Carmen Pretorius is a Naledi and Fleur du Cap nominated musical theatre and television actress, qualified makeup artist and presenter. After getting her professional start by winning the televised High School Musical competition, she went on to star in notable productions including Mamma Mia, Footloose, Jersey Boys and most recently The Sound of Music, which sees her taking on the role of Maria. We sat down with Carmen, ahead of the final week of the production, to chat about her “metamorphic” journey with the show.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was inspired by vocalists initially, Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Elaine Paige [and] Barbra Streisand, and through Elaine and Barbra’s connection to musical theatre, I always knew of musical theatre and was very passionate about it but I actually wanted to be a recording artist and a pop star. I was very much geared towards Pop and R&B singing and that style of vocalizing. I grew up in the 90’s so I was very influenced by vocalists of the day [and] also by my parent’s taste which was Bonnie Tyler and those guys. I was always very inspired by actresses like Claire Danes and Cate Blanchett. I always preferred the more dramatic actresses. I never really saw myself as a comedic actress. I think I always naturally gravitated towards the very dark roles and very complex film roles or actresses that I saw portraying those roles. That was very inspiring for me when I was younger. I think the most driving factor in me pursuing this career was because I wanted to pursue singing, which was my passion, and through that I’ve branched off into musical theatre and into television and dancing, acting [and] presenting. That’s where it all started.
You got your professional start in a very unconventional way after winning the televised High School Musical competition. What was that experience like?
It’s ten years later and I think it’s quite a poignant time because I’ve been reminiscing a lot about that in the last month. I am very goal-orientated so when I want something, I block out all miscellaneous and extraneous happenings and focus on what’s happening. I was in my Matric year and I was applying for colleges when I entered the competition on M-Net. When I got through to the round where you made it onto the TV show and then you lived in the house with all the contestants, everything just fell away. My life just fell away. To be honest, I don’t really remember cleaning out my locker at school. I don’t think I ever did. I just left Matric thinking, “I might be voted out next week and then I’ll be back.” I just kind of put my life on hold completely. I don’t remember a lot of what I felt, to be honest, because I think it was just a high-pressure environment and I just switched off to all the other emotion that I didn’t need to portray on stage because I just really wanted to get through to win the competition. I look back on that time of my life and it’s very blurry and at the age of 18, I was thrust into the industry. I was also very inspired by Kate Normington, Pieter Toerien, Paul Warrick Griffin and those people I was working with. I just kept my head down and worked. I didn’t expect to win. When I won, I remember walking back to the hotel and I felt incredibly out-of-body because it was the first time I had taken stock of what I was going through inside. I just kind of lost myself in it all, in a good way but it was bizarre.
What was it that originally attracted you to The Sound of Music?
I grew up with The Sound of Music, as did many of us. I must be honest, apart from Julie Andrews, who I have always adored, I was never that girl who wanted to be Julie Andrews. I was never the girl who wanted to be Elaine Paige or Patti LuPone. I didn’t watch the film when I was young and go, “I want to play that role!” But all of that changed when I was in my first years in the industry when I started becoming ambitious within the realms of musical theatre rather than ambitious within the realms of performing. I auditioned for the musical because it was an opportunity to do a classical musical theatre piece and an opportunity to play Maria which, for me, is the most important part of this whole process because she is such an incredible character to play as an actress. I didn’t think about it as, “She’s iconic so I want to portray her.” It was because she is so multi-faceted. I think it’s a blessing and an honour to get to sink one’s teeth into a role like this and I don’t think it comes along very often. That’s what inspired me. I obviously didn’t get the role of Maria starting off. I got the role of Liesl but when I heard I would be understudying Maria, it was always a no-brainer for me because it’s a piece that will advance you as a performer in [your] craft and in [your] art. One can’t deny that being part of a show like this is an incredible opportunity. I approached it like I approach any other audition. I just prepare myself the most I can and I go in and do my best. You can’t do more. I actually messed up my song really badly in my audition. It was so traumatic for me. After High School Musical, I auditioned for Footloose and I got the lead role and then I auditioned for Mamma Mia and I got the lead role and it was the first time that I auditioned and I really messed up. I chose to learn a song the week before and we were doing Jersey Boys at the time, so I was doing shows and trying to prep for the audition. I walked out of the audition going, “I totally didn’t get it.” When I got the phone call that I was even in the show I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
Going off of that, and having to find your place very early on in the industry while managing to book all of those lead roles that you auditioned for, do you almost feel like there is an added pressure or an expectation when you walk into an audition room?
