessity of going, “I have to manage these funds, although I don’t really know how to.” Then I naturally take leadership and go, “Cool, I’ll do it.” I’m still learning. There is so much about budgeting and finances and projections and all those things that you have to figure out along the way. I wold say it’s both. I love creating work and I love creating opportunities where my friends can work and where we learn together. I’m only now getting into a phase where I can go, “Ok, I can offer a little bit of guidance.” Before, I was like, “I’m still figuring it out and learning.” It’s nice to be a phase where younger performers or writers are coming to us and saying, “Could you mentor us through this process?” Definitely not in financials but definitely in narrative and how to execute it. I think necessity is key in growing as an artist.
Are you someone who has to remain conscious about how you’re splitting your time between producing, performing, sourcing work and teaching?
Definitely, but for me it’s more like work and my family. The others happen quite naturally. I think early in your career you fight it a lot and you are like, “I have to get that big role!” If you let go of all that nonsense and know that things happen as they should and you just kind of resign yourself to that ebb and flow, it happens when it should. 2017 moered me big time but it was a performance heavy year for me and I know this year isn’t going to be, it’s going to be a different type of year. It all moves and flows and I try not to push it too hard because I do believe that we extend our dreams for ourselves beyond what we know now. Even in our personal lives. When I was young and had just met my husband, I used to say, “I’d love to live in Cape Town in this specific area and my kids go to school here.” Dreams that you just put out there and now, 15 years later, I live in that area and my kids go to school in that area, not specifically. Then you sit there and you are like, “I actually brought this about.” I think the same goes for your career. If you just plant it and you consciously work towards something, how it gets there and the little steps that you take, you can’t plan that. You will drive yourself crazy going.
I would love to hear more about your production company Jester Productions.
Jester was more like a necessity. Jody and I felt it was important to start telling stories that we felt passionate about. When we embark on a project, we always try and evaluate if this is important enough to spend the next year on. Do we feel that passionate about it to spend the next 12 months worrying about it? We’ve moved more into Television in the last couple of years creating a hybrid between narrative and lifestyle and projects that we obviously feel quite passionate about. Last year we did quite a few cool shows. We followed our family’s genealogy and it was quite an emotional journey for us and as creators of content you don’t always realise what the impact is going to be. We were acting as producers the whole time and we are putting the whole story together and suddenly we were in it and it just started hitting us really hard, like that journey of being a producer but also being inside the content and also that’s just our lives and our family’s narratives. It was quite intense. We then did a couple of other shows that were cool. This year we are doing a series for David Kramer. We are doing this amazing discovery of what it takes to be an artist and then also just the whole process of writing songs and something we relate to as artists growing older in an industry and what does that mean and how do you redefine yourself? It’s complex and its interesting. We are doing a couple of other productions, second series of ones we did last year, a couple of new ones. We are busy.
You’ve had such a diverse and busy career. Is there anything that you feel like you haven’t yet been able to explore artistically?
Yes. I actually read a quote the other day about growing older as an actress and I think there are these golden years before you get too old again, where you get the more meaty roles because when you were younger you couldn’t actually play it. It’s those complex, middle age, mommy, yummy roles. It’s this really cool phase that I’m in now where the roles are complex and beautiful and meaty and even just scratching that open surprises you. It’s so nice to be able to allow yourself the space to really get into something. Saying that, I don’t believe in creating characters but nevertheless, just having time to. In terms of producing, I think I’ve got some dreams. We want to really tell some more narrative stories and making series in South Africa but I don’t like talking about it too much because you set yourself up for some kind of weird expectation.
How are you enjoying lecturing at AFDA?
Lecturing is cool. It was hard initially for me because I didn’t know how much to give or not to give. Now I’ve realised it’s actually just a process of allowing those younger individuals to find their own story. Just like how we find our own and we go, “I’m actually quite good at this.” It’s creating a space where they can discover that for themselves within bounds, within discipline, within reason, within working hard, within the structures of that institution. It was a big adjustment for me because I’m a natural leader I want to lead them into distinctions but it doesn’t work that way. You have to create a space and if they come to the party, its amazing. I’ve learned so much lecturing the students but obviously that’s their choice. If they don’t come to the party, then the relationship stops there. Its interesting and it’s hard also because you can’t force them to learn.
I’m in awe of the current faculty that they have at ADFA at the moment.
That’s why I always say to them, it’s not because I’m this amazing whatever, but I’ve got 21 years in the industry behind me of making mistakes and learning hard lessons. No one stood in front of me and said, “A delivery schedule looks like this.” I learned from, “Diaan, you need to send me a delivery schedule.” I don’t know what that is and they are like, “Here is an example of a delivery schedule.” There are lots of people at all the ADFA campuses who work in the industry who are active, that have made amazing films or TV series or documentaries or theatre productions. I think Lara Bye has won seven awards just in the first three months of this year and she’s there and I’m just like, “Just soak it in. Take as much as you can.” But like I say, you can only create the space. You can’t lead that horse and you can’t force him to drink. I tried. The first year I tried to be like, “You drink this water!”
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are so many. I’m just going to talk about women that I’ve recently been in contact with in my life. The one lady is Marida Swanepoel. She was instrumental in the whole startup of M-Net and KykNet. She is a big boss and a big gun in terms of creating content. Last year she was my commissioning editor on two of my shows and just her bedside manner and her insight and the way she communicates things that could be quite hard to say, is effortless for her. Her balance of being supportive and encouraging artistic growth but also going, “You need to check here and worry here and look at this.” Pat van Heerden is also a content creator and just knows everything about creating good content whether it’s narrative based or lifestyle based or whatever. Meeting Quanita was amazing. I think there are still a lot of people not stepping up as much as they can and she has just stepped up as a strong voice in terms of creating stories, writing stories, performing stories and being quite vocal about her opinion about stuff. We need those people. We need people who are vocal about whatever, whether it is the outcome of awards or the quality of shows. I love Lee-Ann van Rooi as a performer and also just as a voice and an artist and a woman who speaks her mind. There are so many. I can tell you about women I’ve been working with recently who just inspire me and that I learn from. I think it’s so important to get mentors. I learned that so late in my life. Because I’m a particular type of personality, you feel like you need to get everything right and you need to come like, “Don’t worry I’m guiding you, I don’t know what I’m doing but I’ll take the lead.” Whereas it’s cool now for me to find female mentors where I can be like, “I don’t know how to do this.” That is important. I always encourage the students to immediately find female mentors who they can latch onto. But I would single those out as people who are important in my life right now.
Special thanks to Chris de Beer and David Alex Wilson.
All photos were taken by Chris de Beer on April 4th 2018.