Yes. I had to question my identity as a performer moving from that young ingénue age into the next age group which is where I am now. I auditioned for a show that I really wanted and that I thought I had a good chance of getting. Madonna is also one of my idols that I was influenced by. I auditioned for Evita and it was the one show that I grew up wanting to do. I didn’t want to be a musical theatre star when I grew up but that was the one role in musical theatre or in film that I have related to since I was born. I auditioned for it and I didn’t get it and that, to me, was devastating. I then questioned my entire identity as a performer because I was doing something right for so many years and I was getting roles and I was being successful and suddenly I felt like I had lost my mojo. It felt like I had left the planet for three years and then come back and I was a different talent or I wasn’t good enough anymore. From the space of walking into that audition to walking out, I lost my entire entity. I had to really find that and I had to be comfortable with that failure. I had failed at many auditions before but not one [that] I really wanted and that I thought I would work for. It taught me to be confident with who I am apart from my talent because it was the first time I had to separate my self-worth from my career because if I didn’t, I don’t think I would have performed again because it was such a hard rejection for me. I think we all get to that point as actors. We have to learn how to take yourself away and I think that’s what I did during High School Musical. Instinctively, during that period, I just separated myself from that role of what I was doing. Through years of performing I’ve obviously become more and more me, Carmen, and it all became ingrained in me. That was a reminder for me to separate my self-worth again.
Now that this Sound of Music journey is coming to an end, what has this journey or playing this character taught you?
It’s taught me the meaning of discipline, the essence of discipline and hard work and responsibility towards a role and a show but also towards a cast. I feel like I’ve been blessed to be part of two phenomenal casts of The Sound of Music and I really felt like I belonged to a team believing in a project that we all believed in and I wanted to be a great part of that cast. Playing Maria, and especially this time around, I wanted to be a good influence because there were a lot of younger performers and first-time musical theatre performers. It’s taught me lessons of not taking myself too seriously, of keeping a good balance between success and who I am outside of work. It’s taught me that I’m capable of more than I think I am. After the whole Evita thing, it was very hard for me to see myself as good enough again and because I had come back to this role, post that audition, in a safe space, solidified who I am as a performer. That is incredibly valuable because I have felt that I can be nurtured, that I can succeed, that I do have value to give on stage. It’s taught me about the human spirit. It’s taught me about selflessness and spirituality. It’s also taught me that I want to have a family. I want to have children. I didn’t want it the first time I played Maria and now I feel very differently about it all. It’s also taught me to say, “No.” I’ve now suddenly started becoming more comfortable with putting my own boundaries down because it really is a taxing role. It required me to be able to say no to a lot of things. “No” to a 5am call if I need to or, “No” to someone wanting to see me for a coffee date. I’ve learned to look after myself and I feel like I’ve earned a good respect amongst my peers, which I never felt like I had before. I feel like I am a part of a generation now, rather than just being a new face. This was kind of a metamorphic role for me because it took me from my early 20’s into my late 20’s, so I approached it very differently at those different times.
You mentioned Evita but is there another role that’s on your musical theatre bucket list?
Eva Perón was one. The other is Elphaba in Wicked and the other one is Roxie in Chicago. Those have always been my top three. Evita and Chicago were the two musical theatre pieces that I grew up with, that I was obsessed with. I’d also love to be in Side Show or in Wild Party.
I also wanted to ask you about your on-screen career and presenting. Do you try to split your time evenly between all those different mediums or do you just go along with things as they happen?
Presenting was such a minuscule part of my on-screen so I wouldn’t say that really forms part of it. It’s more on-screen acting and then acting on-stage. I have no choice as to where I split my time. The universe chooses for me what auditions come up, what work comes up and what I can and can’t do. I just have to kind of go along with what comes. Another thing that links to learning to say, “No,” for the first time this year, I’ve said “No” to certain castings and stuff and I never used to do that because I couldn’t imagine turning down work. The only reason I could say, “No” was because I have had a lot of work in the past and coming up so I’ve been able to save. I would like to get a role on television that I can be there for a while. If I could choose I would choose to go into television for a while. Presenting was an amazing time for me but it was also incredibly hard because I was just thrown into the deep end. It was so bizarre because on one hand, where I was coming from which was theatre, which was television, I was sort of… I hesitate to say respected but people related to me [and] they had seen me in stuff. In the presenting world, I was a nobody and it was really hard to walk into that and have people treat me like I was nothing and then afterwards they would realise, “Oh, she’s actually a good actress and singer.” Then they treat you differently. It was really quite shallow. I didn’t enjoy that. I love doing it when I’m in the space for it but it’s by no means a substitute for my passion for acting because I don’t like to be myself, to be quite honest. I like to hide behind characters. I’m not good with words and sort of off-the-cuff bantering, all that stuff that comes with presenting. I think it’s easier in English and I was doing it in Afrikaans, which is not particularly my home language but that is what made it hard for me because I don’t really have the vocabulary to banter. I’d love to do more English presenting but it was a learning curve and it was amazing and super fun and I got to do loads of stuff. If it comes along again, I’ll definitely try my hand at it. I think [what] has been a big part of my success is that I’ve tried things that I thought I couldn’t do and then I did them. I’ve never been afraid to try something new. That’s also part of growing up, you know what you like and you know what you don’t like anymore.
I’d also love to hear more about your career as a make-up artist.
I studied make-up artistry part-time while I was shooting Isidingo. I wanted to go and study Fashion Management. It was during a time where I was starting to feel very afraid of being unemployed and there wasn’t a lot of work. I decided to leave the industry and go and study for three years at fashion school and then I auditioned for Pasella and Isidingo and got both so then I was like, “I’m going to do Isidingo and Pasella and I’ll do some of my course part-time.” That was the makeup module and that’s the only thing I did. I ended up getting my diploma in makeup. I love it because I’ve always had to do it for myself and I do have a small styling endeavour on the side but if I had to grow it, I’d have to invest all my time into it and I’ve realised now that is not where my heart lies. I love doing it, I love working with young performers who need confidence in who they are. That is the part of it that I’d like to carry on. I worked a lot at Stageworx Performing Arts School in Johannesburg with the young performers, especially the young musos and kids recording albums and recording songs and they didn’t really have a look that was congruent with what their sound was and they wanted to have a good style to put out there on their EPKs and on their social media. I would come up with a concept and we would do a whole shoot and I’d style them. I love that stuff because I feel like I am helping and like I am doing good in the world. I don’t like styling people who don’t need it because it’s not gratifying work. I love teaching younger females. I love making them feel beautiful and seeing them come alive in their own skin and seeing them feel surprised by themselves because they’ve seen themselves wearing something they wouldn’t have seen themselves in or they are just breaking down boundaries. We are so entwined with what we look like as women, unfortunately. Especially in this industry, it’s so hard to escape what we look like. We can’t because we have to be obsessed with it because we have to put that forward, it’s the first thing you see when someone walks into a room. But I like the medium of styling and makeup in order to access building confidence in women and in their own skin. I like that it enhances you and you can choose to wear it or not. I’m not romantic about this industry. It’s tough. It’s a way for me to make money when I am not in a show or a TV show.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I think first of all I’ve got to mention two women that are the top of my list simply because I’ve been able to witness them professionally and personally. They are an inspiration to me because they have made incredible successes of their lives. It’s Judy Ditchfield and Jocelyn Broderick. Those are two women who I admire so much. They’ve raised incredible families, they’ve done a multitude of work and they are still working. They’ve started a successful business on the side together. They are talented at business, at acting and dancing and singing. They are just incredibly inspirational to me. Then, I really admire Anna-Mart van der Merwe. She was the first South African actress who I feel in love with in my childhood. I grew up watching her and then I got to work with her in Cinderellawhich was amazing. Fiona Ramsay, Samantha Peo [and] Angela Killian. Karen Meiring because I am just super inspired by what she has created with kykNET and what she continues to grow in that regard.